The overturning of Roe vs Wade this week has compelled me to write a
few shit-ton of words on my current beliefs as it relates to elective abortion. Most states have laws for aborting a pregnancy in the case of incest, rape, or harm to the mother, so I will not be addressing those uncommon situations here but will instead focus on elective abortions to define and narrow my argument.
Abortion and pathos
Abortion is an extremely emotional issue.
I once met a woman who had a son with down syndrome. He was a product of rape. She birthed and cared for that child well into his fifties. I met her shortly after her son had died. She spent decades caring for a disabled son born out of trauma. She was a modern-day saint.
I once had a sophomore student who became pregnant. Her family was dirt-poor, she wore musty-smelling clothes, and her boyfriend had left her. I watched as this fifteen-year-old girl stared down a lifetime of struggle and poverty because of one bad choice. Here she was, just a kid herself, and her future was already laid out for her. That future wasn’t bright.
We all have anecdotes, experiences, and stories that pull on our heartstrings. However, I want to look at abortion from a more pragmatic angle. Let’s strip away all the rhetoric and pathos that can cause such fierce emotions, and look clear-eyed at a complicated issue.
Abortion and logical fallacies
Because the abortion issue is so emotional, it is often full of logical fallacies. Every year I teach my students logical fallacies and I often use the abortion debate as an excellent, real-life example of people using these poor methods of argumentation, particularly the Straw Man and Ad Hominem fallacy. In case you’re unfamiliar with fallacies, “the straw man fallacy, occurs when an opponent’s point of view is distorted in order to make it easier to refute” (Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy). Another common fallacy used in the debate is the Ad Hominem fallacy: “Arguing against, or rejecting a person’s views by attacking or abusing his personality, character, motives, intentions, qualifications, etc. as opposed to providing evidence why the views are incorrect” (Dictionary of Philosophy).
“Pro-life people are a bunch of backward, uneducated, Bible-thumping assholes who want to control women’s bodies.”
“Pro-choice people are a bunch of woke, atheist, feminist baby-killers who don’t give a shit about human life.”
Of course, both of these over-dramatized statements drip with Ad Hominem and Straw Man fallacies. Unfortunately, a lot of people subscribe to similar viewpoints that don’t really serve anything but our own sense of self-righteousness.
Abortion in the era of meme/TikTok politics.
Most of us must admit we are swayed by memes and online short-form videos. They are short, compelling, and often full of fallacies.
Two examples from differing viewpoints on abortion:
The sad truth is that more of us than we’d like to admit build our political and social stances based on these bite-sized arguments. They usually sound so good! They confirm our beliefs (and ego) while elucidating a thought we couldn’t quite put into words ourselves. But the fact that we often base our convictions on whatever anonymous, convenient, on-the-go, don’t-have-to-think-too-hard images or videos are fed to us should give us pause. Are our viewpoints on abortion (or any other issue) determined by sustained inquiry using reliable sources? Or are our strongly held beliefs simply the evitable product of our personal and online bubble?
Both “sides” have a lot in common.
First, I don’t subscribe to the idea that there are only two clear “sides” to the abortion debate (False Dichotomy fallacy). There is certainly a spectrum of beliefs. All that said, I think that there are two statements nearly everyone can agree on:
- It is unethical to take a person’s life if that person is a child.
- We would like the number of abortions to be reduced
So where do we disagree?
The first way we disagree is how we define a “person.” Does a “person” exist at conception as the Catholic Church believes? (An interesting aside is that some people consider personhood to be after “day 14, gastrulation, where the embryo becomes an individual, where you can no longer form twins and triplets” (Swarthmore College). In other words, is a freshly conceived embryo a “person” if it can divide into one or two other “persons?”)
Does personhood begin when the fetus is viable outside of the womb, as Roe vs Wade claimed?
Does personhood begin at the first breath? The state of New York defines personhood as such. There are religious readings of the Bible that suggest the same:
“While the Talmud gives the full status of humanness to a child at birth, the rabbinical writings have partially extended the acquisition of humanness to the 13th postnatal day of life for full-term infants.” (National Library of Medicine)
“Protestant theology generally takes Genesis 2:7 as a statement that the soul is formed at breath, not with conception. However as Baptists believe in the priesthood of every believer to search the Scriptures, find truth, and make moral decisions for themselves, we have differing views on the matter of birth control and the question of when life begins” (Baptist Press, 1976, p. 5)
Ultimately, the question of when personhood begins is unanswerable in any meaningful way. Religions, the state, and ethicists all have differing views based on different sources and beliefs.
The second disagreement is how to best reduce abortion. Nearly everyone agrees that abortion is not desirable. The question of personhood aside:
The 2008 report of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion (TFMHA) concluded that “it is clear that some women do experience sadness, grief, and feelings of loss following termination of a pregnancy, and some experience clinically significant disorders, including depression and anxiety.”4 Indeed, task force chair Brenda Major et al.’s own research had reported that 2 years after their abortions, 1.5% of the remnant participating in her case series (38% of the 1177 eligible women, after dropouts) had all the symptoms for abortion-specific post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, she found that compared to their 1-month post-abortion assessments, at 2 years the participating remnant had significantly rising rates of depression and negative reactions and lowering rates of positive reactions, relief, and decision satisfaction.” (“The abortion and mental health controversy: A comprehensive literature review of common ground agreements, disagreements, actionable recommendations, and research opportunities”, Reardon, 2018)
There is no disagreement that we need to reduce abortions, if only for the sake of women and their mental health. However, some people (mostly Republicans) believe that we can legislate a decrease in abortions. I think this is misinformed and simplistic. But more on that later.
Why do women get elective abortions?
According to a 2013 study of US women, 40% percent of women claimed they wanted an elective abortion because they “were not financially prepared” to raise a child. 31% said it was “partner-related” ( Relationship is bad, poor and/or new; Respondent wants to be married first/not a single mom; Partner is not supportive; Partner is wrong guy; Partner does not want baby; Partner is abusive). A surprising number of women had children already and didn’t feel they could care for another one.
Who has abortions?
Minorities: “Among the 30 areas that reported race by ethnicity data for 2019, non-Hispanic White women and non-Hispanic Black women accounted for the largest percentages of all abortions (33.4% and 38.4%, respectively), and Hispanic women and non-Hispanic women in the other race category accounted for smaller percentages (21.0% and 7.2%, respectively) (Table 6). Non-Hispanic White women had the lowest abortion rate (6.6 abortions per 1,000 women) and ratio (117 abortions per 1,000 live births), and non-Hispanic Black women had the highest abortion rate (23.8 abortions per 1,000 women) and ratio (386 abortions per 1,000 live births).” (CDC, 2019)
According the Guttmacher Institute, here are the rates of abortion per 1,000 women based on race in 2014:
Other non-Hispanic 16.3/1,000
The poor: “Poor women continue to account for a disproportionate share of abortion patients, and this representation increased from 42% to 49% over the six-year period, mostly driven by an increase in the population of women of reproductive age who are poor. The abortion index for poor women changed little, and disparities in abortion rates by income did not increase between 2008 and 2014. Still, it is now the case that 75% of abortion patients are low income, having family incomes of less than 200% of the federal poverty level.” (Guttmacher Institute)
What may happen with the repeal of Roe Vs Wade
- Minorities and the poor will be disproportionately affected. Unintended pregnancies have real effects on the quality of life of both mothers, children, and the community at large. We already know that minorities and the poor face the tragic choice of terminating their pregnancy at a far higher level than white or economically stable individuals. Unintended pregnancies can create a wide range “of negative consequences—abridged educational careers (23, 24), labor-market struggles (19, 47), higher crime rates (2, 53), more abortions (48), increased levels of household stress (47, 48), and other related outcomes” (National Library of Medicine).
- There may be more unsafe abortions. Because abortion services have been legal in the US for the past 50 years, there is little data about unsafe abortions in the US. While we cannot speculate on what may happen here in the US after the revocation of Roe vs Wade, we have worldwide data that suggests women who do choose “unsafe” abortions (abortions without the care of a certified healthcare worker) can face tragic consequences:
Every year, worldwide, about 42 million women with unintended pregnancies choose abortion, and nearly half of these procedures, 20 million, are unsafe. Some 68,000 women die of unsafe abortion annually, making it one of the leading causes of maternal mortality (13%). Of the women who survive unsafe abortions, 5 million will suffer long-term health complications. (National Library of Medicine).
Really want to reduce abortions?
Easy/free access to birth control
Easy and free access to birth control is probably the single most effective way to reduce elective abortions. A study completed in 2014 gave women in the St Louis area access to free, long-term birth control (like an IUD, implant, patches, etc). The results? Abortion dropped by over 80% for participants who received the free, long-term contraceptives.
The data speaks for itself.
Comprehensive Sex Education
Abstinence-only sex education, or expecting abstinence, doesn’t work.
The first reason is simply a matter of math (that even an English major can understand). The median age of first marriage is currently 30 years old for men and 29 years old for women. (In 1950 the median age was 23 and 20 respectively.) (US Census). The simple dynamics of our culture, where settling into a stable career and home takes far longer than it once did, means marriage must wait. On the other hand, sexual maturation happens, on average, between 13-14 years of age (Graber). The average age for first vaginal sex occurs at 17 years old (National Library of Medicine). Do we really expect young people today, full of raging hormones, to take a vow of celibacy for 13-17 years?
Other data backs up the idea that abstinence-only education actually has a negative effect on teen pregnancies:
After accounting for other factors, the national data show that the incidence of teenage pregnancies and births remain positively correlated with the degree of abstinence education across states: The more strongly abstinence is emphasized in state laws and policies, the higher the average teenage pregnancy and birth rate. States that taught comprehensive sex and/or HIV education and covered abstinence along with contraception and condom use (level 1 sex education; also referred to as “abstinence-plus” , tended to have the lowest teen pregnancy rates, while states with abstinence-only sex education laws that stress abstinence until marriage (level 3) were significantly less successful in preventing teen pregnancies. (National Library of Medicine)
Comprehensive sex education, delivered either by schools, churches, or parents, would provide young people with the tools to safely navigate their emerging sexuality and would presumably prevent more unwanted pregnancies.
Financially support women who choose to carry to term.
In Norway, health care is universal and nearly free. “Dads get 15 weeks of non-transferable, use-it-or-lose-it paid leave. And, overall, new parents can take 49 weeks at 100 percent of earnings or 59 weeks at 80 percent of earnings” (Forbes). Norway’s abortion rate? 9.2 out of 1,000 pregnancies. The US abortion rate? 14.4 out of 1,000. I don’t want to get sloppy and suggest causation where there is a correlation, but it does make one wonder if more financial support to not only expecting mothers but to new mothers as well would reduce elective abortions. After all, 40% of respondents in the US cited financial challenges as one of the reasons to get an elective abortion.
Other data shows just how expensive carrying to term can be. A study from 2015 found that women with health insurance pay $4,500 on average for delivery and pre and post-partum care. If 75% of abortions occur for women who earn less than $26,000 a year, a pregnancy alone costs nearly 20% of their annual income. Additionally, in 2015, a single parent could expect to pay an average of $172,200 to raise a child from birth to age 17, “not including child-related expenditures made by the parent without primary care or by others, such as grandparents.”
If you are this hypothetical woman who earns 200% of the federal poverty level, carrying to term will cost you 20% of your annual income and 40% of your income each year for the next 17 years.
Teach men to accept responsibility
One in four children in the US do not live with their father. We lead the developed world in fatherlessness. Considering 31% of women cited partner-related issues as a factor in choosing an elective abortion, men have a strong role to play in helping to reduce abortion. By persuading a significant other to have an abortion (or by simply disappearing), fathers often drive women to make very difficult choices.
A note on adoption:
Many posit that women should carry a fetus to term and put it up for adoption. In 2019, over 64,000 US children were adopted. There were 629,898 abortions in 2019. Based on these numbers, if anyone thinks adoption is a viable option for ending elective abortion, I would challenge them to start the adoption process themselves.
What? You can’t afford or don’t have the space to take on a baby? Your partner doesn’t want to take on a baby? It’s not the right time? That’s how she feels.
A final note:
If we can all agree that we want to reduce the number of abortions, there are real, actionable steps to make that happen. It’s not as simple or convenient as overturning a court ruling.
Teach your sons and daughters about safe sex and how to reduce unwanted pregnancies.
Teach your boys to take responsibility for their actions.
If you’re staunchly pro-life, great. Start the adoption paperwork. Donate money or create a fund to help women after they have given birth. (Pregnancy resource centers don’t count. A bit of counseling and a few free diapers doesn’t cut it.) Advocate for free, accessible birth control and better maternal leave. Open your wallet and help pay a single mom’s tuition or watch her kid while she works or takes classes. Just don’t sit on your couch and congratulate yourself on your perceived moral victory. A lot more kids might be born. And their moms will likely be brown and poor and alone. Go help someone dramatically different from you by giving your time and money. After all, it’s for the kids, right? Hear her story, hold her child, and give her real, tangible support. It will be hard work. That’s what you’ve signed up for.
If you’re staunchly pro-choice, great. Even if you feel like you’ve lost the legal battle, donate your money to provide women with long-term, free contraception. Stock up on short-term and emergency contraception and offer it for free to anyone in your community. Chances are, you’ll have women showing up at your comfortably suburban and tastefully decorated front door. They will likely be brown and poor and alone. Offer her opportunities and resources to climb out of poverty. Challenge your school district’s abstinence-only sex education. Work with “the other side” to set up funds and support for new moms. Demand that your representatives support the same children they were so eager to “save” now that those children face a lifetime of challenges, poverty, and fatherlessness. It will be hard work. That’s what you’ve signed up for.
The Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs Wade has felt like a huge moral victory or defeat for many. I personally find it reprehensible, and I think it will absolutely lead to more unsafe abortions and more poverty (and all the negative outcomes poverty produces).
If we truly want to reduce abortion, we need to offer women more choices. Not less.