WHERE ARE THE WOMEN IN THE ABORTION DEBATE?


Marlene Gerber Fried

January

22, 2001, marked the 28th anniversary of Roe v. Wade – the U.S. Supreme Court

decision which transformed abortion from an experience that threatened the lives

and health of women into one with the same mortality rate as a tonsillectomy. In

the intervening years, anti-abortion forces have tried to make abortion illegal

in the long run. Their strategy is to make it increasingly less available in the

short run. From legal restrictions to the murders of those working in abortion

care, opponents of abortion have succeeded in making it less accessible to

women, especially those who are young, low-income and disproportionately, women

of color. And they have deliberately made it more dangerous to providers.

With

the George W. Bush presidency, the right to choose abortion will become more

precarious still. Bush is committed to an anti-abortion agenda as his cabinet

nominations of John Aschroft and Tommy Thompson – two staunch

anti-abortionists — make clear. If confirmed, they will be placed in positions

where they can do the most harm to abortion rights and access.

We

cannot look to President Bush even for the most basic protection of the

constitutional right to abortion. He opposed legislation to protect abortion

clinics in Texas. And he will have many more opportunities to undermine

women’s reproductive options through appointments to the Supreme Court, to

lower federal courts, and to head federal agencies. He will be in a position to

divert millions of federal dollars to anti-abortion counseling centers. And with

the power of executive order, he will be able to prohibit federally funded

family planning clinics from providing counseling about abortions or giving

referrals.

The

impact of such actions will be devastating to women, especially to those who are

the most vulnerable – poor women, young women, and disproportionately, women

of color. But where are these women in the abortion debate?

Women

like “Michelle,” who escaped her abusive partner with her two toddlers and

the clothes on her back. She feared that if she had her abuser’s baby, she

would never be able to get away and she was afraid he would kill her if he

discovered she wanted an abortion. She had no money and fled to a shelter. For

Michelle, continuing her pregnancy was literally life threatening.

Or

“Carol” who is 15 years old. Her family is on welfare and she already has a

college scholarship. She does not want her future to be shaped by her unplanned

pregnancy. She has other plans which include finishing school.

Or

“Mary,” pregnant as the result of rape; or “Susan” who is 13 and

terrified to tell her parents she is pregnant, or “Irela,” recently

immigrated to the U.S. who just learned that her fetus’ brain was not

developing, or the thousands of other women like them. For these women, abortion

is out of reach. In these cases, the problem is lack of money. Federal Medicaid

coverage for abortion is prohibited except in cases of rape and incest, and only

17 states pay for abortion. One third of private health insurance policies

exclude or eliminate abortion coverage as well, and one third of women have no

health insurance. Without insurance, public or private, women can obtain an

abortion only with cash in hand. And for women who sometimes don’t have enough

money to pay the rent and put food on the table, there is no cash in hand.

Outside

large metropolitan areas, the obstacles are greater. Eighty six percent of

counties have no abortion provider. The provider pools is aging – 57% now are

over 50 years of age, and new practitioners are not being trained to take their

places. Until advocacy groups like Medical Students for Choice launched

widespread organizing efforts, abortion was rarely taught or even mentioned in

medical schools. And while increasing numbers residency training programs offer

training as an elective, few require it. This means that many OBGYN residents

will complete their training without having performed even a single abortion.

Yet abortion remains one of the most common surgical procedures for women –

43% of U.S. women will have at least one abortion during their lives.

To

confound the problem, men and women trained in and dedicated to doing abortions

are being driven from this work. As the seven murders of abortion providers and

clinic staff illustrate, theirs is a dangerous profession. It is the only

medical specialty where the life threat to the doctor is greater than that to

the patient; where doctors must display heroic courage just going to work.

As

fewer and fewer practitioners perform abortions, women must travel, sometimes

hundreds of miles, for care. Add 24- or 48-hour waiting periods, and the

barriers are daunting: travel, lodging, and childcare – all of which have

costs — as well as additional time off from work, often at no pay.

Finding

money and traveling to get an abortion take time. As women struggle to put a few

dollars aside, pawn their possessions, and borrow from family and friends, one

week evaporates into the next, and with every passing week the cost of the

abortion climbs higher. As a result many poor women incur later, more expensive

abortions. An estimated one-fifth of low-income women who want abortions never

gather the necessary resources and are forced to carry their pregnancies to

term.

As

the potential barriers loom ever larger, I see access to abortion for poor women

falling farther and farther beyond their reach. And leaving them out of the

picture seriously distorts our understanding of the availability of abortion. We

saw this in a recent front page New York Times article, “As Abortion Rate

Decreases, Clinics Compete for Patients,” Gina Kolata, 12/30/00, which

completely ignores the obstacles to abortion access. Instead, it focuses on

competition for patients among providers in large urban areas. The article

misses the fact that market forces are of no help to women who have no money.

Michelle, Carol, Mary and Irela all live in large cities where there are

providers. Yet without financial resources, they cannot obtain abortions.

On

this anniversary of legal abortion, I suggest that we think about these women

and the thousands like them who remain invisible as we continue to fight over

this issue. It is their lives and futures which hang in the balance.

Marlene

Gerber Fried, Director, Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program and

Professor of Philosophy at Hampshire College; President, National Network of

Abortion Funds

 

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