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Criminalization is not the answer

Benjamin Rossi | Tuesday, October 8, 2013

This week was Notre Dame Right to Life (NDRL)’s annual Respect Life week, when members of that organization put on a number of events and activities aimed at “promoting pro-life discourse” on campus. The week culminated with the striking spectacle of dozens of tiny crosses littering the quad bordering O’Shag, what NDRL calls a “Cemetery of the Innocents.”
Although the details aren’t clear, NDRL apparently would have this country – and, presumably, every other country where women enjoy access to legal, safe abortion services – revert to a regime of full criminalization except in certain extreme circumstances, and perhaps not even then. What NDRL and its supporters on this campus fail to realize is criminalization is neither effective nor just. It is ineffective because it does not reduce the demand for abortions – it merely drives the practice underground. It is unjust because it directly and indirectly harms thousands of women annually without affecting the root problems that motivate women to seek abortion in the first place.
Highly-restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. Western Europe has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world despite the broad legal permissibility of the practice in most European countries. In the U.S., the initial rise in legal abortion rates following the Roe decision was largely due to a sharp decline in demand for illegal abortions. Legal abortion rates have declined since the early 1980s. The highest rates of abortion can be found in countries in Africa and Asia, with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.
Moreover, criminalization carries with it horrific consequences. In 2008, 47,000 women died from complications from unsafe abortions, comprising a total of 13 percent of all maternal deaths. Virtually all of these deaths occurred in developing countries with highly-restrictive abortion laws.
I do not mean to argue here about the morality of abortion. But any conscientious opponent of legalized abortion must reckon with the considerable moral costs of criminalization in terms of lives ruined and lives lost. Many who argue in favor of criminalization are not, nor will they ever be, in a position to suffer from such a regime. For this reason, thinking about this issue requires a deliberate and sometimes difficult effort of moral empathy.
The safest and most effective way of reducing abortion rates is not criminalization, but the provision of effective, modern contraceptives. An estimated 215 million women in the developing world have an unmet need for contraceptives. This is a public health crisis that should concern us all. Instead, many Notre Dame students appear more worried about the rights of the unborn. But even granting for the sake of argument that abortion is a morally dubious practice, it does not follow that criminalization is the appropriate, or moral, response.