Blogging for Legality

Even before the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down (34 years ago today), mass media was fond of presenting the abortion issue as a dichotomy of absolutes. For years the shtick was to present two (and only two) viewpoints from the opposite ends of the opinion spectrum. Editorial pages would “balance” an op ed calling for the criminalization of abortion against one advocating no legal restriction whatsoever, for example. On television and radio, advocates of criminalization (let’s call them “crims” for short) would be pitted against advocates of legalization and given eight minutes to shout each other down before the commercial break. [*] As a result, Americans have not had the rational and dispassionate debate we need to have if we’re ever going to reach a consensus.

But this picture is skewed, and it’s becoming more skewed every day. Increasingly, the real debate — not the debate staged by mass media, but the debate the rest of us are having on the web and among our acquaintances — is not between two groups of absolutists. It’s between rational people and fanatics.

Last week Ellen Goodman wrote,

We offer you advance word from the troops preparing for Monday’s annual March for Life marking the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The parade’s theme this year is “Thou Shalt Protect the Equal Right to Life of Each Innocent Human in Existence at Fertilization. No Exception! No Compromise!”

No exception! No compromise! Lots of exclamation points!

It’s true; it’s on their web site.

But gradually, from Terri Schiavo to Plan B to stem cell opposition, the right wing overreached. In that reddest of states, South Dakota, voters in November repealed an abortion ban that echoed the theme: No exception! No compromise!

Meanwhile, pro choice groups spent those same years with their ear to the middle ground, listening to the people who want to keep abortion legal but less numerous. If there are 3 million unplanned pregnancies and half of them end up in abortion, you do the math. The point on which most Americans agree is reducing unplanned pregnancies.

But when it comes to reducing unplanned pregnancies, crims are a tad wobbly.

According to Priya Jain (“The Battle to Ban Birth Control,” Salon, March 20, 2006), crim activists are increasingly opposed to birth control as well. They fight a host of standard birth control methods — including IUDs and the pill — as “abortifacients.” They fight against legislation to provide insurance coverage for contraception. They advocate laws that allow pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions. They spread propaganda about the “dangers” of condoms.

It’s easy to dismiss the anti-birth control activists as being from the deep end of the whackjob pool. But Cristina Page writes (“The War on Sex,”, May 17, 2006),

The pro-life groups who are the most committed to ending legal abortion—and gotten the furthest in their goals—are also leading campaigns against the only proven ways to prevent abortion: contraception. Shocking as it may be, there is not one pro-life organization in the United States that supports the use of contraception. Instead the pro-life movement is the constant opponent of every single effort to provide Americans with the ability to prevent unwanted pregnancies. If the South Dakota ban is upheld and Roe v. Wade is toppled, it’s safe to say the pro-life movement is not going to send out a brigade to furnish Americans with the most effective contraceptives. In fact pro-life groups’ most recent activities suggest the exact opposite.

Not one pro-life organization in the United States that supports the use of contraception? If you cruise around their web sites, you see that even those groups that don’t explicitly oppose the use of birth control don’t support it, either. For example, you can search the National Right to Life web site for a kind word on the responsible use of birth control until you turn purple; it isn’t there. But as Cristina Page documents, many state chapters have taken firms stands in opposition to any form of birth control.

Is there a corresponding degree of fanaticism on the pro-legality side? Not that I have found. No pro-legality association suggests that abortions should be forced on women who don’t want them. No pro-legality group I know of advocates abandoning the gestational limits on elective abortion set by Roe v. Wade. Not NARAL, not Planned Parenthood, not any of their affiliates. Instead, “legals” work to preserve the legal rights outlined in Roe v. Wade. And Roe v. Wade allows states to ban late-term elective abortions and place some restrictions on mid-term abortions. The notion that Roe v. Wade allows a woman to waltz into an abortion clinic and terminate a third-trimester pregnancy just because she feels like it is not, and never has been, true. Yet pro-legality organizations often are accused of being just as absolutist and extremist as the crims.

Unfortunately, these days crims run the government — Stacy Schiff writes (“Sex and the Single-Minded,” The New York Times, January 20, 2007),

How to get a job in Washington, that balmy, bipartisan town: Direct an organization that opposes contraception on the grounds that it is “demeaning to women.” Compare premarital sex to heroin addiction. Advertise a link between breast cancer and abortion — a link that was refuted in 1997. Rant against sex ed. And hatch a loony theory about hormones.

You’re a shoo-in, and if your name is Eric Keroack you’re in your second month as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Keroack, a 46-year-old Massachusetts ob-gyn, today oversees the $280 million Title X program, the only federal program “designed to provide access to contraceptive supplies and information to all who want and need them, with priority given to low-income persons.”

The loony theory about hormones is Keroack’s contention that premarital sex suppresses a hormone necessary for long-term relationships. (How an endocrine system knows whether one is married or not seems, um, mysterious.)

Even before Roe v. Wade many crims claimed that rape can’t cause pregnancy, which would be a big surprise to the estimated 32,000 or so American women who annually become pregnant as a result of rape. More recently the crims have promoted a much-debunked claim that abortion causes breast cancer. And they’re fond of fudging the phrase “late-term abortion” so that it means second trimester abortions, which is really “mid-term” on most planets.

For years, crims have falsely claimed that abortion causes mental illness. Emily Bazelon writes (“Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?The New York Times Sunday Magazine, January 21, 2007) that crims have fabricated a connection between abortion and mental or emotional disturbance purely as a tactic to win sympathy for the cause of banning abortion. (See Ann at Feministing and Jill at Feministe for more discussion.)

Crim behavior at abortion clinics is an old story. On Kos Diaries today redmcclain writes in”Why I Escort” about how he handles the lunacy: “My past employment includes stints at a psychiatric hospital and correctional facilities so the verbal barrage bounces off of me.” See also “A History of (Pro Life) Violence” at AlterNet. Read “A Mother’s Story,” about a mother whose daughter died from a back-alley abortion because of parental notification laws, and what the crims did to her —

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.”

And from this old Mahablog post, read about a woman who went to an abortion clinic —

As I exited the car like some kind of odd celebrity, I wasn’t prepared for the older woman who shoved her face an inch from mine and screamed that I was murdering my baby. I wasn’t prepared for the looks of pure hate, no, the looks that could kill. I seem to vaguely recall being warned not to make eye contact, but I did, and I saw what I thought was someone who would gladly murder me to keep me from entering the clinic.

For too long the “legals” have allowed crims to keep them on the defensive. We’re told we don’t know how to talk about abortion. We’re told we should be more sympathetic to the fetus or to whatever emotional repercussions a woman might experience. The fact is there is no way to talk about abortion without pushing somebody’s buttons, and crims have a lot of buttons. As long as we are supposed to tip-toe around the tender sensibilities of crims, we “legals” are going to look like losers.

Bleep that, I say. Crims are whackjobs, they are out of step with the enormous majority of Americans. From now on, whenever the clueless wonders in mass media talk about the “two sides” of the abortion debate being equally extreme or absolutist, slap them down. Because it’s not even close to being true.

And as far as talking about abortion is concerned, I say the pro-legality side has nothing to apologize for. To talk about any topic related to sexuality is to walk through a mindfield of Issues that will set off somebody. There is no way to avoid this. But we don’t have to be defensive; we’re the majority. 62 percent of Americans support Roe v. Wade. 53 percent of Americans call themselves “pro-choice” (as opposed to 39 percent who call themselves “pro-life”). From now on, let’s put the crims on the defensive. It shouldn’t be that hard.


[*] Of course it’s highly inaccurate and inflammatory to frame the debate in terms of being pro-abortion and anti-abortion. The phrase “pro-choice” isn’t entirely accurate either, however, because where abortion is illegal women still choose to have them; they just have to go underground to have them. And underground abortions are far more dangerous to women. The real difference is whether one believes abortion, including abortion for medical cause, should be criminalized in all or most circumstances; or whether one believes elective abortion should remain legal for at least part of the pregnancy and abortion for medical cause through all of it. For that reason I’d rather talk about criminalization versus legality rather than pro- or anti-choice. But we should not forget that many people fall somewhere in between the two ends of the opinion scale.

13 thoughts on “Blogging for Legality

  1. I highly recommend the NYT Magazine article from a few months ago about the abortion situation in Latin America. I know there’s been a controversy about a small part of it, but the overall message is still clear: lots of Latin American women are still having abortions, but they’re illegal, and the women therefore face lots of physical and legal risks to have them. That’s what criminalizing abortion does; it does NOT stop women from having them. As your post points out, the only way to reduce abortions is to improve access to contraception (and yes, the pro-lifers don’t like that option either).

  2. This is really a wonderful post. You’re absolutely right–it’s between rational pragmatists and fanatical ideologues, and the more people understand that, the more unpopular the fanatical ideologue position will be.

  3. Thank you, Maha, for this excellent post. I read the NYT magazine article this weekend and was shaking with anger at how some women are manipulated into thinking that all their problems can be simply attributed to a past abortion.

    Rational pragmatists, as you so intelligently call us, must stand up and be counted. Otherwise the back alleys will once again be slippery with blood (pardon the hyperbole but…).

  4. Pingback: The American Street » Blog Archive » Farewell to a Hero

  5. From now on, whenever the clueless wonders in mass media talk about the “two sides” of the abortion debate being equally extreme or absolutist, slap them down. Because it’s not even close to being true.

    Even less close, really – at least, my impression was that reducing the *need* for abortions, as part of helping women take charge of their bodies, has been a major part of the reproductive rights agenda since forever, no? – rather than the eventual result of keeping an ear to the (middle) ground.

    Crims vs. legals, eh? A bit loaded : ), but I like it. Especially since it makes me think of the Crim from the Nocturnals comic book – a ” parasitic species of extradimensional conquerors who . . .have aligned themselves with the insidious Narn K Corporation, a powerful multinational that specializes in bizarre experimentation and secretive weapons development, and have been busy producing animal-human hybrids and synthetic soldiers for use in warfare and ultimately global invasion” . . .

  6. Thank you Maha.
    My mother was part of the Margaret Sanger movement.
    She smuggled diaphragms into Pennsylvania.
    I don’t know if she was involved in the back alley abortions, but I think she was suspect. She received a lot of flack from the Catholic Church at the time. Diaphragms as well as abortions were criminal offences as well as grounds for excommunication from the church. I think all of her “clients” were Catholics.
    Youre writing sounds much like her. Brings back memories from my youth.

  7. Sexuality between consenting adults: None of the government’s business.

    Abortion pre-viability: None of the government’s business — unless, of course, it is murder.

    Now if it is murder, then, as a capital crime without a statute of limitations, we must gird our loins and prosecute and execute perhaps a third of the women of child-bearing age in this country (and at least half of those beyond it), along with legions of physicians, nurses, and hordes of male and female aiders and abettors.

    Maybe that is too sensible for the whackjobs, obsessed as they are about sexuality, particularly that of women and homosexual men. So let’s add that the male contribution to an aborted fetus be punished with castration and community service scrubbing bathrooms in brothels.

    That should keep them happy. Oh wait! That’s my mother, aunt, sister, wife, girl … on the death row guerney. Maybe not.

  8. World estimations of the number of terminations carried out each year is somewhere between 20 and 88 million.(likely 55 to 60)

    Over 3,500 per day / Over 1.3 million per year in America alone.

    50% of that 1.3 million claimed failed birth control was to blame.

    A further 48% had failed to use any birth control at all.

    And 2% had medical reasons.

    That means a staggering 98% of unwanted pregnancies may have been avoided had an effective birth control been used.

    I am a 98% pro-lifer, 2% Pro-choicer, who has no religious convictions at all . I didn’t need the fear of god or anything else to come to my decision, just a good sense of what is right and wrong.
    You see we were all once a fetus. Is it beyond the realm of possibilities that when your mother first learned she was carrying you, she may have considered her options? What if she had decided to terminate? Would that have been OK?
    You would not exist, if you have children they would not exist, and your (husband or wife) would be married to someone else. You would have been deprived of all your experiences and memories. In this day and age with terminations being so readily available and so many being carried out, if you make it to full term you can consider yourself lucky.
    Lucky you had a mother that made the choice of life for you.

    Don’t you think they all deserve the same basic human right, LIFE?

    At the point of conception is when life began for you. This was the start of your existence. Your own personal big bang. Three weeks after conception heart started to beat. First brain waves recorded at six weeks after conception. Seen sucking thumb at seven weeks after conception.

    Though it pains me to say it , there may always be a need for the 2% medical reasons and such, but that’s all.

    So how do we get the other 98% to be responsible……………….

    How do we get them to be honest with themselves, about when life begins.

    egg+sperm = human being

    Sadly many prefer an occasional abortion, over using birth control, they have all kinds of reasons, each of them selfish.

    Then there’s the christian impossition,and their men in high places.(all a bit talibanish, church and state should never entwine) their stance against birth control has only added to the numbers.

    People should be able to choose to use birth control, to avoid having to make another choice.

    I’d like to see effective birth control made available to all who can’t afford it.

    Sanity must provale, abortions should remain available and safe to the 2% and such, and the rest need to have a good look at themselves and get their act together.

    I’d also like to see a 4D ultrasound in every clinic to provide a more informed choice,
    before going through with something they may regret.

    If you think the point of conception is NOT when life begins, and all you have is a clump of cells and not a living human being.
    Then at least concider this –

    Soon after you were conceived you were no more than a clump of cells.
    This clump of cells was you at your earliest stage, you had plenty of growing to do but this clump of cells was you none the less.
    Think about it.
    Aren’t you glad you were left unhindered…. to develope further.
    Safe inside your mother’s womb until you were born.

    Want to know how to find humanity-?

    True humanity can only be achieved, by concidering others/ caring about others, as much as, if not more than yourself.

    Until we do we are no more than an uncivilisation,

    with all the uncivilised things that we do…



  10. One major reason there’s little official support for contraception on the anti-abortion side is that the Catholic Church is anti-contraception as well, and conservative Catholics are a large faction of anti-abortion activists.

    By the way, if I’d never existed, it wouldn’t matter to me, ausblog.

  11. I apologize; I hadn’t noticed a crim had left comments here.

    ausblog: Please read the posting rules carefully.

    World estimations of the number of terminations carried out each year is somewhere between 20 and 88 million.(likely 55 to 60)

    According to Alan Guttmacher, 46 million women around the world have abortions each year.

    But here’s the catch, ausblog — about 20 million of these abortions are performed in places where abortion is illegal.

    39% of the world’s women live in places where abortion is always nearly always illegal. Do the math; the rate of abortion doesn’t change all that much whether abortion is illegal or not.

    And where abortion is illegal, women get unsafe abortions. They take dangerous drugs or caustic substances by mouth; they insert objects into the vagina and try to flush out their wombs with bleach and other caustic liquids. As a result, about 78,000 women die every year from back-alley abortion.

    Where abortion is legal, mortality is extremely low. A first-trimester abortion is considerably safer for a woman than childbirth.

    Let me repeat that: Making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it. Doesn’ t even slow it down. There’s a chart in this post that illustrates this point. The lowest abortion rates on the planet are in ultra-liberal western European nations like The Netherlands. Their rates are much lower than in the U.S.

    Conversely, some of the highest abortion rates on the planet are in nations in which abortion is illegal.

    If you want to reduce abortion, making it illegal doesn’t work. Stupid arguments (like some of the ones you’ve already posted and which I deleted) about how babies must be human because the law says so (have you no brain at all?) are utterly beside the point, for reasons I explain here.

    Dear, the questions about whether I might exist or not are exceeding stupid. You’re arguing with a Zen Buddhist. Intrinsic existence is a delusions.

    What does work, what really does reduce the rate of abortion, is birth control Where birth control is easily available, and where people are un-hung up enough about sex to use it, abortion rates are very, very low. Where birth control is illegal or hard to obtain or socially frowned upon, abortion rates are very, very high.

    And not a single “pro-choice” organization in the U.S. supports birth control.

    If you are really interested in reducing the number of abortions, stop being stupid and for pity’s sake never, never donate money to
    “right to life” organizations or try to terrorize and abuse women entering abortion clinics. Instead, support good sex education in school and support the use of birth control.

    Now, go away.

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