Some topics that such a debate might involve?

In November, the Atlantic published an article by Caitlin Flanagan entitled ‘The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate: Why we need to face the best arguments from the other side’. We think that this has led to a discussion that it is worth drawing attention to.

The Original Pro-Choice Atlantic Article:

Flanagan comes from a pro-choice position, and, for her, what she “can’t face about abortion is the reality of it: that these are human beings, the most vulnerable among us, and we have no care for them”. Her article vividly describes this reality:

“Most abortions happen in the first trimester,” a very smart and very kind friend reassured me. I didn’t need to worry about those detailed images of babies—by the time they had grown to such recognizably human proportions, most of them were well past the stage of development in which the majority of abortions take place. And I held on to that comforting piece of information, until it occurred to me to look at one of those images taken at the end of the first trimester. I often wish I hadn’t.

A picture of a 12-week fetus is a Rorschach test. Some people say that such an image doesn’t trouble them, that the fetus suggests the possibility of a developed baby but is far too removed from one to give them pause. I envy them. When I see that image, I have the opposite reaction. I think: Here is one of us; here is a baby. She has fingers and toes by now, eyelids and ears. She can hiccup—that tiny, chest-quaking motion that all parents know. Most fearfully, she is starting to get a distinct profile, her one and only face emerging. Each of these 12-week fetuses bears its own particular code: this one bound to be good at music; that one destined for a life of impatience, of tap, tap, tapping his pencil on the desk, waiting for recess.

What I can’t face about abortion is the reality of it: that these are human beings, the most vulnerable among us, and we have no care for them. How terrible to know that in the space of an hour, a baby could be alive—his heart beating, his kidneys creating the urine that becomes the amniotic fluid of his safe home—and then be dead, his heart stopped, his body soon to be discarded.

This is the harsh reality that pro-choice people must own up to. This destruction is what they advocate for: this is what they think women have the right to choose to do. This is what they think it is wrong to legally ban or stigmatise (or sometimes even discourage). And this is an option (sometimes the option) that must be made available to women in order for them to have autonomy over their own bodies. An intellectually honest pro-choice person should acknowledge that this is what their position entails an endorsement of. Being pro-choice isn’t about safeguarding the right ‘to choose’ in general: it’s about safeguarding the right to choose this. A pro-choice person might also be in favour of promoting the choice to adopt, to use contraception, or to parent in difficult circumstances. But at the end of the day, what makes them count as pro-choice is that they think that this choice should be available, too. That’s what distinguishes them from pro-life people who are in favour of all these other choices but not the choice to abort.

But Flanagan also talks about a harsh reality that pro-life people need to face: the consequences of the dangerous illegal abortions that women can resort to if legal abortion is not an option. Her article includes accounts of what happened to women who procured illegal abortions pre Roe v. Wade in the US. These accounts include accounts of women dying from illegal abortions:

The first woman arrived at the hospital in a “hysterical state.” She was 32 years old, her husband was with her, and she was in the midst of an obvious medical crisis: Her temperature was 104 degrees, and her urine was “port-wine” colored and contained extremely high levels of albumin, indicating that her kidneys were shutting down. Her husband eventually confessed that they had gone to a doctor for an abortion two days earlier. Four hours after admission, the woman became agitated; she was put in restraints and sedated. Two hours after that, she began to breathe in the deep and ragged manner of the dying. An autopsy revealed massive necrosis of her kidneys and liver.

For Flanagan, what justifies the pro-choice position is that:

No matter what the law says, women will continue to get abortions. How do I know? Because in the relatively recent past, women would allow strangers to brutalize them, to poke knitting needles and wire hangers into their wombs, to thread catheters through their cervices and fill them with Lysol, or scalding-hot water, or lye. Women have been willing to risk death to get an abortion. When we made abortion legal, we decided we weren’t going to let that happen anymore. We were not going to let one more woman arrive at a hospital with her organs rotting inside of her. We accepted that we might lose that growing baby, but we were not also going to lose that woman.

Just as the honest pro-choice advocate must say something to justify their position in light of the reality of what an abortion destroys, so too must the honest pro-life advocate say something to justify their position in light of the reality of the suffering (and sometimes danger) that women with unwanted pregnancies and women who have abortions face.

Pro-Life Responses

Alexandra De Sanctis has written a response for the National Review in which she argues that the pro-life movement cares about providing alternatives to abortion: supports that give women who would seek illegal abortions an alternative course of action that is not lethal for them or for their babies.

Secular Pro-Life has also written a three part response. I will quote their first argument in full because the claim it debunks is is so widespread:

(1) Roe v. Wade didn’t reduce the maternal death rate from illegal abortion. 

Flanagan assumes that making abortion legal made it safer, but doesn’t offer any evidence for that assumption beyond a correlation-is-causation argument; since women are no longer showing up in hospitals after surreptitious Lysol abortions, Roe must have been the answer! That’s a weak case, and the data just don’t back it up.

Whenever I give presentations on college campuses, I share this graph from the National Center for Health Statistics, showing maternal deaths from illegal abortions by year—but with the x-axis, the year, erased.

Graph from secular pro-life blog post

I then ask a brave audience volunteer to guess where 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, falls on the graph. Most select a peak, in line with the narrative that Roe v. Wade caused maternal deaths to plummet. Invariably, they guess wrong:

Graph from secular pro-life blog post

Roe v. Wade isn’t even a blip on the graph. Forget “correlation doesn’t equal causation”—they don’t even have correlation! The real savior of women’s lives? Advances in antibiotics.

Secular pro-life’s second points builds nicely on De Sanctis’. De Sanctis reminds us that the pro-life movement includes people dedicated to providing resources that serve to avoid situations where a woman would feel that her only choice was to have an abortion. Secular Pro-Life argues that, in addition to this, numerous other advances make a 21st century post-Roe America unlikely to resemble the 1950s.

(2) A lot has changed since the 1950’s.

Flanagan herself acknowledges that it “was illegal to advertise contraception nationally until 1977,” four years after Roe; today, you can pick up condoms at any corner drugstore, and prescription contraceptives are widely available. Pregnancy discrimination was perfectly legal at the time of Roe; today, it’s prohibited by federal law. Women couldn’t get credit cards in their own name at the time of Roe; today, it’s unquestioned. Marital rape wasn’t criminalized in all 50 states until two decades after Roe. And I haven’t even mentioned that today, pro-life pregnancy centers outnumber abortion businesses. Using the 1950’s to predict a post-Roe future is wildly unrealistic.

Finally, they remind us that legal abortion kills women, too.

(3) Legal abortion is still killing women.  

Tonya Reaves. Jennifer Morbelli. Maria Santiago. Lakisha Wilson. Christin Gilbert. The list goes on. The pro-life movement can tell stories just as tragic as the “back-alley” stories Flanagan shares. The fact that their abortions were legal doesn’t make them any less dead.

A Few Notes Relating this discussion of Roe v. Wade to an Irish Context

Basically, I am not going to do this here because that would be a blog post unto itself. Two quick notes:

Making abortion illegal certainly did not prevent all abortions from happening – many women travelled to the UK and used illegal abortion pills actively promoted by Irish pro-choice groups. However, it does seem to be the case that legalising abortion made abortion rates increase significantly. As of May it seemed as though the abortion rate might possibly be on track to triple. (We have written about whether pro-life laws can reduce abortion rates before in a previous blog post and in a University Times article.)

Not every woman living in Ireland who had an abortion before the Repeal of the 8th survived. In 2012, the year that Savita Halappanavar died, another woman living in Ireland died following an abortion in a UK Marie Stopes clinic (Marie Stopes was very much a legal clinic, not a backstreet abortion provider, and has been criticised for failing to meet health and safety standards,