In the past five months, various states have passed both the most permissive and the most restrictive abortion laws seen since the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the right to an abortion is constitutionally protected. The combination of those laws and the reactions to them have given the debate a heightened passion. Abortion is on the lips and minds and social-media feeds of many Americans. But in observing the debate, you’d think the two sides were talking about two different procedures that affect two separate populations, yet share a name.
To listen to the most passionate supporters of legal abortion and the New York law guaranteeing access to the procedure up to the time of birth when the health of the mother is at risk, you would think that the mother is the only living being affected. It is only “her body,” only “her choice” and the only impacts are on her.
In an article posted Tuesday on the website Prevention, Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN and columnist for The New York Times who supports unrestricted abortions at any time in a pregnancy (and makes a very compelling case for it), wrote, “We must hold the line at the truth that all abortions are valid. The headlines should not be about restrictions; they should inform that abortion is a medical procedure. That’s all an abortion is — a medical procedure. There shouldn’t be abortion laws that ban it, just like there aren’t appendectomy laws for appendicitis.”
But comparing killing a viable fetus late in a pregnancy with removing a diseased appendix is not honest or productive.
To listen to the supporters of laws passed recently that ban abortion almost entirely (Alabama) or cut it off at six weeks (Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio), you would think the fetus is the only being affected by the procedure. Of the bill he signed in March, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant tweeted, “We will all answer to the good Lord one day. I will say in this instance, ‘I fought for the lives of innocent babies, even under the threat of legal action.’ ”
It’s as if to Bryant, the women carrying these babies, including those who were raped, were victims of incest or did not know they were pregnant six weeks in, do not exist except as baby containers.
Both of these stances are lies of omission. Two beings are deeply affected by every abortion performed, and any abortion prevented. In discussing the legality of abortions, the interests of two beings are at stake, and must be balanced.
Other lies have become staples of this debate, too. The slur that anti-abortion activists only care about children until they are born is disproved by the churches that work to feed and clothe and shelter poor children even as they fight abortion. The idea that anything more than a microscopic fraction of expectant mothers and doctors would abort viable fetuses late in pregnancy without a hugely compelling medical reason is farcical.
I support legal abortions. I also support a fight against unplanned pregnancy that includes free long-term contraception for all women and the development and distribution of free long-term contraception for all men. The key to cutting abortions is limiting pregnancy to those who want babies.
But I know there are well-intentioned, loving people on both sides of this argument. I know every abortion affects two beings. And I know that the rhetoric coming from both extremes in this fight doesn’t capture the feelings of the huge group caught in the middle.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.