Abortion shouldn't be a dirty word

Jessica Hansen-Weaver explains why support for women's right to abortion has lost so much ground in the public debate, and why we need to turn that around.

Protesters at a rally to defend abortion rightsProtesters at a rally to defend abortion rights

ABORTION IS rarely spoken of in public, and when it is, it's usually being attacked. Even so-called pro-choice Democrats rarely speak of what that choice is.

But the word is in the mainstream now--as Democrats and Republicans alike use the "controversial" issue to make deals on a health care bill.

What has become apparent is that a woman's right and access to abortion is under the worst attack in years. A recent Gallup Poll showed that, for the first time since 1995, when Gallup began asking respondents whether they considered themselves "pro-choice" or "pro-life," a majority has identified themselves as pro-life--51 percent of people, compared to 49 percent identifying as pro-choice.

As a woman who has exercised her right to an abortion, the rightward shift in consciousness around this issue is frightening and infuriating. When I found out that I was pregnant, I felt as though there were very few people to turn to, that even people who were "pro-choice" would be judgmental of my behavior--that they would think, "You should have been more careful."

I really had no idea how common abortions are, mainly because it's never talked about in public. Instead, many women feel they must keep their abortions hidden from others. This stigma even extends to popular culture--from the Hollywood heroines of Juno to Waitress to Knocked Up, there are almost no sympathetic characters who are getting abortions.

So where does this stigma come from?

One of the most obvious ways that the anti-abortion movement attempts to dissuade women from getting abortions is by protesting outside abortion clinics, where they routinely harass women seeking abortions as well as abortion providers. There, they confront women with pictures of bloody fetuses, while "sidewalk counselors" implore women not to kill their "babies."

We've gotten to a point where we hear more about the "rights" and "personhood" of frozen embryos, unborn fetuses and stem cells, and not enough about the rights of women to control whether they have children or whether they can afford to have an abortion.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WHILE THE pro-life movement would like to see Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, overturned (something unlikely under a Democratic president), there's a new consensus in Washington that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare"--a phrase coined by Bill Clinton administration--that attempts to justify further sharp restrictions on abortion.

For the most part, even the most ardent abortion rights supporters have come to embrace this notion. So even while people may identify themselves as pro-choice, it's qualified by a desire to reduce the number of abortions or restrict the kinds of abortions that are paid for by the government.

When Democratic Party politicians say that abortions should be "safe, legal and rare," they are effectively talking about reducing abortions via restrictions, which accepts the outrageous premise that there is something wrong with having an abortion.

Hillary Clinton took this idea further when she called abortion a "sad, even tragic choice to many, many women" in front of 1,000 pro-choice supporters. This was at an event celebrating the anniversary of Roe v. Wade! Speaking at Notre Dame earlier this year, Barack Obama insisted that abortion is "a heart-wrenching decision for any woman" and called for "common ground" in reducing the number of abortions.

The problem with approaching abortion from the point of view of "reducing unwanted pregnancies" (i.e. reducing the number of abortions) is that it doesn't challenge the right-wing rhetoric that "abortion hurts women."

It's also problematic because it fails to address the central issue: whether abortions are accessible and affordable. Instead of demanding that women have access to what is a necessary for their reproductive health, "reducing unwanted pregnancies" puts the burden on individual women to make "better choices."

Yet unintended pregnancies are the result of many factors: poverty, lack of access to contraception, rape, incest, lack of education around contraception, religious beliefs, etc. And sometimes, it is just human error, a faulty condom or a choice not to have protected sex.

But regardless of why an unintended pregnancy occurs, we must defend the right of all women to terminate their pregnancies--from first to third trimester. We must reject any and all restrictions to abortion, which are founded on the idea that women don't know what is best for women's bodies.

Currently, 46 states in the U.S. have laws that require clinics and hospitals to submit some kind of reports about the abortions they perform. According to a December 2009 report by the Guttmacher Institute, 17 states mandate that women be given counseling before an abortion. And several states have included ultrasound provisions in their laws over the past decade, in a not-so-veiled attempt to personify the fetus and dissuade a woman from obtaining an abortion, not to mention increasing the cost of the procedure.

A district court in Oklahoma has temporarily blocked a new abortion law, House Bill 1595, that would require women to provide detailed information about why they want the procedure. That information, names omitted, would then be posted on a state Web site.

Information that women would have to report includes the age, marital status and education level of the woman; the number of previous pregnancies; a reason for the abortion; the race of the woman; and the nature of the mother's relationship with the father.

The alarm bells should be instantly ringing: what is the Oklahoma government planning on doing with all that information?

Those who support the measure say it will help them better understand why women are seeking abortions. But Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-Tulsa) hinted at the real agenda when he said, "Because it's a special procedure, we believe that it's appropriate to be able to find out why these are going on and if there is something that we can do to change that."

Caitlyn Wright, a senior at the University of Oklahoma who organized a rally at the state capitol opposing the new law put it more bluntly. "The only question that's not asked of these women is their name," Wright told NPR. "The real purpose of the bill is to shame women from having this procedure--and I think it's to scare them."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

DESPITE THE restrictions, abortion is not only one of the safest medical procedures in the country but also one of the most common. One out of three women in the U.S. have an abortion by the time they're 45 years old.

Yet abortion providers and women seeking abortions continue to be under attack. One of the most tragic examples was the assassination of Wichita, Kans., abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in May 2009.

In a few weeks, on January 23, anti-abortion bigots will bus tens of thousands to San Francisco for their annual "Walk for Life." Their mission is "to be a vocal and visual message that people of the West Coast stand for life."

A few years ago, during the first "Walk for Life," while our counterprotest was outnumbered, it was much closer in size. But since then, we have seen that their side get more organized, while our side hasn't been able to meet the challenge.

During the women's liberation movement that eventually won Roe v. Wade, the slogan "Free Abortion on Demand" was put forward as a necessary step toward women's equality. In the context of this economic crisis, this slogan rings truer than ever before.

We have to start from the position that all women have an inalienable right to control what happens to their bodies--without stigma, without obstruction and with full protection of the law. Instead, the law has been used to deny us of this inalienable right, forcing greater numbers of women to either have unwanted pregnancies, or attempt self-induced, often deadly, abortions.

It's time that women come out of the stigmatizing abortion closet and start fighting for real access to abortion, without restrictions. We can no longer allow Roe v. Wade to be stripped of all its teeth--for this will mean more illegal, back-alley abortions, more unwanted childbirths, and that women will turn to more desperate measures in order to control their bodies and their lives.

As long as the cost of an abortion is prohibitive, as long as women are stigmatized for having abortions, as long as the "common sense" in society is that abortion is a bad thing, women will continue to be second-class citizens, at the mercy of government policy.