Roger McCormack ‘14, Staff writer
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’s filibuster over abortion restrictions and newly announced gubernatorial bid raises questions regarding liberty and its limitations,-and the perennial debate over abortion in the U.S. public sphere.
The bill Davis filibustered will ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. Davis said that abortion is “sacred ground,” and requires a firm leaving-alone by government. President Obama inelegantly referred to abortion rights as “a fight against the war on women,” perfectly outlining the Democratic Party’s stand on abortion. The issue remains divisive and prejudicially covered, with a debate centering on the collision of women’s liberty and the rights of the unborn.
The relatively moderate restrictions require higher standards of medical acumen for abortionists, as unregulated clinics and incompetent physicians pose a menace to women seeking abortion. The bill mandates that abortion centers have a parity of standards with ambulatory surgery centers, and stipulates that abortionists have admitting privileges to hospitals within 30 miles of where the abortion is performed, thereby avoiding the woeful lack of regulation displayed in clinics across the country.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, said: “The thing that’s incredible to me — North Dakota being case in point — is the thought that … there are now states where it’s not safe to be a woman,” in retort to a series of North Dakota laws proposing to forbid abortion in the instance of a detectable heartbeat, or in cases of gender defects and gender preference. These sensible restrictions aside, Planned Parenthood’s claim to be in the vanguard of women’s safety does not cohere with the obstinate stand the group takes on late-term abortion.
The costs of late-term abortion can be debilitating, especially to the fetus, but also the well-being of the mother. A case pertaining to Arizona legislation banning abortion at 20 weeks, which Arizona’s Ninth Circuit Court subsequently struck down as unconstitutional in Isaacson v. Horne (now under appeal), illustrates the dangers of late-term abortion. New insights in embryology exhaustively document the ability of a fetus to feel pain as early as 16 weeks, and offer evidence that the effects of late-term abortion on the health of the mother are adverse. The Arizona court ruled that a ban at 20 weeks was permissible due to “substantial and well-documented evidence that an unborn child has the capacity to feel pain during an abortion by at least 20 weeks gestational age,” as well as finding that “the instance of complications (to the health of the pregnant woman) is highest after 20 weeks of gestation.” Arizona’s legislation carved out exceptions for significant health risks or threat to the life of the mother.
The stipulation of infant viability as the sole threshold for impermissible abortion, in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, did not stop the court from deciding in Gonzales v. Carhart to uphold a ban on partial-birth abortion. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The court has given state and federal legislatures wide discretion to pass legislation in areas where there is medical and scientific uncertainty.”
The unscrupulousness of late-term abortion is seen in Kermit Gosnell’s Philadelphia abattoir. Gosnell, an abortionist, was sentenced this year to life in prison for first-degree murder. The New York Times reported: “Plastic bags and mineral water bottles holding aborted fetuses were found stashed in Dr. Gosnell’s clinic. Jars containing the severed feet of babies lined a shelf, the Philadelphia district attorney, Seth Williams, said in a statement.” Prosecutors referred to the clinic as a “charnel house … riddled with fetal remains and reeking of cat urine, with furniture and blankets stained with blood.”
Gosnell typically served minority and immigrant women in Philadelphia; one of the murders he was charged with involved the newborn baby of a 17-year-old. USA Today noted the dearth of media coverage of the murders: “Infant beheadings. Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure. Haven’t heard about these sickening accusations”? The New York Times ran the story on page A-17 — the nether regions of the paper. (By contrast, coverage of Wendy Davis’s filibuster inspired widespread media adulation). The grand jury report observed pitiless negligence: “Government health and licensing officials had received repeated reports about Gosnell’s dangerous practices. No action was taken, even after the agencies learned that women had died during routine abortions under Gosnell’s care.”
Gosnell’s ease at preying on impoverished women displays the economic malaise that is the impetus for a significant number of abortions. A further twist in the abortion debate is the unwillingness of the Republicans, a party ardently opposed to abortion, to offer assistance to women in dire straits, or acknowledge the circumstances that drive women to abortion. Institutional degradation also plays a striking role, as poor women are rarely fully cognizant of institutions that could assist with adoption, or provide economic succor. Likewise, the Christian Right holds women who seek abortion in contempt, rarely displaying generosity in dealing with a decision that is rarely made with levity.
And if you really want people to stop having abortions, banning or withholding birth control is inconsistent with the goal. The Vatican’s crusades on this issue are responsible for innumerable instances of the squalor and abject poverty in the Third World.
However, economic rationales fail to explain away a 2008 U.S. Centers for Disease Control study finding that more than 800,000 abortions were performed in this country.
The numerous motives for seeking abortion raise significant questions about the increasing permeation of choice into spheres typically deemed sacrosanct. For example, in the United States it is estimated that, in 90 percent of cases in which fetuses are diagnosed with Down syndrome, abortion results. This is also demonstrated in the Third World, hardly a bastion of liberalism and women’s rights.
In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Amartya Sen depicts the misogyny of Indian society: “Since the 1980s, the wide use of new techniques such as sonograms for determining the sex of fetuses has led to huge — and growing — numbers of selective abortions of female fetuses, offsetting the gains in declining difference in mortality rate.”
While the gang-rape (and ensuing death) of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi created a media firestorm, Sen’s delineation of abortion for gender selection in India did not. Moreover, the situation of women in much of the Muslim world offers a case so striking that its failure to gain traction as a feminist cause is inexplicable. Ibn Warraq, author of the fantastic “Why I am Not A Muslim,” limns the misogyny of Pakistan: “The birth of a baby girl is the occasion for mourning. Hundreds of baby girls are abandoned every year in the gutters and dustbins and on the pavements. An organization working in Karachi to save these children has calculated that more than 500 children are abandoned a year in Karachi alone, and that 99 percent of them are girls.” (Benazir Bhutto, the first woman prime minister of Pakistan, was pro-life).
For feminists to keep silent over the ravages of the Third World indicates a lack of intellectual honesty about the starkest threats to women’s health and liberty.
Abortion remains contentious and, while overturning Roe v. Wade would be imprudent, more subtle and reasoned moral suasion to truncate abortion rates would be welcome. The practice remains inherently sexist, as it implies that women must exhibit unrestrained concupiscence to attain an authentic equality of the sexes. A growing awareness of the diminishing returns of certain elements of the sexual revolution, as well as the spuriousness of the previous conception of equality, perhaps suggests a future with fewer abortions.
Abortion remains sui generis, and therefore not solely a question of women’s liberty. If the fetus were a mere appurtenance of a woman, and not a human life, ambiguity would disappear. But it is not, and thus the tragic quality of abortion remains. Nevertheless, the inclination to abuse a practice best reserved for heartbreaking circumstances also portends a society growing increasingly coarse, indifferent and callous.