Pro-choice support FALLING IN U.S.
Arguing that abortion is simply a medical matter has become less persuasive
IN the nearly four decades since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women have a fundamental right to decide to have an abortion, the opposition to legal abortion has increased dramatically.
Opponents use increasingly sophisticated arguments — focusing on advances in fetal medicine, stressing the rights of parents to have a say in their minor children’s health care, linking opposition to abortion with opposition to war and capital punishment, seeking to make abortion not illegal but increasingly unavailable — and have succeeded in swinging public opinion toward their side.
Meanwhile, those of us in the abortion-rights movement cling to the arguments that led to victory in Roe v. Wade: Abortion is a private decision, and the state has no power over a woman’s body. Those arguments may have worked in the 1970s, but today they are failing, and focusing on them only risks all the gains we’ve made.
The pro-choice brand has eroded considerably. In 1995 it was the preferred label of 56 per cent of Americans; that dropped to 42 per cent in 2009 and 45 per cent in 2010, according to Gallup polls.
On Feb. 18, the House passed a bill that would strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood, one of the most important providers of reproductive health services for poor women. Another measure pending in the House would make it impossible to buy private insurance covering abortion. Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, a leader of anti-choice Republicans, has introduced an act to allow hospitals to deny an abortion even if the pregnant woman’s life is at risk. Governors in 29 states are solidly anti-abortion. And last year alone, 15 states passed 39 laws, most of them restrictive, relating to abortion.
Pro-choice advocates have good reason to oppose legislation that restricts abortion in any way, but we must stop holding on to a strategy that is making the legal right to abortion more vulnerable than ever.
We can no longer pretend the fetus is invisible, or that an abortion at 26 weeks is no different from one at six weeks. We can no longer seek to banish the state from our lives, but rather need to engage its power to improve women’s lives.
These are not compromises or mere strategic concessions; they are a necessary evolution. Our positions are inadequate for the questions of the 21st century. We know more than we knew in 1973, and our positions should reflect that.
The fetus is more visible than ever, and the abortion-rights movement must accept its existence and its value. It may not have a right to life, and its value may not be equal to that of the pregnant woman, but ending its life is not morally insignificant. Very few people would argue there is no difference between the decision to abort at six weeks and the decision to do so when the fetus would be viable outside of the womb, which today is 24 to 26 weeks. Still, it is rare for mainstream movement leaders to say that publicly. Abortion is not merely a medical matter, and there is an unintended coarseness to claiming that it is.
We must firmly and clearly reject post-viability abortions except in extreme cases. Exceptions include when the woman’s life is at immediate risk, when the fetus suffers from conditions that are incompatible with a good quality of life, or when the woman’s health is seriously threatened by a medical or psychological condition that continued pregnancy will exacerbate. We should regulate post-viability abortion to include the confirmation of those conditions by medical or psychiatric specialists.
Those kinds of regulations are not anti-woman nor unduly invasive. They rightly protect all of our interests in women’s health and fetal life.
Even abortions in the second trimester, especially after 20 weeks, must be considered differently from those that happen early in pregnancy. Women who seek abortions in the second trimester generally have special needs and would be helped by more extensive counselling than that available at most abortion clinics. Women who discover their fetuses have anomalies, teens who did not recognize they were pregnant, women who could not make up their minds — these are not routine circumstances. Mandating and funding nondirective counselling on all options is a good thing.
Finally, we must change the way we think about the state. The government is mainly treated as the enemy — and it does neglect women’s needs. Congress’s new ultra-conservative members are fighting to eliminate the legal right to abortion. The public is ambivalent: It wants it to be legal but supports almost any restriction that indicates society takes the act of abortion seriously. The choice movement has to work with the state. Society and the state do have a stake in abortion policy. Reproduction is a private matter with public consequences. Women get to decide, but we all get to weigh in on what the policy should look like.
We need to fight to get government to provide resources that women need, from subsidized birth control to better prenatal care. We also need a real effort to reduce maternal mortality and pregnancy complication rates, which Amnesty International has called “shocking.”
If the state wants to weigh in with information on abortion, it can at least emulate the European system, which has some regulations but pays for women’s abortions and offers good alternatives such as child care, parental leave and health care. We have been demanding the state mind its own business. That lets government abdicate all responsibility for funding reproductive health care.
We need more responsible and compassionate state policies. But respect for fetal life also requires that men and women take every step possible not to create fetuses they will have to abort. Too often, the movement sounds as if we think women have only rights and the state has only responsibilities.
The moral high ground on abortion is not in asserting an absolute right to choose, but in the movement’s historic understanding that when abortion is illegal, poor women suffer. We must seek to restore federal and state funds for abortion for women in the military and on Medicaid, a benefit that Congress cut off as early as 1976. We should also work to sensibly regulate abortion facilities — to not prohibit access but ensure safety.
Some of my colleagues in the abortion-rights movement fear that any compromise reflects weakness, but I believe most in the movement hold more moderate positions on abortion than their rhetoric or silence implies. These shifts I’m suggesting are not about compromising or finding common ground with opponents. Compromise assumes that two parties are prepared to give up something in return for settling an issue, and neither opponents nor advocates of legal abortion are willing to do that. But, for pro-choice advocates, standing our ground will mean losing ground entirely.
For too long, abortion has been treated in black and white. Any discussion that deviates from legal or illegal, women or fetus, faces criticism from the twin absolutes of choice or life. If the choice movement does not change, control of policy on abortion will remain in the hands of those who want it criminalized. If we don’t suggest sensible, balanced legislation and regulation of abortion, we will be left with far more draconian policies — and, eventually, no choices at all.
—The Washington Post