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Privacy vs. Politics: The Abortion Debate Continues
June 3, 2003
by Elayne Clift

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to allow anti-abortion groups to protest at women's health clinics raises the static surrounding the abortion debate yet again. While one could argue that the Court's finding in this matter will benefit all of us for whom civil disobedience and First Amendment rights are important, I'd like to bring the focus back to the real issue: Why do women seek abortions and what is really at stake here?

As one health advocate puts it, "Women have abortions because their lives compel them to have an abortion. They have abortions because they have an unwanted pregnancy, because they can't raise a child, because their relationship is terrible, because they were the victim of rape or incest, because it will endanger their lives, but never because they are simply 'exercising a right.'" In other words, women don't make a simple choice; they make an incredibly difficult, lonely, and often heart-rending decision that takes into account the full spectrum of their lives and all those with whom they share it. Carol Gilligan documented this reality in her research about abortion decisions which led to her groundbreaking book "In A Different Voice." To put it far too simply, her main finding was that women make many of their most difficult life decisions, including abortion, with a sense of connection to others. They almost never think solely about themselves; rather, they make choices based upon complex relationships and realities.

That's why, legal or illegal, some women will always find themselves having to make the difficult and sometimes life-threatening decision to have an abortion. And that's why it's time for both sides to move their stake in this debate. The "pro-choice" stance trivializes a woman's inherent right to comprehensive, safe, and private medical care into an issue of "free choice." The "pro-life" stance is an affront to every moral person who values life and yet understands that sometimes difficult decisions need to be made.

Here are some important facts about abortion from the World Health Organization: In countries where abortion is legal, about 35 of every 1,000 women of childbearing age have an abortion each year. In countries where abortion is illegal, the rate is the same. But in countries where safe, legal abortion is available, the mortality rate from abortion is 0.1 to 1.2 deaths per 100,000 legal abortions. In countries where safe, legal abortion is not available, the mortality rate from abortion is 300 to 700 deaths per 100,000 unsafe abortions. That is a staggering statistic which demonstrates that making abortion illegal does not make it go away; it just drives it underground and makes it unsafe.

It is also interesting to note that the U.S. rate of abortion is four times higher than the rate of abortion in Denmark where there is universal comprehensive sexuality education and available contraception. Denmark also has a lower teen pregnancy rate and teens report having sex at a later age. They also have fewer partners.

The challenge then, it seems, is to stop fighting over the semantics of anti and pro-choice and to focus on solutions that will help to make abortion a rare event in women's lives.

And that means depoliticizing abortion. For example, a conference at the National Cancer Institute in February was convened to explore possible links between abortion and breast cancer. The conference is the latest in a series of administration-backed events that skewer medical science and research in order to please its conservative allies. According to Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, "the politics of abortion are driving the cancer agenda." Brenner thinks that NCI should be spending its time on more pressing issues, such as finding better ways to diagnose cancer and understanding the role of toxic substances that are increasingly prevalent in the environment, especially since numerous studies have failed to demonstrate any link between abortion and increased risk for breast cancer.

Let me say it once more, loud and clear: Abortion is not simply a choice, and it is never a simple choice. It is a personal, private, difficult decision that each woman must make for herself. It is deeply rooted in a woman's inherent human right to health and well-being. Thankfully, no woman in our culture is ever forced to have an abortion; neither should she be denied one. (In other words, "If you're against abortion, don't have one." But leave your preferences, and your politics, out of my doctor's office.)

When, in the name of compassion, scientific research, and just plain common sense - and all that we know from experience here and elsewhere - are we finally going to get it?

Elayne Clift writes about women and health in Saxtons River, Vt. She wishes to acknowledge the contribution of women's health advocate August Burns to this commentary.

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