Abortion, Public Policy & the Consequences of Myopic Focus

Woman with tape over her mouth
Photo by Katie Tegtmeyer (flicker)

The publicity surrounding the support of Planned Parenthood by the Susan G. Komen Foundation brings into stark reality the truth pro-abortion/anti-abortion controversy. In that form it doesn’t exist. No one is pro-abortion. It is always a last and often desperate option.

The revulsion, whether religiously inspired or not, toward the act is fully understandable. In fact I share much of it. I am, as many American’s, against abortion and pro-choice. This is not an inconsistent position.

The fact that I can see reasons for terminating a pregnancy does not lessen my opposition to the act itself. But then I didn’t have badly malformed fetuses. I didn’t have a test that told me I would have to raise a mentally retarded child. I didn’t carry a stillborn child in my womb. I could easily afford to feed as many children as I could bear. Even in disagreement, the men in my family treated me with love and respect.

It’s important that all women understand that abortion is NOT the issue. It is simply the boat that carries a load of other issues. The oars that launched that boat were two shared public reactions; one that abortion not be abused and second that it not be supported by those who didn’t want to support it. Neither of these motivations say eliminate the procedure.

The outboard motor that started this craft on its way is the ancient American tradition of trying to hammer everything into law. As a country we are control freaks and this infects both the right and the left. Thus movements, led first by people of good will, escalate into zealotry and finally violence. The outcome is always unforeseen. The Civil War after one hundred and fifty years of public and private violence ended in the Civil Rights Act. Looking back on it, it was an awful passage. Prohibition offers a better example. The banning of booze led to all the excesses we still deal with today from organized crime to a welter of stupid and outdated laws. Prohibition is the mirror image of Roe v. Wade. Without termination of a pregnancy being safe and legal, we will surely go back to back alleys, coat hangers and knitting needles with their fellow travelers, infertility and death.

Most important, the jet engine that is carrying this controversy along is a dispute over power. The real issue is about property and governance. The more autonomy a woman has over her reproduction the more civilized the society. It also means men have less authority and have to share in all aspects of governance. To many men and many institutions run by men, this seems like a loss in a zero sum game. The actions of the Roman Catholic Bishops since President Obama adjusted his stance on coverage for birth control is a case in point writ large. The legislation in many states concerning many so-called pro-life issues isn’t about that at all. It’s all about control–period.

Where Are We Now?

3 generations of womenFor women like me, who came to maturity before the 1960s, the specter of illegal and unsafe abortion is as much of a horror as the reaction of those who view a terminated pregnancy as murder.  In those days there was no “pill” and the only means of obtaining a contraceptive device was through a doctor, with the exception of condoms.

As a young woman I remember both the stories and the many articles in women’s magazines that documented what happened to women who sought to end a pregnancy before there was anywhere safe to do so.  Many of the doctors who went through that time and dealt with the cases of sepsis they saw in the hospitals were among the staunchest supporters for ending the illegality of abortion.  They were forced in some circumstances to act illegally, even going to jail to save the life of a woman.  Of course, I can also understand how a doctor like, Dr. Ron Paul, could come to the opposite conclusion and want a ban on all such procedures.

In reality, abortion has been with us as long as pregnancy and will be with us whether the anti-abortion forces are successful or not.  Better, I believe, as President Clinton said, to have abortion be “safe, legal and rare.”

Over the years since Roe v. Wade I have watched the strategy of the anti-abortion crowd.  I might point out that the advocates of Roe were for the most part women, and the leaders of the anti-abortion group are most often men.

The first thing the anti-abortion people had to face was that the majority of Americans were not supportive of their cause.  By the end of the 1970s they discovered that the only time they were successful on a ballot issue limiting abortion was if it was tied someway to funding.  Americans didn’t mind abortion.  They minded paying for it.

There was only so much they could do on this kind of effort.  They continued a frontal assault state by state which either failed at the ballot box or in the courts.  Their position was essentially unconstitutional in the view of the courts.  Failing in this, they began to chip away at abortion.  State by state they instituted onerous regulations on the procedure, resulting in laws that were scientifically unsustainable and physically ridiculous.  This had some effect, but certainly did not preclude the procedures.

They are now trying, with bills in legislatures, to declare, against all science, that life begins at the meeting of sperm and egg.  Where they are successful, many forms of birth control and in-vitro fertilization will be outlawed.  In Virgin Hall I wanted to show what it was like before Roe.  If legislators affirm life at fertilization—it will be that way again.