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Criminalizing Abortion

by bedobe Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 02:05:02 AM EST

This is pretty upsetting... unfortunately, if it were up to social conservatives and to the republican party, ideally (from their point of view), one day the United States will exist under a similar anti-privacy regiment as El Salvador:

Ever imagine what it might be like to live in a place that voted to thoroughly criminalize abortion? A place that sent abortion providers to jail? That policed hospitals? That investigated a woman's uterus? Welcome to 21st-century El Salvador, the state of anti-abortion.

This is how a New York Times photo gallery introduces us to a series of dramatic black and white shots, with equally dramatic and even more moving captions. For example:

The Incarcerated: Carla Herrara, 11, clutches pictures of her mother, Carmen Climaco, who was given 30 years for an abortion that was ruled a homicide.

The photo gallery is part of an NY Times Magazine piece on how abortion was criminalized in El Salvador, and how that small Central American country is at the “vanguard” of a movement against abortion:

In this new movement toward criminalization, El Salvador is in the vanguard. The array of exceptions that tend to exist even in countries where abortion is circumscribed — rape, incest, fetal malformation, life of the mother — don't apply in El Salvador. They were rejected in the late 1990's, in a period after the country's long civil war ended. The country's penal system was revamped and its constitution was amended. Abortion is now absolutely forbidden in every possible circumstance. No exceptions.

It goes without say that the abortion issue, that is, whether women and couples should have control over their reproductive futures, or whether such control should be placed in the hands of the state, is a central question in today's political landscape in our own country. On the progressive side there are many that contend that: 1. Because it would be political suicide for republicans to end access to abortion, that therefore it is unlikely that they'll criminalize the procedure; 2. Even if abortion is criminalized at the federal level, such an unlikely eventuality may bring with it some pragmatic and political advantages, because it would create an opportunity at the state level to “experiment” with local solutions; and, 3. Presently, Democratic candidates must be afforded wide latitude on the abortion question by their constituents, because elected Democrats must find some way of neutralizing the issue come national/presidential elections.

Now, while it may appear as a truism that over the long term criminalizing abortion would result in political suicide for republicans, that does not necessarily preclude them from inadvertently succeeding in criminalizing the procedure over the short term. After all, sometimes events get ahead of one's ability to effectively manage and react to them — I present exhibit A., the Iraq invasion: clearly the situation in Iraq has gotten ahead of the Bush Administration's ability to contain events and, therefore, is now merely reacting to events on the ground. With some pieces of the puzzle already in place (i.e., Roberts & Alito, et al; a religious right movement that's confident of its ability to influence the republican party and, thereby, the terms of our national debate; and, too, a Democratic Party establishment that's been forced to take on a defensive posture on abortion), it's not difficult to imagine how, over the short term, abortion may be inadvertently criminalized if a certain tipping point is reached — even if it comes at the expense of long term electoral loses for the republican party. The risk, once that tipping point is reached towards criminalization, is that it may be years — if not decades — before our nation and the political establishment are once again ready to reverse course. After all, it's taken 30-plus years for abortion opponents to come as close as they are to steering our nation back to a time when the right to privacy was not thought to be a constitutional guarantee.

If abortion is criminalized at the federal level it'll be left up to the states to formulate their own local approaches. Accordingly, rather than waging a one front campaign, if one can think of the federal abortion issue as a single front, we'll be forced to mount a 50 front wide campaign in defense of reproductive sovereignty. Clearly, some front lines will be easier to hold, while others will be deemed too deep in hostile territory to hold on to, thus sacrificeable. Accordingly, as with all wars, whether hot or merely ideological, there'll be some collateral damage, primarily inside of those territories thought to be sacrificeable. The question thus becomes, as with all wars, what level of so-called collateral damage are WE willing to tolerate? Understandably, the vast majority of the collateral damage will be suffered by the poor (women and couples), the less educated, and by those living in rural areas. However, aside from the tangible collateral damage that will be incurred by particular individuals, the criminalization of abortion would open the door to other, though less tangible, more offensive and corrosive elements to a free and open society. For example, since the criminalization of abortion would inevitably depend on a Constitutional finding against an inherent right to privacy, we may end up having to engage in new battles where privacy is concerned — whether the issues at hand arise from medical, criminal or employment related matters. The point here is that, clearly, the criminalization of abortion would come with unacceptable levels of collateral damage and, too, at a high risk of introducing unintended consequences against Americans' right to privacy.

Sure, the states could each serve as a petri dish; wherein, the theory goes, locally tailored and unique solutions could emerge that, at long last, would end the national debate on abortion; allowing the country to exist under a 50 state consensus on reproductive freedom — each state with its own unique response to the issue of abortion. Of course, the petri dish compromise is contingent on the abortion criminalization pushers and on the right to privacy advocates honoring an eventual compromise. Because, clearly, once one side or the other breaches whatever compromise is formulated, the other side would be compelled to push back. Clearly, the criminalization pushers see abortion as an abomination and as being morally repugnant; therefore, any compromise that, in their view, tolerates medical abortions in even one of the 50 states will be interpreted as unacceptable and as unfinished business. Now, from their standpoint, they would be correct; after all, the end goal of those seeking to criminalize abortion is to totally and utterly end medical abortions in our country, period. Now, our nation has already endured — and not very well, I might add — one national compromise on an issue where, in fact, there was no compromising, let's not forget (yes, that compromise: the Missouri Compromise, which split the nation). It is clear, given the rhetoric of the abortion criminalization pushers, that this is an issue on which there's no compromise. After all, does anyone really believe that any sort of compromise can ever be maintained when those seeking to criminalize abortion see themselves, however delusional, as marauding abolitionists unshackling fetuses from bondage? Now, I don't mean to suggest that we're any where near the level of tension that must have existed when that first national compromise collapsed. However, just as the abortion criminalization pushers will not tolerate the continued practice of medial abortion in even one state of the Union; likewise, those of us that support the right to privacy and that defend our reproductive sovereignty should not be willing to accept any compromise that would undermine these core principles.

As for elected Democrats needing more breathing room on the issue of abortion from the progressive grassroots, frankly, I simply wish that elected Dems would speak candidly on the issue — without some consultant standing over their shoulders telling them how they should respond. As has been remarked over and over again, no one is for abortion; however, we should all be for the right to privacy, and for sovereignty and security over our bodies — these, of course, extend to reproductive our freedom. Some have dismissed and caricatured what, at best, can be described as the shorthand version of the grassroots-approved Democratic Party comeback formula:

According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists - a storyline often reflected in comments on this blog (DailyKos.com) - we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party.  They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda.  In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in "appeasing" the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda.  The country, finally knowing what we stand for and seeing a sharp contrast, will rally to our side and thereby usher in a new progressive era.

I think this perspective misreads the American people.  From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon. [ Sen. Barack Obama ]

While this caricature touches on the major themes that the Dem grassroots have been agitating for and calling on the Democratic Party to pursue, I think that it intentionally misreads what the grassroots is really trying to say; which, very simply, is: formulate a Democratic agenda that shores up the advances of the New Deal, be vigorous advocates for that agenda, and refuse to let conservatives/republicans define the national debate — yes, a'la George Lakoff, shift to a progressive frame and redefine the terms of the debate. What does this have to do with abortion? Well, unlike the minority that seeks to criminalize its medical practice, the majority of Americans support access to abortion; because Americans intuitively understand that abortion, in spite of the rhetoric, is about one's right to privacy, and about security and sovereignty over one's body. Unfortunately, because those seeking to criminalize abortion are dominating the debate and its terms, these core principles, privacy and security, are being left out of the national debate by elected Democrats. So, while I'm perfectly willing to give Dems some breathing room while they get their bearings, it is unconscionable for anyone to ask the American people to surrender our right to privacy, and our security and sovereignty over one's body.

We all agree that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare.” Likewise, we can also agree that those seeking to criminalize medical abortion by overturning and/or undermining Roe v. Wade present a direct threat to our right to privacy, and to our personal security and sovereignty; accordingly, our Democratic representatives must be expected to engage the abortion debate on these terms, and not merely accept the terms imposed by the abortion criminalization pushers.


This post can also be found on my blog, VoxMia.com.

Thanks for this excellent post on this very important issue. Abortion is the canary in the coal mine of personal freedom.

On your analysis, I'd take (some) issue with the privacy and personal sovereignty framing, at least in the short term. Abortion is indeed just one aspect of this frame but working this type of frame in the public debate is a long haul effort, the work of a generation. That effort needs to be done but it won't happen overnight.

More immediately, the most effective attack angle would rather be to remind everybody in the most graphic ways of the horrific consequences of back alley abortions. It's already happening in some states of the US and the pro-choice movement should not hesitate to shove the pictures and the coroners reports in the face of anti-choicers and complacent media pukes.

And Europeans, all smug and comfortable in their secular superiority, better read that NY Times article and put pressure on hold-outs such as Malta or Poland. In particular the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, who bears a large responsibility in the Salvador disaster, must be pounded in the ground. As long anti-choice Neanderthal are allowed to exist, abortion rights in Europe may not be so secure as we would like to think.
by Francois in Paris on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 07:40:10 AM EST
Abortion is the canary in the coal mine of personal freedom.

Yes.  That description fits quite well.  And I wholly agree that the privacy framing is a long-haul effort, although I do think it serves as a rallying point for the Left.

I still maintain that the greatest outcome the Dems could hope for, from a purely political standpoint, is the destruction of Roe.  (Setting that aside, this is a real-world, lives-at-stake kind of issue, and I'd rather keep it legal and fight the right-wing onslaught than go the End of Roe route.)  The Christian Right cares a great deal more about abortion than about issues like same-sex marriage, and they would have no reason to march for the GOP any longer, since, economically, they're much closer to the Democrats.  The "God Hates Fags" crowd makes up a much smaller percentage of the Christian Right, from what I've seen, than we sometimes fear -- not insignificant, of course, but not the real threat.

I whole-heartedly agree that the images of back-alley abortions and the like are the correct statregy, in the short-term.  The introduction from the NYT article says it all, as far as the privacy argument is concerned.  When a politician starts talking about the risk of government policing a woman's uterus, hospitals, and so on, I guarantee that people will react out of fear.  And, unlike the "threat from Saddam, it's not an irrational fear.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 08:20:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And I wholly agree that the privacy framing is a long-haul effort, although I do think it serves as a rallying point for the Left.
Excellent point and why Obama is correct on strategy but a complete arse on substance.

From my experience in the US, Obama is correct that many American voters shy away from partisanship and pin for a "return" to an idealized consensual "bipartisanhip" that never really existed. But he completely misses that the debate always happen at two levels, the general public and the base, and the terms are very different. The Republicans understand that very well and have played it for years with the outward message of "compassionate conservatism" or whatever to the general voters and the paranoid discourse to the base, "Christianity under attack" and all that crap.

I'm floored that Obama doesn't understand that, or at least, refuse to acknowledge it publicly. The big difference with the top-down Republican model is that the Democratic base is in charge of the internal debate.

And yeah, Democrats, even the atheists, should pray everyday for the repeal of Roe vs. Wade by the SCOTUS. If that happens, the Republican party is gone, finished, cooked and pitch a fork in it for at least 30 years.
by Francois in Paris on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 09:11:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Someone (was that PeWi ?)rightly pointed out over here a few weeks ago that abortion had never been a topic addressed on ET.
Thank you for this excellent diary. I was myself trying to put the guts of one together  but have 10 diaries on my to do list so great you did.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill
by Agnes a Paris on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 09:48:54 AM EST
I've always felt that the logic behind outlawing abortion included the implicit premise that abortion would have to be criminalized as well. After all, if one believes that abortion is murder, how do you not prosecute a murder?

The GOP just want to preserve the right to an abortion for rich white women with private doctors operating on the sly.

by Upstate NY on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 01:37:14 PM EST
Abortion, according to my humble opinion, should be legal
because sometimes pregnancy is a result of chain of circumstances. I mean the boy is drunk of the safe measures failed. Some mothers are not fully prepared to raise children at a partcular age. And the children should not suffer the inability of the couple (sometimes single mother) to raise them properly (adequate food, shelter, education.)

I'm not ugly,but my beauty is a total creation.Hegel
by Chris on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 01:51:06 PM EST
That was never the issue, for me, though I certainly understand where you're coming from.  I would absolutely support building programs to take care of children whose parents could not afford to take care of them.  And the Christian Right -- however, not the Republican politicians -- would argue that this is precisely what should be done: Make abortion illegal, and take care of the children through public-private partnerships.  Where I come down on the issue is in my belief that the government has no right -- none -- to control anyone's body.

I must confess that I agree with the belief that abortion is a horrible thing, as I think a majority of people would, but giving the government the kinds of police powers that the NYT article mentions is absolutely evil, in my opinion.  It doesn't get much more Orwellian than that.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 02:07:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And the Christian Right -- however, not the Republican politicians -- would argue that this is precisely what should be done: Make abortion illegal, and take care of the children through public-private partnerships.

Fact is that the Christian fundamentalist that call themselves pro-life don't care so much about children (let alone women). Here's an excerpt of a conversation with Bill Napoli, a South Dakota senator of questionable fame:

Bill asked me if it wasn't time for a civilized nation like ours to end abortion. I countered that the US is almost entirely alone among so-called "first world" nations in its anti-choice fervor: that even France, a Catholic country, makes it easier for a woman to obtain a safe, legal abortion on demand. And then I reminded him that murder by a spouse or boyfriend is the #1 cause of death among pregnant women and asked him why he didn't express his concern for the lives of women and children by convening a task force on domestic violence.
Or perhaps, I suggested, he could look into the causes of South Dakota's unusually high infant mortality rate.

This is more about controlling the fertility of women than about saving lives. The emergency contraception Plan B is a perfect example, see the post at the blog Pharyngula:

Plan B gives women the ability to control, to a limited extent, when they will expel a gamete. In purely reproductive terms, it's a bit like a male's ability to control when he will ejaculate, or expel his gametes. That's it. No fertilized zygotes are involved, so that level of the birth control debate isn't even relevant. It's simple, responsible, and safe. You'd have to be insane to object to Plan B.

So why are Republicans holding it up?

This is an issue on which we can completely ignore any assertion that life begins at fertilization (which I personally find absurd), because it's irrelevant: fertilization doesn't take place. No zygote, no fetus, no embryo, no babies. The claim that this argument is about the life of a baby is null and void, and the opposition to Plan B makes it glaringly, brilliantly clear that this isn't about the sanctity of life at all: it's all about controlling a woman's ovaries. She will not be allowed to tamper with the timing of ovulation.

The ugly intent of the right wing fundies is unmasked right here, with no phony piety to hide their goals. They want the power to regulate a woman's physiology against her will.

What contraceptive method do you use? If it's not abstinence, you ought to realize that these kooks will be after you, next.

by Wolke on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 05:34:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Abortion is indeed a terrible action. But I accept it! As mentioned in some of the comments above, pregnancy is not always wanted (as for example by a rape). Generally, something that is not wanted is more possible to come out bad than good. I mean, if a mother doesn't want the kid but is obliged by the government to bear it, she may do some things that will damage the child (like for example smoke or try to do an instantaneous abortion thus hurting herself too).

I would say that a woman who makes abortion gets her "penalty" after all. Because I believe it is a great moral burden to know you have deprived a child of his/her life. It will come over and over... And let alone if the woman is not able to have any more kids... Woman are usually aware of the consequences and should be able to make their own decisions.

by Denny on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 03:03:50 PM EST
Abortion is indeed a terrible action. But I accept it!

I'm going to explode on the spot. Firstly, you're confusing a fetus with a child. There are no "children" to be deprived of their lives by abortion, they are fetusses completely dependent of their mothers' bodies, not able to exist by themselves. A fetus of the age we're discussing isn't even able to feel pain, so its developmental status is far below that of (born) mammals. Therefore from a rational point of view there is nothing terrible about abortion. Truly horrible is any authority interfering with something as intimate and private to a woman as her body. You say the "child" might be damaged if the woman is forced to carry out the pregnancy, but you don't seem to have a grasp for the damage an unwanted pregnancy for 9 months and an unwanted child for the rest of her life could do to the woman.
If you acknowledge that forced pregnancy is an unacceptable interference with a woman's private life and health and that the interests of a woman weigh more than those of a fetus, it is completely irrelevant whether or not you think abortion is "terrible".

As to the women "getting their penalty" through their conscience, this is simply incorrect. I've come across a very recent publication of South Dakota women addressing the biased report of the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion (SDTFSA):

Asserting that abortion impairs a woman's physical and mental health despite widely-established medical findings:
In a direct contradiction to the standing positions of the American Medical Association, American College of Gynecologists, and the US Centers for Disease Control, the SDTFSA once again introduced the scientifically-discredited theory of so-called "post-abortion syndrome". The SDTFSA's report also entirely ignores the expertise of Dr. Marie Harvey, who testified that "reputable studies by respected scientific institutions conclude that abortion is not a significant cause of mental illness." In doing so, the SDTFSA intentionally shifts the focus away from the trauma of an unintended pregnancy itself, and discredits the role of a woman as the best, most-qualified person to decide questions of her privacy and health.

You can also read first-hand accounts at www.imnotsorry.net. I've read some of them and to me they don't sound haunted by their terrible conscience but like women whose lives have been saved.

by Wolke on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 05:11:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for the comment, Wolke! I actually didn't know that there is a study on that "post-abortion syndrome". All I wrote was from my own viewpoint and understanding of life. I would have felt guilty, if I had to make an abortion! I am aware the fetus is not a child already but when a woman wakes up in the morning feeling sick, having bad mood, and no appetite, being conscious that all this comes from the little thing (fetus) inside her, don't you think she may actually perceive it as a something living?

I don't actually see why are you attacking my comment...I think it is clear I am For abortion and would do it if I have to! Once again- I cannot support my ideas with data. This is how I see the matter.

by Denny on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 05:51:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Maybe I didn't make my point very clear because I was quite upset. The reason why I had a problem with your comment lies in it shifting the focus from the women concerned and from the fascist violation of privacy and sovereignty over one's body that constitutes the criminalization of abortion, to the fetus (inflated to a "child") and its interests (e.g. your mention of a possible damage to the embryo by a mother who doesn't accept the pregnancy, and your assertion of the moral burden the woman has to bear for depriving the fetus of its life). This is characteristic of the positions of male opponents of abortion (which you are not, I realize that). It seems to be easier for them to identify and feel for the "child" than for the woman. The extreme consequence of setting the priorities in that manner can be observed in El Salvador where the woman isn't even granted human status since her life or health may be sacrificed for a fetus, her dignity as a human being is worth less than her body's ability to feed and grow a future child. Women as vessels for reproduction, history repeating.

bedobe's point in writing this diary was to call the attention to the right to privacy and to sovereignty over one's body that is attacked by the criminalization of abortion. The discussion of abortion has to be centred around the assertion of these rights. If there is a consensus that these rights have to be protected (and I should hope there is) then the abortion controversy ceases to have a basis. An abortion ban won't abolish abortion, it will just render it very unsafe and dehumanize the women in more than just one way. So really this isn't about what value you ascribe to a fetus, but what value you ascribe to a woman.

by Wolke on Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 09:22:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I see now... We actually share the same values on the question. There is nothing more unacceptable than depriving a woman of her right on her own body.

I really addressed different issue than the one posed by the diary which is completely my fault and want to apologise for being a little off-topic... I didn't mean to upset anybody.


by Denny on Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 11:16:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have to apologize, too. My threshold for exploding is rather low when it comes to undermining the right to sovereignty over one's body, whose rhetoric you have used unwittingly.
by Wolke on Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 05:32:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I call it "morality for the poor."  Rich women can always travel to where abortion is legal.
by tobysmom (tobysmom) on Fri Apr 21st, 2006 at 06:28:36 PM EST

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