During the 2016 United States presidential election, in a debate hosted by CNN, Donald Trump stated that, although he believed Planned Parenthood helped millions of women, he would defund the organization because he is against abortions. Having won the election, Mr. Trump has continued to advocate for the federal defunding of Planned Parenthood unless the organization stops providing abortion services. Not only is this blackmail, it is a move that will jeopardize the ability of Planned Parenthood to provide health care to millions of women throughout the United States.
Attacks against abortion access within the U.S. are not new. Even though abortion was legal in the U.S. until the 19th century and was federally legalized in the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade (1973), it has nonetheless been under constant attack from opponents. These attacks have been especially prevalent during the latter half of the 20th century and first few decades of the 21st century. Before Roe v. Wade, while the wealthiest women could afford to travel, the average woman seeking to terminate unintended pregnancies had few options—none of them safe.
The history of illegal abortions is littered with wire hangers and other sharp objects (inserted into the vagina), bleach, turpentine, and other chemicals (ingested orally and/or squirted inside the vagina), and “accidents” (e.g. falling down the stairs). According to the Guttmacher Institute, “abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women – nearly one-fifth (18%) of maternal deaths” in 1930. It is important to stress that the above numbers – and statistics like it – make note of only those deaths that were reported; the actual number of those who died from botched abortions is likely higher. These methods of inducing miscarriages are not exaggerations; for those who survived, the physical and mental trauma of undergoing an illegal abortion forever remains an indelible memory. When the Supreme Court declared abortion a matter of woman’s privacy in Roe v. Wade, such trauma was supposed to be a thing of the past. However, with an administration hostile to legal abortion, the U.S. runs the risk of returning to such a world.
Ostensibly, every U.S. citizen has the right to seek out and receive an abortion. But, in practice, various state laws have made the task increasingly impossible for most American women. The Guttmacher Institute reports that 43 states prohibit non-life threatening abortions after a certain point in the pregnancy (time limits that are constantly being shortened), 27 states require a mandatory waiting period and multiple trips to the facility, and 17 states require mandatory counseling. Some states, such as Texas, have introduced legislation that would allow a doctor to lie or withhold pertinent information (e.g. deformities) about a pregnancy to avoid the discussion and/or possibility of abortion. According to Dr. Willie Parker, a physician in Georgia, “Delays, dead ends, and restrictions lead women to start feeling desperate” and that “it should come as no surprise that the number of do-it-yourself abortions is on the rise.” No woman should have to perform her own abortion or be forced into motherhood, especially when abortion is both legal and able to be safely performed by medical professionals.
Anti-choice proponents argue that no federal funding should be used to form abortions. The Hyde Amendment (1976/1994) prohibited federal funding for abortions except in cases of incest, rape, and where the woman’s life is threatened. Anti-choice proponents also argue religious reasons and religious freedom. The U.S. is not and has never been a Christian nation; furthermore, separation of church and state, and religious freedom means that individuals are not beholden to the ideologies of someone else when making decisions. By enacting legislation that limits or denies accessible abortion to all but the wealthiest women, politicians are violating the spirit, and therefore intention, of the Roe v. Wade decision. The reasons they draw on further violate the spirit of the U.S. as a free nation. They are also violating the human rights of American women. Human Rights Watch offers the following ways in which denial of abortion impacts the human rights of a woman:
- Impacts a woman’s right to life (i.e. dying from self-induced or illegal abortions)
- Denies a woman’s right to good quality healthcare
- Denies a woman’s right to non-discrimination (i.e. sex-based discrimination)
- Denies a woman’s security of person (i.e. by forcing a woman to carry an unwanted child)
- Denies a woman’s right to liberty
- Denies a woman’s right to privacy
- Denies a woman’s right to accurate and true information (e.g. the aforementioned Texan law)
- Denies a woman’s right to be free from cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment
- Denies a woman’s right to decide how many children to have and when
- Denies a woman’s right to receive the benefits of scientific progress
- Denies a woman’s right to freedom of conscience and freedom of/from religion
It is also important to stress that outlawing abortion does not prevent abortions; it forces women to seek out options that are, at best, physical and mentally scarring, and, at worst, fatal. Legalized and safe abortions prevent the unnecessary suffering and death of many women.
It is entirely possible and within our power to prevent the scarring and/or death of women seeking abortions in the U.S. But, there are five primary measures that would ensure that no woman ever dies or is permanently maimed by illegal abortions ever again.
Firstly, while religious freedom is the right of every American, it is necessary that religious bias is removed from state and federal laws. The separation of church and state must be the law of the land both in practice and in spirit. No politician or political group has the right to impose their interpretation of their religion on anyone else.
Secondly, a federal mandate (and federally funded) requirement that all schools teach sex education adequately and accurately would help prevent accidental pregnancies in the first place and, therefore, also cut down on the number of abortions. By teaching children (any individual under the age of 18) how to have sex safely (e.g. using condoms, contraceptives), those who decide to engage in sex will be less likely to suffer from unintended pregnancies or diseases.
Accessible, meaning both easy to access and affordable, contraceptive options, such as male and female birth control and condoms, is also pivotal to preventing unintended pregnancies. The most common birth control – oral contraceptives – has been proven to be safe enough to sell over the counter. According to the Oral Contraceptives Over-the-Counter Working Group, most countries around the world offer oral contraceptives without a prescription. Noticeably the Western World does not already offer over-the-counter oral contraceptives.
Additionally, it is pivotal that women – of all backgrounds and ethnicities – be placed in positions that oversee the federal and state studies and implementations of healthcare decisions that impact women. It is all too common these days to see panels of men (either predominantly or entirely white) discussing women’s health care without any input from women. This is both ridiculous and outdated. While men should not be excluded from the conversation, they should take the proverbial backseat to the discussion, as they are not the ones who will be directly impacted. Women also need to be prominent in associated fields, such as being doctors or reproductive scientists. For too long, women’s health issues have been pushed aside or not taken seriously by male doctors while science has only recently become concerned with better understanding the female body. Being female, women have a better understanding and appreciation of their bodies; therefore, it stands to reason that female doctors and reproductive scientists will be more inclined to study issues that are unique to those of their gender.
Finally, the most important measure that must be taken to ensure a woman’s right to choose is passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). As its name suggests, the ERA would guarantee gender equality under the law and make any infringement upon that right punishable by law. The ERA was first proposed in 1923 and failed to pass, but was reintroduced every year until it finally passed in 1972. Though the ERA passed, it still needed to be ratified by 38 states and had a set time-limit in which to do so. That deadline was not met in time, but constitutional arguments were raised that led to a novel solution: the Madison Amendment. According to the Equal Rights Amendment Organization, working from the Alice Paul Institute in New Jersey, “the Madison Amendment was originally passed by Congress in 1789 and finally ratified in 1992 as the 27th Amendment to the Constitution.” The argument was raised by ERA supporters that the same solution could be applied to the ERA, and the Congressional Research Service agreed. To date, the ERA organization reports that “ratification bills testing this three-state strategy have been introduced in one or more legislative sessions in eight states … and supporters are seeking to move such bills in all 15 of the unratified states.” Women must be granted equality under the law for a variety of reasons, but such equality will also allow women to maintain and exercise control over their own bodies.
Abortion is a touchy subject and is likely to remain as such, but there really are only two options facing the United States today: either keep abortion safe and legal, therefore cutting down on preventable deaths and mutilations, or outlaw abortion and return to a time when desperate women used wire hangers and chemicals to try to end pregnancies, resulting in scarring and often death. Pro-choice is pro-life because it keeps women alive.