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Why abortion is crucial to women's equality

May 11, 2007 | Page 2

THE U.S. Supreme Court came dangerously close to doing away with women's right to choose abortion with its 5-4 vote upholding a federal ban on a late-term abortion procedure incorrectly called "partial-birth" abortion by the right wing.

The procedure--whose medical name is "intact dilation and extraction"--is used rarely, most often in cases where there are severe abnormalities in the fetus or the woman's life or health is in danger.

The federal ban that the court approved makes no exception for the physical or mental health of the woman--something that has been included in restrictions ever since the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in 1973.

With the threat of two years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines for doctors who perform the procedure, the ban will likely mean that fewer physicians will take the risk of providing any late-term abortion.

This ban is the latest and most destructive step in the anti-abortionists' strategy of chipping away, one piece at a time, at women's right to choose. Before it came dozens of rules and regulations pushed through in state after state, including mandatory waiting and counseling periods, and parental consent laws.

What all these restrictions and bans have in common is their attempt to tell a woman that the government knows best what she should do with her own body.

A good example of this is a new bill passed in the Florida House of Representatives that would require abortion providers to perform an ultrasound in addition to a 24-hour waiting period before any abortion.

"It suggests that I would be so cavalier in coming to the decision to terminate a pregnancy that I should go back home and think it over, as if I were out shopping, and walked by a clinic and decided to pop in for an abortion," said state Rep. Kelly Skidmore.

The assumption is that the decision to end an unwanted pregnancy is too difficult and important a choice for a woman to make on her own. Each ban on an individual procedure is another stepping stone toward taking away a woman's access to abortion completely--and therefore taking away her right to decide her future.

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A WOMAN'S right to choose whether to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is central to women's equality. The decision whether to have an abortion should be the woman's, and the woman's alone--not her family's, not her partner's, not the church's and not the government's.

It is a woman's burden alone to carry a fetus to term for nine months, and when a child is born, the responsibility of child-rearing falls disproportionately on the woman in almost every case. Therefore, she alone should have the right to say no.

The Religious Right opponents of abortion say that they care about the "unborn," but when it comes to living, breathing people, they could care less--and this goes double for women. Especially hypocritical is a new tactic of claiming that the experience of abortion psychologically "damages" women. They've invented the term "post-abortion traumatic stress syndrome" for it.

The reality is that women's lives mean little, if anything, to abortion opponents. Access to abortion is a life-and-death issue--around the world today, some 19 million women have "unsafe" abortions each year, with the procedure performed by someone unskilled or in a place with poor medical standards. According to the World Health Organization, some 600,000 women die from complications.

If abortion is illegal, poor women suffer the most--not only because they have the most to lose from having to care for an unplanned child, but because wealthy women have always had access to safe procedures, even when abortion is illegal.

Minority women are especially affected. Because Black and Latina women make up a disproportionate section of poor women in the U.S., they suffer the most from lack of access to abortion. Before abortion became legal in New York City, Black women made up 50 percent of all women killed by illegal abortions.

Today, abortion is legal, but still inaccessible to many poor women. Thirty years ago, the Hyde Amendment--named after now-retired Neanderthal Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde--banned federal funding for abortions. This means that in most cases, poor women who rely on the federal Medicaid program for their health care--nearly four in 10 poor women of reproductive age--can't afford to pay for an abortion.

Yet poor women's need for abortion has only grown. A 2006 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that since 1994, unplanned pregnancy rates among poor women have increased by 29 percent, while rates among higher-income women--who have greater access to contraceptives--have fallen by 20 percent. "Today, a poor woman is four times as likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy as a higher-income woman," the institute said in a press release.

Abortion opponents may not have gotten rid of Roe v. Wade itself, but with every restriction and ban, they get closer to completely shredding a woman's right to choose.

In a sane society that respected women and treated them as equals, abortion would not only be safe and legal--it would be fully funded and unrestricted. In order for women to be truly liberated, the material conditions must exist for women to live free from the burden of forced motherhood. That's why the right to abortion is at the core any serious demand for women's rights.

We have to oppose every attempt to curtail a woman's right to decide her reproductive future, and demand abortion rights for all women--without restriction and without apology.

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