Media and public discourse define the abortion debate in terms of the following opposed positions:
- You favor complete legal restrictions on all abortions (but perhaps with some exceptions). The last version of this position to be seriously considered at the national level was under President Reagan, who wanted to forbid all abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother was in danger, but others do not want any exceptions to be allowed.
- You favor abortion on demand. This position varies by term: some favor bans after some specified number of weeks (maybe 21), others favor bans after viability (when the baby could live on its own outside the mother’s womb), while others favor no restrictions at all.
I won’t review arguments for both positions because I believe that framing the argument this way is frankly stupid. It is designed to create an illusion of difference between Republican and Democratic positions to drive groups of voters to either party — either out of an urgency to stop a holocaust of unborn babies or to protect women’s rights and their freedoms over their own bodies, or, at the least, to allow women safe access to a procedure that they will be undergoing anyhow, legal or not.
The problem with framing the abortion debate this way is that it completely ignores social and political realities surrounding abortion and prevents us from working together to find solutions better than merely legal ones to our abortion problem.
I will be defining abortion as a problem: I don’t believe any woman ever wants an abortion. I have never known any woman who became pregnant so that she could get an abortion. What she wanted was to avoid getting pregnant to begin with, so when she gets an abortion, it’s always a lesser of two evils. She will be grateful that they’re safe and legal, don’t get me wrong, but she would rather not have become pregnant to begin with. Both sides of that sentence are equally important. No, I’m not defining women’s thinking or choices for them. If you are a woman who got pregnant solely for the purpose of having an abortion, please do comment. I’d like to hear from you. I don’t think they exist, though.
Now here are the political realities about abortion:
- US Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade (1973) eliminated the ability of states to ban abortions completely, but it did allow states to exercise regulatory authority over abortions, especially in the third trimester.
- Since Roe vs. Wade, there have been a number of SCOTUS decisions that have given states increasing regulatory power. The abortion debate has really been carried out on a state level since then, with pro-life states pushing regulatory boundaries to see how far they can restrict abortions. However, at no time has Roe vs. Wade been overturned.
- It has just been reported today, June 27th, 2016, that the US Supreme Court just declared unconstitutional some highly restrictive abortion laws in Texas; even though the Court is split 4-4 between Republican and Democratic appointees, it voted 5-3 against highly restrictive laws in Texas that would in effect close the majority of abortion clinics in that state. Even if we had a full nine justices, the decision would still have gone the same way, at 5-4 or 6-3.
- Since 1969, there have been 13 justices appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Five of these have been Democrat and eight have been Republican. Republican appointees have dominated the Supreme Court since the late 1990s (remember that the Bush vs. Gore election case in 2000 fell along party lines, 5-4) — about 15-20 years — but Roe vs. Wade has not yet been overturned.
So here’s the political reality: there won’t be a Constitutional amendment banning abortion (when was the last time one was considered in Congress? How many times did Congress vote to repeal Obamacare instead?), and Republican dominated Supreme Courts have upheld Roe vs. Wade for the last twenty years or so.
Now how would you think about abortion if you had to accept that it was a long-term legal reality? Wouldn’t it be smarter to address causes, and to reduce the number of abortions by addressing the causes of abortions, rather than conduct a ridiculous debate that sets a political impossibility (outlawing abortion) against our current political reality (legal abortions with limited restrictions imposed by states)?
What are the causes of abortion? The top three are (and all stats come from the preceding link, but they are available from a wide variety of sources)
- Having a child would interfere with school, work, or other responsibilities (75%).
- The woman cannot afford to raise the child (66%).
- Relationship problems with the father (50%).
A few more relevant abortion stats include…
- More than 50% of women receiving abortions are in their 20s.
- Almost 50% of all women receiving abortions are at or below the federal poverty level and unmarried.
- 51% of women who had an unwanted pregnancy were using contraception of some kind.
- Some good news: as of 2014, the abortion rate was at its lowest since 1973.
So the two best ways to reduce the number of abortions by reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies are:
- Replacing the minimum wage with a living wage, so that women feel that they can support themselves and their children.
- Making contraception widely and easily available, especially to women right out of high school. Part of this includes providing instruction in their use for both men and women. Even if contraception was completely free, the cost of contraception is far less than the cost of abortions or unwanted children, or government support for poor women who are having children.
You don’t have to agree with these solutions, but of course the question is this: do you really want to reduce the number of abortions, or do you just want to punish women for having sex? Are you really trying to stop premarital sex with abortion laws? That won’t work either. It didn’t before Roe vs. Wade, and it’s not working that way now. Whatever solutions you propose, making abortions completely illegal doesn’t appear to be an option. The Republican Party delivered a majority of conservative justices to the Supreme Court by the 1990s, but Roe vs. Wade has not been overturned, and Congress hasn’t been aggressive about pursuing pro-life legislation (a Constitutional amendment) even when it was dominated by Republicans. The first two years of the Bush administration saw both houses of Congress and the White House occupied by a Republican. Abortion wasn’t high on their list of agenda items. The Republican Party isn’t really pro-life. It just says that it is to get votes from the religious right.
If you take the idea of outlawing abortion off the table, as it appears to be given our current political realities, how would you think about the problem instead?
2 thoughts on “Thinking Clearly about the Abortion Debate”
Thoughtful and informative post, James!
Thank you, Carla.