Over thirty years after the landmark Roe vs. Wade court decision, the issue of abortion is just as divisive as ever, polarizing American society. Each of the two sides is quick to vilify anybody who does not toe their line, heaping politically-charged epithets upon them in the hope of shaming them into compliance. I suspect, however, that this behavior more often leads to the alienation of many people who, like myself, are not enthusiastic proponents of abortion but at the same time do not want to see the practice completely proscribed. Does less-than-ardent support for the legally-sanctioned termination of unwanted organisms amount to a desire to trample upon a woman’s ‘right to choose’? No. But neither is support for the willful destruction of a non-sentient embryo as a means of last resort tantamount to the advocacy of murder.
As a childlover — indeed, as a human being — I would prefer to preserve young life as much as is possible. At the very least, I would like to give the benefit of the doubt to the unborn, erring on the side of caution as to when the foetus becomes ‘viable’. I believe that in this age of information and technology, education is crucial. With proper education and training, the number of unwanted pregnancies can be significantly curbed, reducing the need for abortion altogether. Furthermore, I think that we need to closely examine the issue of children’s rights. When we begin to consider children as more than property or an appendage of their parents, our approach to rights for them, both born and unborn, must change as well.
Facts and Figures
So just how much abortion is there? In the United States, 48% of pregnancies are unintended. Of those unintended pregnancies, 47% end in abortion. Therefore, 22.5% of all pregnancies in the United States end in abortion. In the year 2000, there were 1.3 million abortions performed in the United States. Expressed another way, 1 in every 47 women between the ages of 15 and 44 had an abortion in 2000. While this abortion rate of 21.3 was lower than that in many developing nations, it was higher than most nations in Europe, notably Germany, with an abortion rate of 7.6 and the Netherlands, with a rate of 6.5.
I got all of these facts from a report entitled An Overview of Abortion in the United States published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. The same report that gives us these figures also shows that in many, if not most, cases, the unwanted pregnancies were wholly preventable. Amongst other things, the report discovered that:
- More than 90% of couples report that they use a contraceptive method during any given month, although not always correctly and at every act of intercourse. [italics mine]
- 53% of women who have unintended pregnancies were using a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant, although usually not correctly every time. [italics mine]
I will come back to these figures at a later point in this essay.
The extreme shock tactics of the anti-abortion movement are probably largely responsible for the highly-sanitized language currently used to speak about abortion. Proponents of the practice know full well that perception is just as important as scientific fact in any highly-charged moral debate and that any terminology that suggests or evokes death is going to be politically counter-productive. But for all of the talk of ‘termination’ or ‘interruption’ or ‘intervention’, the fact does not change: abortion causes death. Nobody disputes this fact any longer; the debate is now primarily about the nature of the life being ended and whether it is appropriate to consider the embryo or the foetus to be a human being.
Roe vs. Wade disallows states from interfering in any way with a woman seeking an abortion during the first two trimesters of her pregnancy, while allowing the procedure only under restricted circumstances during the final trimester. The time restriction was based upon the age at which experts of the day believed that the foetus was ‘viable’, or capable of surviving outside of the womb. In 1973, this threshold was believed to be twenty-eight weeks. The trouble is that in the thirty years since then, the threshold of viability has fallen. Officially, the threshold has fallen to twenty-four weeks, but there are cases of foetuses surviving even after twenty or twenty-one weeks. Furthermore, recent technological advances could reduce this threshold yet further.
Considering that the age of viability has fallen, it seems that it would be difficult for the Supreme Court or anybody else to argue that the foetus is not a person. In fact, as our knowledge increases, we learn ever more about the capabilities of the unborn. We are learning that the foetus develops sensory perception much earlier than we had previously thought. Indeed, the central nervous system is already in place at eight weeks and neural activity begins at six weeks. Is it not time to re-think our approach to this? Should not we give this life, or ‘potential life’ as many would call it, the benefit of the doubt and a fighting chance at survival?
Limiting abortion to the first trimester of pregnancy would be a reasonable step in the right direction. Ninety percent of abortions already occur before this point. The reason for the later abortions are predominantly related to either the woman’s failure or refusal to acknowledge her pregnancy sooner, fear of telling her partner or an inability to make the necessary arrangements (childcare, medical insurance) in a timely fashion. In other words, these reasons are largely preventable.
To Be or Not To Be
I have absolutely no intention of challenging anybody’s right to privacy, which is one of the constitutional bases of the Roe vs. Wade decision and is supported under the Ninth Amendment. My trouble, however, comes from the part of the decision which states that the foetus cannot be considered a ‘person’ and therefore is not entitled to protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Surely, the court jests. How is it that a living human foetus that can feel, see, hear, even dream not be considered a person?
Again, some would point to the viability question, but this does not make sense. Does humanity depend on ‘viability’? And what is viability, really? Medically, viability is the ability of the organism to sustain itself independently of another organism. In other words, it should be able to eat, digest and breathe air. But how viable is an infant? It certainly can perform these functions, but without intensive assistance from others it has very little chance of survival. An infant is incapable of bringing to itself the means of sustenance, nor does it have the economic capability or the mental faculty to provide for itself. Does the fact that it breathes air make it any more human than the unborn foetus?
While the Supreme Court, in the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision, moved the yardstick to a certain degree in recognition of the fact that medical viability comes earlier than previously thought, it does not extend the crucial distinction of humanity to the unborn. Since the foetus is not legally alive, the states do not have any “compelling interest” to protect it. As far as the law is concerned, it does not exist.
Equal Rights for All?
Paradoxically, though, one can be charged with a felony if a homicide results in the death of a foetus. California law quite clearly states that murder is the unlawful killing of a human being or a foetus. At the same time, it defines abortion as ‘justifiable homicide’. Therefore, the foetus is protected under the law at the discretion of the mother. But if she so chooses, she may unilaterally suspend the foetus’s rights. In an age where we condemn and even punish governments for using their discretion to kill, displace or discriminate against various segments of their populations, it is incongruous that we routinely allow such a value judgment to be made about the lives of the unborn.
In a legal sense, therefore, the law once again is being used to protect the interests of the economically empowered, just as it has always done. It uses several devices to do so: either it suspends the humanity and/or the citizenship of the disenfranchised as it has done in the case of both the unborn and the slaves, or it declares that they are unfit, unqualified or impaired in their ability to exercise their rights, as is the case with children and the mentally ill.
Is there not a problem here? Is it not inconsistent when a nation founded upon the basis that life and liberty are inalienable rights that it severely restricts or suspends the legal rights of the weakest? Is it not strange that the nation that seems increasingly willing to intervene on behalf of the oppressed and persecuted around the world treats its own weak and helpless with such disdain?
The Right to Choose
Women’s rights activists have very effectively painted legalized abortion as a matter of a woman’s right to choose’. “Pro-choice” activists chant the mantra that the government should get its hands off of their bodies. But this is a gross simplification of the situation. In actual fact, women already have many choices that empower them not to get pregnant. Women can choose when and with whom to have sexual relations. Women can choose to use contraception and have a wide range of pharmacological and mechanical methods to choose from. Women can choose to require their sexual partners to wear a condom.
Despite this array of choices, nearly half of pregnancies are still unwanted. According to the study I cited earlier, many of these unwanted pregnancies are the direct result of incorrect use of contraceptives or the failure to use contraceptives consistently. The study also indicates “the abortion rate has declined slightly but steadily over time, and more rapidly since 1990 than in the previous decade. Among the reasons are use of long-acting hormonal contraceptives (injectables and implant), a lower pregnancy rate among teenagers and growing use of emergency contraception. The declining pregnancy rate among teenagers is the result primarily of better contraceptive use.” (Darroch and Singh, 1999) In other words, the level of unwanted pregnancies can be reduced significantly if women make conscious choices to prevent pregnancy in the first place. I would suggest that the prevention of unwanted pregnancy is the responsibility that comes with the right to sexual freedom.
Much of the arguments for abortion came during a time when there was significant societal prejudice against unwed mothers and little assistance for them. Social changes over the last thirty years have seen both of these situations change dramatically. Therefore, the choice to be a single mother is neither as stigmatized nor as economically debilitating as it was in the past. The stigma associated with getting a prescription for or purchasing birth control products is also greatly reduced.
Towards Better Education
One of the most effective means of reducing unwanted pregnancies is education. Comprehensive education for children and adults about birth control is crucial. Evidence suggests quite strongly that better-informed teens do not begin having sex sooner, but that when they do begin to have sex, they are more likely to engage in safe sex practices. A recent study by Peter Bearman and Hanna Brückner entitled Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse also shows that abstinence education is largely ineffective. Whilst it does tend to delay sexual intercourse in young people, 88% of the study’s participants had intercourse before marriage. What is worrisome is that the pledgers were less likely to use birth control than non-pledgers.
Ensuring that women are fully capable of recognizing the signs of pregnancy is also very important. One of the most cited reasons for women seeking later term (16+ weeks) abortions is that they didn’t know that they were pregnant (71%). The Guttmacher study states “because abortion is stigmatized, women often delay the acknowledgment of their unintended pregnancies. Many women do not feel the physical changes, hope that they are not pregnant or fail to recognize the pregnancy because of irregular periods.” [italics mine]
Along with proper education, availability is also extremely important. It does no good to inform people about birth control methods and the availability of emergency contraception if they are subsequently unable to gain access to it. Schools should all be supplied with birth control products and school nurses should be able to dispense these products as well as emergency contraception to students with full confidentiality. Public health insurance should cover the cost of both pharmacological birth control and emergency contraception. When there is full education and full availability, women will have the greatest choice of all: not to become pregnant unless they want to.
This is something that should be privately decided with the family, woman, all the other private factors of it, but we should work toward preventing the necessity of abortion.
In the best possible light, abortion can only be considered to be a necessary evil. Yet this ‘necessity’ is largely preventable. I am concerned that the arguments in favor of legalized abortion have a tendency to drown out the arguments in favor of preventing unwanted pregnancy. Abortion rights advocates talk about reducing the stigma of abortion and of packaging abortion with other medical services to make it more accessible to women. I do not agree with this approach. If the decision must be taken to end the life of a living organism one helped create, it should be considered on its own. It should never become an easy or routine decision to take.
Denying fundamental rights to others in the interest of preserving our own perceived rights is not morally acceptable. Children, including those not yet born, are not property and should not be treated as such. As a society, we need to examine very closely the way that we disenfranchise those who are unable to defend themselves. If we are truly liberal and truly democratic, we will see that our laws ought to be designed to protect those who are unable to protect themselves. Those whose civil rights have been won most recently should avoid falling into the trap of clamoring for their own rights upon the backs of others who do not possess them.