Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Why Should I Care about Abortion Rights?

Written by Kate Pyle
Imagine for a moment that one day you wake up and on the front page of the newspaper the headline reads, “Contraception Made Illegal: New Law Outlaws Birth Control”.  From that moment forward, your choices are 1) to remain completely abstinent until you are ready to have children, or 2) to accept that any time you have sex the only things standing between you and a baby nine months later are luck and biology.

Imagine for a moment that one day you wake up and on the front page of the newspaper the headline reads, “Contraception Made Illegal: New Law Outlaws Birth Control”.  From that moment forward, your choices are 1) to remain completely abstinent until you are ready to have children, or 2) to accept that any time you have sex the only things standing between you and a baby nine months later are luck and biology.  For some women, that might not sound so bad – most of us do want children… someday.  But many of us also want to go to college or find a meaningful job or career or travel to places far and near—or all of the above and then some!  And we certainly want to find the right partner before the babies start coming, which usually means finding a few wrong ones along the way.

In comparison to our peers around the globe, young women in America today are fortunate in that most (but definitely not all) of us have access to some form of contraception when we need it, whether that be the Pill, the patch, condoms, or any of the other methods available, including the morning-after pill for day-after emergencies.  And when all else fails, most of us have the option to obtain a safe and legal abortion—a decision no woman wants to have to make. 

Thanks to our 20th century foremothers who fought for such access, young women now have more opportunities, freedom and independence in determining our own lives than ever before, and the options are limitless.  Want to be a corporate CEO with no children? Go for it!  Want to be a stay-at-home mother of eight? Great!  The important thing is that now YOU get to decide, and we are getting closer every day to a society that can truly support both of those paths and everything in between.  Our power to determine our own futures, to realize our full potential as individuals—as scholars, professionals, adventurers, artists, athletes and yes, as lovers and as mothers—rests firmly on our ability to control our fertility, to postpone or prevent pregnancy when we are not ready and to attempt it when we are.  Take that away, and all of that freedom, opportunity and independence for which our foremothers fought so hard collapses around us, and once again we are at the mercy of our biology.

Unless you have been living in a cave all your life, you know that abortion is one of the most controversial and polarizing issues of our time.  Groups like the National Right to Life, the Pro-Life Action League, Concerned Women for America and numerous others consider the illegalization of abortion in America to be their top priority, in the name of preserving the sanctity of life and family.  But their drive to end legal abortion does not end with eliminating access to pregnancy termination; it goes much further, to the eventual elimination of pregnancy prevention.  Bolstered by progress made under the Bush Administration, they have already begun rolling out their anti-contraception agenda.  In 2006, for example, the Pro-Life Action League organized the first-ever “Contraception is Not the Answer" conference, which brought together other anti-contraception groups and activists to strategize ways to systematically abolish access to all methods of contraception and to craft messages and talking points around why contraception should be banned.

According to the conference website, “…contraception ushered in widespread promiscuity, divorce, sexually transmitted diseases, single parent households and abortion. While abortion was hailed as a triumph for women's rights and the solution to ‘failed’ contraception, it brought a host of its own problems, including post-abortion trauma, sterility, and an increased risk of breast cancer.  They turn to birth control as the answer to the problem of unwanted pregnancy.  But a closer look at birth control reveals that it is not the answer.”  

The commonly used claims that abortion is linked to sterility and breast cancer have been repeatedly disproved, and most studies suggest that the incidence of severe post-abortion trauma are minimal.  While no woman is happy about having an abortion, most women feel that it is the right choice to make in their particular circumstances. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a widely respected sexual and reproductive health research organization, the reasons women give for having an abortion illustrate just how well they understand the responsibilities and sacrifices of parenthood: 75% say they cannot afford a child, 75% say that a baby would inhibit their ability to work, finish school or care for their other dependents (which is especially substantial considering that 61% of women obtaining abortions already have at least one child), and half say that they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner. 

And the extent of “problems with their husbands or partners” should not be diminished.  In 2005, 1.3 million women reported being physically assaulted by a current or former intimate partner, but because so many cases go unreported each year, this number most likely significantly underestimates the prevalence of intimate-partner violence in the lives of so many women. Probably more accurately, a national survey commissioned by The Commonwealth Fund found that 31% of all women have at some point in their lives experienced violence or physical abuse from a spouse or partner – that is one in every three women!  So next time you get together with five of your closest girlfriends, take a moment to be aware that at least two of the six of you either already have or, unless something drastically changes, will one day be physically abused by an intimate partner.  Forgive me for being overly idealistic, but when it comes to intimate partnership, isn’t it part of the deal to love, respect and be kind to the other person and his or her body?  Isn’t that kind of the point? 

Researchers have only recently begun examining the correlation between pregnancy and intimate partner violence and homicide, but results so far indicate that the risk of violence increases when if a woman becomes pregnant, particularly if that pregnancy was unplanned.  A 2005 study conducted by the U.S. Center for Disease Control found that homicide is the second leading cause of death for pregnant women and new mothers, particularly if they are young and/or of color.  However, researchers from the study admitted that the actual number of pregnant women and new mothers who are murdered each year is in reality much higher, as many states do not have the proper mechanisms in place to accurately track such deaths.Several other, smaller studies have revealed data that more likely represent the truth of the matter.  A study in Maryland found that pregnant women and new mothers were almost twice as likely as other women to be murdered, regardless of age and race.While it is true that not all of these homicides were committed by the woman’s intimate partner, the vast majority of them were.

Nevertheless, anti-abortion/anti-contraception groups maintain the rhetoric that the home is the safest place for a woman.  Many of these groups advocate for state-funded abstinence-only education in public schools, in which contraception is never discussed, and the only references to condoms are inaccurate failure rates—forget the various other sexual health issues teens face today, like homosexuality, masturbation or the power to demand condom use.  These groups know, and are driven by the ideal, that by eliminating access to contraception and abortion, women will in effect have no choice but to remain sexually abstinent (thereby maintaining their purity), face this risk of unplanned, unwanted and unpreventable pregnancy and childbirth, and/or marry young and commit to giving birth to and raising as many children as nature determines.  We still have all the same freedoms to education and employment as before, they argue, as long as we are willing to compromise our ability to actually choose—rather than merely accept—motherhood, to choose how many children we will have and how far apart we will space them, to choose when and with whom we will have sexual relationships.  Women are expected to sacrifice their own “selfish” ambitions, dreams and goals for the sake of the family.  But a sacrifice, in its truest sense, is an offering: it must be given up willingly.  Forced sacrifice is an oxymoron.

Furthermore, we do not have to look too far outside of the United States, or that far back in to our own history, to see the negative consequences of illegal abortion.

 

Abortion pre-1973

Legend

██ Illegal

██ Legal in case of rape

██ Legal in case of danger to woman's health

██ Legal in case of danger to woman's health, rape or incest, or likely damaged fetus

██ Legal upon request

 

 

What many people don’t realize though is how frighteningly close we are to living in a country in which these scenarios are the reality.  The anti-abortion/anti-contraception groups are very organized and systematic in their work, and they are patient.  The last eight years have provided them with numerous victories, large and small, and unfortunately, the future does not look much better: recent polls indicate that those who believe that abortion should remain legal are more likely to be over the age of 40, and that about half of women and men age 29 and younger believe that abortion should be illegal in all or nearly all cases (exceptions include rape, incest and the life of the woman).  A 2003 Gallup Youth Survey of 1,200 teens (aged 13 to 17) found that one in three teens believe that abortion should be illegal in ALL circumstances.  Almost half of the teens surveyed believe is should be legal only in the cases of rape, incest and when the woman’s life is in danger; however, since abortions in such cases are rare (about 4% of all abortions in the U.S.), the respondents falling into this category in effect oppose—and wish to make illegal—the vast majority of abortions currently available by law.

As I have tried to illustrate here, the issue of abortion is extremely complex, with no easy answers or solutions.  And the issue of abortion is not just about abortion: it is about the ability to choose—or not choose—motherhood; it is about trusting women to make the right choices for themselves and their families; it is about women being able to make their dreams and aspirations real, whatever they may be.  Our foremothers fought long and hard for us to have these options available to us, because they knew firsthand what it was like to live in a world without them. 

So, what can you do?

  • Take pride in your position:  Remember that this IS a moral issue—it is morally wrong to force women to be mothers against their will. 
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  • Educate your peers:  Whether in conversation or in class, if you hear someone spouting inaccuracies or simplifying the issue, take the opportunity to educate them on the reality and complexity of the whole situation.  Or if you’re feeling more bold, join or start a sexual and reproductive health peer education program at your school. 
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  • Volunteer with your local Planned Parenthood or another organization that works in support of sexual and reproductive health and rights and abortion, such as those listed above – they always can use extra help, whether it’s stuffing envelopes for a fundraising mailing or escorting clients to and from clinics.
  • Advocate for these issues by writing letters to your local newspaper – they love it when teens submit thoughtful and articulate articles on political topics – or to your local, state and federal representatives.  If your school has already implemented abstinence-only education, start a student petition demanding comprehensive sex ed, and present the petition and some facts about the positive outcomes of comprehensive sex ed (which you can find on the SIECUS and Advocates for Youth websites listed above) to your school board
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  • Don’t add fuel to the fire.  That is NOT to say that you should not speak up and be loud about what you believe in, or that you cannot get angry.  Rather, it is to say that the anti-abortion and anti-contraception groups, particularly those that are religiously-affiliated, love to paint for the public the picture that women who support legal abortion are “radical feminists” who, by their definition, hate men, hate children, and are on a mission to destroy families and eradicate religion.  Be aware of your own prejudices and how they affect your opinions, and remember that so many men stand with us, as do many more religiously affiliated men and women than the media would like us to believe.
  • And finally, don’t give up!  We are fighting for what is right!
 
Spring 2008

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