Under the Rug

I want to elaborate on this post by Digby, which links to this video in which anti-abortion protesters are asked if women should be punished for having illegal abortions. The film reveals that most of the protesters had never even thought about it. One young woman had a hard time understanding the question; it clearly had never occurred to her that women would continue to get abortions if abortions were illegal. (Upon being pressed she allowed that maybe a few women would get abortions, but she didn’t think it would happen often.)

In many nations where abortion is illegal, women really do face penalty of law for getting abortions. In this post from December I linked to Juan Forero, “Push to Loosen Abortion Laws in Latin America ,” The New York Times, December 3, 2005:

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.

Like the sweetly innocent abortion protester in the first paragraph, the people of Pamplona are in denial.

Like much of Latin America, the people here in Pamplona have, until recently, talked little of the abortions that have taken place behind the town’s tranquil, buttoned-down facade. Yet, 68 students, most of them from the University of Pamplona, sought emergency treatment at the local public hospital last year after having abortions, hospital records showed.

Several students said that they had a liberal attitude toward sex. Condoms are readily available, and the so-called morning-after pill is sold over the counter in pharmacies.

Still, sex education focuses more on anatomy than behavior, and church and university officials preach abstinence. Shamed by the thought of having children without being married, many young women try to induce abortions by taking a drug called Cytotec, which is made for ulcers but also dilates the cervix.

Pharmacies in Pamplona are barred from selling the drug, but students can purchase it in cities nearby. It was Cytotec that the two young women took in April that left them bleeding and, ultimately, under arrest. But there have been others, court records showed.

Under questioning from prosecutors, all admitted their guilt and received suspended sentences.

Insisting that abortion was rare, Pamplona’s conservative leaders thought the case was over. Instead, the episode reverberated throughout Colombia and helped to galvanize a national movement to roll back laws that make abortion illegal, even to save a mother’s life.

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.

In fact, as I pointed out yesterday, western Europe as a region has the lowest rates of abortion in the world. In western Europe the very lowest abortion rates are in The Netherlands, Belgium, the Scandanavian countries, Iceland, Germany — the crazy liberal Nordic fringe, in other words.

Yet while Latin America has a shockingly high rate of abortions, “Pamplona’s conservative leaders” think abortion is “rare.”

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.

The degree of denial among people opposed to legal abortions is stunning. Some of you might remember the recent Mahablog comment exchange with “Keith,” who dredged up a “scholarly work” underwritten by Americans United for Life insisting there had been fewer than 100,000 illegal abortions a year in the U.S. before Roe v. Wade.

Since we’re dealing with clandestine activity people didn’t exactly keep records; any number anyone comes up with is a guess. However, another estimate that relied in part on the number of hospital admissions for botched abortions, concluded there were 829,000 illegal or self-induced abortions in the U.S. in 1967. In 1962 alone, nearly 1,600 women were admitted to just one New York City hospital because of complications from illegal abortions. And emergency room admissions represented only a portion of the abortions being performed at the time. Thinking about this makes even the 829,000 number seem low to me.

And given the many innovations in abortion procedure since Roe, you know that if abortion became illegal in the U.S. there’d be a thriving underground abortion industry in place before you could say Mifepristone. Which I bet could be run across the border from Canada without too much trouble.

And there are coathangers in every closet.

So how will laws prohibiting abortion be enforced, exactly?

My internet access is cutting in and out this morning, so I’m going to post this while I can and will (I hope) elaborate on the punishment angle in the next post.

10 thoughts on “Under the Rug

  1. Estimating the number of abortions has always been a tricky proposition. In regard to that “scholarly work” supported by Americans United for Life that insisted there were few illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade: the historian Thomas J. Schlereth quoted the results of a survey by the Michigan Board of Health which estimated that up to ONE-THIRD of ALL pregnancies were “artificially terminated.”
    What is most interesting about that survey is the date: 1898, at a time when virtually every state had a set of laws restricting abortion. (The book from which Schlereth quoted is titled “The Light of the Home: an Intimate View of Women in Victorian America,” by Harvey Green.)

  2. The 2004 movie “Vera Drake” should be required viewing for all state legislatures, every member of Congress, and all nine of the Supremes. The really recalcitrant ones, such as Sen. Santorum and Justice Scalia, should be strapped in their chairs with their eyes taped open, “Clockwork Orange”-style.

    Except, “Vera Drake” is far too gentle a movie, and doesn’t show the bloody forms of death that are inflicted on women when abortion is illegal. And I don’t think the brains of anti-abortionists are even connected to their eyeballs anymore.

  3. MATTHEWS: In other words, if a woman had an abortion in Pennsylvania, what would you do to her?

    TOOMEY: Well, you know, Chris


    Several thoughts (this is hardly my area of expertise):

    It seems unreasonable to charge a doctor for a crime for providing an abortion at a woman’s request. The woman is part of a conspiracy. Are the cruel and unusual provisions of the 8th Amendment somehow violated?

    If abortion is murder, then the felony murder rule should apply.

    Even if the SD law does not claim that abortion is murder, then South Dakota law (never thought I’d be doing research on SD law) provides:

    (1) If the conspiracy was to commit a felony, each party is guilty of a classified felony which is one classification less severe than the felony to be committed, but in no case shall the punishment for conspiracy to commit a felony be less than a Class 6 felony.


    Hence it appears that a woman COULD be charged for conspiracy.

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  5. http://news.findlaw.com/nytimes/docs/abortion/sdabortionlaw06.html

    The new SD law states:

    [L]ife begins at the time of conception, a conclusion confirmed by scientific advances since the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, including the fact that each human being is totally unique immediately at fertilization.

    [T]he guarantee of due process of law under the Constitution of South Dakota applies equally to born and unborn human beings, and that under the Constitution of South Dakota, a pregnant mother and her unborn child, each possess a natural and inalienable right to life.
    Section 12. This Act shall be known, and may be cited, as the Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Act. An Act to establish certain legislative findings, to reinstate the prohibition against certain acts causing the termination of an unborn human life, to prescribe a penalty therefor, and to provide for the implementation of such provisions under certain circumstances.


    Chock full of interesting notions.

    The doctor gets a felony for care requested by a patient. The patient gets nothing (but Section 12 allows for the development of penalties against women seeking abortion).

    The statute clearly implies that abortion is a criminal taking of life; does the felony murder rule apply?

    Clearly a woman who seeks an abortion and subjects herself to the doctor’s care is a party to the conspiracy. In fact, she is the party initiating the conspiracy.

    It’s absurd.

  6. Thank you for posting the link to the video. The ignorance of these (supposedly) well-meaning dingbats is appalling.

    As I have said before, the right-wing and especially the religious right can only deal with issues by simplifying them to the point of stupdity.

    Unfortunately, abortion and euthanasia (to name just two issues) are much too complicated for the right to deal with intelligently (not that they can deal with anything intelligently anyway…but that’s another debate).

    Those of us in the “reality biz”, as Maha so charmingly calls it, have our work cut out for us.

  7. Some people think some forms of regular birth control are abortion. I’ve heard of pharmacists refusing to provide birth
    control pills for that reason.

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