AMENDED: Second Trimester Abortion Restrictions Are Not an Option: Response to Saletan and Kissling

Steph Herold and Susan Yanow

When leaders in the pro-choice movement start to speculate about restricting abortion rights to appease the anti-choice movement, they have lost sight of what the pro-choice movement is about: respecting women as moral decision makers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was amended at 10:10 am and than again at 2:01 pm on Thursday, December 9th, 2010 at the request of the authors to include a quote from the Saletan article referenced, to link to that article, and to reflect concerns raised by Kissling in response to the article about the differences between “regulations” and “restrictions.”

The authors state: Our post addresses all the issues raised in the Saletan article, which conflates Kissling’s position on her willingness to roll back the legal deadline for unrestricted access to second trimester abortion and Saletan’s on the “trade off issue.  While Kissling proposes restricting access, she does not do so in the same frame as Saletan, who sees a potential “trade off.” 

The exact quote from the Saletan article is included below.

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This article is part of an ongoing discussion and debate hosted by Rewire on women’s rights to abortion care in the context of so-called common ground and abortion “dialogues” with the anti-choice movement.  Other articles in this series can be found here.

When leaders in the pro-choice movement start to speculate about restricting abortion rights to appease the anti-choice movement, they have lost sight of what the pro-choice movement is about: respecting women as moral decision makers.

In several recent articles, both columnist William Saletan and Frances Kissling (former President of Catholics for Choice) stated that they would support restrictions or regulations on second trimester abortions. Saletan’s position is that such restrictions could be exchanged for the anti-choice movement’s support for broader access to contraception, a suggestion we found to be both vague and unlikely.  Kissling has suggested regulating later abortions for other reasons.

In an article published on Slate.com, for example, Saletan wrote:

Frances Kissling, the former longtime president of Catholics for Choice (for whom she no longer speaks—she is now a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania), said that in view of the “evolving potential of fetal life,” she was willing to discuss rolling back the legal deadline for unrestricted abortion to 18, 16, or even 14 weeks. She stated her position this way: “As long as women have an adequate amount of time to make a decision, and there are provisions for unusual circumstances that occur after that time, I would be satisfied. … Women have an obligation to make this decision as soon as they possibly can.”

Similar issues were raised during a Blogging Heads discussion between Saletan and Kissling.

This position illustrates an abandonment of the vulnerable women who need later abortions and a willful ignorance of the circumstances under which second trimester abortions occur. An early choice to end an unwanted pregnancy, while medically easier and to some more politically palatable is not necessarily a better or more moral choice. Women deserve to have all the time they need in order to make the best pregnancy decision for themselves and for their families, even if this means having a later abortion.

As we’ve written before, women have later abortions for a variety of complex, nuanced reasons. Women may diagnose a pregnancy when they are already in the second trimester.  Study upon study has shown that many women face delays in obtaining abortion care after they’ve made the decision to end an unwanted pregnancy, including:

  • Poor referrals and delays in finding a clinic that will perform the procedure
  • Arranging childcare, scheduling time off of work, and arranging transportation which can include airfares and/or several days of travel
  • Raising enough money to pay for the procedure

These are only some of the hoops that a woman has to overcome once she’s made the decision to have an abortion.  These barriers can delay women from one to three weeks or more.

And for many women, the biggest cause of delay is the woman’s own uncertainty about what decision is right for her.  Women have no obligation to make a decision as soon as they possibly can. The only obligation women have is to take the time they need to make the decision that is right for them. Don’t we believe that women are moral decision makers, and carefully consider their options when faced with an unwanted pregnancy?  Don’t we reject the anti-choice rhetoric that women make the decision to have an abortion callously? The pro-choice movement takes a step backward when we judge that a woman has taken too long to make what may be a life-changing decision. Shouldn’t we want women to take the time they need to make the best decision, regardless of where they are in the pregnancy? It is more important that a woman make the right decision for her and her family than an early one.

It is a slippery slope to say that women must make a decision about a pregnancy as soon as they can. Not all women even have this option. Some women don’t find out that they are pregnant until they are in their second trimester. Some women don’t find out about a devastating fetal abnormality until the second trimester.  Others are pregnant as a result of sexual assault and need time to come to terms with what has happened to them.

And, just as important, some women need more time to evaluate if they are in a position to carry a pregnancy to term.

Accepting restrictions on second trimester abortion, something Saletan suggests as “common ground,” is not an option. Since when has the fight for abortion rights been about placating those who don’t believe in women’s human rights to begin with? Women’s lives and health are not a bargaining chip by which to secure peace with the anti-choice movement.  And what negotiating table is Saletan sitting at, and with whom?  If there are anti-abortion leaders who say, “back off from women’s rights to second trimester abortion and we’ll work with you to secure first trimester abortion access,” they sure are quiet!

We need to re-focus on what the pro-choice movement is about: Trusting women as moral decision makers and promoting reproductive rights as human rights.  Without the right to abortion, including the right to an abortion in the second trimester, these rights are hollow ones.

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