There’s an excellent op ed in today’s Los Angeles Times by Marianne Mollmann of Human Rights Watch. In “Abortion lessons from Latin America,” Mollman draws on the experiences of women in Latin America to compile three lessons for the bleepheads who brought about South Dakota’s abortion ban.
Lesson 1: Outlawing abortion does not stop women from having them. “What do I care if abortion is legal or illegal?” Marcela E. told me in 2004 in Argentina, where abortion generally is banned. “If I have to do it, I have to do it.” The 32-year-old mother of three had a clandestine abortion after her husband raped her.
A community organizer in Argentina told me: “You will not believe what women end up putting in their uteruses to abort.” I wish I didn’t.
I have spoken to women who used knives, knitting needles, rubber tubes, even pieces of wood to pry open their uteruses. Some got access to abortive medicines that in theory lower the possibility of direct infection but that caused serious complications when they took them without medical assistance. Affluent women suffered fewer traumatic ordeals, often traveling to the U.S. for the procedure or sneaking off to upscale private Latin America clinics where, on paper, they had surgery for appendicitis.
Banning abortion doesn’t stop abortion. Banning abortion doesn’t seem to put much of a dent in the rate of abortion. Latin America is proof. As I wrote here, worldwide there is no correlation whatsoever between abortion rate and abortion law. Some nations that ban abortion have very high rates of abortion; some nations with legal abortion have very low rates of abortion. According to this New York Times article,
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.
By contrast, the abortion rate in the U.S. is 21.3 per 1,000 women of childbearing age. The Netherlands and Belgium, with liberal abortion laws, have an abortion rate of 7 per 1,000 women of childbearing age.
Lesson 2: Providing limited exceptions to an abortion ban does little to improve access to safe abortions.
In reality very few, if any, women get such “non-punishable” abortions because there are no clear procedures. Fearing that they’d be charged with a crime, many of the women I interviewed who might have qualified for a legal abortion because they had been raped or because their health was endangered by the pregnancy did not dare to out themselves as potential abortion candidates. They went straight for the illegal and mostly unsafe back-alley abortions. A large proportion of maternal mortality in Latin America is caused directly by the consequences of such unsafe abortions.
As discussed here, would-be abortion banners have a remarkable ability to not think real hard about how their abortion bans would actually be implemented. They claim that women seeking abortion wouldn’t be punished (as if forced pregnancy and childbirths weren’t punishment). But where the banners allow for exceptions, who judges? If there’s a rape allowance, how does a woman prove she was raped? Would the rapist have to be convicted first (in which case, the “product” would be potty trained by then). Would this cause women seeking abortion to make false rape charges? If there’s a “life of the mother” exception, who stands over the physician’s shoulder to make the call? Some conditions (preeclampsia comes to mind) may be manageable, or may be fatal. It’s hard to know for certain until the woman drops dead. Different physicians may make different judgments on whether the pregnancy should be terminated. Is the government going to snoop around and second-guess doctors who perform abortions to save women’s lives?
Lesson 3: In Latin America, as everywhere else, the best way to stop abortion is to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Women and girls act within the circumstances imposed upon them. In Latin America, where contraceptives are inaccessible and sex is stigmatized (through cultural expectations that they be virginal and uneducated about sex), unwanted pregnancies are more common; not surprisingly, there is a higher proportion of abortions to pregnancies than in, for example, the U.S. The simple fact is that women with unwanted or imposed pregnancies would have preferred not to need abortions.
Recently Priya Jain reported in Salon about a movement in the U.S. to ban birth control. Now, I don’t think the American public would put up with this, but they are putting up with allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions, so what do I know? Recently the Missouri state legislature refused to fund family planning services in public health clinics. And Jain points out that Concerned Women for America is anti-contraception. It’s becoming more and more obvious that if the abortion banners get their way with abortion, banning contraception will be their next goal.
South Dakota’s abortion ban won’t end or even cut down on abortions among the women in that state, and it probably will have disastrous effects on their health and lives. Laws and policies on abortion and contraceptives should not punish women and girls for doing what they feel they must to live with dignity.
Update: See Pacific Views, especially this part —
That’s the result of public ‘morality.’ The result of public servants wanting to pray in front of the masses and be admired for their rectitude. It happens in every single country where abortion is outlawed and access to contraception is restricted. It has already happened in America as a result of parental notification laws:
Becky Bell lived with her parents, Karen and Bill, and brother in a small town near Indianapolis. Becky was a junior in high school in 1988 when she became pregnant. She sought an abortion at a women’s health clinic but learned that, under Indiana law, she first had to obtain the consent of one parent. Afraid to disappoint her parents, Becky had an illegal abortion and died from complications one week later. This is Karen Bell’s story…. The nuns and nurses at St. Vincent Hospital, where we have taken her for everything, kept asking Beck, “What have you done to yourself?” I heard the nurses say her veins had collapsed. They put oxygen on her, but Becky pulled the mask off. I leaned down and said, “Honey, tell Mom, tell me, honey.” She said, “Mom, Dad, I love you, forgive me.” And that was it. Her heart stopped. They said that her lungs had literally come apart from infection, and they hooked her up to life support.
… Bill and I decided to speak out; we thought we could prevent other girls from dying. We appeared on 60 Minutes. The anti-choice crowd came after us. They followed us. There would be crowds of people with their fetuses in a bottle, and some would say that Becky didn’t die the way we said she did. They loosened the lug nuts on our car. In Arkansas, they shot a hole in the building where we were speaking. They cared more about a fetus than about my daughter. I thought, “I’m not afraid of anybody, because my daughter is dead and you can’t hurt me anymore.” …
The questions to ask when thinking about abortion restrictions come simply to these: What lower-income mother would you sentence to health problems she can’t afford? Whose daughter would you sentence to death?
BTW, when did any advocate for abortion rights shoot a hole in a building where a “lifer” was speaking?