Keep Abortion Safe and Legal? Yes. Make it Rare? Not the Point.

Aimée Thorne-Thomsen

What if we stopped focusing on the number of abortions and instead focused on the women themselves?

A common narrative in the political and cultural discussions of reproductive health focuses on reducing the number of abortions taking place every year. It’s supposed to be one thing that those who support abortion rights and those who oppose abortion can agree on, the so-called common ground. The assumption is that we can all agree that abortion itself is a bad thing, perhaps necessary, but definitely not a good thing. Even President Clinton declared (and many others have embraced) that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. According to the Guttmacher Institute, almost half of all pregnancies among American women in 2005 were unplanned or unintended. And of those, four in 10 ended in abortion. ( In other words, between one-fifth and one-quarter of all pregnancies ended in abortion. Without any other information, those statistics can sound scary and paint a picture of women as irresponsible or poor decision-makers. Therefore reducing the number of abortions is a goal that reproductive health, rights and justice activists should work toward, right?

Wrong. Those numbers mean nothing without context. If the 1.21 million abortions that took place in 2005 ( represent the number of women who needed abortions (and in my opinion, if a woman decides she needs an abortion, then she does), as well as the many women who chose to terminate pregnancies that they very much wanted but could not afford to carry to term, then that number is too high. The work of reducing the number of abortions, therefore, would entail creating an authentically family-friendly society, where women would have the support they need to raise their families, whatever forms they took. That could include eliminating the family caps in TANF, encouraging unionization of low-wage workers, reforming immigration policies and making vocational and higher education more accessible.

On the other hand, if those 1.21 million abortions represent only the women who could access abortion financially, geographically or otherwise, then that number is too low. Yes, too low. If that’s the case, then what is an appropriate response? How do we best support women and their reproductive health? Do we dare admit that increasing the number of abortions might be not only good for women’s health, but also moral and just?

What if we stopped focusing on the number of abortions and instead focused on the women themselves? Much of the work of the reproductive health, rights and justice movements would remain the same. We would still advocate for legislation that helps our families. We would still fight to protect abortion providers and their staffs from verbal harassment and physical violence. What would change, however, is the stigma and shame. By focusing on supporting women’s agency and self-determination, rather than judging the outcomes of that agency, we send a powerful message. We say that we trust women. We say we will not use them and their experiences as pawns in a political game. We say we care about women and want them to have access to all the information, services and resources necessary to make the best decisions they can for themselves and their families. That is at the core of reproductive justice. Not reducing the number of abortions. Safe – yes. Legal– absolutely. Rare – not the point.

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