What Kevin Williamson Doesn’t Get About Abortion in France

Kevin Williamson is still miffed about being dismissed from The Atlantic almost immediately after having been hired. He was flushed from the magazine because someone unearthed a twitter exchange from 2014 in which Williamson said that abortion should be punished like any other homicide. “I have hanging more in mind,” he tweeted.

Today he writes for the Washington Post that the tweet doesn’t necessarily represent his opinion. What he proposes is that the U.S. adopt the same abortion laws as France.

France, like many European countries, takes a stricter line on abortion than does the United States: Abortion on demand is permitted only through the 12th week of pregnancy. After that, abortion is severely restricted, permitted only to prevent grave damage to the mother’s health, or in the event of severe fetal abnormalities. France is not a neo-medieval right-wing dystopia.

The law in France imposes penalties on those who perform illegal abortions, ranging from forfeiture of medical licenses for doctors to fines and, in some cases, incarceration (for providers, not for the woman obtaining the abortion) ranging from six months to 10 years. Those sanctions seem reasonable to me. Why not start there and see how it works?

Williamson leaves out some stuff. One, for French citizens abortions are entirely paid for by the French national health care system. Abortions don’t have to be delayed so that the woman can scrape up the money to pay for them, nor do they have to get on a waiting list or travel great distances to get to the one or two clinics in the state performing them.

Amanda Marcotte wrote for Slate in 2013:

Subsequently, while a lot of these nations have abortion laws that formally reflect Christian paternalism about reproduction and women’s roles, in practice, abortion is much easier to get than it is in the United States. You may have to provide a reason for your abortion in many nations, but it’s simply a formality, a box checked and not an obstacle. More importantly, the abortion providers aren’t being hounded out of existence and in many cases, the cost of the abortion is paid for by the state health care plan.  Katha Pollitt recently elaborated in The Nation:

Here’s what’s really different about Western Europe: in France, you can get an abortion at any public hospital and it’s paid for by the government. In Germany, you can get one at a hospital or a doctor’s office, and health plans will pay for it for low-income women. In Sweden, abortion is free through eighteen weeks.

Note that contraceptive services also are free for French citizens, and I doubt le Parlement français is perpetually attempting to pass laws defunding those services. There is no surer way to reduce rates of abortion in a population than use of contraceptives.

Regarding fetal abnormalities, when severe fetal abnormalities are diagnosed in France, apparently the system applies a lot of pressure on the woman to abort. Refusal to abort is considered a problem resulting from “magical thinking.” Here in the U.S., abortion rights advocates have had to fight tooth and nail to keep later medical abortions legal for those who choose them.

A 12-week  gestational limit for elective abortion is standard in most European countries, with only a couple of exceptions, and I’m not hearing a lot of complaints about it.  In theory, that ought to be workable here, too. According to the CDC, in the U.S.,

The majority of abortions in 2014 took place early in gestation:  91.5% of abortions were performed at ≤13 weeks’ gestation; a smaller number of abortions (7.2%) were performed at 14–20 weeks’ gestation, and even fewer (1.3%) were performed at ≥21 weeks’ gestation.

However, without easy access to abortion services that are convenient and free (as in paid for by tax dollars) at least to poor and middle-income women, poor women are going to be driven to do-it-yourself and back-alley abortions, which is already happening in places like Texas.

Susanna was young, single, broke and pregnant in southern Texas where, thanks to the state’s strict laws, her chances of getting a surgical abortion at a clinic were slim to none.

So she did what an estimated 100,000 women or more in Texas have done – had a self-induced abortion.

With the help of a friend, some online instructions and quick dash across the Mexican border for some pills, she addressed the issue of unwanted pregnancy in a state where women are finding abortion services too expensive and too far away.

I also propose that it’s possible recent reductions in abortion rates reported in the U.S. are partly the result of increasing do-it-yourself abortions that are off the radar.

Getting back to Williamson,

The French model does not represent an ideal final settlement. It would, in fact, leave untouched the vast majority of abortions, about 90 percent of which happen during the first trimester. It would, however, represent a welcome advance — one that would establish a post-Roe v. Wade legal framework for incremental reform. Whether to restrict abortion at the 12th week or the eighth week is a very different discussion than the one we are presently having.

Already we see the problem. He and the rest of the Fetus People — so called because their brains are undeveloped — will not rest until that limit is pushed down from 12 weeks to 8 weeks to 6 weeks — a lot of women don’t know they are pregnant at six weeks — to maybe below that. If they can get it under ten days, they’ll have closed the window before a pregnancy can be diagnosed.

And, of course, abortions will need to be paid by taxpayer dollars and available in all communities, not just in one clinic per state that is surrounded by mobs of brain-eating anti-choice zombies.

Abortion is an absolute evil

Forcing a woman to go through pregnancy and childbirth against her will is an absolute evil.

The question for abortion opponents is this: Shall we act on our desire to punish, or on our desire to stop the killing? These desires do not necessarily lead in the same direction.

Well, yes, and this is something I’ve trying to explain to Fetus People for decades now. I am not alone. We know how to reduce abortion rates. The way is to make birth control readily available and to persuade people to actually practice it. Criminalizing abortions, however, does not reduce abortions at all. If anything, nations that criminalize abortions often see higher rates of abortion than countries that keep it legal.

In a new study published Wednesday, researchers from the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute examine abortion and contraceptive access throughout the world. The report, in the British medical journal The Lancet, highlights major disparities in trends for women in wealthier nations compared with those in poorer countries.

The researchers looked at country data on abortion prevalence, contraceptive use by method, and unmet need for contraception in order to analyze trends across every major region and subregion between 1990 and 2014. They came to several illuminating conclusions:

Strict abortion restrictions didn’t necessarily lead to a significant decrease in the rate of abortion: For example, the study’s authors note that across the 53 countries where abortion is completely illegal or only permitted to save a woman’s life, the rate of abortions is 37 per 1,000 women. In the countries where abortion is legal, the rate is 34 abortions per 1,000 women. That’s in part because women living in countries with more restrictive abortion laws are also more likely to have an unmet need for contraception. “This adds to the incidence of abortion in countries with restrictive laws,” the Guttmacher Institute’s Dr. Gilda Sedgh, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.  …

… “The obvious interpretation is that criminalising abortion does not prevent it but, rather, drives women to seek illegal services or methods,” wrote Diana Greene Foster, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, in a commentary responding to The Lancet study.

But Greene Foster also points out in her commentary that some of these findings don’t provide the full picture. “This simple story overlooks the many women who, in the absence of safe legal services, carry unwanted pregnancies to term,” she writes. “As a consequence of increased rates of unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion, such women face an increased risk of maternal mortality and bear children that they are not ready to care for and often cannot afford.”

See also:

New Study: Anti-Abortion Laws Don’t Reduce Abortion Rates. Contraception Does.

Making Abortion Illegal Does Not Reduce Number of Women Having Terminations, Study Concludes

Banning Abortion Doesn’t Actually Reduce Abortion Rates at All

And, finally,

Amid new talk of criminalizing abortion, research shows the dangers of making it illegal for women (Washington Post, April 5, 2018)

The idea of criminalizing abortions is not new, but a push has emerged recently among some antiabortion advocates for enacting strict penalties against women who have the procedure, and not just doctors and clinics that provide abortions.

Research over the past decade, however, casts significant doubt on whether criminalizing abortion would reduce abortion rates. And data from countries where abortion is outlawed suggests it could have serious consequences on women’s health and safety….

…The study revealed that abortion rates had fallen significantly in the past 14 years in developed countries where laws tended to be more lax, but largely stayed the same in poorer countries with more restrictive laws. The study’s authors concluded this was likely because the countries with the most rules against abortion also tended to offer less access to modern contraception, sex education and family-planning services.

“The evidence is clear that the most effective way to reduce abortion rates is to prevent unintended pregnancies through modern contraceptives,” said Heather Boonstra, public policy director at the Guttmacher Institute. …

… The other key data point that has emerged from research over the years is the relationship between abortion laws and safety: In countries where abortion is most restricted, the procedure is much more dangerous for women.

In a report last year, the World Health Organization found that in countries where abortion is completely banned or permitted only to save the woman’s life or health, 1 in 4 abortions was safe. By comparison, in countries where abortion is legal, nearly 9 in 10 abortions were performed safely. The WHO researchers found that 45 percent of abortions worldwide were unsafe, endangering about 25 million women each year.

Laws against abortion have additional consequences for women. In El Salvador, for example, abortion is illegal with no exceptions. Women found guilty of getting an abortion can face years in prison. In February, one Salvadoran woman who had spent almost 11 years in prison was freed after the Supreme Court commuted her sentence. Suicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant teenagers in that country. [emphasis added]

So there we are. And none of this information is really new. The World Health Organization study being discussed in the articles above is from last year, but if you look you can find other studies by many other organizations going back more than a decade — probably a couple of decades — saying the same thing. Criminalizing abortion doesn’t stop it. Punishing women and their doctors doesn’t stop it. Nothing actually stops it — there have always been abortions, throughout human history — but rates can be dramatically reduced if sexually active people have easy access to contraceptives and actually use them. That’s a big reason why some portions of of western Europe (where abortion is legal) consistently have had the lowest abortion rates on the planet for many years — these places also have the highest rates of contraceptive use, including among teenagers.

So why are we still talking about this? Oh, I remember. Williamson and the rest of the Fetus People really just want to punish women.

Anyway — so the deal is, call off the zombies. Make abortion and contraceptives free as part of a taxpayer-funded national health service, and enable abortions to be performed in any hospital or doctor’s office. And then we can talk about lowering the gestational age, but not below 12 weeks. And then we’ll be just like France.

Update: From Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

OK, sure, let’s try France’s abortion regime! I’m glad to see Williamson endorsing free abortions being made available to women at any hospital, and making first trimester abortions unregulated!

We’ve been through this before on multiple occasions , but this move of abstracting one particular formal aspect of a European abortion law while ignoring the broader political and cultural context is useless and misleading argument. (Cf. also “Singapore uses private savings accounts!”) A 12-week limit obviously functions very differently in a country where free safe abortions are easily available and a country where many states are making it enormously difficult for many women to obtain abortions. And how often are women who ask for abortions after 12 weeks in France actually denied them?

I don’t know the answer to that last question, but a couple of weeks’ gestation are easy to fudge. And, of course, if abortion is a “homicide” at 13 weeks, why isn’t it one at 12 weeks? What has changed (nothing medically significant)? Seriously we could talk about an earlier gestational age for elective abortion than the current 23-24 weeks, but there’s no compromise that will satisfy the zombies. So there’s no point.

3 thoughts on “What Kevin Williamson Doesn’t Get About Abortion in France

  1. Your post has a lot of good info in it that's always good to repeat.  But the bottom line is that anyone who argues that abortion is "an absolute evil" but then claims they are open to compromise on the subject is either a liar or amoral.  You don't compromise with "absolute evil".  They're either lying about their view of abortion, lying about their being open to compromise, or (very unlikely) actually do believe that something being "an absolute evil" is no big deal.

    There are a lot of reasons not to agree with, or even respect, the anti-abortion position, but especially so since it's based on what can only be a lie.

  2. JDM: I am happy to have them lie as much as they want. I don't really care what they think or say. As long as they leave women's bodies out of it, which is really the whole point, isn't it?

  3. I think a good start with them is to point out to them, and anyone listening, that they're lying.  One of our big problems is one you see when combatting pseudoscience: if you don't point out to others that so-and-so is lying, and how they're lying, those others often don't understand why you're "being unreasonable" in not engaging with their attempts to find a compromise position.

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