aÂ·borÂ·tion: n. 1. Induced termination of a pregnancy and expulsion of an embryo or fetus that is incapable of survival. 2. A miscarriage. 3. Cessation of normal growth, esp. of a body part, prior to full development or maturation. 4. An aborted organism. 5. Something malformed or incompletely developed; a monstrosity.
âWe hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.â
So wrote the founders of our country: the authors of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. They stated that one of our most undeniable rights, as a citizen in this country, is the right to life. But when does life begin? It is the question that has fueled the debate over abortion since the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973. Although the controversy regarding the issue has traditionally fallen to a more religious and moral debate, it still has powerful political implications and can easily stir great amounts of emotion in the political arena. Women had been obtaining abortions illegally for countless years before Roe, and the public was calling for change. The political fervor led to a climax when âJane Roeâ entered the courts challenging the abortion law in her state of Texas.
The Texas State law regarding abortion had remained virtually unchanged since its establishment in 1857. The law stated that it was a crime to âprocure an abortionâ except in the event that it was âprocured or attempted by medical advice for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.â Jane Roe (a pseudonym since she wanted to remain anonymous) brought her case that challenged the law to the Supreme Court. Roeâs lawyers realized that by the time the lawsuit would be heard, the plaintiff would no longer be pregnant; therefore, they brought the suit on behalf of all women with unwanted pregnancies. The Supreme Court Justices heard the case and the outcome is one of the most memorable rulings in the history of the Courtâs rulings. The judgement, which the Justices by a 7-2 vote declared the law unconstitutional, voided any state law that restricted a womanâs right to obtain an abortion. Under the new decision, a woman is permitted to terminate her pregnancy for any reason provided that the fetus in not viable. After viability, states can prevent abortion except if it is necessary to preserve the health or life of the mother.
The decision to declare the law unconstitutional was made by a mostly liberal, Democratic panel of Justices. Some analysts have suggested that the decision should have been made by a demographically elected legislature instead of âappointed for lifeâ Supreme Court Justices. As public opinion polls showed, the courtâs determination of the value of embryonic life differed completely with that of the masses.
Antiabortion groups were outraged by the decision. These same groups often equated the legalization of abortion to the Nazi holocaust and the case was compared to that of Dred Scott v. Samford, the infamous 1857 case that declared that blacks had no rights. In both instances, the court ruled that a group of âpeopleâ (slaves in Dred and human embryos in Roe) to be ânonpersons.â It was also argued that both rulings were made to invalidate certain instances: in Dred, the Missouri Compromise was voided and in Roe, it âinvalidated the efforts of state legislatures to reform their abortion laws without surrendering state jurisdiction over abortion.â
In the years following Roe, several new laws were introduced and rejected. For instance, a law requiring parental consent for minors to obtain an abortion in all cases was argued and struck down. In another trial, the court ruled that the father could not override a womanâs decision to terminate her pregnancy. However, pro-life groups won some victories, as federal funding of abortions was greatly restricted.
Those opposed to abortion were given a glimmer of hope when Congress attempted to overturn the now eight-year-old decision with a new piece of legislature. In April of 1981, Senator Jesse Helms (R, N.C.) and Representative Henry J. Hyde (R, Ill.) proposed a controversial statute that would define human life as beginning at conception. In effect, this new bill would make abortion equivalent to murder under United States law. After debating the issue for a long time, still no conclusions had been reached. âThe issues that provoked the strongest disagreement were those of the constitutionality of the bill, its potential to create complicated legal tangles in the cases where the mother would conflict with those of the unborn child, and its possible application to matters beyond abortion, including some birth control methods.â Debate ceased for a while, but Helms reentered the legislation to the floor. In response, liberal senators began a filibuster that successfully tabled the bill in September of 1982, despite President Ronald Reaganâs support for the Helms proposal. Antiabortion groups once again tasted defeat and looked elsewhere for some triumphs in their crusade to end abortion.
During Reaganâs presidency, the tide began to turn in favor of the antiabortion groups. Several of the Justices in support of the Roe decision were getting close to retirement age and it was up to Reagan to appoint their replacements. Sandra Day OâConnor, the first woman justice and a Conservative, took Justice Potter Stewartâs seat in the Supreme Court in 1981. Chief Justice Warren Burger retired in 1986 and his position was given to Justice William Rehnquist, one of the two justices in opposition to the Roe ruling. Another Conservative, Antonin Scalia was appointed to fill the vacancy and when Justice Lewis Powell retired in 1987, Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy. With these appointments, the pro-Roe majority of 7-2 was now reversed to be a 5-4 majority opposed to the former ruling.
In 1989, the framework to the Roe ruling began to crumble. The Missouri State Attorney General, William Webster brought charges against Reproductive Health Services for failing to implement a Missouri state law requiring that fetuses be tested for viability. The clinic used Roe as a defense, stating that unless abortions are performed during the third trimester of pregnancy, viability testing is a unnecessary waste of time and money and claimed that they were protected under Roe. The case was brought to the Supreme Court, who ruled that fetuses can be tested after twenty weeks gestation. This decision was a major blow to the pro-abortion movement, and it was followed by another defeat. Two separate cases involving parental notice were decided in 1990: Hodgson v. Minnesota and Ohio v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health. The Supreme Court ruled that if a minor does not receive written parental consent or the parents are not given notice by the doctor performing the procedure 48 hours prior to the abortion, the minor must secure approval from a judge. Since these decisions, the political tide has been turning and it is very possible that the Roe ruling may be overturned within a decade.
Abortion has been a very controversial topic politically in our time. Beginning long before 1973, there were generally two views regarding abortion: pro-life and pro-choice. Pro-life groups regard life as sacred, whether in the womb or living and breathing on this earth, and that there is be no excuse for the purposeful theft of life. Pro-choice groups believe that women are in control of their own body and have the right to do whatever they want to with it. However, in the early 1980âs, the pro-life group split into two separate groups regarding abortion: the original pro-lifers and a new wing called situationalists. Situationalists believe that the right to obtain an abortion depends on the circumstance of pregnancy. For instance, if a woman is raped and becomes pregnant as a result of that incident, situationalists may be in favor of terminating the pregnancy.. I personally am a situationalist. I do not believe in abortion except when performed because of rape, incest, or the threat of losing the motherâs life as a result of the pregnancy. There are many different views in this group as to when abortion is permissible.
When the two pro-life groups split, there was a general fear that the movement would die out and the abortion laws would remain indefinitely. At the heart of this anxiety was a proposal by Senator Orrin Hatch that was defeated in the Judiciary Review. The legislature stated that states could create their own abortion laws and when the laws came into conflict with those of the Federal Government, the most restrictive law would prevail. The bill failed to pass with a 50-49 vote opposed. Senator Jesse Helms refused to vote, declaring that the bill did not outlaw abortion, it merely restricted it and his beliefs did not support that view. Many pro-lifers and situationalists felt that this feeling would destroy any efforts towards anti-abortion laws being passed.
The controversy regarding abortion plays a critical role in politics, all in different aspects of the government. As the eventual reversal of Roe v. Wade becomes more and more likely, elections will see a much more focused interest in politicianâs views on the issue. âAlready several U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and gubernatorial elections have focused in part on abortion, at least one lieutenant governorâs election has hinged almost entirely on the issue, and the abortion controversy has been central in numerous state legislative elections.â Unfortunately for these politicians, they face two opposing groups who see the abortion issue as one in which compromise is entirely impossible.
Despite the belief that Roe will eventually be reversed, fewer than 10 percent of Americans take a strict pro-life position. These voters however, are very likely to vote in elections on the single issue of whether a candidate is pro-life or pro-choice. Candidates who take a strong pro-life or pro-choice stance are able to win a small percentage of the vote and are probably able to generate more money to their campaigns as contributions by different activist organizations. However, taking such a strong stance can be damaging as far as votes needed. If a candidate is strongly pro-life, pro-choice voters (the majority of Americans) may automatically not consider that person. On the other hand, strict pro-choicers (those who believe a woman can choose to terminate her pregnancy at any point in the term for any reason) can seriously cast doubt in the minds of situationalists, who, when unified with the pro-lifers, can easily turn an election.
I believe that it may be possible for the pro-life and situational groups to pull together to reverse Roe v. Wade decision. History has shown that it can be done. In the 1994 election, the Christian Coalition united together and turned the Congress Republican. Before that, the labor unions, unsatisfied with the Republican Party, worked hard to regain majority in Congress. The challenge that the group needs to overcome is their inability to compromise. Both sides need to give a little bit of slack to unite and become powerful.
The United States is a country where politics is involved in everything, and everything involves politics. This philosophy applies directly to the issue of abortion. Whether it is the Supreme Court, the Presidency, Congress, or a governorâs office, this issue has been involved in, in one or more situations.
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The primary driver behind the views of and discussion about the Center for Medical Progress’s Planned Parenthood “sting” video is disgust, something akin to the morbid fascination that drives people to Jackass’s violent antics or clinical acne extractions.
Supporters of women’s right to reproductive health access (like myself) feel frustration and pique; reactions on our side have had an unfortunate defensive air that dodges or excuses the video’s gruesomeness as a product of professionalism. Anti-choice advocates’ reactions have been no less unseemly, but for a different reason: Their disgust is informed by, and magnified by, glee.
They sense victory is at hand, that they’ve caught the baby killers redhanded. Count the explanation points in the Tweets, take in the righteous headlines on conservative-leaning sites: “Let’s Face it, Planned Parenthood is Evil,” “Bad News, Abortion Enthusiasts,” “The real lessons of the shameful Planned Parenthood video.” As one of the instigators of the investigation put it: The video “should be the final nail in the coffin” of the organization. You might be disturbed by a doctor discussing body parts over salad, but I’m a little unnerved that the same conversation has prompted all this dancing in the end zone.
You can sense the excitement of the undercover actors when Dr. Deborah Nucatola’s frankness crosses the line into something revolting. “We’ve been very good at heart, lung, liver, because we know that,” Nucatola says while discussing the transfer of fetal tissue. “So I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.” The activists knew they’d found an image and a soundbite guaranteed to generate shivers among those who don’t usually even think about the abortion debate.
And that’s the point: The video’s power depends on reaching people who don’t usually closely follow the abortion debate.
As I said, pro-choice commentators have pointed out that Nucatola should not be blamed for speaking with professional detachment to people she believed to be equally professional and detached.
If that seems like a weak excuse to you, you’re not wrong.
Her comments land with such force not just because she’s been desensitized to abortion’s visceral reality by constant exposure to it. Rather, her lack of sensitivity stands out because the vast majority of Americans have the luxury of not being exposed to abortion much at all.
Abortions reached a 30-year low last year, falling by 13 percent since 2011 and by half from the 1981 high. The rate today is just 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women between 15 and 44. And the abortions that are performed today are dramatically less invasive and medically risky than they have been even in the recent past. Thanks to improvements in pregnancy detection and the “abortion pill,” almost 90% of abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of gestation, long before there’s anything to be “crushed.” So not only has the likelihood of an average American knowing someone who’s had an abortion dropped, but chances are that if you do know someone who’s had an abortion, it wasn’t the kind of brutal procedure Nucatola described: It may not have even happened in a doctor’s office.
Today’s situation, then, is a deeply ironic mirror of the dark pre-Roe past: Abortion is relatively rare and it is mostly not talked about. On some level, that situation is exactly what allowed abortion-rights advocates to succeed.
Pro-choicers can’t really criticize the pro-life movement’s gross-out tactics; we should be intimately familiar with them. Our side understood first that if you want Americans to turn against something, you need to make it too grotesque to ignore. For second-wave feminists, the coathanger was their Nucatola: a cue to instinctual recoil, a way to short-circuit discussion of policy and just get people to react. Back then, it forced a discussion that everyone wanted to be over. Indeed, even abortion access proponents have admitted that the conversation may have been resolved in too much haste. Ruth Bader Ginsberg has pointed out that Roe eschewed women’s rights for the sake of the right to privacy—the Supreme Court’s own way of avoiding icky body parts and bodily functions.
Today’s pro-life activists have figured out how to use revulsion more subtly than their ideological opposites. The Nucatola video is not only more efficacious than the crude signs protesters on both sides show outside clinics, it has an entirely different purpose. It’s not intended to just turn formerly pro-choice individuals into pro-lifers—it’s intended to dilute what “pro-choice” even means.
Portraying legal, medical abortion as a sordid business plays on Americans’ ignorance of what abortion really is—and what Planned Parenthood really does. Setting up Planned Parenthood and Nucatola as craven ogres allows good and reasonable people to think there is a “pro-choice” middle ground between the coathanger past and fetal-tissue-crushing present. They can believe they are “pro-choice,” just not supportive of something so ghastly. They can be pro-choice and still believe themselves insulated against the truly stomach-turning stuff that either side throws at them.
In fact, more Americans than ever identify as “pro-choice”—but then tell pollsters they are in favor of parental consent laws (favored by 60 percent of “pro-choice” respondents), 24-hour waiting periods (another 60 percent), “informed consent” requirements (86 percent), and just over half (52 percent) of those in the “pro-choice” camp say that they would make abortion legal only in the first trimester. I haven’t seen surveys on it, but my own experience is that there are plenty of people who support onerous requirements for women’s health centers and consider themselves “pro-choice” as well.
One friend told me that he hadn’t thought about how those in areas without abortion providers would then get abortions if they needed them. He was just concerned that women be “safe” during the procedure. Pressed, he agreed that closing the clinics would be an unfair burden on many, but, he asked, “Won’t the state supply buses to hospitals or something?”
Those familiar with reproductive health policy aren’t fooled by the seemingly reasonable restrictions that apparently still count as “pro-choice” positions for many. They understand that these restrictions (including those on late-term abortions) have already led to poor and rural women resorting to later- and later-term abortions—and to do-it-yourself abortions as well.
When abortion is still mostly legal and mostly safe, professionalized and medicalized, it is of course medical professionals like Nucatola who become inured to the unpleasantness of the abortions that occur later in pregnancy. When abortions are illegal or difficult to obtain, lay people—lay women, specifically, can become depressingly familiar with it, too. Indeed, if you are grossed out by a doctor discussing the abortions she performs herself, try reading up on doctors discussing the abortions they didn’t perform—the ones they had to attend to after an amateur attempted one.
We can turn this into a Fear Factor contest, exposing Americans to the worst images each side has to offer. Do we really want to rely on disgust to drive our debate? Perhaps there is another way. Let’s not talk about what might happen if this or that law is turned around. Let’s talk about what’s happening now.
Abortion-access advocates and critics can’t agree on why the national abortion rate has fallen; while it’s true that opponents have been chipping away at access, rates of abortion are dropping faster than the rate at which opponents have succeeded in closing clinics. What’s undeniable is that when abortions are uncommon and mostly done quietly and quickly and very early in a pregnancy, the side that wants to talk about abortions—abortions, not “reproductive rights” or “women’s health”—will get to control the public’s perception of what an abortion is.
So let’s try not to turn our face to the wall when Nucatola comes up, or content ourselves to talk only about pro-life activists and what their motivations are. Let’s not squirm. Let’s talk about abortion, what it is, what it entails, and what the stakes are for women if the anti-choice side is allowed to use disgust to define “pro-choice” out of existence.
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