Recent bills passed in our country have resulted in social media posts that are ridiculously short for such a complicated subject. They tend to be things like “Her body, her choice” or “abortion is murder.” Both sentiments are such oversimplifications. This post is long, because this subject deserves deeper thought. Hang with me. If it appears I am taking a standard “pro-life” or “pro-choice” side, you’re not reading far enough or carefully enough.
To begin with (and the beginning is important), I believe human life begins at conception. We all start out as zygotes, then become embryos, fetuses, infants, then toddlers. If all goes well, we move through early and late childhood, then adolescence. Our adult years are often categorized as young adult, midlife, and late adulthood. If we get a full lifespan, we die at the end of this process. I just don’t see any logic to deciding that our status as humans begins arbitrarily somewhere else along this spectrum. I had two very planned, very wanted children, now both wonderful young adults. They started out as zygotes. I started out as a zygote. So did you.
The problem with “her body, her choice” is it ignores the fact that there’s another body here, and that human has no choice. So many responses are some form of “if you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one, but don’t interfere in my choice,” which ignores the choiceless, voiceless human being involved.
Too many on the “pro-life” side insist that the answer is simple: Make abortion illegal. The Republican party has made Supreme Court selection, with an eye toward overturning Roe v Wade, part of their platform. Many pro-lifers insist that by voting Republican, they’ve taken care of the problem. They will get the judges they need and outlaw abortion. Job done. They will have saved all those poor, unborn babies.
Which is just as shallow as “her body, her choice.” It focuses 100% on the means (outlawing abortion) while, ironically, ignoring what they claim to be the end, preventing the abortion of unborn babies. By ignoring that critical piece, they actually do pitifully little to prevent abortions. Empirical evidence strongly suggests that outlawing abortion doesn’t stop it. There is a better, more effective way.
It is vitally important that women have power over their own bodies and their own lives. They are, after all, also human beings. Reproductive power is a huge piece of this. We know from our own past and from other countries with extremely restrictive abortion laws that women will take this power one way or another. For those of us who believe that life begins at conception and that women should have power over their own bodies, the solution is very clear: A lifetime of scientifically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education and free, reliable contraceptives readily available. These two things will actually prevent the vast majority of abortions.
Switzerland and the Netherlands, which have made these two things a priority, have abortion rates of about 5 and 6, respectively, for every 1,000 women of reproductive age. In Mexico and Pakistan, where abortion is banned except to save the life of the mother, and sex education and contraceptives are discouraged, the rates are 50 and 34 per 1,000, respectively. In the US, where abortion is generally legal, sex-ed exists but is controversial, and where insurance has only recently fully covered contraception, the rate is about 12 per 1,000. Clearly, the legality or illegality of abortion is not the main factor in deciding whether or not women get abortions.
In countries where women have access to no-cost contraception, abortions fall between 52 and 78 percent. People (men and women) who know about and use effective contraception have agency over their lives without much need for abortion. They can have children when they are emotionally and financially ready, or not have them at all, if that is their wish. This is where “their lives, their choice” is utterly valid. No other human being is left voiceless in this choice. There is no moral reason for an outsider’s opinions to matter. Further, women taking the pill or using long-term contraception need not add a decision about abortion to the trauma of being raped, so even that controversially mitigating factor is addressed in many cases.
Of course, as wonderful as it is to drop abortion rates by 78 percent, that’s not 100 percent. Human lives are still ending in early developmental stages. What can we do about this? What should we do? This is where laws and policies matter. This is why voting Republican makes one no more pro-life than voting Democrat. (In fact, the argument can be made that voting Democrat is more in keeping with an anti-abortion stance, as Democrats generally support the two most effective pieces of abortion reduction: sex ed and contraception.)
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 21 percent of abortions in the U.S. occur because the mother has inadequate financial resources to have and raise a child. A pro-life party would support a health care system that reduces the current average cost in the U.S. of an uncomplicated vaginal birth (over $10,000). In the Netherlands, with their low abortion rates, it’s just over $2,000. Switzerland, another country with very low abortion rates, comes in at just over $8,000, fully covered by insurance everyone is required to carry. In fact, Switzerland’s policy looks a lot like the ACA. You know, that policy the GOP has been chipping away at. The Republican party believes people should have a choice in whether or not they carry health insurance, driving up insurance costs for everyone. This makes insurance inaccessible to many women. Even with insurance, they are often forced to pay thousands in copays, a cost that could be reduced if spread more thinly across all those insured. Either way, childbirth is economically devastating to too many women.
And that’s just the beginning of the economic aspect of pregnancy. If a political party were truly pro-life, as the GOP professes to be, then it makes sense it would support programs like WIC, which provides resources, financial and otherwise, to women with infants and young children. It would support SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps). It would offer support to families in need. The Democratic party supports both, while the GOP has made cuts to both programs.
Financial stress causes—that’s right, causes—21 percent of all abortions. In America, we average around 650,000 abortions per year. Refusing to make even having, much less raising, a child financially feasible because you believe people should have choices about whether or not to have insurance or to help needy families means the end of 136,500 human lives before they are born. That is not anti-abortion. Combine hurtful financial policies with laws banning abortion and you don’t get an end to abortion. You get an increase in illegal, unsafe abortions. In this, the GOP is actually pro-abortion, provided it is done with a coat-hanger or dubious medicines ordered on the internet.
Another 68 percent of abortions can pretty much be summed up as “I don’t want a baby right now.” They include things like not being ready, being too young, having as many children as they want already, that kind of thing. This is where knowing about and having access to free contraception comes in. Implants, IUD, the ring, the pill, shots and patches are all over 90 percent effective. They would prevent most abortions performed for these and financial reasons, over 90 percent of 89 percent of all abortions. Wow! Contraception empowers women and prevents 520,000 unborn babies from being aborted every year.
Kudos to all you pro-lifers out there who get this and support sex-ed and affordable, reliable, accessible contraception for all sexually active people. For those who refuse to go any further in your approach than making abortion illegal, for shame! If you oppose sex-ed and contraception for whatever reason, religious or otherwise, you make imposing your beliefs on others more important than over half a million unborn babies. That is not pro-life.
Now we move into the gray areas, and there are gray areas, places where no option is the clear moral high ground. Around six percent of abortions occur because of issues surrounding the health of the fetus or mother. Contraception might help in some of these cases, provided the health issues involve a woman with an unplanned pregnancy. Other situations, especially when it comes to a non-viable pregnancy, are definitely a “her body/family, her choice.”
What does it matter if a fetus with anencephaly (some or most of the brain missing) leaves the womb before or after full gestation? It will die either way. Why must a woman carry a baby with trisomy 18 full term, only to have it suffer and die? She may decide she wants to carry to term, and she should certainly be able to make that decision, too. I just don’t see anyone else having moral authority in those cases.
What if she goes into preterm labor so early the baby cannot live? It’s fairly rare, but it does happen. And what if the baby doesn’t come easily on its own? In a country where abortion is illegal, a woman in such a situation may not go to the doctor for fear of being accused of intentionally causing what is, actually, a spontaneous abortion. A miscarriage. She may bleed out or die of sepsis as a result of that fear. If she does seek treatment, the doctor or hospital may refuse to help her, afraid of being accused of performing an illegal abortion. This happens all too often in countries with abortion bans. The fact that it would affect relatively few women is beside the point. Those women matter! The babies wouldn’t live, anyway. The moral high ground is actually clear here. If a woman having a miscarriage needs help, she should be able to seek it, and a doctor should be able to provide it without fear.
And then there was the young woman in a support group I once facilitated. She was struggling with addiction, and then she became pregnant. When she told the group, several girls immediately piped up with “Oooh! I’ll be happy to babysit” and similar comments. There was something about the look on her face. “Wait a minute,” I said, and reminded them that she had decisions to make. Being pregnant doesn’t necessarily mean being a mother. She burst into tears. “I can’t stay clean for a day. How am I supposed to stay clean for eight months? And what have I already done to this baby?” I had already offered the kids with drug issues resources for treatment, and I suggested that she could get support in trying to get clean. She nodded but said nothing and didn’t respond to my overtures after group. The next week, when one of the kids asked where she was in her decision, she didn’t want to talk about it. She never talked about it again, but the weight was palpable. She didn’t make the decision lightly. You can wish she had gotten clean and given the baby up. I can wish she was in treatment and had an IUD. We can moralize all we want, but I think any true addict can understand why she did what she did. It’s not our place to judge her.
There are a thousand health issues that impact pregnancy. I don’t know all of them, nor do I know how they should be handled. Neither do you. The best course of action is best decided, case by case, between a woman and the medical professionals working with her. Will they always make the right call? No. Neither will you.
Finally, there is this uncomfortable concept we refer to in war: collateral damage. You see, in any war, innocent people die. (Sometimes they are pregnant women and their unborn babies.) This means that, in deciding whether to go to war, attack a village, or launch a drone attack, we weigh the cost in innocent lives against the gain in that hostile action. Why do we ever decide in favor of attack? Generally because we believe threats against our liberty, safety, and/or economic well-being merit the loss of innocent lives. Look at that again. We believe threats against our liberty, safety, and/or economic well-being merit the loss of innocent lives. Now look above at all the reasons women get abortions: not being ready, being too young, having as many children as they want already, and the one percent of abortions performed because of rape or incest (liberty), financial stress (economic well-being), health issues (safety). Just as we don’t take war lightly, neither should we take abortion lightly, but it is hypocritical to suggest that collateral damage in a war to protect these things in your life is fine, while collateral damage to protect women you may or may not know is not.
Look, I’m no more comfortable with this than you probably are. Collateral damage is ugly, whether it’s war or abortion. That’s why I support prevention, through diplomacy for the former and contraception for the latter. But if you have ever voted for a politician whose actions caused any collateral damage, you are already not the purely pro-life voter you may wish you could be. None of us is without sin, so maybe no one is in any place to throw stones.
Four pages, single spaced. Did you stick with it? The issue is just too complex and too important for throwaway labels like pro-choice or pro-life, if all you mean by that is either abortion is a morally neutral choice or you just want abortion to be illegal so you don’t have to think about it anymore. The analysis it merits doesn’t fit on Facebook or Twitter. The moral solution for roughly 89 percent of abortions does: Sex-ed and contraception.
I realized I throw a lot of stats around. Below are sources for most of them. I wasn’t really thinking about it as I worked, so some sources may not be included. Also, sorry, this blog is not friendly to MLA formatting.
“Abortion | Data and Statistics | Reproductive Health | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 Nov. 2019, www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/data_stats/abortion.htm.
“AbortionFacts.com.” Fact #8: Less than 1% of All Abortions Are Performed to Save the Life of the Mother. – AbortionFacts.com, AbortionFacts.com, 2019, www.abortionfacts.com/facts/8?fbclid=IwAR0ZCSf7RmsjPq-RM1R4eQgDL2uaVneKKyWMrBFbZbbyCKgfuNdFsoZDD4I.
Fox, Maggie. “Abortion Rates Fell as Countries Made It Legal and OK’d Birth Control.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 21 Mar. 2018, 5:52 a.m., www.nbcnews.com/health/health-care/abortion-rates-go-down-when-countries-make-it-legal-report-n858476.
Oi, Mariko. “How Much Do Women around the World Pay to Give Birth?” BBC News, BBC, 13 Feb. 2015, www.bbc.com/news/business-31052665.