When addressing the complex and controversial issue of abortion, there are three central questions to consider: Will criminalizing abortion put an end to abortions?, How immoral is abortion?, and Are there effective ways of reducing the number of abortions that don’t relate to criminalization?
Answering such questions through a serious study of history and sociological research is key, 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.
Unfortunately, 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.
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.
The fact that modern medicine would mean fewer deaths if abortion was outlawed today does not necessarily justify its illegality, as abortions would still occur, some women would likely still be hospitalized and die, and State power over our personal decisions would still be increased, as discussed below. It may be tempting to think that sacrificing a few mothers a year would be worth it to save a far greater number of infants, but this may not be the reality — the holocaust of abortions would continue despite fewer maternal complications and deaths.
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 it 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.”
This is not to say that some women won’t give birth because having an abortion is illegal. Criminalizing things, making things harder, can “work” to a degree. But you have to think about the consequences of its failures, and weigh that in your moral calculus.
Pro-life individuals 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, which would increase maternal deaths). The author writes:
Pro-choice advocates would have you believe [the death toll 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 advocates. Simply call it wrong, 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, in a natural way. Most of the failures, miscarriages, 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 conscious adults, nor is it meant to say nothing should be done to reduce the number of abortions, but it does provide perspective. Nature, evolution, and our imperfect reproductive systems are responsible for a holocaust far greater than our own.
How immoral is abortion? That is a far more complex question than it seems. You have to ask a lot of questions. Mull over various factors and wrestle with many of them; I certainly do. It’s not enough to say “It’s the same as if I murdered you right now.” Obviously, those are not identical things. They’re not literally the same. All ethics are situational. If a situation changes, even slightly, the ethics of an action may change too. 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 or in self-defense. And so forth. Right and wrong are not black and white; they exist on a spectrum, where the same action can be less moral or more moral dependent upon the situation. Abortion, no matter where you fall on it, is an exceptionally unique issue with unique, complex moral questions.
For example, is it less immoral to commit abortion if the pregnancy was the product of rape? Is it right to force someone to give birth to a child that was forced upon her through sexual violence? Even many conservatives find it more morally acceptable to terminate a pregnancy in this case. Likewise, what if giving birth puts the mother at serious risk of death (still an issue even in more advanced nations like ours)? Is it then less immoral to commit abortion than it might be otherwise? Shouldn’t the person who already exists have the preeminent right to life in that case? Personally, I think abortion is in fact less immoral in these contexts, among others. Should 11-year-olds be forced to give birth by the State?
If abortion is more morally acceptable in some circumstances, what about others? Is it more unethical to abort as time goes on and birth draws closer? Does age, developmental stage, matter at all in the moral equation? Many people think it does, and only consider abortion in the first or second trimester to be morally permissible. Fortunately for them, in 2014, “91.5% of abortions were performed at ≤13 weeks’ gestation; a smaller number of abortions [7.2%] were performed at 14–20 weeks’ gestation, and even fewer [1.3%] were performed at ≥21 weeks’ gestation,” to quote the CDC. Personally, I tend to agree that it’s less ethical to commit abortion later on. Note that one can believe this while holding that all abortions, regardless of developmental stage, are either morally acceptable (somewhere on the right side of the spectrum) or morally unacceptable (somewhere on the wrong of the spectrum). I fall in the latter category; I don’t view abortion as a moral thing to do, as it is taking a human life, and likely wouldn’t have one if men could give birth. But there are various factors you have to take into account when 1) deciding if it should be criminalized and 2) deciding just how immoral it really is.
Regarding the first point, we’ve already seen how criminalization is ineffective. 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 the termination of a pregnancy with a higher risk to a woman’s life and health. Yes, I think it would be most ethical to give birth to the child. But that is simply not a choice I, you, or the government can make. It is the woman’s choice; it always has been and always will be, regardless of the law. That’s just the reality in which we live, so you have to go from that starting point. While it is compelling to argue that anything unethical must be made illegal, there are some unethical actions we do not outlaw (lying to hurt someone, cheating on a spouse, even suicide, and so on), for various reasons. Not all unethical things are or should be illegal; you have to weigh a lot of unique factors for each case, which may result in different conclusions. It isn’t necessarily hypocritical to believe an unethical act should be legal — you may feel that way about a host of issues, from giving your child a whooping to using hard drugs. Conversely, it’s sometimes said, “Well, if abortion should be legal because a ban doesn’t work, why not make murder legal? The ban on that doesn’t work either.” This is a good point, but again the situations aren’t precisely the same — there may be important reasons to keep abortion legal that don’t apply to making murder legal. Likewise, avoiding bans on war, firearms, torture, the death penalty, or other things that end up killing innocent people may not justify lifting a ban on murder. (See more here.)
As for the second point, while abortion in my view is immoral, I do not consider it as immoral as infanticide or the killing of an innocent person who’s been born. That’s not meant to celebrate abortion or advocate for having one! It’s simply to say that ethics are on a spectrum and not all scenarios sit on top of each other. 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, which should you choose? Surely the moral choice would be to save the baby. Which would you choose? Letting a fetus in a tube die does not have the same moral weight as letting a baby die, in my view. Ethics are situational, so, likewise, abortion and murder (or infanticide) are not identical situations and do not carry the same moral weight. They each have unique moral questions and answers. Circling back to whether the age of the baby in the womb has any sway over the moral equation, the idea that infanticide is less moral than abortion fits with the idea that later abortions are less moral than earlier ones. You could even revise the thought experiment: if you had to choose between saving a fetus the size of a finger and a fetus at eight months, which would you choose? If you choose the latter, you’re accepting the idea that some innocent deaths are simply worse, simply less ethically tolerable, than others.
We’ve mostly covered this, but another moral decision to make: should the government force you to give birth against your will? For many conservatives, if the alternative is killing a baby in the womb then yes. Not exactly “small government” and keeping Big Brother out of our lives, but it’s understandable. The State outlaws theft, murder, rape, and so on, to curb or punish behavior. Liberals and conservatives tend to agree on these things. But personally, while I view abortion as wrong, I don’t believe giving the State the power to force women to give birth is desirable. It’s certainly not something I would wish upon myself. Either it fails to work and women have dangerous black market abortions, or it partially works and women who’ve illegally had abortions are arrested and — what? How should we punish women who break the law and commit abortion? A fine and community service? Prison time? A life sentence?
As for the final question posed in the beginning, 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, and many liberals, 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 some 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.