The Abortion Debate

“Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’ “

GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina stated on national television during the most recent GOP debate that the above scene was from the controversial (and highly edited) videos of Planned Parenthood offices filmed by the conservative Center for Medical Progress.

The scene Fiorina described never appears in the videos.

But as anyone who watched Fiorina deliver this lie during the debate might have noticed, the description of the scene and the assertion of facts work on two different registers. By vividly describing a gruesome scene, Fiorina kept our focus on the morality of abortion. While leading feminist organizations put the bulk of their efforts into building the Democratic Party instead of a movement, the Christian right has spent decades building a veritable ecology of movement actors. This is why the right now controls the terms of debate, posing the question of abortion as one of morality and thereby allowing anti-choice activists to present themselves as morally-enlightened even as they stalk, threaten, harass, and assault abortion providers and the women seeking their services. These leaders claim to be ‘defenders of (fetal) life’ while endangering real women’s lives with anti-choice restrictions, of which there were 205 from 2011-2013, more than in the entire decade prior.

The greatest evidence of the right’s dominance over the abortion debate comes from Planned Parenthood’s Democratic Party defenders. While Hillary Clinton continues to position herself as a supporter of women’s reproductive rights, her description of abortion as a “sad, often tragic choice” cedes ground to the anti-choice frame, qualifying women’s demands for equality with a moralizing that can only strengthen the right. Meanwhile, Martin O’Malley minimized Planned Parenthood’s role as an abortion provider, emphasizing that 97% of its services have nothing to do with abortion. Even Bernie Sanders minced words, rightly stating that federal funds don’t go toward abortions but failing to defend abortion as such from conservatives’ ruthless attacks. By hedging their defenses of Planned Parenthood, Democrats have accepted the right’s terms of debate. In doing so, Democrats are gambling that anti-choice forces support women’s access to less controversial reproductive health services. In this, they are mistaken.

That the funds currently being held hostage as a mark of allegiance to anti-choice fervor by conservatives have nothing to do with abortion is unfortunate proof of the wrongheadedness of Democrats’ wager. These are Title X funds, which go toward family planning centers, many of which are administered by Planned Parenthood. The federal funds, as Sanders noted, cannot go toward abortions. To tie them up in political posturing is to knowingly deny poor and working class women the right to basic health services, including cancer screenings, STD tests, and annual check ups.

The numbers on what happens when poor women lack access to health services are definitive. According to the Guttmacher Institute, without family planning services, poor women have higher rates of unintended pregnancy, which in 2008, occurred at five times the rate as among higher-income women.* What follows from here is predictable: higher rates of abortion and higher rates of unplanned birth, with poor women enduring the latter at six times the rate of higher-income women.

These numbers suggest that if abortion was actually what conservative leaders opposed, they would increase funding for reproductive health services and family planning. Add to this that 48% of women who underwent late-term abortions explained the delay as stemming from difficulty in making travel, work, and childcare arrangements for the time spent traveling to a provider, and it’s clear that the continued rollback of providers and flood of state mandated waiting periods for women seeking abortions guarantees that more women will get late-term abortions in the future.

Anti-choice activists and their leaders in Congress aren’t stupid: they have think tanks and journalists crunching these numbers. They know these laws will result in more abortions. We cannot simply ‘speak truth to power,’ repeat this data, and expect people like Fiorina to change their minds. We similarly cannot wait on Democrats to admit that in 2015, Roe v. Wade is almost non-existent for working-class, rural, and disportionately black and brown women across this country.

For those of us who would take up the unapologetic call for ‘free abortion on demand,’ we must refuse the right’s framing. We should instead argue for the right to abortion as central to the broader fight for women’s equality, which cannot be achieved without control over our reproductive choices, but also without free child care, a living wage, and paid maternity leave. The demand for control over our bodies was a cornerstone in the broader feminist struggle for full equality. To deny women this right is to attempt to reverse the gains won by feminists and call for a return to conditions of even greater inequality.

It’s important to note that when we argue for free abortion, this is based on a recognition of the race and class determinants behind a woman’s ability to choose. In 1970, before abortion was legalized in New York, over three-quarters of the women who died from illegal abortions were black and Puerto Rican. Today, poverty continues to be the most common reason women cite for getting abortion. And with women on average paying nearly $500 out-of-pocket for abortions, along with forfeiting hundreds of dollars in wages thanks to the obscene distance they must travel to access an abortion provider, we must emphasize the ways anti-choice restrictions disproportionately impact working class women of color, and strategize accordingly.

When the anti-choice movement’s actions ensure higher rates of abortion, we cannot respond effectively if we take them at their word that what they oppose is abortion, not the threat of women’s equality that comes with bodily autonomy. Instead, we should recognize their embrace of women’s oppression in every cynical invocation of ‘family values,’ an ideology where women are never queer, never trans, never lesbian, and always in the home. We should hear it when they condemn single mothers for using government assistance to raise their children while simultaneously criticizing working mothers for neglecting their kids. We should hear it in their continued denials that rape is ‘real’ rape if the woman was friends with, dating, or married to the man who raped her.

For the anti-choice movement, women, and women’s bodies, belong to men, and are of value to the extent that we perform the unpaid domestic labor this economy relies upon. Free abortion on demand is a threat to that control, providing a route for women to make their own choices in the meaningful sense of the word.

This is why we must recast the fight for abortion access as a fight for women’s full equality. If those morally opposed to abortion want to reduce its frequency, they should join the fight for a living wage, free child care, and paid maternity leave. The majority of Americans continue to support the legality of abortions, but with Democrats and Republicans eroding the conditions necessary for women to access this right, we cannot look to these political leaders for help. We must instead build a movement that shifts the terms of debate to focus on women’s right to reproductive justice, unapologetically affirming women’s right to choose to have or not have children, to give birth unshackled, to access good schools and livable housing, along with securing access to reproductive health services, including, yes, abortion.

*Higher-income was defined in the data as women making 200% the federal poverty rate

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One thought on “The Abortion Debate

  1. The heart of this debate – and I do believe that many are speaking from their heart – is that we allowed them to co-opt the phrase right to life umpteen years ago. Whose right to life? Really, a fetus or a woman? Unfortunately right to choose pales in comparison. Instead of pro abortion I wish we had language like pro self or pro future.

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