In the long and arduous fight leading up to Roe v. Wade, the one thing feminists were most passionate about was their belief that unrestricted access to abortion was indispensable to achieving gender equality. Betty Friedan in 1972 promised that legalizing abortion would make women whole. Advocacy groups, including the National Organization for Women, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League), and the President’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women, stood adamantly opposed to any limits, claiming regulation would violate a woman’s right to control her body.
When one looks at the data today, noting that half of all women undergoing abortion in 2002 will be having at least their second, and that one of every five will be having at least her third, a number of highly descriptive thoughts come to mind. “In control” isn’t one of them.
The successful push for unrestricted abortion on demand, nationwide, rested on two factors. The first was fortuitous timing. In the 1960s, the nation was caught up in the turmoil of three great social movements: civil rights, with its emphasis on effecting sweeping political change via the courts; feminism, with its promise to empower the victims of very real social and economic injustice; and environmentalism, which had fostered nationwide hysteria with claims of an imminent population disaster. The point at which the tenets of these three movements converged was abortion
The second and more important factor was packaging. Abortion, from the onset, was not a health issue; it was politics. And politics is personal. In 1968, public opinion polls revealed scant support for legalizing abortion. Few Americans anticipated any personal benefit and many had serious moral concerns. But over the next five years, abortion rights advocates overcame Americans’ qualms with repeated assurances that when every child was a “wanted” child, broad social benefits would ensue
According to this argument, illegitimacy would become a thing of the past. Women who found themselves inconveniently pregnant could obtain an abortion and remain in school or in the workforce. Couples would no longer be trapped into miserable, forced marriages. Children would no longer be battered by parents resentful that they were “unplanned.”
With an implied reduction in welfare and social services, abortion was transformed in the early 1970s from a moral question into a pocketbook issue. Senator Jacob Javits, for example, described New York’s decision to legalize abortion as “a significant step forward in dealing with the human problems of our state.”
Members of the Commission on Population Growth, established by President Richard Nixon in 1970, thought so too. In the second of three reports, issued in March 1972, they called for Medicaid-funded abortions as necessary weapons in the war on poverty, noting that “unwanted fertility is highest among those whose levels of education and income are lowest.”
This line of thinking already had powerful support from The Population Bomb, the 1968 bestselling book by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich, who cofounded the group Zero Population Growth, warned that humans were rapidly populating themselves out of existence. Within slightly more than a decade, he wrote, all ocean life would die of DDT poisoning. Thousands would perish in smog disasters in New York and Los Angeles. Life expectancy in the United States would plunge to just forty-two years, as pollution-induced cancer epidemics decimated the population
To much of the public, these forecasts seemed frighteningly plausible. Press reports told of earnest young college girls having themselves surgically sterilized rather than risk bringing any more children into an already overcrowded world. In a controversial two-part episode of the popular CBS sitcom Maude, broadcast in 1972, the title character chooses to have an abortion. A New York Times reporter later revealed that the show had been prompted by a $5,000 prize offered by the Population Institute for the best prime-time script concerning population control
Abortion rights advocates, employing the rhetoric of equality, were quick to point out that wealthy women could always obtain a safe abortion, legal or not. Extending access to poor women simply corrected a social injustice. The larger reality, given the environmental scare, was a bit different. If all humanity was sitting on an increasingly overcrowded life raft, many Americans reasoned that it might be unwise to let “the poor” occupy too big a corner. By 1972, Americans were increasingly drawn to the banner of “choice.”
But did the nation benefit? Are American women more free?
Paul Ehrlich, a genuine expert on the Checkerspot butterfly, was not such an expert on human populations, as it turned out. His forecasts of impending disaster from overpopulation were never remotely realistic. But neither was the assumption that America could abort poverty out of existence
Illegitimacy, far from disappearing, has become a serious social problem. In 1970, just 10.7 percent of all births were to unmarried mothers. By 1975, after Roe, the illegitimacy rate in the United States had jumped to 14.5 percent. Nearly 70 percent of black children and 33 percent of all children are born out of wedlock today. Divorce rates have multiplied, as have reported incidences of child abuse.
What about the familiar refrain that abortion should be a matter between a woman and “her” doctor, the so-called right to privacy? Roe hinged on this issue. The reality, today as in 1972, is that a woman’s personal physician is unlikely to perform abortions. Two surveys-one by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists in 1985, the other by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 1995-found that two-thirds of the obstetricians and gynecologists in practice in the United States, especially women and those under forty, refuse to do abortions under any circumstances. The reasons offered only rarely had to do with public pressure from anti-abortion activists. Most cited religious scruples or simply said they didn’t like doing abortions. Of the one-third that do perform abortions, a majority perform four or fewer per month. That leaves most to specialized abortion clinics that offer women with unplanned pregnancies little in the way of counseling or emotional support
Of course, the most powerful of the pro-choice arguments was that failure to legalize abortion would leave five to ten thousand women a year bleeding to death from coat-hanger abortions or dying from systemic infections incurred at the hands of “back-alley butchers.”
Had anyone bothered to research that claim, then or since, they would have learned that every aspect of it was a myth. Death rates from infections and all types of surgeries, including illegal abortions, had already fallen precipitously after World War II, when antibiotics finally became available to the general public. But at no time, even before penicillin and sulfa drugs, had the number of abortion fatalities come anywhere close to the five thousand to ten thousand figure most often cited
In 1940, the National Center for Health Statistics confirmed just 1,313 deaths from illegal abortions, most of them from infection. As antibiotics became available and surgical techniques improved generally, abortion-related deaths fell sharply: 159 deaths in 1966, forty-one in 1972, the year before Roe
Activists contend that most deaths were covered up. But if so, one would still have expected to see a decline in the overall death rate among women after 1973, when abortion became legal nationwide. According to Centers for Disease Control statistics, the death rate among women aged fifteen to thirty-four, the group that today accounts for 94 percent of all abortions in the United States, saw no significant change in the years immediately after Roe
Nor were the abortionists of the 1950s and ‘60s necessarily untrained: Dr. Mary Calderone, a former medical director for Planned Parenthood, estimated in the American Journal of Public Health in 1960 that nine out of ten illegal abortions were already being performed by licensed doctors.
In this there is no little irony. Prior to Roe v. Wade, the fact that these doctors were breaking the law kept the numbers of abortions relatively low-as few as 200,000 a year by some estimates-and effectively discouraged most from taking unnecessary risks. Legalization removed that constraint. An unscrupulous abortion doctor could now advertise openly, confident that he would be shielded by abortion rights rhetoric that uniformly proclaimed him a hero, even if his motives were something other than compassion
Only a year after abortion was legalized in New York state in 1970, writer Susan Edmiston noted with alarm in the New York Times Magazine that state health department officials were failing to supervise the numerous abortion clinics that had sprung up throughout the city, establish accurate data collection, or take any action on complaints that were already flooding in. Reporters were turning up similar problems in Los Angeles and the District of Columbia
Stories like these have been consistently ignored. In 1974, the Detroit Free Press found unsafe, unlicensed abortion clinics proliferating in the Detroit area. In 1978, a five-month investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times uncovered dangerous medical practices at abortion clinics along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. In 1991, after several gruesome New York abortion cases made national headlines, the New York Times, in a front page article, found “filth” and “butchery” at dozens of shabby, unlicensed clinics tucked away behind storefronts or-to evade state regulators-operating out of ordinary-looking doctors’ offices, most often in poor neighborhoods.
How much bad medicine is glossed over in the name of choice isn’t known. It’s impolitic for health agencies to keep good data on deaths and injuries at abortion clinics. And since the much publicized shootings at these clinics, newspapers have shown a reluctance even to report such events. But anyone can sit down at a computer, as I did, and pull up hundreds of newspaper accounts documenting a long history of death, injury, and fraud at walk-in abortion clinics in Atlanta, Houston, St. Louis, Miami, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Birmingham, Kansas City, and many other cities. In this atmosphere, supporters’ repeated references to abortion as a “vital health service” and to attempts to regulate clinics as “threats to women’s safety” begin to ring hollow
The past decade has been an especially tough one for the abortion rights movement; morale has visibly collapsed. Six years ago, a hard-fought and very public congressional debate over so-called partial-birth abortions-a procedure in which the physician partly delivers a late-term fetus feet first, then kills it by piercing its skull with scissors, attaching a high-powered suction device and sucking out its brain-revealed not only a disturbing brutality toward the unborn but also the widespread occurrence in this country of second- and third-trimester abortions. Facing a horrified public, abortion rights advocates remained rigid ideologues
With abortion becoming increasingly controversial and the vast majority of doctors reluctant to participate-or medical schools even to teach abortion techniques-advocates turned to RU-486 and other abortion-inducing drugs. Now claims of a too quick approval of RU-486 by the Food and Drug Administration and reports of deaths among seemingly healthy women who used the drug are raising alarms. And this type of abortion, in which the dead fetus is passed in the toilet or shower, with the woman herself as sole witness, may be even more emotionally traumatic than the various surgical procedures. Chemically induced abortions certainly do nothing to reassure the public that abortion is “humane.”
Some of abortion’s most ardent supporters are expressing doubts. Roe poster girl Norma McCorvey, overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, defected in 1996. Germaine Greer, though still holding tight to feminist ideology, complained in her 1999 book The Whole Woman that abortion had become just one more oppression-this time from a male-dominated medical establishment that failed to inform women of the risks. She should know. By her own admission, several abortions have left her sterile
For advocates of choice, surveys of public opinion have become more and more grim. A 1998 Wirthlin poll found that 58 percent of American women felt that abortion had hindered their relationships with men, and 70 percent of men and women believed that legal abortion is not necessary for women to pursue various educational and career goals. A January 1999 survey of 275,811 incoming college freshman by the Higher Education Research Institute showed that just 52.5 percent of men and 49.5 percent of women thought abortion should be legal-a decline of 14 percentage points since 1990 in an age group typically more pro-choice than any other. In 2000, a Los Angeles Times poll showed that just 43 percent of Americans support a continuation of Roe v. Wade, down from 56 percent in 1991.
In the last presidential race, while 27 percent of those polled by the Los Angeles Times said they were more likely to vote for George W. Bush because he was pro-life, just 18 percent said the same for Al Gore because he was pro-choice
Nationwide, the number of abortions has been dropping since 1990. But a potentially more significant number was announced this past summer by the U.S. Census Bureau. Drawing on year 2000 data, the Bureau reported that for the first time in three decades the U.S. birth rate is up. Kids are no longer being regarded as a threat to the planet or Mom’s ball and chain. Where the two-child limit was once the hallmark of social responsibility, young couples are opting for more.
Initially hailed as a woman’s ticket out of the kitchen and into the boardroom, abortion today has become increasingly associated with sexual irresponsibility and moral degradation. From a proclamation of independence, a woman’s admission that she has had an abortion has now become the kind of public announcement that makes men, and other women, cringe, regardless of their politics
The ability of abortion to galvanize public opinion, to claim influence over election outcomes, is over. Americans looked at Roe v. Wade and found nothing in it for them. Should the opportunity arise, the nation may finally be ready to see the abortion issue returned to the state legislatures, where it should have remained some thirty years ago.
Candace C. Crandall is an associate producer for New River Media, Inc. and an Adjunct Fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.