Pro-abortion advocates are up in arms over the Stupak amendment to the House’s health-care bill. This amendment would prevent federal dollars from subsidizing any health-insurance plan that covers abortion outside of rape, incest, or medical risk to the mother. The main argument put forward against the amendment is that it is, as this page put it, “an outrageous curtailing of lower income women’s right to choose.” By this argument, in depriving these women of their “right to choose,” the Stupak amendment would force women to seek unsafe abortions that would risk their lives.
There are two problems with these arguments: The illogic of saying that the amendment would remove some women’s “right to choose” and the questionable assumption that imposing any restrictions on abortion would necessarily lead to more unsafe abortions.
Let us be clear: The amendment in no way makes abortion illegal. Abortions would still be legal and widely available; however, they would require the woman to either have supplemental insurance or to pay out of pocket. There are two things to note from the start. First, the state government could provide the supplemental insurance. Many states offer such coverage to supplement Medicaid, which also does not cover abortions. Second, in 2001, the average abortion at 10 weeks of gestation cost $ 372, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion non-profit group. In other words, anyone with an iPod could reasonably afford an abortion at 10 weeks.
However, let us discuss for the sake of argument the small subset of women for whom the Stupak amendment would make abortions prohibitively expensive. The claim that this fact deprives them of their “right to choose” merits further inspection. First, it implies that abortion is the kind of thing that women not only have a right to obtain, but also that they have a right to obtain regardless of whether they can pay for it. To illustrate the difference, this argument likens abortion to the right to an attorney; if you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you. Contrast this with my right to ride the subway—I certainly am entitled to ride the subway however often and for however long I want, but only provided that I can pay for it. In either case, abortion is considered permissible, but only in the former case would the government be right in funding it. The anti-Stupak arguments do not provide any reason why abortion should become one of the former, stronger kinds of rights.
A second challenge to this claim is that it rests on an assumption: If a choice is made based on economic necessity, it is not a real, truly free choice. However, abortion proponents must consider how often women seek abortions because they cannot afford to raise a child. Is this not, too, making a decision based on economic necessity? Does this not, too, deprive a woman of her right to choose not to have an abortion? If the government were to fund abortions, it would also have to offer complete support of child-rearing in order to protect a true “right to choose.”
Finally, opponents of the Stupak amendment claim that the amendment would lead to more unsafe abortions, which are likely to harm women. Participants in an anti-Stupak rally in Harvard Square on Nov. 18 brandished coat hangers and handed out flyers that said legal restrictions on abortion “just make abortions dangerous.”
This claim likely has its roots in a 2007 Guttmacher Institute study of worldwide abortion that concluded that countries in which abortions were illegal had significantly higher rates of unsafe abortions. However, the fatal flaw in this conclusion is that the countries where abortions are illegal are almost entirely developing countries, including most of Africa. The countries where abortions are legal include the United States, Europe, and other already developed nations. Moreover, 97 percent of unsafe abortions were in developing nations. This argument attributes the disparity in unsafe abortions to legal restrictions while not addressing the fact that medical care in countries where abortion is illegal is vastly inferior, much less available, and often not performed by adequately trained professionals. So it is misleading to claim, based on this study, that making abortions illegal would cause a rise in unsafe abortions. (Moreover, it is important to remember that the Stupak amendment does not actually make abortions illegal.)
President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as the Democratic champions of the health-care bill, have been repeating the mantra: “This is not an abortion bill; it is a health-care bill.” The irony of this situation is that it is pro-abortion advocates—not anti-abortion advocates—who are seizing this opportunity to wage a pro-choice vs. pro-life battle. It is unreasonable to say that the Stupak amendment would curtail any women’s “right to choose,” and, moreover, there is no evidence it would lead to unsafe abortions.
Nicolas R. P. Lewine ’10 is a molecular and cellular biology concentrator in Adams House.