Friday, March 03, 2017

Abortion Rights and Religious Wrongs

The question of abortion rights hasn’t been getting much press lately. This is probably due to the Orange Tire Fire in the White House and his continual outrages drawing attention away from this issue. It is definitely NOT because the issue has been settled, far from it. However, there are a few arguments around the topic of a woman's right to choose that I would like to highlight.

As such, the only people involved in this decision are the woman, her doctor, and anyone else she deems worthy enough to participate in this matter. Nobody else should be able to impose their will on the situation, especially a bunch of middle-aged guys in government.

Despite this, Republicans in Congress are considering H. R. 490, the Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017, introduced by Steve King (R-IA) and co-sponsored by Trent Franks (R-AZ). This bill amends Title 18, Chapter 74 of the U. S. Code by adding, in part:

Ҥ 1532. Abortions prohibited without a check for fetal heartbeat, or if a fetal heartbeat is detectable
(a) Offense.—Any physician who knowingly performs an abortion and thereby kills a human fetus—
(1) without determining, according to standard medical practice, whether the fetus has a detectable heartbeat;
(2) without informing the mother of the results of that determination; or
(3) after determining, according to standard medical practice, that the fetus has a detectable heartbeat,

shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.”

This is absurd. Not for nothing, but in many cases the fetal heartbeat is at a level that it can be detected before the woman is even aware she is pregnant, which means this bill essentially bans abortion. Period.

In addition to this, there is the matter of the exceptions. True, it makes exceptions for the life and health of the mother. However, these come after the fact. In other words, a physician must wait for an indictment to come down, at which point he or she may appeal to the State Medical Board ... and then this only delays the trial for up to 30 days.

In other words, this bill takes the Constitutional notion of “innocent until proven guilty” and chucks it right out the window by assuming the practitioner is guilty and putting the burden of proving innocence on that physician.

It’s nonsense like this that slows the progress of the pro-choice movement ... and this is intentional. Anti-choice activists are not really interested in the health of the mother, or the continued life of the fetus (if they were, then there would be a lot more resources dedicated to improving the lot of unwanted children after they are born ... but I digress). What they are interested in is a) imposing their particular moral code on the rest of the country, regardless of whether or not it fits the beliefs of everyone else, and b) maintaining the patriarchy that believes that women are just silly, empty-headed creatures, incapable of independent thought, the poor ducklings, so it is up to all the big, strong men to protect them and tell them what they need to do.

Look, the right of a woman to choose how she handles her own pregnancy is inviolable, in much the same way that she has the right to refuse further treatment for ovarian cancer, or to get a second opinion when told she has heart disease or diabetes or gout or any number of other maladies. It is a medical decision, and as such it should have the same doctor-patient confidentiality protections as any other medical procedure. This is a basic issue of individual privacy, which was settled by the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965.

I agree with the anti-choice movement on one point: the number of abortions is too high, and we need to bring that number down. Where we differ is in how we would do that. The anti-choice movement seems to think that, if abortion is made illegal, then they will just go away. This is so far from the truth that it’s barely visible on the horizon. What will actually happen is that women will continue to have abortions, but in much less safe conditions.

There is a website called which has a lot of anti-choice propaganda. One of the statistics cited was that “[t]he Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tells us that ‘from 1970 through 1982, the reported number of legal abortions in the United States increased every year.’" This comes from a study in which the CDC tracked the number of legal abortions. What the web site fails to mention, however, is that this same study showed that “[f]rom 1990 through 1995, the number of abortions declined each year; in 1996, the number increased slightly, but in 1997, it declined to its lowest level since 1978.” Of course, being an anti-choice site, this didn’t square with their propaganda so they left it out.

The truth? The abortion rate has been steadily falling from a high of 29.3 abortions performed per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 in 1978 to 14.6 in 2014. By comparison, the rate in 1973, when Roe v. Wade was passed, was 16.3 (source: This doesn’t stop the anti-choice movement from trying to spin things their way, sometimes being very ... flexible ... with their understanding of what the truth is.

For example, a document published by Georgia Right To Life appears to run counter to the above statistics when it states that “In 1996, 1,365,730 abortions were recorded, an increase of well over 100% since 1973, when the annual figure was 615,831, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.” Of course, these numbers are false. According to the CDC report cited earlier by this same web site, the number of abortions in 1996 was 1,221,585, or a rate of 314 abortions per 1,000 live births. Of these, 98.5% occurred before 20 weeks of gestation, and 88.2% occurred before 12 weeks of gestation.

It becomes clear, when looking at these statistics, that all the screaming on the right about “partial birth abortion” (which, technically, doesn’t exist) is just so much histrionics intended to get their base fired up. The vast majority of abortions are performed before 12 weeks of gestation, and almost all of them are performed prior to 20 weeks of gestation.

The much more important number, however, is the number of deaths caused by abortions. In 1972, the first year for which statistics are available, the case-fatality rate was 4.1 deaths per 100,000 abortions performed. By 1992, that rate had dropped to 0.7 deaths per 100,000 abortions. Furthermore, the absolute number of deaths from legal and illegal abortions in 1972 was 63, whereas in 1992 it was 10. (A note on methodology: there is another class of abortions known as “spontaneous” abortions, or abortions that happened with no medical intervention. However, prior to 1978 all spontaneous abortions were classified the same; from 1978 on, spontaneous abortions that occurred after 20 weeks of gestation were classified as stillbirths and therefore not counted in abortion statistics. This had effect of inflating mortality statistics prior to 1978, and this class of abortion was omitted from our results so as to give an apples-to-apples comparison).

Given these numbers, it becomes clear that the anti-choice crowd is not really interested in women’s health. If they were, they would be trumpeting these numbers from the highest rooftops as a victory, while maintaining that there is still work to do. Yet their focus is, instead, on criminalizing abortion again, even though the statistics bear out the idea that doing so will result in higher mortality rates.

Women are going to get abortions regardless. The idea is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, thus reducing the overall need for abortions. But more on this later ...

The anti-choice movement assumes that, just because a woman has a right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, then she will automatically do so. Not only is this a ridiculous assertion, it is insulting to women in that it assumes they are nothing more than compliant sheep, incapable of making decisions on their own and needing patriarchal guidance.

It even comes up in the arguments presented by the right. “What if your mother had chosen to abort YOU?” is a favorite question leveled at pro-choice activists, despite the obvious irony inherent in that question. The answer, of course, is at a) if she had, I certainly wouldn’t even be aware of it, much less have a problem with it, and b) it was her CHOICE.

Just because a choice is available, that does not automatically mean that the choice will be made. For example, I apparently have a Constitutional right to own a firearm (I really don’t, but that’s a topic for another rant entirely). However, I refuse to have one. Just because I have the CHOICE to have a gun does not automatically imply that I will avail myself of that choice.

It’s the same with abortion. Look, if anti-choice groups want to counsel women to not abort their babies, as long as they are compassionate about it and don’t resort to intimidation or guilt tactics, then I support these efforts 100%. The official pro-choice stance, in my mind, is that abortions should be legal, and that we should do everything in our power to make them unnecessary. Which brings us to the fourth point.

It is extremely interesting that the same groups that so piously champion "the rights of the unborn" are also the same groups that refuse to consider anything that might prevent these unwanted pregnancies in the first place, or oppose help for these women after the children are born. Many of these groups base their ideology in religion, more specifically evangelical Christianity. Unfortunately for women, this same ideology holds that birth control is immoral, as is sex education.

This gives us a population of women who are ill-informed about sex, who aren’t really clear on how and when women become pregnant, or on how pregnancy can be prevented. Anti-choice groups seem to think that they can shriek “Abstinence!” then brush off their hands and walk away, smugly praising themselves for a job well done.

There are so many problems with this approach it’s hard to know where to begin.

First, the idea that teens are too young and impressionable to handle sex education is ludicrous. Teenagers are smart people, and their minds are like sponges, absorbing volumes of information each day. Granted, they often make stupid choices (I, for one, used to walk all the way around the outside of my friend’s pickup truck as it was going down the road), but giving them accurate information on contraception can only help the situation.

Contrary to what the right would have us believe, sex education does not encourage teens to engage in sexual behaviors ... their bodies handle that task just fine, thank you very much. However, sex education has been shown to reduce the number of teen pregnancies significantly, as well as the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.

And as far as this “abstinence only” thing? It doesn’t work. Look, anti-choicers are trying to use a moral code going back a couple thousand years to stifle a fundamental biological urge going back MILLIONS of years. The urge to have sex -- to procreate -- is a basic drive; it is actually (in the biological sense) the reason for our very existence. We are here to further the species, period. Full stop. Everything else is just so much frosting on that cake. Trying to curb teen pregnancy by demanding abstinence ... well, it’s just not realistic.

Let’s say that a teenager has gone through a program of sex education, and practices safe sex, and is responsible with her partners, and does everything right, and she gets pregnant anyway. It happens. No birth control is 100% effective (well, abstinence is 100% effective when used correctly, but again, it’s not realistic), and accidents do happen. The condom breaks, or the birth control pill was not dosed correctly, or any number of other factors, and now there’s a baby on the way.

Let us further suppose that the National Right To Life or a similar organization has counseled this young woman in a thoughtful, compassionate manner. They presented her with the available options, including abortion, then made their case without resorting to scare tactics or trying to shame her, and she decided to carry the baby to term. However, she doesn’t want to keep the child, recognizing that she is not at all ready -- emotionally or financially -- to be a mother. What then?

The obvious answer is adoption. It is a wonderful way to do what is best for everyone. The mother, even though it is heartbreaking for her to give up the baby, can be assured that the child will be placed in a stable home with loving parents, which will give this child a strong start in life. Yet evangelical groups often refuse to provide any assistance here -- basically, they are only concerned with this child up until the moment of birth; anything after that is someone else’s problem.

If the anti-choice groups want to truly be “pro-life,” as they say they are, then they need to step up to the plate and actually promote life, not just birth. Again, given the religious affiliation of many groups,. They are in an especially strong position to provide these services.

In almost every piece of legislation drawn up by the anti-choice crowd, there are exceptions for rape, incest, or the life and health of either the mother or the fetus. While these are laudable, there is an unsavory side to these exceptions.

To begin with, there is the potential humiliation. For many rape victims, the rapist is someone well known and reporting the rape can have unintended consequences. Sometimes the women is economically dependent on the rapist. Sometimes there is a fear of retribution. Occasionally a woman has been so brainwashed -- by religion, by the rapist -- that she has been conditioned to view the rape as her own moral failing. In the case of incest, the rapist may be someone she has known her entire life.

This humiliation is often compounded by the treatment she receives at the hand of law enforcement. Many times women are just not believed, or are thought to be hysterical and overreacting. They are often subjected to invasive procedures intended to “prove” that the rape really happened.

While the idea that a woman should not be forced to bear the child of a rapist is noble, it misses the point. What the anti-choicers are basically saying here is that woman needs to justify her choice to them, to the government, and to the medical community ... and given the patriarchal nature of these institutions, this boils down to a woman needing permission from a man before continuing down this road.

Again, it imposes a patriarchal restriction on women and intimates that they are not capable of making such a monumental decision on their own. It requires women to come up with a “why” for their choice, a condition that is not imposed on men at any point. If someone wants to buy a gun, they buy a gun ... there is no official questioning as to the motive (some, myself included, would argue that there may be a justification for asking “why” on gun purchases ... again, for another rant). If they want a car, they buy a car. If a man wants a vasectomy, he is not questioned as to why he wants it, nor is he made to feel “less than” for doing so.

So the question now becomes, what do we do about this?

In my mind, it's very simple. We need to confront this issue on three fronts.

I agree that abstinence is the most effective form of birth control which, when used, has a 100% success rate. However, it is also highly unrealistic. Young men and women should be given objective information about the various forms of birth control, covering the pros and cons -- from overall effectiveness and failure rate, to cost, to ease of use. They should also be educated as to the actual implications of having a child -- from the financial implications, to the effect on the social lives of the parents, to how it will affect their education, employment, and their own health.

This will also help to destigmatize sex. There are too many people who lack basic information about sex and human reproduction just because they have been indoctrinated to think about sex as something “dirty” or inappropriate. Providing this education will allow young men and women to be more open, to discuss these issues frankly.

It will also have the effect of destroying the forbidden fruit. How many times, when we were growing up, did we come across something that was forbidden to us, which only made us want it more? And how many times, when we finally did get that forbidden thing, were we disappointed because it wasn’t everything we had built it up to be in our minds? This is what happens with sex now. People are raised from the cradle to believe that sex is something mysterious and forbidden, which gives it a whole cachet of desirability ... and then we grow up and discover that it’s basically just plumbing.

A small number (unfortunately, not small enough) of pregnancies occur as the result of rape. We need to include funding for programs dealing with the prevention of rape and sexual exploitation, including exploitation of minors and human trafficking. Again, it comes down to education in many ways. Teaching young people about rape, about the effects both in terms of legal ramifications for the perpetrator and psychological damage to the victim, will do more to halt incidents of rape than any other measure.

We need to increase funding for programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, and to not only protect, but increase the Child Tax Credit. It is the single mothers and families at the lowest end of the economic spectrum who are least empowered to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, or with the child that comes of that pregnancy. We must also increase funding for adoption assistance, both for the adopting family and the woman carrying the baby.

Abortion is a highly emotionally charged issue. It is something that needs to be handled with care and with respect for opposing points of view. However, that does not mean blindly accepting whatever bunk the religious right throws out there. We need to demand accountability from anti-choice groups and activists, and make them present actual facts instead of trying to scare everyone silly. Above all, we must protect a woman’s right to choose, vigorously and with great prejudice.

My two cents.

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