The Right to Choose

Public Controversy, Private Decisions

Roe vs. Wade: 42 years and more of controversy, cowardice and control

Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision that struck down some of the restrictions placed on abortion, is being lamented by some as the end of civilization as we know it and lauded by others as a key decision regarding privacy and a woman’s right to control her own reproduction. A recent New York Times/CBS News Poll indicates that this nation is deeply divided over the issue, which should come as no great surprise to anyone even slightly aware of what’s going on in society.

The Times/CBS poll asked the wrong questions of the wrong people, and I would suggest that a new poll be conducted, one that more accurately reflects the issues that make up the abortion controversy:

First let’s limit our sample. We won’t ask any men how they feel about abortion, because they won’t ever be faced with having to make the decision. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Catholic priests and Southern Baptist ministers won’t have any say on the issue, not because they’re clergy and have already announced their own moral choices, but because they’re men. We won’t poll women who aren’t of child-bearing age, so middle-aged nuns and post-menopausal female members of Operation Rescue won’t see the poll, not because they demonstrate outside abortion clinics, but because they won’t have to face the decision themselves. We won’t ask children, male or female, because they’re too young to understand the issues, even though too many girls are impregnated when they’re still too young to understand what having a child will do to their lives, or to the child’s.

Our sample will be limited to girls and women ages between, say, 14 and 50. We could lower the age limit to include 12-year-old girls, but we won’t put any medical requirements on the poll – 12 to 50 is a good cross-sample. No woman will have to prove that she can or cannot have children, and we can eliminate Susan Carpenter MacMillan, not because she’s had two abortions and is now making a nice living as a spokesperson for the radical anti-choice movement, but because she’s outside the age bracket.

Now we have to phrase the questions.

“Do you think a government agency should have the authority to require women to carry a pregnancy to term?” I can imagine what the response would be if we ask a group of mid-20s women who have completed college and are starting careers, and face unexpected pregnancies because their birth control failed. Probably about the same kind of response we’d get if we ask women who already have children and find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, whether those women have jobs or careers outside the house, or if they have chosen careers within the home.

“Are women capable of functioning as competent moral agents independent of government regulation and social expectations, and therefore able to make rational decisions about reproduction?” The hell with the Promise Keepers – I hold to the idea that women are at least as competent at moral decisions as are men, including the men who hold the reins of authority and power.

“Should parents be notified if a minor seeks an abortion?” Let’s ask the 15-year-old girl who has been molested by a male relative or family friend and finds herself pregnant.

“Should there be a required ‘waiting period’ before an abortion can be obtained?” Can any pregnant woman forget for one moment that she’s pregnant, whether she wants a child or not?

“Should abortion restrictions apply in the second or third trimesters of pregnancy?” Let’s ask a woman, six months pregnant, who has just found out that her child, if delivered, will be anencephalic and will never have brain function. Or the woman who has been told that if she carries her pregnancy to term she will put her life at risk, or could destroy her ability to have children in the future. (It should be noted that the issue of “partial birth abortions” is a grotesque misnomer – no woman can have a partial birth anymore than she can be partially pregnant, and the procedure does not involve using a syringe to “suck out the brains” of a living child.)

“Does a woman have an inherent right to make private decisions regarding her own body and to control her own reproductive choices?” Wanna bet what kind of response this question would get from our sample group?

When the Chinese government adopted a policy of requiring abortions for women who have already had a child, American criticism and opposition were nearly universal. Now we see an increasing number of Americans who would mandate that some women, perhaps all, be required to carry all pregnancies to term. These aren’t opposite sides of the issue; the two positions are part and parcel of the same controlling, authoritarian presumptions that have relegated women to second class citizenship for millennia.

Until all restrictions are removed regarding a woman’s inherent right to make her own reproductive decisions privately, with the help of a doctor who will not be placed on a “wanted list” and with full access to a medical facility that is not targeted for violence or blockaded by fanatics, this nation will not have approached the promise of equality and justice. Every woman must have complete authority to define her pregnancy in her own terms, and that means abortion as well as reproductive information must be available, regardless of any woman’s social, ethnic, religious or economic standing. Women are not simply life support systems for uteri – the ability to bear children is only part of what a woman is, and must not be subject to majority presumption or government regulation.

A woman has an absolute right to say “no” at any point during sex – she also has the right to say “no” at any point to the result of sex.