With H.R.3 (a.k.a. the “Let Them Use Coathangers” Act), H.R.358 (a.k.a. the “Let the Bitch Die” Act), and the ACORN-style attacks on Planned Parenthood, our famously liberal media is having the abortion debate again, and as usual, they’re busy pretending that both sides hold equally valid positions, that there’s no difference between leaving reproductive choices to the individual and mandating that everyone make the same choice you would. Most of all, though, we’re still pretending that the anti-choice crowd actually gives a damn about “the unborn,” that they really believe abortion is murder. They don’t, and we will never make headway in the “abortion debate” until we acknowledge that the true motives of the anti-choice movement have nothing to do with “saving the unborn.”
If you believe that there’s no difference between an abortion and the murder of a child, you would, of course, want to prevent as many abortions as possible. But how? For starters, it would be a good idea to take a look at what’s going on in other countries. Who has the highest and who has the lowest abortion rates, and what are their policies? When we do that, it quickly becomes clear that criminalization does nothing to reduce the number of abortions. In fact, some of the countries with the most draconian abortion laws also have the highest abortion rates. In Chile, for instance, abortion is illegal even if the life of the mother is at stake, yet the estimated number of abortions performed per 1,000 women of reproductive age is twice that of the US.
Criminalization has been spectacularly unsuccessful at reducing the incidence of abortion because it does nothing to address the underlying issue: unplanned pregnancies. Women who find themselves pregnant and don’t want to be (or can’t afford to be) will always find a way to terminate their pregnancies. No law will change that. What laws can do, however, is ensure that safe abortions are available only to the affluent while low income and poor women as well as minors risk being maimed or killed as they are driven into the hands of unscrupulous providers such as Kermit Gosnell or left to self-induce an abortion by various dangerous and painful means. The lengths to which women will go to terminate an unwanted pregnancy should be a tip-off that simply making the procedure illegal won’t put an end to it.
Okay, so criminalization doesn’t work. What does? To answer that, let’s take a look at a country with one of the lowest abortion rates in the world: the Netherlands. While Holland offers free abortion on demand until the twenty-first week of pregnancy (after that a medical reason is necessary), their abortion rate is a fraction of ours. The reason is simple: very few unplanned pregnancies. This, however, did not happen by accident. The Dutch made the decision to reduce reliance on abortion and–unlike US anti-choice groups that claim to abhor abortion but actually have other priorities–they acted accordingly. Sex ed begins early in the Netherlands and is extremely comprehensive and completely non-moralistic. Sexual relationships during adolescence are viewed as normal and healthy, but teenage pregnancy isn’t. In addition to learning about sex and contraception in school, there are large scale public education campaigns and frank discussions about sexuality–including teen sexuality–and birth control in the mass media. But education was only part of the solution. The other part involved eliminating barriers to family planning services.
There are government-subsidized family planning clinics (much like Planned Parenthood) in the Netherlands, but general practitioners also prescribe birth control. Minors do not require parental consent for reproductive health services and are assured absolute confidentiality when they visit their family doctor or neighborhood clinic. To further reduce barriers, no pelvic exam is necessary to obtain a prescription for birth control pills (requiring a pelvic exam/pap smear to receive the pill is an outrageously paternalistic, not to mention coercive, practice). But the biggest step the Dutch took was to make contraception and vasectomies available free of charge, resulting in the highest percentage of women taking the pill and the highest percentage of men opting for vasectomies worldwide. And the lowest unplanned pregnancy and abortion rates.*
Chile and the Netherlands aren’t aberrations. The countries with the lowest abortion rates in the world do not make the procedure illegal or inaccessible; instead, they focus on reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies with comprehensive sex ed that takes a positive view of sexuality, including teen sexuality, and easy access to free or inexpensive contraception, especially for teenagers. Also helpful: Subsidized daycare for working mothers, fair wages, generous family leave laws, enhanced aid for women with dependent children, and other policies that make it easier to have a child in the event of an unplanned pregnancy. And successful efforts to reduce abortion rates have one other critical component: Empowering women and girls to say “no” to sex when they don’t want it and to insist on condoms or other contraception when they do, while teaching men and boys about the need to respect their female partners’ wishes and the importance of enthusiastic consent.
If the goal is to reduce abortion rates, we know what works and we also know what doesn’t work. One would think that groups supposedly devoted to eliminating abortion, groups that claim abortion is murder, would take note of this and act accordingly. Instead, anti-choice groups are against everything known to reduce the number of abortions (see previous paragraph), while favoring policies and taking actions that are known to increase the number of abortions (e.g., insisting on a parent’s right to pull their kids out of sex ed classes, promoting sex ed that omits information on contraception, mandating moralistic “abstinence only” curricula, defunding family planning services, instituting “conscience clauses” that make it harder to access birth control and emergency contraception, attempting to prevent emergency contraception from being available over-the-counter although time is of the essence with EC, driving family planning clinics out of business, preventing minors from accessing reproductive health services without their parents’ knowledge or consent, etc., etc.).
Why would people who claim to hate abortion do everything in their power to increase the number of abortions performed? Because many anti-choicers don’t really care about abortion at all, and even the ones who do care consider the issue secondary to their real concern: Controlling women and punishing them for having sex. Virtually all anti-abortion groups are also anti-contraception. And they are particularly opposed to contraceptives such as birth control pills and IUDs that enable women to exercise control over their reproductive capacity without the knowledge–and potentially against the wishes–of their male partner. Anti-choicers understand that the availability of contraception and abortion changes the dynamic of male/female relationships and the role of women in society, and they don’t like it one bit.
This is also why they oppose a robust social safety net, equal pay legislation, parental leave, and subsidized daycare, although inability to afford a baby is one of the top two reasons women have abortions. Many abortions could be prevented by increasing aid to mothers, offering free or very inexpensive childcare, and generally making workplaces more accommodating to parents. If you believe abortion is murder, promoting such policies would be near the top of your agenda. The fact that they aren’t and that anti-choicers actually oppose such policies tells us a lot about their true motives. Preventing abortions isn’t acceptable if it comes at the “expense” of increasing women’s options and independence, because promoting traditional gender roles/female subservience and punishing female sexuality are what the anti-choice movement is really about. Of course that doesn’t sound quite as appealing as “saving the unborn.”
It’s the same with preventing teenage pregnancies/abortions. Countries like the Netherlands have shown us how it’s done. Their approach works, while ours has been a colossal failure. Even if one believes that teens shouldn’t be having sex, we are, according to the anti-choice crowd, talking about the murder of babies here. If abortion is indeed murder, preventing these unnecessary abortions must take precedence over some people’s desire to pretend that we can stop kids from having sex. This would be a no-brainer if the anti-choice movement was actually concerned with preventing abortion.
As a feminist, I care more about preventing abortions than the anti-choice movement. I wish there was no need for abortions, not because I believe abortion is murder, but because I view abortion as a negative consequence of having sex that only women experience. Of course the alternative, being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, is far worse, so I’m adamantly pro-choice. But I would like sex to be fun and amazing and without negative repercussions for women. I want women to have easy access to accurate information and reliable contraception and I want them to have partners who don’t think of birth control and STD prevention as “the woman’s job.” I want women to feel they can say “no” to sex no matter what the circumstances and have their “no” respected. I want guys to understand that the absence of a “no” doesn’t mean “yes”–particularly when alcohol or drugs are involved. And for those times when birth control fails, I want emergency contraception to be not only readily available, but so cheap that poor women aren’t tempted to gamble that they won’t get pregnant because forking over $40+ means not eating for a week.
Basically it’s like this: I don’t like our high abortion rate because abortion punishes women for having sex. The anti-choice movement doesn’t like abortion because it doesn’t punish women enough for having sex. Locating a clinic that will perform the abortion, arranging transportation (a major hassle in many states where there are only a couple of providers, particularly if you don’t have a car), coming up with the $350-500 for the actual procedure if you don’t have insurance or your insurance doesn’t cover abortion, potentially having to take time off from work and stay in a hotel overnight due to mandatory waiting periods (which, of course, means added expenses), undergoing a pelvic exam and a painful medical procedure (even women who qualify for chemical abortions can experience painful cramping), and possibly dealing with conflicting emotions about the abortion–none of this is a walk in the park. But compared to carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, giving birth, and having to make the painful decision to either give the baby up for adoption or keep it without having the resources or support necessary to raise a child, well, compared to that, abortion is a picnic. And that’s why anti-choicers hate abortion: not enough pain and suffering for those slutty McSluts.
Of course most women who want to terminate their pregnancies won’t simply give birth if abortion is made illegal. If they can afford it, they’ll travel to a state or country where abortion is legal; if they can’t, they’ll attempt to self-induce or they’ll seek out an illegal provider. Anti-choicers know this and it suits them just fine. Even affluent women will experience greater difficulty securing an abortion than they do now, but the real plus is what’s going to happen to poor and low income women as well as teens who can’t go to their parents for help: Those pictures and harrowing accounts of women who ended up dead or maimed as a result of an illegal abortion will serve as GREAT deterrents for other women and girls who think they can go out and have sex like only men are allowed to!
So let’s inject some honesty into our national abortion debate and stop pretending that anti-choicers actually care about the “unborn” or stopping abortion. If we wanted to drastically reduce the number of abortions performed in this country, we know how to do it. But the same people who claim that abortion is murder are doing everything in their power to ensure that our abortion rate remains as high as possible. Why? Because the way to reduce abortions is to empower women and increase their options, and that’s the last thing anti-choicers want to do. After all, their whole reason for focusing on pregnancy, abortion, and the “rights of the unborn” in the first place is that these things can be used restrict women’s freedom and independence. Let’s start calling them on it.
* After decades of having the lowest abortion rate in the world bar none, the number of abortions performed in the Netherlands began to climb in the mid-1990s. While still among the lowest worldwide, Holland’s abortion rate is now comparable to that of Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland. There are two reasons for the increase. First, due to budget cuts, birth control is no longer free for women over 21. But the biggest reason is the rising immigrant population from Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Surinam, and the Dutch Caribbean. Two-thirds of all abortions in Holland are performed on immigrants, while Dutch-born women continue to have the lowest abortion rate in the world. Why the difference? Immigrant families are more likely to be conservative, often taking a dim view of sex ed, contraception, and women’s sexual autonomy (remind you of anyone?). Some girls lack even a rudimentary understanding of sex and their own bodies, arriving for their abortion appointment not knowing how they got pregnant. How is this possible given Holland’s comprehensive sex ed program? In an effort to be sensitive to religious and cultural differences, the Dutch allowed the children of immigrants to skip sex ed at their parents’ request, thereby short-changing the girls and women of these communities. Sex ed is no longer even available in many schools catering predominantly to immigrants. The phenomenon is eerily similar to the high teen pregnancy rates found in the American bible belt where “abstinence only” reigns supreme, compared to the much lower teenage pregnancy rates in the more progressive New England states where religious beliefs are less likely to dictate public policy.