Thursday, June 16, 2011


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Childbearing Controversy Abortion in America In the past twenty years, abortion rates have climbed significantly. More and more women are exercising their choice, and with it their rights, to have what has become the most common surgical procedure American women undergo (Tompkins 145). The simple operation is undertaken by one out of every five women over the age of 15, a quarter of which are teenagers. These 1.6 million women come from many disparate backgrounds, from all races, creeds, and classes, but they share one common trait for one reason or another, they feel unready for the burdens of motherhood. This bucking of the tradition of becoming a wife and mother alarms many conservatives, and so, as has any issue of import, abortion has become a highly political and emotionally charged topic. But though it is extremely controversial, when one takes into account the social, medical, and legal aspects it is strikingly apparent that women need the right to personally choose to have an abortion. Abortion became an outrage in this country only after the Civil War. It was then that the American Medical Association, seeking to bolster the authority of physicians over that of midwives, pushed for anti-abortion legislation to limit outside consultation (Garrett 18). Up to this point, abortion had been legal up until “quickening”, or the first signs of movement in the womb (Lader 1). Nearly all state courts in the early to mid-nineteenth century had upheld this view that abortion with the woman’s consent was not punishable by law. Far from the intended effect of increasing confidence in medical authority, however, the prohibition of abortion led many women to back-alley quacks, putting their lives in mortal peril from these homeopathic “surgeons”. By seeking to reinforce their political standing, the AMA was actually endangering lives. Endangering the mother’s life, however, seemed to be entirely acceptable to the so-called “moral majority”. Right-wingers took up the anti-abortion flag in God’s name, claiming the sanctity of life as their mantra. Pope Pius IX joined the fray as an outspoken critic of the procedure, a vocal foil to the necessarily silent sufferers. In 186 he issued his famous decree of the church’s position, outlining their point of view condemning abortion. Their arguments hinged on three points of religious interpretation. First, and most weighty, that the fetus is a person and contains a soul. The Roman Catholic Church was a bit muddled on this point, as the official standpoint from the church’s very inception up until the decree was that the fetus was not a person until late in the gestational cycle (Tompkins 145). Peter Singer also argues, “The life of a fetus is of no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc.” In addition, Singer infers that potential for rationality and the like is of no consequence in this view (Wennberg 8). Second, that because it contains a soul, it is a sin to destroy it. Third, that the conception of a child is contingent upon divine intervention and is therefore sacred, and humans should have no authority in the matter. Catholic priest George Patterson debunks this theory “Free will is only free within a divine framework. There would be no way to abort a pregnancy if God didn’t allow it. (Furthermore) life is a gift of God, but conception is not a result of direct intervention. It is a human act (and) we have to take responsibility for that. And there may be times when responsibility involves terminating pregnancy” (Rosenblatt 168). Another point often overlooked in these proceedings was that the mother was often imperiled herself, through an inability to care for both herself and the child she carried, but the mission of the church was to stop the killing of “innocents”, not of the sinners who would even consider the horror of abortion. Adding to the chaos surrounding abortion was the legal aspect. The United States does not constitutionally outlaw anything based on purely religious reasoning. Separation of church and state is guaranteed in the 1st Amendment, and Minister Mary Louise Smith concurs, “it is a religious issue, (and) that argues for leaving the thing alone entirely” (Rosenblatt 17). Many fanatics, as those mentioned above, do not understand the medical, psychological, or emotional aspects of abortion and are merely incensed by the idea. It is imprudent to continue any discussion of abortion without a full and comprehensive knowledge of what it entails. There are many different methods of aborting a pregnancy, though only two are widely used in the United States. The first is dilation and curettage, a simple procedure in which the surgeon cuts the fetal tissue away from the uterine lining. This accounts for most late-term (1th and 1th week) abortions. The second is vacuum aspiration, a more modern technique which uses medication to soften the fetal tissue, allowing the uterus to be emptied by small suction implements (Costa 50). Both procedures can be done in half an hour, and both share a high success rate with few complications. The most common side effect is heavy blood flow for a couple of days after the operation. Both, however, are also extremely invasive, and require a modicum of trust between doctor and patient. The answer to those wanting a more private, personal method seems to be in the form of a pill RU486. RU486 works by inhibiting progesterone production, causing the uterus to slough off its fertile lining. Also, without progesterone, the production of prostaglandins increases, softening the cervix and causing uterine contractions, facilitating the dislodging and expulsion of the embryo (Costa 114). Women who used the pill found it to be more comfortable, with no pain and little discomfort. Side effects are extremely limited, and the entire operation can be accomplished at home, with no need for a doctor. Use of RU486 allows a sense of responsibility and capability, and most patients were pleased with the results. This French pharmaceutical has long been the means of choice with doctors in Europe, and has been extensively tested and proved. Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, after reviewing thousands of trials, unofficially gave the pill its highest rating. But anti-abortion advocates denounce the drug, as it makes abortion a private matter, removing much of the need for public abortion clinics whose workers and patients can be targeted (Lader 8). So, with abortion arguments in America still at fevered pitch, the manufacturers have yet to apply for FDA approval. It is appropriate for religion and science to be at odds, and yet again conservative politicians fueled by unreasonable constituents block the entry of abortion pills and techniques into American hospitals. Even worse, funding that could be going to help distressed women is being diverted for fear of losing votes. Yet these legal battles, having begun in the mid-nineteenth century, are nothing new. The modern era of abortion-centered debate began with the Burger Court. The Supreme Court heard two cases in 17 crucial to the movement for abortion rights. The first was Doe v. Bolton, concerning a Georgia anti-abortion law. In this case the majority decided for the plaintiff, establishing a right to personal privacy in such matters. The right to personal liberty guaranteed by the 14th Amendment was also cited in the court’s decision (Goode 171). Overshadowed by the later Roe v. Wade, Doe laid the groundwork for abortion rights. It is interesting to notice that both this decision and the later Roe’s had a precedent in contraceptive rights. A Pennsylvania case involving a health clinic handing out free condoms and diaphragms (at that time all contraceptive devices were outlawed by state statute) was found for the clinic, as the Supreme Court decided “the state has no compelling interest in violating a couple’s right to privacy” by dictating what they do about contraception in their own home (Garrett 16). Both precedents were crucial to the most famous abortion case in history, Roe v. Wade. In 170, a young Texas woman sought to challenge the Constitutionality of an existing Texas statute outlawing abortions. After three years of appeals, the case ended up in the Supreme Court and became one of the longest and most controversial in history. The 7- majority decision upheld the earlier district court ruling, namely, that the law was unconstitutional on the basis of violating the th and 14th Amendments’ guarantees of personal liberty and privacy (Tompkins 1). The Berger Court did much more than that, though it set up guidelines for existing and future abortion laws. According to the findings of the court, abortion was completely legal in the first two trimesters of pregnancy, although it could be regulated in the second trimester to protect the health of the mother. In the third trimester, when the fetus could theoretically survive outside the mother’s womb, protection of embryonic life became the state’s compelling interest and legislation on abortion could be enacted at the state’s discretion (Goode 17). The state’s interest in the embryo, however, is questionable at best. Lawrence Lader clarifies, “the concept… is that once a fetus is viable, the state can appropriate a woman’s body and submit her to criminal and civil liability for any accidental harm... This trend toward control by the state of a woman’s reproductive life accentuates the need for privacy” (1). Tricia Andreyszewski concurs, “on the same grounds, would it be reasonable to prohibit all pregnant women from drinking and smoking? Should they be legally compelled to take vitamins and see a doctor regularly?” (75). The court’s ruling in Roe could be foretold as a natural extension of women’s rights. As early as 16 the Students for a Democratic Society’s (SDS) National Council in Austin concluded “women could not truly direct their own lives, control their physical and psychological health, or make education and career plans if they could not control the number and frequency of their pregnancies” (Tompkins 0). The civil rights guaranteed by this and subsequent cases are many the rights to privacy and choice, the right of a married woman to end a pregnancy without her husband’s consent, the right of a teenager to keep an abortion secret from her parents, and the ability for abortion clinics to be paid for through state funds (Andreyszewski 4). The Supreme Court in Roe also cleared up one legal point because people trained in medicine, philosophy, and theology could not reach a consensus on when life begins or what defines personhood, the Court also shied away from these issues, except to determine that the concept of “personhood” as used in the 14th amendment did not apply to the unborn (Terkel ). All of these revolutionary decisions met with a mixture of relief from civil rights activists and shock from the right wing. Abortion clinics, the new bastions of freedom, were soon awash in a rising tide of backlash. Pro-lifers, as anti-abortion advocates now called themselves, surrounded and formed human walls around clinics to embarrass and keep away consulted women. Despite this opposition, the number of facilities offering abortion options grew tremendously until the Reagan-Bush era, when conservative politics crushed financial support and sought to nullify those rights guaranteed by Roe. Today, due mostly to pressure from anti-abortion groups, nine out of ten counties have no facilities that provide abortion services (Costa 8). In a 187 Supreme Court case on abortion, George Bush even sent in United States lawyers to argue against the decision and ask to repeal Roe v. Wade (Tompkins 11). Luckily for civil rights, the bench valued Constitutionality over partisan politics. States will not be allowed to make abortion illegal again. Legal and physical barriers were not the only lanes conservatives took; the conflict frequently escalated into violence. From peaceful protests and sit-ins outside abortion clinics grew the threatening phone calls and bomb threats (real and fictitious) that hound pro-choice doctors to this day (Andreyszewski 1). Militant church groups have even slaughtered whole clinics full of doctors, nurses, and frightened women. Terrorism and fanaticism does not apply only to the Middle East. Why are these people so passionate about what should be a non-issue? To quote Roger Rosenblatt, “the woman who does not wish to become a wife or mother is an implicit threat to “normal” society… the vehemence with which pro-life advocates attack pro-choice women is, I believe, connected to that feeling of threat”(1). Since 186, attitudes have not changed much in the conservative viewpoint. Emotions are still highly charged and rights are still only begrudged to women, and whole congregations have taken various routes to ending abortion. Some groups contend through legal avenues, some through obstruction, and some through outright terrorist tactics. Bombings and threats have permeated the walls of abortion clinics nationwide, as fanatical purists vow to kill to stop the killing. Irony seems to be lost on the religious. As comedian George Carlin once remarked, “What is murdering a doctor if not abortion in the sixtieth trimester?” Dennis Miller summed up the dangers of vigilantism in a rant against the so-called “Religious Right” “Im sorry, you just dont go shooting doctors. If a judgments to be made, God gets to make it. Not you. Him. You are Barney Fife. Keep your bullet in your shirt pocket.” Rights and lives are being threatened every day by these conservatives. Fervent debate racks the brains of the scholar, the lawyer, the priest, and the layman. Yet all of this heartache boils down not to a social, not to a medical, not even to a legal or spiritual issue, but to a human one the choice to have an abortion should lie only within the person having it. Works Cited Andreyszewski, Tricia. Abortion Rights, Options, and Choices. Brookfield Millbrook P, 16. Costa, Marie, ed. Abortion A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara ABC-CLIO, 17. Garrett, Major, and Penny, Timothy J. The 15 Biggest Lies in Politics. New York St. Martin’s Griffin, 18. Goode, Stephen. The Controversial Court. New York Messner, 18. Lader, Lawrence. RU486. Reading Addison-Wesley, 15. Roleff, Tamara L. Abortion Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego Greenhaven P, 17. Rosenblatt, Roger. Life Itself Abortion in the American Mind. New York Random House, 17. Terkel, Susan N. Abortion Facing the Issues. New York Franklin Watts, 18. Tompkins, Nancy. Roe v. Wade The Fight Over Life and Liberty. Danbury Franklin Watts, 16. Wennburg, Robert N. Life in the Balance. Grand Rapids William B. Eerdmans, 15.

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