Obama and the Acceptable Abortion

Jill Filipovic

When discussing late-term abortion, Barack Obama used talking points we would expect to hear from John McCain: abstinence, adoption, and sacredness of sex.

Aw, Barry, say it ain’t so

Strang: Based on emails we received,
another issue of deep importance to our readers is a candidate’s stance
on abortion. We largely know your platform,
but there seems to be some real confusion about your position on
third-trimester and partial-birth abortions. Can you clarify your
stance for us?

Obama: I absolutely can, so please don’t believe
the emails. I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely
appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions
as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of
the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother.
I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy,
where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that
child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception
in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

That quote is from here. And while that piece is certainly the most offensive, I’m also not thrilled with his answer here:

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Strang: You’ve said you’re personally
against abortion and would like to see a reduction in the number of
abortions under your administration. So, as president, how would do you
propose accomplishing that?

Obama: I think we know that abortions rise when
unwanted pregnancies rise. So, if we are continuing what has been a
promising trend in the reduction of teen pregnancies, through education
and abstinence education giving good information to teenagers. That is
important—emphasizing the sacredness of sexual behavior to our
children. I think that’s something that we can encourage. I think
encouraging adoptions in a significant way. I think the proper role of
government. So there are ways that we can make a difference, and those
are going to be things I focus on when I am president.

I love Obama. I find him incredibly inspiring. I’ve had a lot of
silly, idealistic little hopes pinned on him. I so badly want him to be
a candidate who stands up for progressive values without apology.
Instead, it looks like he’s taking the traditional Democratic route of
moving towards the center and trying to please everyone.

This is why Democrats are losing the abortion-rights battle: We’re
adopting the right-wing frame and rhetoric, and speaking in their
terms. The question “How can we reduce the abortion rate?” is an easy
gimme for any pro-choice candidate. You say: “Education, health care
and contraception access are the most effective ways to decrease the
need for abortion. Abstinence-only sex education has been a colossal
failure, and around the world we can see that the abortion rate is
lowest in countries with comprehensive sex ed programs, wide-spread
access to contraception, health care for all, and a strong social
safety net. We know what works; but it’s Republicans who continuously
block legislation that would decrease the abortion rate. Democrats in
Congress have repeatedly tried to increase contraception access for all
women, and have tried to promote initiatives that would make it easier
for women to choose to have children — initiatives like aid to
low-income families, subsidized day-care programs, and early childhood
education. It is the Democratic party that has taken important steps to
actually decrease the abortion rate, while the supposedly “pro-life”
Republicans have put barriers in the way of pregnancy prevention, then
limited abortion access, and then made life more difficult for women
and their children. It seems that “pro-life” Republicans only care
about life up until the moment of birth — and they have taken no steps
to actually decrease the need for abortion. By contrast, my
administration will take a comprehensive, truly life-affirming view: We
will support women, men and children at all stages of life, and we will
give Americans as many options as possible to make the best decisions
for themselves and their families.”

Not hard. Instead, Obama used talking points that I would expect to
hear from John McCain: Abstinence education. The sacredness of sexual
behavior. Adoption.

I realize he’s talking to a Christian magazine, and so he needs to
frame the issue in a way that resonates with Christian readers. But
“Christian” or even “pro-life” does not equal “Republican,” or
“pro-life” in the way that mainstream anti-choice organizations and
politicians are “pro-life.” A whole lot of self-identified pro-life
people don’t actually want to see women dying of dangerous illegal
abortions; a lot of pro-life people realize that criminalizing the
procedure isn’t the answer, and that instead we should decrease the need
for abortion through common-sense measures like education,
contraception, economic justice and universal health care. That’s a big
block of voters; I’d like to hear Obama talk to them — in part because
the Republican party claims to speak for them, but doesn’t actually
represent their interests.

And I’d like to see Obama stand up for his pro-choice base. The
issue of late-term abortions is a tricky one, because anti-choicers
trot it out as if huge numbers of women were waiting until the eighth
month of pregnancy to terminate. In reality, third-trimester abortions
count for about one-half of one percent of all abortions. It’s already
nearly impossible to obtain a late-term abortion in much of the
country, and it is actually impossible to obtain one for purely
elective purposes. Women who terminate pregnancies in the third
trimester aren’t doing it for kicks; they’re doing it because they have
some sort of serious health problem that requires it, or there’s a
fetal abnormality.

Obama did say he supports late-term abortion rights in the case of a
physical medical problem, but he took out mental health as a legitimate
concern. That’s a talking point that you hear a lot from anti-choicers:
That mental health is a “loophole” through which any undeserving
baby-carrier could legitimately terminate her pregnancy.

But mental health underlies many of actual reasons women have
late-term abortions. Take severe fetal abnormalities — where a wanted
pregnancy goes wrong, and the problem isn’t discovered until relatively
late. In many situations — anencephaly, for example — carrying the
pregnancy to term might not be any more dangerous than carrying a
healthy fetus to term. Pregnancy and childbirth always come with
serious risks, and it’s often impossible to know which risks will
arise, but many fetal abnormalities don’t pose the kind of physical
harm to the pregnant woman that would seem to pass anti-choice (and
now, Obama) muster. (To be clear, many fetal abnormalities do
pose significant health risks — it’s just not the rule. Which is
precisely why this issue should be evaluated case-by-case between a
woman and her doctor, and politicians should butt out). So even though
many fetal abnormalities don’t threaten the pregnant woman’s health or
life, most people seem to agree that it’s cruel to force a woman to
give birth to a baby that cannot possibly survive (if it’s even born
alive, which many anencephalic fetuses aren’t). But if a doomed
pregnancy doesn’t threaten a pregnant woman’s physical health, why
would we allow her to terminate it?

Because, obviously, it threatens her mental health in no
small way. Being forced to carry a wanted but doomed pregnancy, and
being forced to go through childbirth to produce a dead or dying baby,
is understandably deeply emotionally traumatic. We want to give women
the option to avoid that kind of mental trauma because we recognize
that physical harm is not the only harm that matters.

And the psychological harm of being forced to give birth against
your will to a baby that will not survive is not the only kind of
psychological harm that matters. It is impossible to account for all
the circumstances under which mental issues may seriously impair the
ability of a pregnant woman to function, and may be just as threatening
as physical issues. People face diverse circumstances, and when it
comes to health and medical care, sweeping rules can cause widespread
harm. Which is why when it comes to issues like abortion and other
medical procedures, we should err on the side of providing care, not
limiting it, and we should allow individual circumstances to be best
evaluated by the people living those circumstances and the doctors
treating them.

That is the position that we expect pro-choice politicians to stake
out. Either Obama caved to anti-choicers on this one, or he really
believes it and isn’t as strongly pro-choice as many of us thought. I’m
not sure which is worse.

This post was originally published at Feministe.

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