Anyone in the US can probably guess from the title that this post is about abortion, which is all over the news right now, due to the publication of a first draft of an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito which would overturn the Supreme Court rulings in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ending the right to obtain a pre-viability abortion throughout the US after 49 years. If the final ruling follows this draft, each state would be free to adopt its own laws regarding abortion. While some states have already codified abortion laws in line with the Roe framework, other states have laws that would greatly restrict or totally ban abortion if Roe is struck down.
It’s been a political earthquake. It’s also being cast as yet another liberal versus conservative, blue versus red, pro-choice versus pro-life issue, but it is much more complicated than that.
Years ago, I started to draft a post called “shades of gray in a black-and-white world” that would have dealt with abortion as an example. I don’t tend to be an either/or person; everything to me is a complex web of concerns with many different aspects and perspectives to take into account. (You can blame my INFJ-ness or just Joanne being Joanne.) I’ll try to make myself as clear as I can in this post but my greater goal is to explore the varied factors that come into play.
At its root, I don’t think any branch of government should be dictating what a person who is pregnant does before the baby can survive on its own. I think that is a private medical and moral decision that belongs to the mother, her partner if they are available in a supportive way, her medical practitioner, and any advisors who can help.
I am Catholic and know that the Church currently teaches that life begins at conception but I think that is a problematic definition. Most fertilized eggs don’t implant in the uterus and it seems foolish to define all those as miscarriages. It’s tragic when an embryo implants elsewhere; if you have defined life as beginning at conception and prohibit all abortion, then an ectopic pregnancy couldn’t be treated until the embryo has died, by which point there will probably be life-threatening internal bleeding in the mother’s abdomen. Defining fertilized eggs as persons also gets problematic with frozen embryos used for assisted fertility treatment. I would certainly not be considered alive if I were placed in liquid nitrogen! (The Catholic Church opposes most fertility treatments, including in vitro fertilization, but it is germane because, of course, frozen embryos exist.) Other faiths believe personhood begins at different junctures, with many Muslims believing in ensoulment at 120 days after conception and many Jews marking birth as the beginning of full personhood. Because there is no consensus on when life begins among people, the government is overstepping its bounds to impose one.
The vast majority, about 92%, of abortions in the US are performed within the first 13 weeks gestation, or 15 weeks of pregnancy because weeks of pregnancy are, for some stupid reason, still counted from the date of the late menstrual period meaning you are considered two weeks pregnant at the time of conception. One of the very confusing things with laws in various states is referring to abortion bans at six weeks or fifteen weeks. It’s often referring to weeks of pregnancy, so we need to bear in mind that the gestational age is two weeks younger. 44% of abortion in 2019 were medical, using pills to cause a miscarriage early in the pregnancy, rather than surgical. Medical abortion can be used up to the tenth week of gestation.
Only 4% occur after 16 weeks gestation. These are most often done because of grave medical problems with either the mother or fetus. Sometimes, second trimester abortions are performed because of barriers of distance and/or cost to reach a provider. Rural women and people with low income/wealth often have this barrier, as do people without medical insurance or who have Medicaid because federal funds cannot be used for abortions.
The largest factor in choosing to have an abortion appears to be economic. 49% of people seeking abortion are living below the poverty level, with an additional 26% up to twice the poverty level. 60% already have at least one child. Unlike most modern democracies, the United States is not very supportive of families and children. I wonder how many would choose to raise the child rather than have an abortion if the US offered free or low-cost medical care, paid parental leave, guarantees of a living wage and/or subsidies for food, housing, day care/preschool, etc. that people in much of Europe have available to them.
Even the favorite alternative of those who oppose abortion, carrying the child to term and placing it for adoption, is expensive. If the mother is struggling financially and has other children to care for, she is literally faced with a choice between impending medical bills for delivering the new baby and feeding, clothing, and housing her present family. Abortion may be her most practical route to keeping her family afloat.
This brings me to one of the most troubling aspects of prohibiting abortion – forced childbearing. Carrying a child against one’s will is, to my mind, a form of involuntary servitude. I know from my own experiences with pregnancy that bearing a child is work which is physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. With my first pregnancy, which was planned and hoped for, I still experienced a lot of emotional upheaval, especially in the first trimester. I can only imagine what it would have been like if I had been without a partner, uninsured, living in poverty, unhealthy, in an abusive relationship, or a victim of sexual violence. Yet, some of the state laws restricting abortion carry no exceptions for rape and incest. Forcing a woman to bear a child that results from sexual violence or coercion magnifies the trauma. It’s especially dangerous if a tween or teen is involved.
Despite some progress, mothers in the United States bear a disproportionate amount of the labor and consequences of raising children. This is especially true if they are single parents. The poverty rate for single mothers is high. Often, the father doesn’t contribute substantially to the household finances. Many women who are unexpectedly pregnant face the loss of schooling, employment, and family support. It’s not just whether or not to have a baby or an abortion; it’s looking at 18+ years of raising a child without adequate support from the father, family, and community. While the stigma of single parenthood has lessened somewhat in my lifetime, it is still there, especially within certain religious communities. There is also still significant employment discrimination against women, in particular during pregnancy. Rolling back reproductive rights will likely worsen this.
While the leaked draft tries to say that the overturning of Roe v. Wade does not have legal implications beyond abortion, it’s unlikely that other private matters won’t be affected. The most obvious is access to contraception. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Supreme Court ruled that married couples must be allowed access to contraceptives and 1972 that any person could access them. I feel the right to use contraceptives is under particular threat because of the way the Catholic Church teaches about them and the fact that six of the current justices are Catholic, with an additional one who was raised Catholic. Only one of those seven is not in the conservative camp.
As a Catholic woman, I have been told that taking birth control pills is like having an abortion every month, ditto for morning after pills and IUDs. The fact that this is total garbage from a medical standpoint is apparently irrelevant to the Church. The Church also opposes surgical sterilization for males and females and privileges the life of the unborn over the mother. I, like millions of other Catholics, reject this teaching and follow my own conscience on these matters personally. I am fortunate that I never had to face a personal decision on abortion during my child-bearing years, but I do know that if I had had an ectopic pregnancy, I would not have hesitated to have surgery to save my life. I also probably would have had an abortion if we discovered that I was carrying a child who had problems that were “incompatible with life” as it is euphemistically termed. I don’t think I could have chosen to put myself and my child through the pain and trauma of birth, knowing that they would die soon after.
Other people might make other choices but that is the whole point. Each individual chooses what is right for them, within the realm of medical science and individual conscience. The government is not the entity doing the choosing.
Besides birth control, there are other issues that are considered privacy issues. Many people are concerned about the impact on marriage. The 2015 Obergefell case that established marriage equality throughout the US could be in danger. Some worry that even the 1967 Loving case that prohibited states from racial discrimination in granting marriage licenses could be at risk. Another ruling that could be in jeopardy is 2003 Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the remaining state laws that prohibited same-sex relations.
By chance, I had had an opportunity to discuss a possible overturn of Roe v. Wade not too long before the leaked opinion draft. I sometimes do online surveys and had been invited by one of these polling organizations to participate in an online focus group about abortion. I admit that I was a bit of leery about it beforehand, but it was very interesting. Most of the group thought that Roe v. Wade was likely to be overturned soon, while I and a few others thought it would be a longer process. I had thought that the present case would uphold Mississippi’s 15-week ban, changing the timeframe of Roe without going so far as to say it was wrongly decided. I suppose this is still possible if Alito’s draft opinion didn’t draw the support of four other justices, though I feel that is unlikely at this point. In the focus group, we did view some short promotional videos that a client organization might use in the event of tightened abortion restrictions. I expect to see some of them debut after the Court formally announces its decision in June or early July.
There are already lots of marches and demonstrations going on and I expect more. There might be repercussions for the midterm elections in November but with the level of gerrymandering and voter suppression in the country already, it’s difficult to predict the outcome.
I also don’t know what reforms are possible. One of the reasons this ruling is possible is that the Republicans have interfered with the seating of federal judges and justices. Two of the justices likely voting in favor of this overturning of Roe were appointed by Donald Trump but those seats would have been made by Democratic presidents if the Senate confirmation process had not been co-opted by Senator Mitch McConnell. A few weeks before the 2020 election, I wrote a post about one possible approach to addressing this. And all of this is complicated by the structure of the US government that gives disproportionate power to less populous states through the Senate and the electoral college.
Thank you to any of you who have made it this far in a longer-than-usual post. I do not know what the coming weeks will bring with this latest addition to political tensions in the US. It’s hard to keep my fears in check.
Please, stay safe.