Should Abortion Be Prevented?

Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is President of Catholics for a Free Choice. This article appears in the Winter 2006-2007 issue of Conscience and also on Salon.com.

If abortion is a morally neutral act and does not endanger women's health, why bother to prevent the need for it? After all, the cost of a first-trimester abortion is comparable to the cost of a year's supply of birth control pills-and abortion has fewer complications and less medical risk for women than some of the most effective methods of contraception. This question has plagued advocates of choice since abortion was legalized. It has intensified in the face of antiabortion moralism about sex and responsibility, in the continued stigmatization of women who have abortions and in the increasingly expressed mantra that "there are simply too many abortions in the U.S." Frustration has led some advocates of legal abortion to dig in their heels and insist that any talk about preventing abortions denigrates women as moral decision-makers, misunderstands the reasons women have abortions, retreats from principled support for the right of women to choose abortion without government interference and tacitly lends credence to the contention that abortion is almost always morally wrong.

Frances Kissling is President of Catholics for a Free Choice. This article appears in the Winter 2006-2007 issue of Conscience and also on Salon.com.

If abortion is a morally neutral act and does not endanger women's health, why bother to prevent the need for it? After all, the cost of a first-trimester abortion is comparable to the cost of a year's supply of birth control pills-and abortion has fewer complications and less medical risk for women than some of the most effective methods of contraception. This question has plagued advocates of choice since abortion was legalized. It has intensified in the face of antiabortion moralism about sex and responsibility, in the continued stigmatization of women who have abortions and in the increasingly expressed mantra that "there are simply too many abortions in the U.S." Frustration has led some advocates of legal abortion to dig in their heels and insist that any talk about preventing abortions denigrates women as moral decision-makers, misunderstands the reasons women have abortions, retreats from principled support for the right of women to choose abortion without government interference and tacitly lends credence to the contention that abortion is almost always morally wrong.

At the evidence level, some worry that the emphasis on prevention as a solution violates a core belief that good facts make good ethics. Demographers and social scientists are more than skeptical of claims by the group Democrats for Life (DfL) that we can reduce abortions by 95 percent in 10 years if we modestly increase economic support for women who face unintended pregnancies. The critics note that the level of increased support suggested by this interest group compares unfavorably with the level of support currently afforded to women in European countries-and the rate of abortions in those countries, while lower than that in the US, comes nowhere near the 95/10 goal DfL espouses.

Tactically, there is concern that an explicit goal of working to prevent the need for abortions or to reduce the incidence of abortion undermines efforts to demonstrate that those opposed to abortion are extremists. Are we buying into the antichoice movement's framing of the issue? Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, noted that "while we're talking about all this, we could be putting the right wing on the defensive. We have to put the dying and suffering of women who don't have access to safe abortion onto the table."

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Further exasperation ensues when efforts to prevent unintended pregnancy, and thus also reduce the abortion rate, are cast as a "common-ground" approach with both "sides" in agreement. In reality, the organizations most identified with opposition to legal abortion are at best only marginally interested in reducing unintended pregnancy through contraceptive use; they are focused instead on abstinence for those who are unmarried and are divided on contraception in marriage. Many legislators who are opposed to legal abortion have discovered the hard way that embracing contraception diminishes their support from hard-line antiabortion groups. A case in point is Robert Casey, the prolife Democrat running for Republican US senator Rick Santorum's seat in Pennsylvania. Casey has attempted to temper his antiabortion position by supporting a wide range of measures that would reduce the need for abortion. A progressive Democrat, he supports more economic support for low-income and poor women who become pregnant and for children and families. He also supports contraception, including emergency contraception for adults over the counter. As a result, Casey has gone from prolife Catholic poster boy to the whipping boy of antiabortion groups.

Prolife Democratic congressman Tim Ryan, who has led the effort for recognition of prolife Democrats in the party, was dealt a blow when the group he is most closely associated with, Democrats for Life, refused to endorse his Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act. The group's executive director, Kristen Day, said the bill had become a problem for them because "when you start talking about contraception, people are very committed to one side or the other." Day noted that her group was concerned only with helping women who had already become pregnant avoid abortion. Perhaps most sadly, the bill was introduced at a press conference at which the only "antiabortion" group willing to stand beside the prolife Ryan and prochoice Rosa DeLauro was the Catholic Alliance, which claims to be a progressive Catholic group challenging right-wing Catholicism. The Catholic Alliance was represented by Sister Sharon Dillon, who distanced herself from the bill by saying that as a Catholic group, her organization could not support the measures in the bill that provided support for contraception.

There is, of course, widespread support among abortion-rights advocates for contraception. Indeed, the country's Planned Parenthood affiliates have prevented more abortions by providing family planning than have groups like Priests for Life and the American Life League, who remain adamantly opposed to abortion and refuse to support contraception, the best hope for reducing the need for abortion. Why should prochoice groups accept the rhetoric of common ground on preventing the need for abortion, when the facts show that their counterparts in the antiabortion movement are unwilling to support contraception? Why should they, like Hillary Clinton, express respect for those in the antiabortion movement who actually are part of the problem?

Frankly, we shouldn't. But our commitment is not with antichoice leaders and groups. Our commitment is to women and to the vision of a just society that motivates our work. Our allies are those legislators who share substantially in that vision, including those who are far less accepting of a moral view that is broad enough to encompass the decision to have an abortion. Our link is to the vast majority of Americans who want abortion to be legal, but find it morally, not just practically preferable to work to avoid its need.

So we definitely should not let any one or all of the above obstacles keep us from strongly supporting efforts to reduce the need for abortion. And we should not have an ounce of ambivalence about publicly declaring ourselves to be committed to ensuring that public policy include a focus on lowering abortion rates without restricting women's freedom.

This takes us back to the very first sentence of this essay. Is abortion a morally neutral act? Is it, as some have said, an unambiguous moral good? This is where we go limp and get tongue-tied. Why, people ask us-if abortion is such a good thing; if it results in women coming to terms with their moral autonomy, making good choices for their lives, acting in the interests of society and their existing and future children-do we want to reduce the need for it? Simply put, the movement as a whole and most of our leaders find it difficult to acknowledge publicly that we have spent our lives, our passion, fighting for something that both is central to human freedom and autonomy and ends a form of human life.

We cannot imagine coercing a woman to continue a pregnancy that is unsupportable. At the same time, there is something valuable about encouraging public policy and personal decision-making that start from a presumption in favor of life. We interpret life broadly. We say we are in favor of legal abortion because it protects women's lives. We do not mean just their physical lives; we mean their capacity to live full, free and happy lives. Why, then, should we think that a presumption in favor of life is inappropriately applied to fetal life? Why do we insist that because the fetus is not a person in any theological, scientific, legal or sociological sense, it does not deserve our consideration? Do not people want to know if those of us who advocate a moral right to choose an abortion also approach all aspects of life with wonder and awe? Can we totally separate our attitude toward the justifiable taking of non-personal life in abortion from the other principles of protecting life that have become crucial to our survival as civilized human beings?

A modern sensibility about an expanded definition of respect for persons and life became common in the last part of the 20th century. The war in Vietnam was almost over, and we thought we had learned a lesson about peace and justice. Women and racial minorities had their rights recognized. These advances now seem illusory as we see the way in which our country and other countries have morally distanced themselves from massive slaughter in war and in tribal and ethnic conflict. We see the continuing disregard for the lives and aspirations of the poor and marginalized people among us. We are not just committed to the lives of persons; we are committed to being persons who respect many forms of life. We want to behave in ways that honor even non-human life-animals and plants included. We respect the environment, which is essential to our survival. We seek laws that ensure that human tissue and body parts are treated respectfully even as they are used to further the health and well-being of all. We insist that human subjects not be experimented upon. We speak out against the torture of one person, even if it would save the lives of many others, and we are horrified that this principle is not universally accepted. It is foolish to think that these sentiments and values do not or should not affect the way in which we and the American people think about the fact that abortion necessarily results in the ending of potential human life. To think that we should remain inured to these instincts would tragically diminish our humanity and make us less worthy public leaders.

Although it would be unjust to place on women's reproductive decisions the moral burden of upholding absolutely a presumption in favor of life, it is important that we express our belief that the ability to create and nurture and bring into the world new people should be exercised carefully, consciously, responsibly and with awe for our capacity to create life. That is one reason why we must commit ourselves to working to make abortion unnecessary, and be willing to use those words. We must not flinch when Hillary Clinton says abortion should be "safe, legal and rare." We must applaud prochoice members of congress like Rosa DeLauro, who says: "We must create an environment that encourages pregnancies that can be carried to term." Such statements are not made in a vacuum; they are not the idiosyncratic thoughts of Catholics who have some creepy obsession with fetuses. They are part of thoughtful attempts to balance respect for a woman's right to make the choice about when to bring a new child into the world with a deep presumption that life, even the life of non-persons, is worthy of respect. And they should be based on our values, on the desire not to better "message" abortion rights, but to respect the moral sensibilities of American women.

We have been on the defensive so long that we are like lionesses ready to rip out the throat of anyone who attacks our cubs-and women are our cubs! Yet the vast majority of American women act as if they do not want to need abortions. How many times have we heard a woman say, "I missed my period; I hope I am not pregnant; I don't want to have to have an abortion"? According to the latest figures, 89 percent of women who are at risk of unintended pregnancy use contraception. They represent 48 percent of the 3.1 million women annually who have unintended pregnancies. The 11 percent of women at risk for pregnancy who are not using contraception account for the remaining 52 percent of unintended pregnancies.

They know there is no fully satisfying outcome to undesired pregnancy. The choice to have a child one is not prepared to parent or cannot afford, give a child up for adoption or have an abortion is a grim one. Women are strong and they cope well with these lousy choices. An unwanted child can become loved and cared for; an adoption, although painful, can be viewed as a generous gift; an abortion today may enable better parenting or a more fulfilled life without children in the future. Unwanted children can also remain unwanted and uncared for, though, and both adoption and abortion can result in lifelong sadness. For those who are prochoice, this second set of outcomes of unintended pregnancies is inconsistent with our vision of a just and caring society. Women should not end up having children they do not want and cannot care for, nor should they end up having abortions they would have preferred not to have.

Why then do we get so caught up, so tongue-tied when we are asked if we want to prevent abortion? We spend countless hours trying to find the most nuanced way of answering this question. We worry that some woman will be hurt if we acknowledge the moral ambiguity of abortion. Yes, words are important, but so is vision. Should we say there are too many abortions in the US? I doubt it. Which abortion tipped the balance from just enough to too many? It's a little bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: too hot, too cold, just right. Which woman should not have had an abortion? What reason was frivolous? Our heads spin! We believe we are on thin ice if we say we want to reduce the number of abortions. Is there an ideal number of abortions? An arbitrary rate that is acceptable? Are some women irresponsible? Should we set an annual number and then stop performing abortions once we have hit that number? Does every woman who reaches puberty get an abortion chit which can only be redeemed once in a lifetime?

There is nothing unusual about moral complexity. Women-and men-live with it every day. It is what it means to be a human person. We are in favor of a woman's right to decide when she will give the gift of life; after all, gifts must be freely given. We love life and want to act in its interest, and so we are in favor of supporting women's own desire not to become pregnant when they do not wish to bring a child into the world, we strongly support the right of every woman to continue a difficult but wanted pregnancy, and we will do everything we can to support her economically and emotionally.

The reality is that we could use a lot of government involvement in supporting women's moral agency. One of the most touching phrases in the Roe v. Wade decision was the recognition that women should not be isolated in their pregnancies. Government has washed its hands of pregnancy-it will not pay for abortion, it provides inadequately for contraception and sexuality education, and it certainly does not provide for women, children and families. It is time to change that. A moral discourse that calls on individuals to act toward the creation of life responsibly cannot be separated from a call of social justice for measures, like those included in the Ryan-DeLauro bill, that contribute to a sense that it is not women alone who are responsible for respecting life, but government as well.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.