Forty-four years ago, the Supreme Court assumed all authority to regulate abortion policy in the country, establishing a nationwide edict prohibiting voters from limiting or outlawing abortion and giving abortion-rights supporters ultimate cover by declaring the practice a constitutional right. Rather than resting abortion rights on democratically-enacted reforms, advocates pinned their hopes to the opinion of what Alexander Hamilton deemed the federal government’s “least dangerous” branch.
But the election and the threat of a shift in the ideological balance of the Court have begun to reveal how abortion access relies so heavily on the unstable foundation of judicial fiat. What abortion supporters are now having to face up to is that a right to abortion is “not inferable from the language of the Constitution.” Despite the then-Justices erudite machinations about “penumbras” from the 14th Amendment, at the end of the day, the decision is nothing but a value judgment held by the majority of Justices that women’s right to “reproductive autonomy” post-conception trumps a pre-born child’s right to life.
These events have prompted abortion supporters to offer dire warnings about the future. A Huffington Post contributor maintains that we’re in a “dangerous political era” and can’t return to “an era of back-alley abortions.” Likewise, Stop Patriarchy’s Sunsara Taylor tells her audience that “thousands and thousands a year died in the back alleys.” A New York Magazine writer recounts how her grandmother’s friend had been left infertile after an abortion, and how her aunt had received an abortion from someone using a knitting needle.
Critically, there was never an epidemic of back-alley abortions in this country before Roe legalized the procedure nationally. Decades after Roe, one of the founders of NARAL admitted that he and his colleagues, to arouse sympathy and sell legalized abortion to the public, had completely fabricated their estimate of 10,000 maternal fetal deaths due to abortion and that the real number was probably 200-250 annually (they also deceptively inflated how many illegal abortions were being performed, repeatedly placing the figure at 1,000,000 annually when the actual number was under 100,000).
Even before Roe, the vast majority of illegal abortions were performed by licensed doctors. “Back-alley” abortion has been a publicity stunt from the beginning. And with 44 years of medical advancement since Roe, the numbers of abortion-related deaths continue to decline in countries where abortion remains illegal–a fact that contradicts the position that women die en masse without legal abortion. In Ireland, for example, there are no reports of an outbreak of unsafe, homespun abortion methods. Chile made abortion illegal in 1989, but that change apparently had no effect on maternal mortality, a recent study found; the country has actually enjoyed a steady decline in maternal deaths over the 50-year period of the study.
Besides their baseless fear-mongering, these abortion proponents miss the mark in more fundamental ways. They falsely characterize abortion policy as a zero-sum game between mother and child–that is, any protection of the pre-born child must necessarily come at the expense of his or her mother. And because they believe any abortion restriction necessarily harms women, they conclude that any effort to restrict abortion is outmoded, degenerate, and unacceptable behavior tantamount to human rights violations such as segregation and slavery.
But neither conclusion could be further from the truth; free abortion is not the easy solution to the perceived problem of an unplanned pregnancy that its proponents claim. It instead exacerbates the pressures women already feel to shoulder the burden of their pregnancies alone.
Abortion, Stella Morabito notes, is a tool responsibility-avoiding men leverage “to pressure their pregnant sex partners to ‘get rid of it.’” The option of abortion has given men cover to avoid the duty of caring for their partners and children, and in doing so has perversely resulted in a dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births. Rather than offering women a ticket to man-style sexual freedom, it has left them holding a bag full of depression, anger, grief, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide (and no, researchers at UC-San Francisco did not conclusively prove there are no mental health effects of abortion). In short, abortion exploits women.
Protecting women does not require punishing their children. Policymakers can (and should) affirm the dignity of pre-born people while our society at the same time dedicates itself to equipping and supporting mothers to raise their children. In other words, we should not settle for free abortion access, and we should not scapegoat our pre-born children for our cultural failure to stand in the gap for the families around us who need support. That’s why at Human Coalition we work to save children by providing tangible support to their mothers; we are showing there is a way forward that protects the child while serving the mother.
And that brings us back to the Supreme Court. The underlying value judgment in its abortion decisions — that, prior to birth, we have no meaningful right to life vis-a-vis our mother’s so-called right to privacy — is one that the Supreme Court had no business making to begin with. Putting aside questions about the Court’s role in our system of government, the Court simply erred in concluding that protecting women could only be accomplished by letting them end the lives of their children. As Frederica Mathewes-Green observes, a woman “wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.” Surely we can do better.
Colin LeCroy is associate general counsel at Human Coalition, one of the nation’s largest pro-life nonprofits, which utilizes a metrics-focused, technology-driven method to serve families and save children from abortion.