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Adjusting the abortion lens

Peter Quaranto | Tuesday, September 28, 2004

I have wanted to avoid it, but I think it would be a major oversight to avoid weighing in on the greatest political red herring of our time: the abortion debate in the United States. As Election 2004 rolls toward us, it appears that abortion will not be a crucial issue affecting voter trends on Nov. 2; yet, here at our overwhelmingly Catholic university, abortion plays an indisputable role in our political consciousness. In recent months, certain U.S. Catholic bishops have reinforced its pivotal role by claiming it is a sin to vote for candidates that support abortion rights. While this deep concern for the number of abortions in America (more than 1.3 million a year) is correct, I fear that the current abortion debate is not only inadequate, but also keeps us from seeing what it would really mean to be “pro-life.”

First, semantic manipulation and rhetoric have clouded the abortion debate over the last 30 years. The current debate has dichotomized the issue into two camps, pro-life and pro-choice, which overlooks the complexities involved. This dichotomy makes it very hard to question whether certain understandings of the issue neatly translate to particular policy platforms. For this reason, the United States has witnessed increasing polarization and decreasing productive discourse about this vital issue.

In that vein, I want to look closely at the relationship between conceiving abortion as a moral wrong and advocating policies to prevent such a wrong. In the wake of Roe v. Wade, some people presume that those who oppose abortion must also adamantly promote the criminalization of abortion. While such a presumption has pervaded the national psyche, it is a rickety syllogism. It is a logical blunder to assume that a pro-life stance on abortion automatically must lead to supporting the criminalization of abortion.

Studies actually show that the legality of abortion in a particular country is not directly related with the rate of abortions in that country. Many Western European countries with lax abortion laws, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, have low abortion rates, lower than the United States, while countries, such as Ireland and Mexico, with strict abortion laws, have high rates. Here in the United States, many pro-life activists suggest that abortion will stop if Roe v. Wade is overturned. This line of thinking ignores the fact that many women still have abortions, often very dangerously, in countries when abortion is restricted. Focusing solely on criminalization of abortion actually misses the social science research dealing with the issue.

The only factor that can be directly linked statistically to abortion rates is the incidence of unwanted pregnancies. Where the rates of unwanted pregnancy are high, no matter what the law, the rates of abortion tend also to be high as women sometimes go to extreme measures when they feel desperate. Do our policies help assuage this desperation or only serve to exacerbate it, thus leading to risky behavior, greater denial and less willingness to deal with the whole of the issue? Can we simply impose prohibitions without understanding the situations that tend to produce decisions we might abhor, thus assuring that more and more women will face the same difficult choice in more trying, frightening circumstances?

For those of us who see abortion as a moral wrong, the challenge is to seriously evaluate how to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies. As I see it, this task comes down to three areas: contraceptives, education and economics. Countries where people have increased access to and knowledge of contraceptives have significantly lower rates of unwanted pregnancies and consequently, lower rates of abortion. Similarly, better education structures provide populations with more awareness about social and sexual realities. Health and education are directly linked to economics, especially in developing countries, where a country’s inability to meet basic human needs translates into harmful behavior. A true “pro-life” approach must face these different socio-economic realities that are quite connected to the issue at stake.

The argument has been made that the global abortion problem (46 million per year) is the greatest moral evil of our time, thus it demands our focus and energy. I do not disagree, but I think it also demands that we seriously look at why abortions happen, where abortions happen and how we can really decrease or stop them. It alarms me that the pro-life movement in America has become so focused on the criminalization of abortion in recent years. Supporting political agendas that criminalize abortion, while dumbing-down sex education, replacing science with ideology, basing policy on simplistic notions of human behavior, increasing poverty rates and eliminating our social safety nets, is not only morally dubious, it’s immoral.

A truly pro-life approach to decreasing the incidence of abortion must embrace reality along with life, to work to strengthen and support people to make moral decisions, not simply declare “Thou shalt not …” and assume all of society’s work is done. Prohibition did not work with alcohol, it’s not working with drugs and it probably won’t work with abortion. It’s time that we face the facts about abortion, and work with those facts to create an America and world that really respects and supports life in all its forms.

Peter Quaranto is a junior political science and international peace studies major. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at pquarant@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.