This weekend my roommate talked to a priest about abortion policy at a wedding. My roommate works on the girls, women and population team at the United Nations Foundation.
They had divergent viewpoints.
Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights have always been a battlefield — Should sex ed be taught in schools? How should we teach people about consent? Are universities covering up rapes? Should contraception be covered by insurance? Are states putting an undue burden on the right to have a safe abortion? Should the government defund Planned Parenthood? Is a zygote alive? And my favorite, can a woman’s body actually “shut that whole thing down” when raped?
For the amount of air time devoted to discussing women’s bodies, we’ve yet to come up with a way to talk about abortion policy that doesn’t alienate and vilify a portion of the population.
Politicians have been tossing around platitudes about abortion policy to cater to extreme segments of the population without thinking critically about how certain policies affect real lives.
Defining our terms
Before diving in, let’s take a step back to acknowledge our own biases.
We’re all guilty of seeking out news sources, blogs and people that share our view points and confirm the assumptions and attitudes that we’re already predisposed to have. When spending time with like-minded individuals, our opinions tend to get more extreme.
Since the topic of abortion has historically been so intertwined with morality, the arguments that liberals and conservatives make for and against abortion never seem to meet in the middle.
Let’s talk about how we’ve been framing the abortion debate.
The term “pro-life” is a misnomer. All of us are pro-life. Defining a group as “pro-life” misrepresents the opposing viewpoint as “anti-life” or “pro-death.”
It also creates a false choice between two distinct sides, pitting the extremes of both arguments against one another, when abortion policy is more nuanced than one side or the other – than us against them – and the discussion would benefit from an array of descriptive terms that fall on different parts of a spectrum.
It’s a lot like Orwell’s newspeak in 1984:
“The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs. Their names, in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty. (1.1.8)”
The words we use to define ideas we’re discussing can serve to either clarify or obfuscate the very concept we’re attempting to describe.
Using the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” makes it easy to forget that wherever you fall on the moral spectrum of abortion policy, we’re all fighting to save lives.
The difference lies in how we define what it means to save a life and whose lives we’re fighting to save.
Whose Lives are we Saving? The Public Health Argument
Restrictive abortion policies increase women’s chance of death.
Ironically, restrictive abortion policies also increase a fetus’s chance of death due to elective abortion.
According to the World Health Organization, 47,000 women die each year from complications due to unsafe abortions. This number represents 13% of maternal death.
Evidence suggests that restrictive abortion policy has no influence on the number of women who seek out abortions – in fact, restrictive abortion policies have been shown to increase the number of abortions, most likely due to a lack of access to contraceptives in very restrictive countries.
“Abortion is prohibited in almost all circumstances in Chile and Peru, for example, yet clandestine abortion is common. Indeed, illegal abortion in these countries is estimated to occur more than twice as often as legal abortion does in the United States” (Guttmacher Institute, 2003).
The same report found that subsidized family planning services prevented 9 million abortions over the last 20 years in the United States.
The data tell us that restrictive abortion policies: 1) have no impact on a mother’s decision to have an abortion, and 2) put the mother’s life at risk by not providing her with safe abortion services.
Decreasing abortion has more to do with increasing access to family planning methods than restricting access to abortion.
What Does it Mean to Save a Life? The Social Justice Argument
Since women are the only sex biologically equipped to carry a fetus to term, women are forced to bear the burden of restrictive abortion policies, putting her life – and independence – at risk.
On the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, Senator Ted Cruz, current presidential candidate and recent victor of the Iowa Caucus said, “No right is more precious and fundamental than the right to life, and any just society should protect that right at every stage, from conception to natural death”
But by fighting to defund Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide safe abortions, he along with other opponents of abortion aren’t “protecting that right at every stage” because the policy and law that they’re advocating for directly puts women in harms way.
Women around the world are dying because of abortion policies, but even more are losing their ability to complete an education and participate in the labor force.
In the 1992 supreme court ruling Casey vs. Planned Parenthood, the justices wrote “the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”
Restrictive abortion policy disproportionately affects women over men, poor women over rich women, and marginalized women over women in the majority (read: white).
So when Texas said that abortion centers had to meet the same building, equipment and staffing standards as a surgical center, putting the majority of abortion clinics at risk of shutting down, it wasn’t rich, white women that bore the brunt of this decision – it was poorer, marginalized women that can’t afford to travel to a clinic and can’t afford a private clinic.
The same disproportionate burden that restrictive policies place on poorer women is true throughout the world.
Abortion Policy on a Global Scale
From a public health and social justice perspective, the inequities created by restrictive abortion policy are the crux of the matter. Unfair morbidity, mortality and economic burdens are placed on women who are already marginalized, perpetuating a cycle of gender inequity and disempowering generations of women.
A policy that legalizes abortion and increases access to family planning methods has been proven over and over again to decrease abortions and maternal death.
And yet, 25% of women in the world live in a country that restricts their ability to control their reproductive health.
There are six countries in which abortion is illegal, even in cases of rape, even in cases of incest, and even in cases where the mother’s life is at risk: Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Malta, and Vatican City.
If a country’s restrictive abortion policy is grounded in the argument of the sanctity of human life, why isn’t the woman’s life protected under that same law?
Let’s hone in on El Salvador.
In a country that throws women in prison for up to 40 years after suffering from natural miscarriages, they are now faced with a curious moral and ethical quandary:
Due to the zika virus epidemic in Latin America, and the potential correlation between zika in pregnant women and microcephaly in their newborns, the government of El Salvador has requested that Salvadorian women refrain from getting pregnant unit 2018.
In a country where abortion is illegal under any circumstances, there aren’t any clinics where women can go to get a safe abortion. Fear about birth defects caused by zika will cause many women to seek out abortions – and when there are no legal options, their lives will be at risk from undergoing unsafe procedures.
Discussion around changing abortion policy in response to the zika virus have already begun in Brazil.
The fact remains that women will die as a result of this policy. The most we can hope for is that discussions spark change fast enough to save as many lives as possible.
Looking in the Mirror
It’s easy to look outwardly at countries with restrictive abortion policy, but in many cases, the United States is responsible as well. The Helms Amendment prevents US aid dollars – otherwise dedicated to sexual and reproductive health services and family planning – to be spent on abortion. That means that countries that would otherwise provide safe abortion services for women often can’t afford to without risking funding for other family planning services.
In addition, the barrage of anti-abortion rhetoric that has been surrounding the campaign trail frankly terrifies me. When we know that restrictive abortion policies not only kill women, but also hold women back from reaching their full potential, the idea that some conservative politicians want us to regress to a more restrictive policy makes me question how much they value my rights as a human being.
Not to mention Carly Fiorina crashing a preschool field trip at a botanical garden to talk about the pro-life movement.
Pro move, Carly.
Life is sacred. We all agree that life is inherently valuable and should be protected under law. However, when the data tell us that a restrictive abortion policy causes more death than it saves lives, we need to listen.
We can still have the discussion about when life begins, but it doesn’t belong in the same conversation about abortion policy. The discussion about when life begins is irrelevant when talking about access to abortion – not because it’s not a valid viewpoint – but because restrictive abortion policy doesn’t change abortion-seeking behavior.
The equation is clear: (birth control + safe abortions) = (fewer abortions + fewer maternal deaths.)
It’s public health; not politics.