In states like Texas and Ohio, abortion clinics have been closing rapidly despite the urgent need for their services. Pro-choice groups are working to bring this debate before the courts, but it’s how they frame their argument that can ultimately save the clinics that provide myriad health care services for women. Can anti-abortion and pro-choice factions reach a compromise?
In her new book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, feminist poet, essayist, and critic Katha Pollitt offers a clear take on the contentious issue and seeks to reframe the old debate. In this excerpt she examines the proposals for compromise — and what achieving such a “deal” would require.
You can purchase the book here.
Many people think it would be good to find a middle position on abortion. If only the whole business of unwanted pregnancy and fetuses and women with their complicated demands and needs would just go away! “Permit but discourage” is one middle-of-the-road suggestion, popularized by Roger Rosenblatt in his 1992 book Life Itself: Abortion in the American Mind, but like “safe, legal, and rare” it’s less a policy prescription—more birth control? longer waiting periods? making women feel guiltier?— than an expression of discomfort. However many abortions there are and no matter who has them or why, I want there to be fewer! A political compromise wouldn’t necessarily achieve civic peace, since it would infuriate the people who care the most: Abortion-rights opponents would continue to insist that anything short of a total ban was state-sanctioned murder, and abortion-rights supporters would continue to argue that increased restrictions violate women’s right to self-determination. Still, might there be an agreement that marginalized both those groups? They would continue to protest and agitate, of course, but the majority would feel a good balance had been reached.
Let’s look at some possibilities.
We could limit legal abortion by reason. Polls show majority support for legal abortion in situations that are clearly beyond the woman’s control: criminal sex acts and significant medical problems for her or the fetus. After that, depending on the reason, a slim to decisive majority of Americans say they want the woman to pay the price for having done the deed. (It doesn’t seem to register that others—her family, the baby itself—may pay the price too.) Why not limit legal abortion to situations where the majority approves of the woman’s reason for terminating her pregnancy? If that seems too rigid, for particularly painful cases we could also bring back the hospital committees that used to decide whether a woman’s circumstances were sufficiently horrific to deserve to be spared childbirth—sort of like the old television show Queen for a Day, with the women who can tell the most persuasive tales of woe winning abortions instead of washing machines.
The trouble is, taken together, those widely acceptable reasons apply to fewer than 10 percent of the 1.06 million abortions that took place in the United States in 2011, the most recent year for which we have figures.
And surely many of those women would have a hard time proving that they qualified. Who decides if a suicide threat is real or “just a bid for attention”? How inevitable does death or permanent injury have to be? How do you prove you were impregnated by your uncle, Rotarian of the Year, without a DNA test of the aborted fetus or born baby? Most rape victims don’t report their rapes, and it’s not as though police and prosecutors just take their word for it when they do. And what about pregnancy in the context of abusive relationships or birth control sabotage by boyfriends? It might not be rape in the eyes of the law, but it’s certainly coercive, and, as mentioned earlier, it’s not as rare as you might think.
The vast majority of women who have abortions have them for social, economic, and personal reasons: They do not have the resources to mother a child well or at all. Thus, limiting abortion to the reasons supported by the majority would leave at least 900,000 women a year, most of them already mothers, most poor or low-income, and disproportionately women of color, unable to end their pregnancies legally. What would happen to them? As in the days before Roe, they would walk through fire to find clandestine providers or sympathetic doctors who would declare them sufficiently ill or mentally unbalanced to qualify for a legal procedure. Once again, women who could afford it would travel to places where abortion was legal, the way Irish women go to Great Britain and Polish women go to Ukraine. More women would try to self-abort, by buying pills over the Internet or at flea markets, or by using older methods: poisonous herbs, knitting needles, throwing themselves down stairs. Indeed, this is already happening as clinics close.
It would not take long for the inherent unfairness and clumsiness of this system, with its obvious racial, class, and social biases and its inevitable tragedies, to dismay ordinary citizens. The medical profession has been remarkably slow to defend abortion providers, but that might change as emergency rooms started seeing women with incomplete self-induced miscarriages, and as doctors fell afoul of the new rules, as interpreted by zealous anti-abortion prosecutors. Far from bringing social peace, the reasons compromise would simply start the abortion wars all over again.
Second idea: We could limit legal abortion by time. A majority of Americans think abortion should be legal in the first trimester, but support falls off quickly after that. Abortion opponents have won points with the public by focusing on later abortions and portraying them as common and barbaric; that was the public-relations genius of the campaign against “partial-birth abortion.” Pro-choicers correctly counter that abortions after twenty weeks are very rare (only 1.5 percent of all abortions) and often performed for grave reasons. If late abortions are so upsetting, and also so rare, what if we permitted abortion on demand in the first trimester, and limited it after that to the most acceptable reasons, mentioned above? Almost 9 in 10 abortions would take place as they do now, in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy—maybe more, because women would struggle mightily to meet that sharp deadline and clinics would adapt to fit them in. Only a bit more than 1 in 10 would hit a roadblock, and of those, the ones with medical reasons would still be able to terminate their pregnancies. Sound fair?
We’ve already seen states pass near-total bans on abortions after twenty weeks on the claim that those fetuses can feel pain. In 2013 the House of Representatives passed the Pain- Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a federal ban (it failed in the Senate); in 2014 Republican senators tried again, and are sure to push the law should the GOP take the Senate. This bill, it should be noted, sets prison terms of up to five years for doctors who fall afoul of its stringent terms. The only exceptions are for rape, incest, or to save the woman’s life. Woe betide the doctor who errs on the side of protecting his patient: To be safe from prosecution, he really should wait until she has one foot in the grave, like Michelle Lee, or maybe two, like Savita Halappanavar. (Fetal defect doesn’t count, by the way, even if it’s a fatal one. Abortion opponents have decided that it is more “compassionate” to force a woman to stay pregnant, give birth, and watch her baby die in hospice care.) Most researchers agree that fetuses at that stage have not developed the necessary neurological wiring to feel pain, but polls suggest a plurality of Americans would approve of such a measure, depending on how the polling question is worded. Given that common feeling, why not sacrifice the minority—1 in 10, 1 in 100, whatever works—in order to shore up the right of the vast majority to terminate their pregnancies in the early stages?
Such a bargain is not on the table, and never will be. For one thing, it would require overturning Roe, which forbids banning second-trimester abortion. People who propose these reasonable-sounding measures always leave that bit out. And once the Supreme Court reversed itself on Roe, throwing abortion back to the states, all bets would be off. Having won such a momentous victory, why would abortion opponents give 90 percent of it back for the sake of civic peace? Only liberals do that. Abortion opponents would keep doing exactly what they are doing now: fighting to ban abortion state by state and nationally, passing restrictions, closing clinics, harassing doctors and patients, scaring the public with lurid tales, insisting that the remotest taint of abortion be removed from public funding and health insurance. Even leaving Roe aside, in what imaginary state legislature would a proposal pass that restricted abortion on demand to the first trimester, while preserving and even expanding access to it so that women would not be unjustly barred from first-trimester abortions by poverty and geography? Where doctors who perform abortions are ostracized and threatened and occasionally even murdered, how would those permitted first-trimester abortions and carefully approved later abortions happen?
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