Abortion common ground:
Simplistic answers won’t resolve complex issues
Some years ago (sufficiently long ago that we could not find an on-line link), Katha Pollitt wrote a brilliant piece about the “Fixers,” men who arrogantly assumed that they could step in and quickly and neatly “solve” the abortion conflict—if only the squabbling women on each side of the abortion divide would listen to them. The latest such “fixer” on the scene is William Saletan of Slate magazine. After attending a conference at Princeton which attempted dialogue between prochoicers and prolifers, Saletan, putting himself above the fray, has issued two communiqués, instructing each side on “what (they) can learn” from the conference. We are moved to write this response because we find his approach to the complexity of the abortion debate in the United States to be both appalling and insulting.
We begin by reminding Saletan that the debate over abortion in this country is not the result of poor individual decision-making on the part of women. From his perspective, the abortion wars would go away if women would just use contraception more effectively, feel bad about their behavior, and suck it up and have a baby if they discovered they are pregnant after the 12th week. Such an approach is not helpful to women, fails to move us any closer to common ground, and continues to vilify the prochoice movement as a monolithic entity without compassion. It also ignores the evidence we have about abortion. We address each of his points as a way to move the conversation away from his polarizing approach to a more nuanced understanding of very complex issues.
- First, Saletan admonishes prochoicers to “admit the value of the fetus.” It is obvious that Saletan has never been inside an abortion clinic. Women seeking abortions have always valued their fetuses. Women aren’t having abortions because they don’t know their pregnancies could culminate in the birth of a baby or because they find their pregnancy irrelevant. Women have abortions because of the material conditions of their lives. Most women speak to clinic staff about the complexity of the decision, and their dreams and aspirations for the children they have and/or will have. Moreover, many abortion providers, taking their cues from the women they serve, stand ready to honor the fetus in various ways, including rituals drawn from various religious traditions. The Wichita clinic of the late Dr. George Tiller was particularly noteworthy for the efforts made to help women and their partners mourn and say goodbye in a dignified manner to their fetuses, including having a chaplain on staff who would perform funeral ceremonies. (See Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us.)
- Secondly, Saletan urges the prochoice movement to “embrace abortion reduction.” Here he needs a history lesson. Advocates for abortion rights have long pushed policies including maternity leave, subsidized child care, the expansion of educational opportunities for pregnant teens, and quality prenatal care. And support for free, accessible contraception has ALWAYS been part of the agenda. Every year, prochoice policy advocates and service providers demand expansion of the federal family planning program, which unfortunately is usually denied. What Saletan seems to want is for abortion rights advocates to claim that the reason they want all these things is to help reduce the number of abortions. Support for family planning services and healthy pregnancies are valuable in and of themselves. These services don’t need to be linked to reductions in abortion in order to be desirable. Reductions in abortion that result from reduced access to services or increased stigmatization of abortion are not results to be de facto embraced. Rather, reductions in the number of abortions are good when women are successfully achieving the families they desire. (See: “Wanting Abortion to be More Accessible Rather than More Rare or Less Needed,” Women’s Health Activist Newsletter, Sept/Oct 2010.)
- Next, the prochoice movement is told, in what can only be heard in scolding tones, to “treat contraception as a moral practice.” Does Saletan not get it that heterosexual women spend almost 30 years of their life trying to avoid unintended pregnancies? The fact that only 1/3 of them will have an abortion speaks to the enormous success of women’s contraceptive use. As a society, we don’t judge diabetics who sometimes miss medications, or vehicle owners who sometimes run late and get the occasional parking ticket. It is unrealistic and unfair to demand that women do something right every day of their life for 30 years. Until Saletan is free of mistakes, his demand should only be received with a deep sigh on the part of women working on a daily basis to control their fertility.
- Moreover, Saletan urges the prochoice movement to “reclaim stigma.” Perhaps Saletan should just call for the return of the Scarlet Letter or maybe a public tar and feather campaign. We know from years of research that stigma doesn’t work to change behavior and can be enormously harmful to people’s health. Women presenting in abortion clinics are beating themselves up enough for having “messed up” or “been careless.” Further humiliating these women will not help end the abortion wars. The near-40 years of stigma surrounding abortion since Roe hasn’t reduced the need for abortion—it has only made it harder for women to seek and obtain the support they need to live the lives they wish for. Women facing unwanted pregnancies need more empathy, not more judgment.
- Next, Saletan urges prochoicers to “target repeaters.” So now, according to this logic, the abortion conflict is the result of women who use it too often. Who are these women he so callously labels as repeat offenders? First, they are women who are more fertile. In the days before contraception, some women had 13 children and others had three. There is a biological component to this story that Saletan completely ignores. Second, they are the women who have less control over the sexual decisions in their lives. (There has been growing attention among researchers and advocates to the issue of sexual violence and sexual coercion, issues to which Saletan appears oblivious.) Third, and perhaps this is the part that makes Saletan the most upset—they are the women that have more sex. Each episode of sexual activity increases one’s risk of pregnancy even when contraception is used.
- Finally, Saletan proposes a tradeoff—prochoicers should “reconsider the legality of second-trimester abortion,” and prolifers in turn would give up their opposition to contraception. This is perhaps the most absurd of Saletan’s suggestions. Although the Catholic hierarchy and various Religious Right groups oppose contraception (and the former, by Saletan’s own admission, are hardly about to make such a deal), contraception is supported by an overwhelming majority of the American people, even by a majority of those who oppose abortion. So why should the prochoice movement make such a foolish bargain?
We respectfully urge that Saletan close his mouth and open his ears to women having abortions, and investigate what actually occurs in abortion-providing facilities, rather than constructing a caricature of a prochoice movement that seeks to obliterate any recognition of fetal value. The argument is a straw man and he should stop using it.
Saletan is also dangerously close to recommending mandatory contraception. Contraceptive coercion is damaging to women and their basic freedoms, and it likewise has a negative effect on the long-term acceptability of contraception. Rather than targeting individual women, Saletan may want to raise the visibility of the prochoice movement’s request that contraception be a covered service in the course of abortion care, which is prohibited in most states. Women who are paying out of pocket for abortion (between $400-$1200) don’t have the funds to shell out an additional $750 to get an IUD at the time of the abortion. Perhaps Saletan would like to write a check to support such services.
But the real objection to this misguided suggestion is that anyone who cares about the real life circumstances of women on the ground, and the enormous difficulties many of them face when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, would see this proposal for the cruelty and callousness it contains. Only 10% of abortions occur after 12 weeks (and only 1% after 20 weeks). However, who makes up that 10% is not irrelevant. Younger women, poorer women, women of color, and women who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to need abortions in the second trimester. The current situation governing abortion in the country, emphatically reaffirmed during the health care debate—that public funds should not be used for abortion—results in many more later abortions, as these most vulnerable of women have to scramble for some time to raise the funds for an abortion. (Parental notification and consent requirements also often lead to delays for minors seeking abortions.) Saletan’s absolute ignorance of the effect that limiting second-trimester abortion would have on the real lives of women is appalling. (See “What do we know about women who get later abortions?” ANSIRH Issue Brief #3, August 2010.
We are glad that Saletan thinks he could tolerate his proposal. It will never affect him. Use of abortion is not simply a philosophical or political issue. It is a question about whether real women, with real lives, will have children they cannot care for or do not want. We all long for an end to the fight over abortion. There is a lot we can do in our culture to tone down the rhetoric and find civil ways to communicate across differences. We can learn to respect each other’s core values, to listen to each other’s opinions. Common ground, however, doesn’t mean shaming and judging women, denying care to the most vulnerable, and completely ignoring the challenge in spacing and timing our families. If we are to reach common ground, what we sacrifice must come from our own lives, not someone else’s.
Tracy A. Weitz, PhD, MPA, Associate Professor and Director ANSIRH Program, University of California San Francisco
Carole Joffe, PhD, Professor Emeritus, University of California Davis and Research Faculty, ANSIRH Program