Every day there’s a new story about new or proposed laws – at the state or federal level – to limit women’s access to a full range of reproductive choices. Laws that tread the line of criminalizing miscarriage. Laws that broaden the definition of acceptable homicide to potentially include killing gynecologists performing abortions. Laws that redefine rape. Laws that take funding away from Planned Parenthood. Laws that force abortion providers to adhere to burdensome new regulations. Laws that criminalize abortion in the case of a women seeking to select gender or race. Laws that force waiting periods and anti-abortion counseling on women seeking abortion, that force doctors to share incorrect medical data, laws that force transvaginal sonograms on women.
State Legislatures, the US House of Representatives are suddenly moving in concert to make abortions harder and harder to access. It’s a mission that many lawmakers are carrying out with single-minded focus. It will not create jobs. It will not balance the budget. It will not end any of the wars we’re fighting. But it is their goal, their raison d’entrée into politics. It is their fight of fights.
Ladies and gentlemen, they are going to win.
A woman close to me worked in an inner-city hospital doing women’s health work before Roe v. Wade. Her views on abortion were formed by watching women come into the emergency room week after week suffering from massive infections caused by un-sterile, unsafe abortions – there were beds the staff held for cases like these that they called the “septic tank”, named for the blood sepsis that sickened or killed the women. This was not a sad but rare occurrence. It was every week. These women did not want to be pregnant, for whatever reason. Maybe they were poor. Maybe they were unmarried. Maybe they had too many children already. Maybe they had found themselves having sex against their better judgment, through coercion or force, rape or something just short of rape, but certainly not a union that is ideal for producing a wanted, loved child. Whatever the reason, they did not want to continue their pregnancy and, seeing no other option, took matters into the back alley and risked death.
In 1973, everything changed. Legal abortion, in sterile conditions, performed by a trained health care provider is as epic an advancement in women’s health as the discovery that washing one’s hands before helping to deliver a baby reduced the risk of deadly “childbed fever”.
But 1973 was 38 years ago and not everyone knows what it was like before. Not everyone believes those stories are true. Not everyone believes that it could all happen again. Not everyone believes that a woman who is determined to end a pregnancy will end her pregnancy even if the risks are terrible. Not everyone knows that there are people who will assist women for money regardless of the state of the law.
The anti-abortion movement instead operates on dreams of saving apple-cheeked infants who will warm the heart of even the most reluctant prospective mother. They promote a morality of abstinence, which even the staunchest pro-choice advocate will admit is a fail-safe contraceptive. They play to the heartstrings of the undecided voters with their calls for pity for the lives of the unborn. They protect the potential lives of the unborn, not realizing (or not caring) that they may be jeopardizing the lives of the already-born. They take the mountain of the high moral ground and stake their claim in defense of the innocent, whereas those of us who support abortion rights are standing on a molehill begging for consideration of the women who could easily be painted as guilty.
They are going to win. And women are going to start dying.
Reducing access to legal abortion won’t change the abortion rate dramatically. The only things that will do that is reducing the unintended pregnancy rate. If you look at statistics from the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute, you will see that the rate of abortion in Europe where the procedure is safe and legal is 28 per 1000 pregnancies. In Africa, where is it not legal, the rate is 29 per 1000 pregnancies. But the rate of maternal death and complication? Far greater.
If we criminalize abortion in this country, the abortion rate will drop a bit but the complication rate will rise as women seek abortions that are unsafe, un-sterile. The first women who die in the back-alley will be invisible women. Poor women. Minority women. The kinds of women who turned up dead after visiting that grey-market abortion factory in Philadelphia that fed off the desperation of the poor and uninsured who would do anything, anything at all, to make a crisis pregnancy vanish. This will not cause a stir except to putatively illustrate how evil abortion providers are that they will flout the law to peddle their murderous trade. No one will investigate why women turned to them and what we can do to prevent crisis pregnancies in the first place. Just as they didn’t discuss that in Philadelphia.
No, what will become news is when middle-class white girls start dying. And they will die. When they can no longer escape to the next state over to get an abortion because all of the states have made it next to impossible to do so, and instead they have to go underground or attempt to abort on their own using heaven only knows what kinds of horrific self-abortifaecents they read about on the internet, they will begin to die. They will get infections. They will bleed out. They will ingest poison or sustain traumatic injury. If they don’t die, they will lose their uterus and their hopes of becoming a mother in the proper time.
How many honor students will have to end up in the morgue before the anti-abortion activists go quiet? How many bright young women will be buried before abstinence advocates start to concede that a condom or a cervical ring would have saved a life? How many parents will grieve the loss of a daughter before we stop assuming all women who get pregnant outside of a secure, lifetime commitment are sluts who deserve what’s coming to them? How many of your neighbors will suffer emergency hysterectomies after perforating their uterus with a coat hanger or a knitting needle before legislatures start to wonder if the laws against abortion are the right laws?
How many women, visible and invisible, are we willing to lose in the name of winning the battle against abortion?
I don’t have a proposed solution to beating back the forces that make the laws that will be the death of desperate women someday soon. They have the upper hand today. They hold majorities in governing bodies across the land. They are righteous in their quest and they will win. But I know, I know like I know the sun will rise, what the result of their crusade will be. I know who the casualties will be. I know that this quest to save the unborn will cost the lives of the already-born. And I know that only when the bodies of women start piling up in the back-alleys of America will we revisit the rationale behind safe, legal abortion and begin to regain the ground we are losing today.
I don’t know how to live with this knowledge, this certainty of defeat in the short term, this death sentence visited upon women. I just keep calling my lawmakers and begging them to think of the already-born. I may lose but at least I’m not silent.