Why the relentless assault on abortion in the United States?

Americans have grown more supportive of same-sex marriages, gun control, immigration reform and even taxes on the wealthiest individuals.  Why, then, have the cultural and political wars over abortion accelerated?

Ruth Rosen
22 July 2013

Americans have become more liberal, despite the rise of the Tea Party and the election of some of their right-wing politicians. Teenagers can now buy “morning after” emergency contraception pills without consulting a physician or a pharmacist. The Supreme Court recently struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriages. It also upheld the right of same-sex couples in California to wed. As of July 2013, there are now 13 states that permit same-sex marriages. Despite the gridlock caused by Republicans in Congress, more Americans than ever support gun control, immigration reform, same-sex marriage and taxes on the wealthiest individuals. This is why Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

Why then, does state after state attempt to restrict women’s access to abortion? 

There are several answers. David Leonhardt, the Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times argues that “Abortion is the relatively rare issue in which the cliché is true: public opinion does actually rest about midway between the parties’ platforms.” 

He is right; Democrats support abortion, even during the third trimester, while Republicans seek to make all abortions illegal. The truth is, Americans are deeply divided over abortion. Polls consistently reveal that they are no more likely to support abortion than oppose it. According to recent Gallup polls, about 60 % of the population supports a woman’s right to an abortion during the first trimester (or the first 12 weeks) and 64 % believe that an abortion should be illegal in the second trimester. Only 29% of those polled, however, want to repeal Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal.

Much has changed since the late 1960s when women and physicians fought for the right to abortion, which the Supreme Court legalized in its landmark decision, Roe v. Wade, in 1973.  With the advanced technology of sonograms, both women and men can see that the fetus is not an abstraction, but an actual growing life. The question for many, then, is when do the rights of the growing fetus trump the right of a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy? Is it at 12 weeks? 24 weeks? Always?  Or never?   

Politics, too, has also transformed the political culture. Katha Pollitt, the well-known columnist of the Nation magazine, notes that as a result of the 2010 elections, right-wing Republicans flooded the state legislatures, thereby gaining new power to pass legislation that restricted abortions. The 2012 elections, unfortunately, didn’t change the Republican - controlled state legislatures. 

Another reason states have been able to limit access to abortion is that opponents have been extremely successful at conflating all abortions with the late-term, procedures performed during the third trimester. Though these are rare, they are nevertheless done. Often the woman involved has just discovered that the fetus has an incurable disease, or will be born dead. Nevertheless, the procedure itself is nothing like an abortion performed when a woman is six weeks pregnant.

This was dramatized in May, 2013 when the nation watched in horror as prosecutors described how Dr. Kermit Gosnell essentially murdered a baby born alive in a botched abortion. The baby would have survived if the doctor hadn’t “snipped” its neck with scissors. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.  This is hardly the typical late-term abortion, but it certainly caused many people, including many liberal supporters, to re-visit the question, at what point should abortion be illegal? Liberal, pro-choice Bloomberg columnist Margaret Carlson, for example, wrote, “There's almost no difference between killing a baby accidentally born alive in a late-term abortion, as Gosnell stands accused of, and killing the same baby in the womb, as more skilled doctors can do."

Carole Joffe, author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars, and a professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, has championed women’s right to abortion during her entire career. Commenting on the Gosnell case, she wrote,

"This was truly a chamber of horrors: a filthy facility, with blood - stained blankets and furniture, unsterilized instruments, and cat feces left unattended. Most seriously, there was a jaw dropping disregard of both the law and prevailing standards of medical care. Untrained personnel undertook complex medical procedures, such as the administration of anesthesia, and the doctor in question repeatedly performed illegal (post-viability) abortions, by a unique and ghastly method of delivering live babies and then severing their spinal cord.”

But she was also quick to point out that such a gruesome scene would never take place in a society that makes abortion accessible, safe and legal:

“That such clinics can flourish until the inevitable disaster occurs…is a ‘perfect storm’ caused by the marginalization of abortion care from mainstream medicine, the lack of universal health care in the United States, and the particular difficulties facing undocumented immigrants in obtaining health care.”

In late June. Americans watched another drama unfold as Texas tried to pass one of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills in the nation. Texas State Senator Wendy Davis successfully tried to filibuster (stop) a vote on the legislation.  This required that she stand while speaking for 11 hours, because Texas Senate rules forbid someone to sit or to use the bathroom while engaged in a filibuster. Her heroic efforts successfully halted a vote on the legislation. But the bill eventually passed in a special session and will “ ban abortion after the 20th weeks of pregnancy, require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, limit abortion to surgical centres, and stipulate that doctors must monitor even non-surgical abortions.” The legislation will effectively close down most abortion providers in the state.  Supporters of the right to abortion are now appealing this legislation to higher courts and then, if possible, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a result of these technological and political changes, and the grotesque publicity surrounding the Gosnell case, many states, including Arizona, Florida, Kansas, and North Carolina, have seriously limited women’s access to abortion.  Alina Salignoff, Vice President and Director of the Women’s Health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation has been tracing these state efforts for years. She explained to me how,

"Anti-abortion activists have adopted multiple approaches to restrict access by targeting different fronts, including increasing the requirements on both the facilities and physicians that provide abortions to women, as they have done in Texas; and making abortion more difficult for women to obtain by imposing waiting periods, sonograms, gestational limits and requirements for parental consent or notification in the cases of teens.  More recently, states have begun to enact legislation that bans private insurance coverage or plans that will be available to individuals as a result of health reform.”

Sonograms, politics, right-wing state legislatures, the Gosnell horror—all of these have contributed to America’s continuing abortion wars. But there is one more reason why abortion is such a contentious issue in the United States.  Both the birth control Pill, made available in 1961, and the legalization of abortion in 1973 by the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Roe v. Wade,  ruptured the historic tie between sex and reproduction.

Such a dramatic change naturally disturbed many people.  Sex could now be for pleasure, rather than for reproduction.  And it was women who had gained the new sexual freedom, not men.

Ever since 1973, abortion has become a symbol of women’ freedom to control their bodies and their reproductive choices, their growing economic independence, and their greater visibility as politicians, professionals, lawyers, professors, and presidents of universities and corporations. Their sexual freedom is not new; but it still symbolizes the fact that men can no longer control their bodies or their choices to have children. They can control their own destiny, and that is what Republicans would like to end.   

According to the Guttmacher Institute, "in the first six months of 2013, states enacted 106 provisions related to reproductive health and rights; issues related to abortion, family planning funding, and sex eduction. Only forty three provisions aimed at restricting access to abortion. Notice that most of these provisions tried to eliminate contraception and sex education, not just abortion. They want to curtail women's sexuality by eliminating contraception as well.

The fact is, American culture is highly sexualised, but its people are still profoundly uncomfortable about sex in general, and with women's sexuality, in particular.  Fear of women's sexuality is not, of course, the only reason Americans are obsessed about abortion. But along with changes in technology, politics, and debates over late-term abortions, attitudes towards women's sexual freedom - felt and expressed by large populations of both men and women - is one important reason that abortion, and not same sex marriage, still remains the most divisive social issue in American political culture



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