Rethinking the Right to Choose
Thirty-eight years ago last week, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that changed women’s lives. The opinion, written by Justice Harry A. Blackmun ’29 (a Republican appointee), found that a woman’s right to privacy covers the right to make choices about her body, including the medical choice to have an abortion.
Thus, despite anti-choice efforts to chip away at this decision over subsequent decades (many of which have been successful), I never grew up in a world where I worried that an unintended pregnancy would derail my life. That’s not to say that I, or other pro-choice women like myself, treat abortion light-heartedly—indeed, I hope never to have to obtain one. But the fact remains that there is a certain security in knowing that, whether for physical, mental, or economic reasons, you have a final option.
Unfortunately, it is an option that too many of us take as a given. We talk about it as a right to choose, which is nice, but it’s time to change the dialogue. It’s time to talk about abortion as part of health care, as a medical procedure that should—like other medical decisions—be made by a patient and her doctor.
I spent last summer working with a women’s group in Chile, which has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. The medical procedure is prohibited under all circumstances, and seeking an abortion in hospitals can result in arrest—both for the woman and the health provider. The majority of pregnant women have few places to turn to. I heard stories about women trying to self-induce and the horrors of trying to procure illegal abortions. These are all things we know happened in the United States before 1973 and will start to happen again if access to abortion is restricted.
Abortion, when performed by a doctor, is safe—unlike these home remedies. A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that mifepristone, the pill used to induce a miscarriage early in the first trimester, is a safe non-surgical way to terminate a pregnancy. Surgical methods used farther along are also up to 11 times safer than childbirth, despite the ban on dilation and extraction abortions. On top of that, studies have shown that choosing an abortion does not harm a woman’s mental health.
To mark the anniversary of this landmark decision, newly appointed House Speaker John A. Boehner held a press conference where he announced that chipping away at women’s rights and health would be one of his “top legislative priorities.” He and supporters of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” are misrepresenting the truth in their quest to prohibit abortions in many parts of the country. Of course, this is part of larger efforts that will limit access to health care, including the symbolic repeal of the Affordable Healthcare for America Act.
The bill Boehner seeks to pass would permanently enact the Hyde Amendment, which bans taxpayer funding for abortions, but is renewed annually. However, it wouldn’t stop there.
The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act further inhibits access to these procedures by outlawing tax benefits for employers and families who want to include abortion benefits in their health care plans. This would place added burdens on women and families seeking to access this procedure and go beyond the current status quo of not using money from the federal government. Those who will receive a subsidy to buy into the new health care exchange will not be able to purchase a plan that provides abortion coverage at all.
More strikingly, it will prohibit federal health care facilities—or individuals employed by the federal government—from providing abortion services. The bill does have a narrow exception—in the cases of rape or incest with a minor, or a life-threatening condition for the mother—but gives too much leeway to individual physicians and hospitals. In many states, this could be tantamount to a total ban.
It’s time to talk about abortion as a medical procedure and not get caught up in the rhetoric. Surely, it would be utterly unacceptable for a doctor or a nurse—regardless of their religious convictions—to refuse to perform a blood transfusion for a patient. Abortions and other reproductive health services must be treated in the same regard. This dangerous law will allow physicians to do just that—to refuse treatment—and it places women’s lives in jeopardy.
There are some things we can all agree on, pro and anti-“choice” alike. We can agree that everyone should have access to quality medical care, to life-saving procedures, and that abortions should not be used as a form of birth control. Let’s increase funding for sex education, let’s offer affordable hormonal birth control, and let’s spread the news about the morning-after pill. What we can’t afford to do, however, is to pass this bill. It won’t stop abortions, but it uses women’s lives and health in a political game.
Katie Zavadski ’13, a comparative studies of Religion concentrator, lives in Lowell House and is the Campaigns Director for the Harvard College Democrats.