Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


[From The American Prospect online edition, Nov. 28, 2005.  Thanks to Chris Eberle for calling this to my attention.]

Over at The New Republic I have a story up about the rising numbers of repeat abortions in America (link requires free registration):

Amy's experience with multiple abortions was life-changing enough that she decided to volunteer at Exhale, a telephone hotline where women who have had abortions can speak openly about their experiences. Exhale, which calls itself "pro-voice," is part of a new approach to abortion that eschews dogmas, left and right. Through the organization, which went national in June, Amy counsels women like herself, some of whom have been through multiple abortions. Their numbers are growing. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights organization respected for its data collection, close to half of the 1.3 million abortions performed in the United States each year are repeat abortions, up from just 12 percent in 1973. Most repeat abortions are, like Amy's, a woman's second, yet the number of third abortions is not insubstantial. In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 18 percent of abortions were performed on women seeking at least their third pregnancy termination. In contrast, studies have shown that rape and incest victims, the most politically sympathetic and high-profile group of abortion-seekers, account for about 1 percent of abortions.

Despite its prevalence, repeat abortion is the least discussed or researched aspect of abortion in the United States. In the past year, liberals and Democrats have increasingly focused on preventing unwanted pregnancies as a means of preventing abortion. But they have yet to address the specific needs of women who have already had abortions, partly out of fear of affirming conservative stereotypes about why women abort or how they react to an abortion....

The sad fact is that, three decades after legalization, abortion is no longer mainly a tool women use to shape their own destinies, but rather a symptom of larger social problems that ought to be addressed by policymakers.

"Talkback to TNR" writers, in the main, agreed with my policy proposals, but disliked my criticism of liberals for not talking about the still-taboo subject of repeat abortions. And yet, I think it's noteworthy that in recent months, I have hardly been the only younger, liberally-situated woman to raise questions about the way pro-choice professionals talk and think about abortion, or to suggest that pro-choice liberals could benefit from some fresh thinking. The younger set, it seems, is increasingly disturbed by our rhetorical and conceptual inheritence on this issue, even as abortion rights face greater challenges than at any time since the 1970s.

Last December, Prospect deputy editor Sarah Blustain wrote about her dislike of pro-choice rhetoric in our pages:

Ok, I’ve unlisted my phone number, changed my name, and moved to a different (red) state. Now I can safely say it: The Democratic defense of abortion makes me cringe.

It’s the stridency, the insistence, the repetition of a “woman’s right to choose.” It rubs me the wrong way -- and I’m one of those classic 30-something, northeastern, educated, pro-choice women who believes the message. I’m tormented by the idea that even as I support Democratic candidates -- and, yes, on this issue -- I’m turned off by their abortion rhetoric.

I’m not alone. Poll after poll shows that a majority, albeit a slim one, of Americans favor access to abortion. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from May of this year found that 54 percent of those asked said they thought that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Similarly, 55 percent told a Time/CNN poll in January 2003 that they favored the Supreme Court ruling “that women have the right to have an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy.” And yet, as our most recent election made clear, some percentage of those poll respondents obviously support anti-abortion candidates. Put more precisely, fully one-third of pro-choice Americans voted for George W. Bush, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. So the question is, how can Democrats soften their rhetoric while maintaining their support for safe, accessible abortion?

As long as I can remember, the tone of the liberal message on abortion has been defiant, sometimes even celebratory. It’s an attitude that reflects the victory of legal abortion over back-alley dangers three decades ago -- a success that many who remember it still experience with deep emotion...

Still, for those of us who came after Roe v. Wade, there is a significantly different reality. The context has changed. Back alleys and coat hangers are not part of our visceral memory. To this generation, the “choice” of a legal abortion is no longer something to celebrate. It is a decision made in crisis, and it is never one made happily.

More recently, the literate smut website Nerve.com, of all places, ran a couple of very provocative articles about abortion, including one on repeat abortions by Third Wave feminist Jennifer Baumgardner that describes an abortion clinic director who "thinks multiple abortions points to something larger than an individual snafu."

The delightful Ada Calhoun (a Nerve editor who, I might add, is also a friend of TAP Online editor Tara McKelvey's and the daughter of New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldal, as well as one of the few people I've met in adult life who also had Mr. Tobin as her fourth grade teacher at P.S. 41) bravely laid out her very un-P.C. qualms about second-term abortions, thinking back to the time when she was in high school and her family hosted a young woman seeking a second-term abortion who was in town from upstate:

...looking at Andrea, I felt revulsion. Politically, I still felt I had to defend her right to do what she was doing, but personally and morally I felt it was wrong. Even though I was a godless, liberal native New Yorker, I saw second-term abortion as a sin. If there had been a Bible in our home, I would have thumped it.

I've never said this out loud before, that I have such reluctance about abortion past a certain point — which in my case is definitely before Andrea's five months, when the fetus kicks, has a heartbeat, and sucks its thumb. Being pro-choice with reservations is taboo. It is to wrestle with guilt and doubt and feel that you must be silent. And I understand why. Last year, my colleague Lynn Harris wrote a great essay about how she and her husband help women get access to second-term abortions. I hear and agree with everything she says. I see how it's a class issue, and I appreciate the many totally legitimate reasons why many women can't or don't get them before they're so far along. I applaud Lynn. But privately, I still can't get over this deep moral anxiety about it. And I think that's something we should talk about. At the same time, I fear that by saying such a thing I'm stoking the fire of the fundamentalists, giving comfort to a political enemy that would also restrict access to safe and effective birth control if they could.

...I do wonder if maybe we pro-choice advocates aren't more conflicted than we let on, and therefore if maybe pro-life advocates aren't as well. Maybe the deal is that pro-choicers have to say, "Allow abortion up until the ninth month! Free and on every corner!" And pro-lifers have to say, "We can never, ever allow it, even in cases of rape and incest, even if the mother might die!" That way, we meet in an awkward demilitarized zone, the first trimester, with restrictions and obstacles that hurt the poor and the young. And so we fight back and forth and make it easier this month and harder the next, so everyone's almost okay with the way things are, but no one really is.

I think Ada is quite right that it has been nearly impossible for people in public life to talk honestly about abortion, and that it can be especially difficult to do so in pro-choice circles. Indeed, there are two conversations we have about abortion in this country. There is, as Ada describes, the public confrontation between rigid ideological camps, and then there is the nuanced private conversation we have among ourselves. I am more interested in the latter, because I think that a politics that is not based on the truth of life as it is really lived is worthless. And sometimes even worse than that.

I don't expect professional political actors or activists to necessarily agree, but if the gap between the private conversation and the public one grows too wide, they may find abortion rights themselves falling into the breach.

--Garance Franke-Ruta


Perry, Michael | Permalink

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