Pro-life advocates aim to overturn Roe v Wade while conservative judges are on the bench–a decision that could have disastrous implications.
The Alabama Senate passed a bill last Tuesday that would outlaw virtually all abortions in the state. Georgia and Ohio recently introduced severe six-week bans. Fifteen states have introduced bills that would place a near-total ban on abortions in what seems to be the beginning of an orchestrated avalanche. Politically savvy political commentators have discerned that the real point of all these state-wide abortion bans is to take the strongest one to the Supreme Court in a bid to overturn Roe v Wade while conservative judges are on the bench. The real battle will be fought in the nation’s highest court, and with much higher stakes.
The impact of criminalising abortion on real peoples’ lives is not academic. Yet one reason why the rights of women and girls to terminate pregnancies is so hotly contested is that all of the evidence in the world cannot settle philosophical debates over when a child should be legally deemed an ‘adult’, when a foetus really becomes a full ‘human being’ worthy of legal protection, or which activities constitute genuine ‘harm’ to an individual.
Many of the questions that make the legality of abortion so thorny also haunt related ethical matters. For example, children do not have the kinds of full legal rights that adults enjoy. Parents are at liberty to do things to their own children that they would never be permitted to do to other adults (lie to them, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, religious indoctrination, etc.). The flip side of possessing rights is the possession of responsibilities. Therefore, only specific kinds of beings can lay claim to the full raft of rights accorded to rational beings capable of understanding right from wrong.
Abortion is not only a question of when a fully human life begins. It is largely about the private sphere and at which point private behaviours impinge on other ‘person’s’ in ways that are truly harmful. To liberals, it seems that abortion bans, far from protecting existing human beings, place a demand on actual women and girls to bring potential human beings into existence, whether they like it or not. This means that the state intrudes into womens’ private lives to force their subordination to their own biological functions against their will. Many women see this as a presumptuous intrusion into their privacy and an assault on their negative liberty.
But turn the cube in another direction and a different light shines off the same facets: now it is the unborn person who has a claim on the woman, and it is the ‘person’s’ very life – not just their privacy or liberty– that is threatened by a woman’s freedom to choose.
Abortion is a complex issue because none of us has the privilege of stepping outside of the human condition to pronounce upon it from an unbiased viewpoint. We all have a vested interest in the question of when a human life begins. Self-described pro-life advocates argue that a foetus is a human life. Pro-choice advocates argue that a foetus is a potential human life, and therefore not without value. However, they also argue that a fully-fledged actual human person has more rights than a potential human person.
The Catholic Church, like other mainstream religious institutions and traditions, denounces not only abortion but feminism. Religious authorities are almost universally male, and religious doctrines –whether in Christian, Jewish or Islamic faith traditions – have placed inordinate stress on the biological differences between men and women. This emphasis on biology has been extended to provide warrant for treating women not just as biologically different to men but as essentially different to them in their needs, their desires, their ‘roles’ and their interests. Religious conservatives have also been disingenuous in using the ‘protection of innocent life’ argument to strip females of control over their fertility. Their respect for innocent life dissolves with respect to military spending and war, gun laws, capital punishment or the human treatment of other forms of life on the planet.
Contradictory messages, double binds and role conflict
The religious conservatives who argue that women should not have a choice in whether or not they give birth are the same people who argue against educating young women about contraception. They are content to shroud female sexuality in mystery, taboo and obscurity. This robs those most vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy of valuable information, disempowering them and making them ashamed to ask for the one kind of information that would actually help them to live up to the impossible definitions of ‘virtue’ and ‘modesty’ expected of them (but not of their male counterparts).
At the same time, young American girls are socially conditioned from a very early age to think of little else than marriage and motherhood. This cultural indoctrination has reached its pathological zenith in the normalised ritual of giving baby dolls and toy push chairs to baby girls – so that they can begin the role play of ‘motherhood’ even before they have lost their own baby fat. In the western context, and despite the above-mentioned expectations of female sexual ‘chastity’, a young woman’s self-esteem is inseparable from her ability to attract and to please the opposite sex with its ever more demanding definitions of sexualised beauty. Consequently, many young women have grown repulsed at the sight of their own natural bodies, whether their pubic hair or their labia, and have begun to surgically alter their bodies in line with pornographic ideals. Yet when the same young women that society rewards for their sexual attractiveness and availability become pregnant the tune changes. Now they are ‘sluts’ who brought unwanted pregnancies on themselves and they alone face the consequences.
The truth is that no one is pro-abortion. Those who want women to have a right to choose are not in favour of abortion. Women use abortion as a last resort. Abortions are scary and physically painful and no female wants to have one. Pro-choice advocates acknowledge that abortion is a tragedy, both for the mother and for the potential child. It is absurd to claim that women “use abortion as birth control” except in cultural situations when they have been deprived of reasonable alternatives and/or the education to use them.
I hope that some of the statistics that follow will help to remind opponents of the facts.
- One in four U.S. women will have an abortion by the age of 45
- 59% of women obtaining abortions are mothers
- A substantial proportion of unintended pregnancies occur despite women’s and their partners’ use of contraceptives. In 2001, some 48% of women experiencing an unintended pregnancy had been using a method in the month of conception
- Nearly half (45%) of all pregnancies among U.S. women in 2011 were unintended, and about four in 10 of these were terminated by abortion.1
- 75% of pregnancies among 15 – 19 year olds are unplanned
- nearly one in five (18%) of all adolescents aged 15–17 reported that they would not seek sexual and reproductive health care services because of concerns that their parents might find out
- The weight of scientific evidence finds that abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs are not effective in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse or changing other sexual risk behaviors.
- Women without a high school degree had the highest unintended pregnancy rate among those of any educational level in 2011
- Without publicly funded family planning, the rate of pregnancies among 15–19-year-olds would have been 73 percent higher
- As of January 1, 2018, all but 10 states had imposed at least one of five major abortion restrictions: unnecessary regulations on abortion clinics, mandated counseling designed to dissuade a woman from obtaining an abortion, a mandated waiting period before an abortion, a requirement of parental involvement before a minor obtains an abortion or prohibition on the use of state Medicaid funds to pay for medically necessary abortions.
- 11 states restrict coverage of abortion in private insurance plans, most often limiting coverage only to when the woman’s life would be endangered if the pregnancy were carried to term.
- 37 states require parental involvement before a minor obtains an abortion
- 926k abortions were performed in the United States in 2014
- Finer LB and Zolna MR, Declines in unintended pregnancy in the United States, 2008–2011, New England Journal of Medicine, 2016, 374(9):843–852, doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1506575.
- Guttmacher Institute, Targeted regulation of abortion providers, State Laws and Policies (as of January 2018), 2018, https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/targeted-regulation-abor….
- Guttmacher Institute, Counseling and waiting periods for abortion, State Laws and Policies (as of January 2018), 2018, https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/counseling-and-waiting-p….
- Guttmacher Institute, Parental involvement in minors’ abortions, State Laws and Policies (as of January 2018), 2018, https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/parental-involvement-min….
- Guttmacher Institute, State funding of abortion under Medicaid, State Laws and Policies (as of January 2018), 2018, https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/state-funding-abortion-u….
- Finer LB and Henshaw SK, Disparities in rates of unintended pregnancy in the United States, 1994 and 2001, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2006, 38(2):90–96.
- ‘Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage: An Updated Review of U.S. Policies and Programs and Their Impact’, Santelli, Lindberg, Kantor. Grilo, et.al., Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 61, Issue 3, September 2017, pp. 273 -280.