Commentary Abortion

Around the World, Women Are Forced to Justify Their Reasons for Abortion

Amanda Marcotte

A New York Times op-ed raises the question of how liberal an abortion law is if it requires women to justify their abortions. Most abortion restrictions in the United States and Europe are based on the idea that some women are more deserving than others.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Mairav Zonszein wrote a fascinating op-ed about the pointless, aggravating, and insulting process that women in Israel have to endure in order to get an abortion. The procedure is legal there; it’s free for women between the ages of 20 and 33; and 98 percent of women who ask for an abortion get one. To obtain one, however, you must go in front of a committee that is allowed to ask nosy and personal questions.

The committee near Zonszein immediately approved her request, likely because she isn’t married. But, as she notes, women who are married or live in more conservative parts of the country “tend to go through a more grueling, protracted process in which they are questioned further and at times even pressured not to go through with it.” The piece is a nice reminder that support for abortion restrictions has little to do with “life,” and everything to do with signaling to women that our bodies do not truly belong to us.

Overall, Zonszein offers a compelling argument that abortion rights shouldn’t just be about access, but about respecting a woman’s right to dignity and to autonomy over her own body. “Israel’s policy sends a message to women that while the state will facilitate our abortions in practice, it refuses—in principle—to grant us the freedom to make that decision ourselves,” Zonszein writes. She compares Israel unfavorably to other Western countries where “abortion is lawful and largely free of restrictions.”

Unfortunately, it was the one part of an otherwise great piece that wasn’t quite true. In fact, the process of needing to get approval for an abortion is surprisingly common in a lot of Western European countries. In England, abortion is paid for by the National Health Service, but a woman has to get two doctors to sign off on the claim that she will be physically or mentally hurt by continuing the pregnancy. In Germany, it’s a similar story: Women need a doctor to claim mental distress, undergo counseling, and wait three days for the procedure. Same thing in Italy, where a doctor must detail a woman’s reasons for abortion and she has to wait a week to reflect. New Zealand, Finland, Switzerland: Requiring a woman to cough up a reason deemed acceptable enough by third parties is really standard practice. France used to have a similar law, but it was changed last year on the grounds that it’s sexist to have policies that carry the built-in assumption that women aren’t capable of making this choice on their own and need someone else to decide if their reasons are good enough.

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It might seem a bit churlish to complain about these laws, when, in practice, they rarely impede actual access to abortion—something Katha Pollitt rightly pointed out in the Nation in response to a spate of conservatives such as David Frum, Michael Gerson, and Ross Douthat arguing, largely in defense of exas’ law restricting abortion care, that countries like these are more “conservative” on abortion rights than the United States. That is a facetious stance, as Pollitt noted, because it doesn’t take into account how much easier and more affordable abortion is in most of these countries.

There’s something very telling, though, about requiring women to tap-dance a little to earn an abortion, particularly when no one would dare suggest—for good reason—that women have to ask for permission to give birth. It shows that attitudes about abortion are actually shaped by attitudes about sex and gender roles. Women are supposed to want babies, and if they don’t, they’re supposed to be apologetic and do penance for defying their “natural” role.

Meanwhile, in the United States, it is true that women are protected from having to give their reasons for an abortion in the first trimester, because Roe v. Wade decided the procedure is protected under constitutional protections for privacy. Nothing is more invasive of your privacy than forcing you to go in front of a committee and explain how much crying you’ve been doing, or how afraid you are that your husband might find out you’re cheating, or how you just aren’t sure the man you’re having sex with is the one you want to marry. A lot of that may come out in private consultation with your doctor, but private is the key word here. There is no government requirement that you expose this part of yourself to justify your abortion in this country, which is a good thing.

But this idea that women should have to justify their desire to abort is baked right into the debate over abortion access in this country nonetheless. That’s most obvious when it comes to the endless fighting over exceptions to proposed abortion bans: whether rape or incest is good enough to deserve the procedure, or if your life needs to be imperiled. The entire existence of crisis pregnancy centers is built on this belief that women don’t really know how badly they supposedly want this baby and need lots of coaxing and “counseling” to know their true minds. Mandatory waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, mandatory scripts full of falsehoods about abortion—they’re all about establishing the idea that women are not good decision-makers about their own bodies and need nosy strangers butting in on this very personal decision.

No wonder we saw so many conservatives trying to praise various European and Israeli restrictions on abortion. It’s not really about the life of the fetus, but about trying to guilt-trip and persecute women for not adhering to their very rigid ideas about what we should be and what we should want. It’s about trying to make us feel like we’re bad or broken if we greet news of a pregnancy with anything but glowing joy and an immediate desire to start painting a nursery. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with wanting a pregnancy and being happy about it. Many women who have abortions, at other points in their lives, experience happy and wanted pregnancies. But that’s the point: Our lives are complex and diverse and don’t fit into narrow preconceptions about what they should or shouldn’t be. And our abortion laws should reflect that, by acknowledging that a woman—not a third party, not a politician—is the expert in her own life and what she needs when facing an unintended pregnancy.

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