In 1968 I was a 17-year-old philosophy major living in the dorms at U.C. Riverside. Along with all the usual adjustments to living away from home, like eating dorm food, one incident is nearly as vivid today as it was all those years ago. One of my dorm mates became pregnant. Five years away from Roe v. Wade, my dormie somehow arranged for an illegal abortion and came up with the cold hard cash to pay for it. It was definitely a cash-only business. As I recall her boyfriend was freaked out at the news so I volunteered to drive her; after rattling around in my red VW Bug for awhile we arrived in a downscale L.A. neighborhood in front of a building identified as a dental clinic. We entered a room filled with women sitting on folding chairs arranged along the walls. There wasn’t much conversation, but when there was a frazzled receptionist hurried out to warn us against even uttering the word “abortion.”
The disquieting sounds of groans and even some quickly muffled screams periodically reached us in the waiting room. In due course my dormie’s name was called and she disappeared into what certainly sounded like a frightening place. An hour or so later she came out again, pale and subdued. She had received no anesthetic and said that the abortion had been excruciatingly painful.
I can’t wrap my head around the possibility that anti-abortion lawmakers, who are incidentally overwhelmingly male, fully understand how their efforts to make abortion illegal again could so easily relegate their own daughters and granddaughters to this fate.
Like many young women at the time, my dormie had ultra-religious parents who would have been appalled at their daughter’s pregnancy and who would have doubtless decreed that she carry the pregnancy to term.
So there she was, all alone, 17 with a 17-year-old boyfriend clearly unable to deal with the situation. She would have somehow terminated her pregnancy even if forced down an even worse back alley, a much more dangerous choice than the illegal clinic. Desperate women, all over the world, have always found a way.
Anti-abortionists have unfortunately proved to be brilliant strategists, particularly in blurring the line between fetus and child. A couple years ago while I was listening to a panel of pro- and anti-abortionists on NPR, the reporter asked one of the latter what choice he would make if a fire broke out and he had to choose between saving a 3-year-old child or a tray of embryos. To his credit he had the grace to at least pause for a second before answering firmly that he would have to think about it. To believe that a 3-year-old child could lose out to a bunch of embryos on a tray in this theoretical contest is insanity – there’s simply no other word for it. Yet this extreme hypothetical example clearly illustrates the legal rights (“personhood”) of a fetus that are so effectively promoted (and apparently accepted by) anti-abortionists.
There is no shortage of real-life examples of this. I unfortunately had to pass through a corner of the medieval state of Texas a few years back while driving from a job in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania back home to California. To ease the monotony of the endlessly barren landscape, I tuned in to a local AM station out of Amarillo.
The lead story was about an induced miscarriage. A young woman attempting to end her pregnancy had thrown herself down stairs, punched herself in the stomach, and resorted to other sorts of physical self-harm, all to no avail: she was still pregnant. She finally asked her boyfriend to jump up and down on her abdomen, which finally caused her to miscarry. When news of this somehow got out the boyfriend was charged, convicted, and imprisoned for the murder of the fetus. The girlfriend who had requested the trouncing got off scot-free.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Getting back to the anti-abortion political strategy, the public emphasis has shifted from the woman to the fetus. When Roe v. Wade was enacted its primary benefits were described in terms of a woman’s health and a woman’s choice to either end a pregnancy or carry it to term. Anti-abortionists jumped on the band wagon of a kind of mythical buyer’s remorse, claiming that women regret their abortions after the fact, a theme they continue to exploit to this day.
There is no evidence to support such a claim, though in the rare instances where a woman does regret her decision to end her pregnancy she is seized upon by anti-abortion leaders and featured prominently in their publicity.
Given this history, how did we end up in today’s mess, where some 30 laws in 14 states have made it harder to get an abortion? There’s no shortage of theories. One is that the court got too far ahead of public opinion in passing Roe, thus allowing creation of a wave of anti-abortion sentiment that is still with us all these years later. This is often compared with same-sex marriage, which, in court time, was passed with lightning speed. According to that theory same-sex marriage was on a growing tide of public acceptance, taking the wind out of the sails of opponents. Or maybe we’ve just gotten complacent about the issue; it’s tempting to do so here in California.
California is sort of an island of social liberalism in the West. My daughter and her friends have never doubted that safe, legal abortion has been and will continue to be an option for them, that it is in every sense their choice to make. But what about our sisters in other states who are being subjected to ultrasounds, heartbeat monitors, and other guilt-intended tactics to get pregnant women to change their minds? Surely we have some obligation to protect their rights as well.
And be extra skeptical as the anti-abortion movement craftily shifts its focus to maximum political effect. Now that more women have access to a two-step pharmaceutical abortion, for example, their movement is expanding a network designed to counsel women on how to continue with their pregnancies after the first medication has been taken and before the second. The fix is on to shame women into changing their minds, even after the procedure has begun.
And the question that no one seems to think to ask these social conservatives is this: If every fetus is so important why do they oppose efforts to feed, clothe, and educate children after they’re actually born and in the world?