Why We Fight (Alito)

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abortion, Supreme Court


Latin America holds some of the world’s most stringent abortion laws, yet it still has the developing world’s highest rate of abortions – a rate that is far higher even than in Western Europe, where abortion is widely and legally available. [Juan Forero, "Push to Loosen Abortion Laws in Latin America ," The New York Times, December 3, 2005]

Usually left out of our endless abortion debates is the simple fact that making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it. Making abortion illegal only drives it underground, where it is unregulated.

Forero of the New York Times continues,

Regional health officials increasingly argue that tough laws have done little to slow abortions. The rate of abortions in Latin America is 37 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, the highest outside Eastern Europe, according to United Nations figures. Four million abortions, most of them illegal, take place in Latin America annually, the United Nations reports, and up to 5,000 women are believed to die each year from complications from abortions.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute,

Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland have abortion rates below 10 per 1,000 women of reproductive age; in all other countries of Western Europe and in the United States and Canada, rates are 10-23 per 1,000.

Romania, Cuba and Vietnam have the highest reported abortion rates in the world (78-83 abortions per 1,000 women). Rates are also above 50 per 1,000 in Chile and Peru.

Abortion is legal (with varying gestational limits) in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Romania, Cuba, and Vietnam. It is banned in Peru except to save the mother’s life. It is banned completely in Chile. Clearly, there is no correlation between abortion rates and abortion laws. (More on abortion laws worldwide here.)

The evidence suggests that legal status makes little difference to overall abortion levels. Levels are very high in Eastern Europe and low in Western Europe, yet abortion is broadly legal in both. And levels are far lower in Western Europe than in Latin America, where abortion is highly restricted (except in Cuba and Guyana). ["Sharing Responsibility: Women, Society & Abortion Worldwide" (Alan Guttmacher, 1999), p. 28 (PDF)]

If laws against abortion don’t stop abortion, why bother? The usual rebuttal to that question is that there is still murder and theft in spite of laws against murder and theft. My response is that (I suspect) such laws, and vigorous prosecutions thereof, slow murder and theft down a lot. That’s not something I can prove with comparative data, since I’m not aware of any place with no restrictions on homicide or theft, other than places so violent that no civil authority exists. But if you think about it, the building of communities–civilization itself–would be pretty much impossible with no safeguards against slaughter and pillage.

Yet Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, etc. are all civilized, last I heard.

I think laws banning abortion are comparable to one of America’s great failed social experiments, prohibition. Driving liquor underground didn’t exactly stop drinking, but it was great for organized crime.

A Guttmacher study of abortion in Latin America describes what happens underground:

A 1993 study in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Peru showed that women everywhere are familiar with teas and infusions made from herbs and other vegetable products that are believed to induce abortion (Table 5 [at the bottom of this post]).

If these products do not have the desired effect (and nobody knows whether they are genuine abortifacients), women are then likely to resort to riskier methods: the insertion of a rubber tube, caustic liquids or other foreign objects into the uterus; or the oral or vaginal application of powerful pharmaceutical and hormonal products. In Brazil, a pharmaceutical product usually prescribed for the treatment of gastric and duodenal ulcers, misoprostol (Cytotec), is widely used to terminate pregnancy.

In the six countries studied by Guttmacher (Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Peru), each year half a million women are hospitalized because of injuries received from crude, underground abortion.

Worldwide, Guttmacher says,

About one-third of women undergoing unsafe abortions experience serious complications, but fewer than half of these women receive hospital treatment.

Of the estimated 600,000 annual pregnancy-related deaths worldwide, about 13% (or 78,000) are related to complications of unsafe abortion.

Where abortion is legal and performed by medical professionals, however, “The risk of abortion complications is minimal; less than 1% of all abortion patients experience a major complication. … The risk of death associated with childbirth is about 11 times as high as that associated with abortion.”

Forero at the New York Times describes an incident in Pamplona, Colombia.

In this tradition-bound Roman Catholic town one day in April, two young women did what many here consider unthinkable: pregnant and scared, they took a cheap ulcer medication known to induce abortions. When the drug left them bleeding, they were treated at a local emergency room – then promptly arrested.

This incident helped galvanize a movement to loosen restrictions on abortion in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America.

So far, no country has dropped its ban. But the effort, spurred by the high mortality rate among Latin American women who undergo clandestine abortions, has begun to loosen once ironclad restrictions and opened the door to more change.

And change is needed, because …

In an interview, a doctor in Medellín, Colombia, said that while he offered safe, if secret, abortions, many abortionists did not.

“In this profession, we see all kinds of things, like people using witchcraft, to whatever pills they can get their hands on,” said the doctor, who charges about $45 to carry out abortions in women’s homes. He spoke on condition that his name not be used, because performing an abortion in Colombia can lead to a prison term of more than four years.

“They open themselves up to incredible risks, from losing their reproductive systems or, through complications, their lives,” the doctor said.

Would American women be driven to take the same risks if legal abortions were entirely unavailable? If past is prologue, as this Guttmacher paper argues, the answer is yes.

First off, let’s put aside any notion that there were few abortions in America before Roe v. Wade. Since few abortions were officially reported as such before Roe it’s hard to know precisely how common abortion really was. However,

Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. One analysis, extrapolating from data from North Carolina, concluded that an estimated 829,000 illegal or self-induced abortions occurred in 1967.

(By some coincidence, currently there are 1.2 million abortions performed per year in the U.S., and in a larger population than in the 1960s. It may be that the actual rate of abortions is somewhat lower now than it was pre-Roe.)

The pre-Roe estimates are based partly on the number of women admitted to hospitals because of complications from illegal abortion.

In 1962 alone, nearly 1,600 women were admitted to Harlem Hospital Center in New York City for incomplete abortions, which was one abortion-related hospital admission for every 42 deliveries at that hospital that year. In 1968, the University of Southern California Los Angeles County Medical Center, another large public facility serving primarily indigent patients, admitted 701 women with septic abortions, one admission for every 14 deliveries.

A clear racial disparity is evident in the data of mortality because of illegal abortion: In New York City in the early 1960s, one in four childbirth-related deaths among white women was due to abortion; in comparison, abortion accounted for one in two childbirth-related deaths among nonwhite and Puerto Rican women.

Even in the early 1970s, when abortion was legal in some states, a legal abortion was simply out of reach for many. Minority women suffered the most: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 1972 alone, 130,000 women obtained illegal or selfinduced procedures, 39 of whom died. Furthermore, from 1972 to 1974, the mortality rate due to illegal abortion for nonwhite women was 12 times that for white women.

Of course, if Roe v. Wade were overturned, abortion wouldn’t be illegal everywhere in the U.S. But if most of the South and Midwest banned abortions, as would probably be the case, women in those states would either go underground or travel to more progressive states to terminate pregnancies. And having to travel tends to delay the procedure, making it more dangerous.

(I have a vision of abortion clinics popping up around state borders, complete with their own motels for out-of-state guests. I can see the signs–Last chance for an abortion before you leave Massachusetts! Some of these place could be fairly posh, since poor women would resort to visiting the neighborhood basement abortionist. Or a coathanger.)

Which brings us to an editorial in today’s New York Times, “Judge Alito and Abortion.”

Judge Alito’s personal views are too well known to be debated – his mother recently told The Associated Press, “Of course, he’s against abortion.” Many people personally oppose abortions while supporting a woman’s right to reach her own decision. But when Judge Alito applied for a promotion to a legal position in the Reagan administration in 1985, he made it clear that he was not one of those people. He was “particularly proud,” he wrote, of his work as a lawyer on cases arguing “that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.”

Judge Alito has tried to explain away that fairly unambiguous statement by saying he was simply an advocate seeking a job. That immediately raised questions about his credibility. Had he misrepresented his views to get a job? Is he misrepresenting them now since he is trying to get an even more important one?

In any case, a memo released later makes it clear that Judge Alito opposed Roe even when he wasn’t a job applicant. In 1985, he told his boss that two pending cases provided an “opportunity to advance the goals of overruling Roe v. Wade and, in the meantime, of mitigating its effects.” It is hard to believe that Judge Alito did not regard Roe as illegitimate when he wrote those words. If he agrees with Roe, it raises serious questions about what kind of lawyer he is, because in that case he would have been working to deny millions of women a fundamental right that he believed the Constitution guaranteed them.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Update: See also “A History of ‘Pro-Life’ Violence.”

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23 Comments

12 Comments

  1. PW  •  Dec 3, 2005 @2:20 pm

    FYI: I spent several hours yesterday transcribing the discussion on NPR, right after the Supreme Court hearing the other day, and have posted it here.

    Why? In part because we don’t often get audio clips of the argument right after the session — it gives a flavor of the language of the debate within the Court (and some clues as to what the context of the debate could be in the next case). It also provides a curious (for me, a non-lawyer) view of the legal minutia which dominate the debate.

    I was also interested by how it clarifies the relationship(s) of Court to state legislatures and state courts.

    There were several callers to the show: one an emergency room physician in Kansas City hoppin’ mad at the idea of having his decision-making in urgent cases curtailed by ideologies; another a woman in SF who’d been through a horrific experience of delays in an emergency room due to legalities; another a pro-choice mother in N. Dak. who nonetheless felt parents had to be involved in teenage daughters’ decisions to abort; another man (sounded like a lawyer) in New Haven with some interesting ideas on the kind of Chief Justice Roberts is going to be, given his surprising participation in the debate in the Court the other day.

    Apologies for the “blog-whoring,” but the transcription seems to fit right into this discussion.

  2. maha  •  Dec 3, 2005 @2:27 pm

    PW — great job!

  3. alyosha  •  Dec 3, 2005 @2:39 pm

    It’s interesting to me that we lefties view abortion like prohibition, whereas righties liken it to the struggle against slavery.

    It’s also interesting to me that abortion has probably been around for a long time. Your table hints at it, but I’m told that American Indians used various herbs to induce abortion. It would be interesting to see cross cultural and historical studies of its practice and the laws and taboos surrounding this. In short, some historical context might illuminate what is probably a common if ugly feature of the human condition.

  4. anonymous  •  Dec 3, 2005 @3:52 pm

    OT — but IMPORTANT

    Two women who had taken care of Koko, a gorilla who communicates with humans by sign language, have settled a lawsuit charging the president of its sanctuary urged them to show their breasts to the ape, a lawyer said on Thursday.

    Nancy Alperin and Kendra Keller had sued the Woodside, California-based Gorilla Foundation, claiming its president had pressed them to bare their breasts for Koko to help bond with the gorilla.

    If animals can be taught to talk, do we really want to hear what they say?

    And if so, who will we sue if they talk dirty?

  5. Swami  •  Dec 3, 2005 @4:56 pm

    Pessimist that I am…It will never change so long as people believe that they have a moral responsibility to god stop others from transgressing against god as they understand him, her .it.. The same mindset that will never allow homosexuals to find peace in their existence, allow a terminally ill person to end their own life with dignity , allow a women sovereignty of her own body and being, and a host of other percieved moral failing.. far too many to enumerate.

    The bible poses the question..Am I my brothers keeper? Those who believe in god also believe that they are their brothers keeper.. they know better than I what my existence should be and how i should experience it. I say,Fuck em’ all, and ask..what does it got to do with you? Brownie points for Jesus?

  6. Ken Melvin  •  Dec 3, 2005 @5:17 pm

    Isn’t religion a psychosis? A mental health issue? They want us to tolerate them, and I have no problem with that, but how about a just a little tolerance on their parts?

  7. Hearth Moon  •  Dec 3, 2005 @6:16 pm

    What about the abortion pill? Wouldn’t that change the landscape of illegal abortion in the US quite a bit? I can envision underground pill networks, a la “Jane,” that would be much safer, more available, and harder to prosecute than Jane.

  8. maha  •  Dec 3, 2005 @9:18 pm

    What about the abortion pill?

    That’s not an answer, for a couple of reasons. First, the abortion pill works only in early pregnancy, I believe the first seven weeks. So there’s a narrow window of opportunity for using it. If a woman has to take time to find a source, she may lose the opportunity. If it’s an unplanned pregnancy, some women may not realize they’re pregnant until it’s too late.

    Second, if the pills are only available on a black market, how safe are those pills going to be?

  9. Kathy  •  Dec 4, 2005 @1:28 pm

    The religion connection is usually portrayed as all or nothing when it comes to abortion, but that is not accurate. It’s true that the extreme evangelicals believe abortion is wrong always, no exceptions, but that is not the case for all religions. I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and their social statement on abortion is as follows:

    “The language used in discussing abortion should ignore neither the value of unborn life nor the value of the woman and her other relationships. It should neither obscure the moral seriousness of the decision faced by the woman nor hide the moral value of the newly conceived life. Nor is it helpful to use the language of “rights” in absolute ways that imply that no other significant moral claims intrude. A developing life in the womb does not have an absolute right to be born, nor does a pregnant woman have an absolute right to terminate a pregnancy. The concern for both the life of the woman and the developing life in her womb expresses a common commitment to life. This requires that we move beyond the usual “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” language in discussing abortion….

    Because we believe that God is the creator of life, the number of induced abortions is a source of deep concern to this church. We mourn the loss of life that God has created.[A] The strong Christian presumption is to preserve and protect life. Abortion ought to be an option only of last resort. Therefore, as a church we seek to reduce the need to turn to abortion as the answer to unintended pregnancies.[B]

    We also deplore the circumstances that lead a woman to consider abortion as the best option available to her. We are moved particularly by the anguish of women who face unwanted pregnancies alone. The panic and isolation of such pregnancies, even in the best of circumstances, can be traumatic. Poverty, lack of supportive relationships, immaturity, oppressive social realities, sexism, and racism can intensify her sense of powerlessness. The prospect of having and caring for a child can seem overwhelming.”

    Sorry to take up so much room, but I think other religious views need to be expressed. A person CAN be a Christian, pro-life and yet advocate for choice, and not all religions see it the same way that the extreme evangelicals do.

  10. Bendito  •  Dec 5, 2005 @8:29 am

    It is obscene that aborto-fanatics crave to perpetrate in South America what constitutes a heinous crime against a human being, the deliberate torture murder of a helpless child.

  11. maha  •  Dec 5, 2005 @10:47 am

    the deliberate torture murder of a helpless child.

    Talking about an adolescent child who dies from a botched back-alley abortion, eh? Or from perforating herself with a coathanger? Yes, that’s terrible.

  12. Kaleberg  •  Dec 6, 2005 @8:53 pm

    Actually, they used to have special abortion flights to the UK back in the 1960s. David Lodge in his book Trading Places has one of his male characters buy a cheap ticket to England (back before airline deregulation), and on board he realizes that he is the only male passenger. His neighbor on board gives him the lowdown. The trip includes the airfare, lodging, the abortion, and a trip to Stratford-on-Avon to see a play. Lodge was not making this up.

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