When addressing the complex and controversial issue of abortion, there are two central questions to consider: Will criminalizing abortion put an end to abortions? and Are there more effective ways of reducing the number of abortions?
Answering these questions through a serious study of history and sociological research is central to liberal ideology, because only through those methods can abortion be made a thing of the past. Despite the fact some conservatives are deeply offended by pro-choice people, and slander them as “baby killers,” it is of great importance, to this liberal and I’m sure to many others, to reduce the number of abortions — to save infant lives.
The answer to the first question is without question no. The choice between abortions and no abortions, at least predicated on the law, is a false choice. After all, there was a time in the U.S. when abortion was illegal. Many conservatives wish to return to this era of righteousness, a time free of the holocaust of the unborn.
Of course, abortions occurred throughout the country despite their illegality. In 1967, for example, it was estimated 829,000 illegal abortions took place. In the decade before Roe v. Wade, the U.S. saw as many as 1 million illegal abortions a year. Over 330,000 women were hospitalized annually due to the unsafe nature of “back-alley abortions” (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States). Thousands died, particularly before certain medical advancements (the fact that modern medicine would mean very few deaths if abortion was outlawed today does not justify its illegality, as abortions themselves would still occur, women would likely still be hospitalized, and State power would still be increased, as discussed below).
As Rachel Gold writes,
In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women—nearly one-fifth (18%) of maternal deaths recorded in that year. The death toll had declined to just under 1,700 by 1940, and to just over 300 by 1950 (most likely because of the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, which permitted more effective treatment of the infections that frequently developed after illegal abortion). By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17% of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. And these are just the number that were officially reported; the actual number was likely much higher.
Poor women and their families were disproportionately impacted. A study of low-income women in New York City in the 1960s found that almost one in 10 (8%) had ever attempted to terminate a pregnancy by illegal abortion; almost four in 10 (38%) said that a friend, relative or acquaintance had attempted to obtain an abortion. Of the low-income women in that study who said they had had an abortion, eight in 10 (77%) said that they had attempted a self-induced procedure, with only 2% saying that a physician had been involved in any way.
In Texas, which has slashed funds to abortion providers, ensuring that today fewer than 20 abortion clinics serve the entire state, women are buying a drug (misoprostol) smuggled in from Mexico to self-terminate their pregnancies, as documented in an important piece from The Atlantic. Dealers sell it illegally at flea markets in small Texas towns, and is popular because it works. Misoprostol (combined with mifepristone) is prescribed by doctors for early pregnancy abortions. “In 2011, it accounted for 36 percent of all abortions before nine weeks of gestation” in the U.S.
The article also takes a look at the past conditions of women in Brazil who wanted an abortion but were barred due to the power of the conservative Catholic church over government policy: “They listened to old wives tails, ramming sharp objects into their uteruses and guzzling drug cocktails, and visiting clandestine, unsafe abortion clinics.” That is, until misoprostol came along; today half of Brazil’s 1 million annual abortions are due to the drug, which is sold on the black market, making drug dealers wild profits.
This is the story of many women in nations that restrict abortion rights. “More than 21 million women annually have unsafe abortions worldwide, which account for nearly 13 percent of all maternal deaths.”
Pro-life people have very little to say in response to these facts. Take for example a Life News article entitled “Legalizing Abortion Did Not Stop Women From Dying in Abortions” (as if that somehow makes it acceptable to again criminalize it, even though that would increase maternal deaths). The author writes:
Pro-choice advocates would have you believe [deaths from illegal abortions was] a monumental figure; some claim that prior to Roe, a whopping 17 percent of maternal deaths were related to unsafe abortions. Surely we would want to avoid this tragic loss of life, wouldn’t we? But those figures are inaccurate and misleading. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 1972, the last year before Roe, 39 women died in illegal abortions.
That is literally the only attempt in the article to refute the historical information presented by pro-choice thinkers. Simply call it inaccurate, then offer additional knowledge (39 deceased women) and pretend it somehow contradicts the fact thousands more died before those 39.
Not only will outlawing abortion not stop abortion, only endangering women, neither will it stop natural abortions. 70% of conceptions are lost prior to live birth. Most of the failures, miscarriages, self-abortions, whatever you want to call them, occur before a woman misses her period and even knows she is pregnant. Even after she is aware she is with child, she has a 10-20% chance of losing her pregnancy before week 20. True, this is not the same as the willful destruction of a fetus by a conscious adult, nor is it meant to say nothing should be done to reduce the number of abortions, but it does provide perspective. Nature, evolution, our imperfect reproductive system, are responsible for a holocaust far greater than our own.
And if those facts don’t give a conservative pause, it might be worth mentioning that the idea of allowing the State to restrict personal choice in hopes of controlling moral behavior is the opposite of “small government.” This is the same with drug use, gay marriage, and many other controversial issues. Restricting individual choice and personal freedom strengthens the State. It makes Big Brother bigger, something so obvious I feel foolish writing it, but must because that contradiction is so central to many conservative beliefs.
True, the State outlaws theft, murder, rape, and so on, to curb or punish behavior, yet it seems sensible to keep the government out of the personal lives of citizens as much as possible — and any thinking person would acknowledge abortion is a unique situation. Ethics are, after all, situational. A lie is unethical, unless a killer is asking where your family is hiding. Perhaps you think killing is wrong, unless it’s for your country. It is my belief that abortion is unethical, and therefore would not choose it were I a woman, but it is not as morally wrong as killing an adult, child, or infant. It is (literally speaking) not the same. Killing a fetus in the womb is not as morally egregious as killing someone who has left the whom, in my view. A thought scenario that is sometimes raised has merit: if a fetus in a tube and a baby in a nursery were both about to die but you could only save one, surely the moral choice would be to save the baby. Letting a fetus in a tube die does not have the same moral weight as letting a baby die. Ethics are situational, and abortion and murder (or infanticide) are not precisely the same situation and do not carry the same moral weight.
And while it is compelling to argue that anything unethical must be made illegal, there are some unethical actions we do not outlaw (lying to a friend, cheating on a spouse, and so on), for various reasons.
Further, terminating a pregnancy may be unethical, but surely the termination of a pregnancy with lower risk to a woman’s life and health is less unethical than termination of a pregnancy with a higher risk to a woman’s life and health. Yes, without question it would be most ethical to give birth to the child. But that is not a choice you or the State can make for others. It is the woman’s choice; it always has been and always will be, regardless of the law.
As for the second question posed above, we already know the most effective means of reducing abortions: preventing accidental pregnancies.
Research overwhelmingly shows safe-sex education prevents accidental pregnancies and abortions. Abstinence-only education simply does not work: students in such programs begin exploring their sexuality just as early (often earlier) and with as much enthusiasm as control groups. But, unsurprisingly, they are one-third less likely to use contraceptives. Thus, one recent study showed teens who received safe-sex education were 50% less likely to become pregnant than teens who received abstinence-only education.
Studies show sex education accomplishes what conservatives most desire: a longer delay in becoming sexually active, fewer partners, less unprotected sex, lower pregnancy and STD rates, and fewer abortions. This is why those who hate abortion the most should also be the most vocal supporters of safe-sex education. To make abortion history, the Right must put aside its hysteria over sex and join the Left on this issue, broadening sex education in the home, at school, in healthcare clinics, etc.
Even while the U.S. has over 3 million unintended pregnancies a year (teen girls are double the rate of women, due to lack of sex education and access to contraception), the rate of abortions has declined dramatically since Roe v. Wade. Today it’s under 700,000 a year. Planned Parenthood, and groups like it, are central to this reduction effort, because they provide safe-sex information and contraceptives (in 2009, 35% of patient care at Planned Parenthood had to do with contraceptives; compare this to its abortion services: in 2011, only about one in every 10 clients received an abortion).
In 2009, the Guttmacher Institute estimated federal funds given to places like Planned Parenthood in 2006 prevented 1.9 million unintended pregnancies, thus preventing 810,000 abortions. 2013 research told a similar story, 345,000 abortions prevented. Planned Parenthood estimates it helps prevent a half-million unintended pregnancies, and thus 216,000 abortions a year. As a writer for the New Yorker said with a heavy dose of sarcasm:
If only we could find an organization that educates young girls, and boys, about the dangers of early and unwanted pregnancies; a group that distributes contraceptives but also stresses the fact that sexual abstinence is safe, free, and, when used continuously, always prevents pregnancies. That group could really lower the abortion and teen-age pregnancy rates in this country. Oh. Wait. We have that organization.
Yet because Planned Parenthood and other healthcare organizations also perform abortions, they are rightwing targets that must be protested, defunded, shut down, slandered with deceptively edited videos, or terrorized with violence like destruction of property and the murder of doctors.
Planned Parenthood receives $500 million a year from the Federal government, yet since it is illegal (due to conservative activism) to use those funds for abortions except in cases of rape or to protect the mother’s life, that money is used for other health care services, like STD testing, cancer screening, contraception, safe-sex education. Things that prevent the spread of diseases, death by cancer, and abortion itself.
Americans serious about ending abortions should be the most enthusiastic supporters of such groups, maybe even cutting a check themselves.