Abortion: Common Ground or The New Scarlett Letter?

Amanda Marcotte

Common ground discussions on abortion have been pervaded by an eagerness to judge and an unwillingness to understand the complex reasons women choose abortion over childbirth when faced with an unintended pregnancy.

One of the most frustrating things to me about the common ground discussions is the way that common ground advocates try to encourage pro-choicers to seek ways that we can join our more misogynist brethren in the art of casting judgment on women who get abortions, at least some of the time. We’re told that pro-choicers would be easier to like if we shook our fingers at women who get multiple abortions, who didn’t use birth control properly, or otherwise get abortions for the “wrong” reasons. We’re expected to wring our hands and demonstrate that we take the moral severity of abortion seriously…..and for what? To make anti-choicers feel morally superior to those of us who respect women’s rights, so that they’ll whine and cry less? I don’t see it happening. I just don’t see the value in adding to women’s unnecessary guilt, especially when abortion is the best decision for most who choose it.

All this is why I wasn’t too pleased to see Frances Kissling write an article suggesting more worrying and hand-wringing—though certainly no legal bans—on early term abortions done for the “wrong” reasons. As much as I usually agree with Frances, I couldn’t see the point of this piece. No one in the pro-choice community that I know of believes that doctors should perform abortions that cross their own moral line. But more to the point, I don’t see anyone demanding that we have a public hand-wringing over the reasons to have a baby. Frances decries a woman who had an abortion because she didn’t want her baby born under a certain sign. That sounds stupid to me, but on the other hand, I roll my eyes at people who have kids to shore up fading relationships, because they just happen to need a hobby, because they want someone to carry their name, or just because they never stopped to ask if that’s what they really want to do. If anything, bringing a child into the world under shady circumstances has always struck me as more suspect than having an abortion for seemingly frivolous reasons, since once you have a child, you’re bringing a helpless person into the situation.

In general, the focus in the common ground discussion on the reasons why women have abortions has suffered from this narrow-mindedness, this eagerness to judge, and an unwillingness to understand the complexity of the individual circumstances that lead women to choose abortion over childbirth when faced with an unintended pregnancy. Part of the reason has been that the mandate to reduce the need for abortion has meant that there’s more focus on the reasons women give for why they get abortions. In particular, there’s been growing enthusiasm for the theory that women are aborting pregnancies they’d like to carry to term because their financial situations won’t allow them to have another baby. And that we can therefore dramatically reduce the abortion rate by expanding the social safety net so more women choose to have the baby.

This widespread hope goes back in no small part to a survey done by Guttmacher (PDF) that shows that 73% of women who have abortions cite “Can’t afford a baby now” as a reason. It would be hard to imagine people drumming up as much enthusiasm as we have for the idea that we can dial back abortions through social spending if we didn’t have such an astoundingly high number of women pointing to affordability as a reason for abortion. Congressman Lincoln Davis, an opponent of abortion rights, certainly would like to believe that the main way to reduce the abortion rate would be to turn those 73% of abortions into childbirths.

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Of the 1.29 million abortions performed annually, 73 percent of women seeking abortions list economic factors as contributing to the decision to have an abortion.

That’s his statement made to support the Pregnant Women Support Act, which is based on the anti-choice-friendly notion that the most important way to reduce the abortion rate is not to reduce the main cause of abortion—unintended pregnancy—but to promote some financial support for pregnant women (while giving money to anti-choice groups that like to bully women seeking abortion). The notion that you can actually reduce the abortion rate significantly by increasing WIC and SCHIP—or even if you make serious changes that the Act doesn’t cover, like creating a federally subsidized daycare system or giving Americans universal health care—has always seemed pie in the sky to me. A lot of countries that have a real social safety net and universal health care still have plenty of abortion, because they still have women getting pregnant when they don’t want to be.

My frustration with this simplistic read of the Guttmacher data led me to suggest on Twitter that maybe the Guttmacher’s practice of recording the reasons for abortion was ill-advised, at least for early term ones that are usually a matter completely of choice. After all, we don’t ask that women using condoms or birth control pills explain their reasons, nor do we ask women giving birth to come up with a reason for it. But upon further reflection, I was too hasty in making this statement, especially since I’m usually a loud proponent of scientific research, the more the better.

Anyway, the data on the page actually points to a different conclusion than the one being touted by Rep. Davis and other people pushing social spending as a way to dramatically reduce the abortion rate. If you actually look at the data, you’ll see that “can’t afford” often refers to life circumstances that policy can’t address. 42% of the women citing this as a reason point to their unmarried status, for instance, and I doubt the government is going to get into the business of handing out husbands. In general, most women had multiple reasons for aborting, and few cited poverty strictly.

Rachel Jones at the Guttmacher concurs that you can’t really draw the conclusion that Davis and other pro-lifers are drawing from this data. She told me:

For most women, ["can’t afford"] was one of several reasons they were obtaining the abortion; 23% reported that this was their most important reason, and I expect many of these women also cited other factors/reasons for their abortion in addition to money. I’m not saying that increased resources wouldn’t have allowed some of the women to make different a choice, but we have no way of knowing to what extent this type of strategy would reduce abortion.

It’s true that the lower you go on the income scale, the more likely you are to require an abortion at some point. I would caution against suggesting that this simply means that a lot of women who want more babies are getting abortions against their wills; for a lot of women, lack of resources means patchy access to contraception in the first place. As much as pro-lifers would like to pretend that the problem isn’t unintended pregnancy, we shouldn’t forget that all these other reasons that women cite on the Guttmacher survey are secondary to the unstated (due to obviousness) reason that they’re getting an abortion: they don’t want to be pregnant right now.

The irony of this whole misuse of Guttmacher data is that Guttmacher started to ask women why they have abortions because they wanted more clarity and not confusion about the issue. Jones explained to me:

It is our impression that there are a number of misperceptions about women who obtain abortions and their reasons for doing so (have you heard the one about the teen who gets an abortion so she can fit into her prom dress?); surveys like this one help provide context. They demonstrate that women have multiple reasons for obtaining abortions [and] that many of them are struggling to make ends meet (single, low income, already have children) and that they want to be good parents [to the children they now have or when they are ready to have children.]

I’m glad to see that common ground discussions are pushing the anti-choice community away from the older stereotypes of women who have abortions, namely that they’re soulless monsters who are aborting because they’re irresponsible. But I hate to see another stereotype—that women who have abortions are helpless victims of circumstance—replace it. And I worry that if increased social support doesn’t do much to reduce the abortion rate, we’re going to see anti-choicers claim that this means that the initial stereotypes of sluttiness and irresponsibility were correct all along, and that women seeking abortion don’t deserve rights.

None of this is to say that I think that increased social support is a bad thing. On the contrary, women who choose to have children need all the support we can give them. I just happen to think that women who choose to have abortion and contraception also need all the support we can give them, and that these two groups of women aren’t mutually exclusive. We should support women because it’s the right thing to do, not because we’re trying to exert undue influence on their personal choices.

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