Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster in Austin Tuesday night managed to temporarily derail a restrictive Texas abortion bill that would have had the effect of closing 37 of the state’s 42 clinics currently providing abortions to women in Texas. I say “temporarily” because it is pretty likely that governor Rick Perry will call for another special session of the Texas Legislature in the near future and this bill will pass easily. Those opposed to abortion view passage of this bill as a great victory in the battle against legalized abortion. Those who support a woman’s right to choose to end her pregnancy see this law as further erosion of the right secured in the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
The abortion debate has been raging for as long as I have been politically aware. The pendulum seems to be swinging toward more restrictions on abortion. Lately, anti-abortion forces have taken the battle to the legislatures of more conservative states and have managed to pass bills that:
- · require pregnant women seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound image of their fetus,
- · ban telemedicine “visits” as the basis for prescribing an abortion,
- · shorten the gestational time period during which abortions can be provided,
- · and exempt employers from requirements to provide contraceptive coverage in their health care plans.
In the end, though, using state laws to limit (or even to ban) abortions is a losing strategy. Cleary people have very strong feelings about abortion. I have seen this in my own life when we lived in New Haven right around the corner from a Planned Parenthood clinic that provides abortions. There were dedicated protesters on the corner every Saturday and Sunday morning. Passersby would sometimes get into heated discussions with the protesters, though I doubt any minds were changed as a result of any of these interactions.
Passing new laws strikes me as the legislative equivalent of these heated street corner discussions. Opinions get expressed, but nothing gets settled. Whoever shouts louder (or collects more votes) temporarily holds sway. And no good is accomplished. Passing ever-more restrictive abortion laws does nothing about the root causes. Women are not saying “I am going to get pregnant so that I can have an abortion.” That’s like saying “I am going to develop a melanoma so that I can go through radiation and chemo.” No. Women are getting pregnant unintentionally and then having to decide what to do about it.
Some small percentage of these unintended pregnancies is the result of rape or incest. Most are not. According to data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, nearly half of pregnancies among American women are unintended. About 4 in 10 of these are ended by abortion. Roughly 22 percent of all U.S. pregnancies end in abortion. Severely restricting access to safe abortions will not suddenly make these 22 percent of pregnant American women carry their babies to term. Many of them will continue to choose to have an abortion. Only it would be an illegal choice, performed in unregulated conditions by unlicensed and possibly untrained abortionists. As we have seen with marijuana and alcohol, making something illegal does not stop it from happening. Outlawing abortion would only make it move back to the dark, dirty nooks and crannies of our country.
I am pro-choice, yet I often feel some reluctance to fully discuss abortion with my pro-choice friends. I feel this hesitancy because when we really get into the details many of them will never use the word “baby.” They say “fertilized egg,” “embryo,” and “fetus.” It matters a LOT to them that we cannot say when “life” begins. I have a different view. To me, when a human egg and a human sperm unite their genetic payloads and then start dividing like crazy, the result is a human life. It can be nothing BUT a human life. (I will not address the issue of a soul because I do not believe such a thing exists—I am talking strictly biologically here. And neither should our laws be based on any talk of when the soul enters the body—this is an argument for theologians, not politicians.)
Having said that the dividing cells in a woman are really an unwanted baby, it then makes me sound like a monster to support that woman’s right to kill that baby. Yet, I do. Women who are old enough to conceive a child have the right to decide whether to carry that child to term or not. The Supreme Court has famously ruled that states must allow abortions before “fetal viability” at approximately 24 weeks. This seems like a reasonable compromise that allows women to control their own reproduction while at the same time recognizing a baby’s right to be born once it becomes more and more viable outside the womb. I am not pro-abortion. I am pro-choice. Other than a few corporations who profit from abortion, I do not think anyone is pro-abortion.
Which brings me to my real point here. Rather than fighting it out over how permissive or restrictive state abortion laws should be, advocates on both sides of the fight should be working where they share common ground. Good-hearted, well-meaning people from both sides should put down their placards, turn down their volumes, and get to work on reducing the incidence of unwanted pregnancies. Women and girls should get good information about how pregnancies happen. They should also have access to affordable, safe, and effective birth control. If we can reduce the rate of unwanted pregnancy, we can reduce the number of abortions carried out each year.
In my (sometimes heated) conversations with some of the protesters outside of the Planned Parenthood on Whitney Avenue in New Haven, it was clear to me that they were certainly willing to sacrifice the good for the perfect. When I asked them about reducing unwanted pregnancies through greater access to safe and effective birth control, they were adamantly opposed. They stated again and again that sex outside of marriage, with pleasure as the purpose rather than procreation, is wrong and against God’s plan. To facilitate this sort of sex by providing a means of birth control is absolutely immoral to these protesters. They are remaining true to their religious beliefs, but in their own way perpetuating the high incidence of abortion in this country. Rather than acknowledge the reality that people will have sex, they want to impose a world where everyone who has sex and gets pregnant MUST have her child. Theirs is an unforgiving black and white world.
The world we live in is far messier than the one these anti-choice protesters wish we lived in. This world is one of laws, not religious teachings and beliefs. The way to advance the good (a reduction in the number of abortions) is for those strongly opposed to abortion to let go of their demand that we replace it with the perfect (a total ban on all abortions.) I certainly respect the right of those opposed to abortion to protest. It is their right, (I would argue their duty), to vociferously make their opinions known. But I would respect them much more if they took the practical step of working to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies.
So, Senator Wendy Davis has won a small temporary victory in Texas. When the legislature there reconvenes and passes the law that was thwarted last night, the anti-abortion forces will feel like they have won a major victory. They will be wrong. They will really just have forced women to have unwanted babies, to travel hundreds of miles for a safe abortion in one of Texas’s five remaining clinics, to go to Mexico for an abortion, or to have an unsafe, illegal abortion closer to home. Changing the law will not reduce the number of unintended, unwanted pregnancies. Other things will. If the “pro-lifers” are really pro-life, they should work to reduce these pregnancies, not to reduce the options available to women.