Since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, about one out of three pregnancies end in abortion. This means that 1.5 million abortions are performed in the United States each year (Flanders 3). Not since slavery has an issue posed a greater moral dilemma. It ranks among the most complex and controversial issues, arousing heated legal, political, and ethical debates. The modern debate over abortion is a conflict of competing moral ideas and of fundamental human rights: to life, to privacy, to control one's own body. Trying to come to some sort of a compromise has proven that you cannot please all of the people on each side of the debate.
Many people describe the abortion debate in America as bitter and uncompromising, usually represented on both sides by people with an intense devotion to their cause and usually with irreconcilable positions. Many of those who are pro-choice insist that a woman's right to abortion should never be restricted while those who are pro-life maintain that a fetus has an unequivocal right to life that is violated at any stage of its development if abortion is performed. Discussions between both sides are usually argumentative, and sometimes violent, so any attempt at coming to a mutual agreement is drowned out. How can anyone hear if they refuse to acknowledge the other side except to shout at them?
Since the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion, proposed compromises on limiting or allowing abortion have taken two forms: those based on the reasons for abortion and those base on fetal development at different stages of pregnancy. The first compromise would allow abortion for "hard" cases (rape, incest, or risk of the life or health of the pregnant woman), but not for the "soft" cases (financial hardship, inconvenience, possible birth defects, or failure of birth control). Compromises of the second type would allow abortions, but only until a given stage of pregnancy, which is usually much earlier than the medically accepted definition of viability (when the fetus can survive outside the womb) (Flanders 8).
Although compromises based on reasons for abortion have been incorporated in law (the Hyde Amendment, for example, restricts Medicaid funding for abortion to so-called hard cases), many people now focus on time-based restrictions. This idea is more realistic and practical than banning abortion all together since there would still be many women who would find a way to have the procedure done even if it became illegal or highly restricted. Agreeing to a time-based restriction could protect older fetuses and still safeguard the rights of most of the women seeking abortions, who are usually within 12 weeks of pregnancy. Coming to an agreement as to when the fetus is viable is the next step to coming to a time-based restriction agreement.
Medical science has advanced the ability of the fetus to survive outside the womb from about 28 weeks to about 23 to 24 weeks. Since the progression of medical technology is always changing, suggestions for compromise propose a cutoff date for elective abortions at eight to sixteen weeks, which is well before viability (Flanders 25).
One of the strictest proposals includes prohibiting abortions after approximately the eighth week when fetal brain waves can be detected. Some say that this is appropriate because this is the same way that doctors determine the end of a person’s life. The counter-proposal to eight weeks was a less strict sixteen weeks since this would acknowledge that women would still have the right to make reproductive decisions and that they may need a reasonable period of time in which to acquire and think about relevant information for making a decision with which she feels comfortable. Pro-choice people argue that this restriction would be less objectionable than the eight-week restriction since ninety percent of all abortions are performed within the twelfth week of pregnancy (Driefus 101).
Millions of pro-choicers and pro-lifers believe that any such compromise would be impossible. From different ends of the argument, they criticize any proposal of time limits that would, according to one side, violate the rights of women or, according to the other side, violate the rights of fetuses. They all agree that denying some fetuses life and some women liberty is hardly a solution to this very heated debate. Since abortion is going to remain a fact of our time, a compromise based on the time-based restriction should be resolved.
While the abortion debate is continuing and compromises are still being argued over, a new method of abortion is about to become available in the U.S. Mifepristone (aka RU 486 or "the abortion pill") is an abortion method and medical advance that has created yet another heated controversy in this debate. The development of a safe and effective antiprogestin compound had been the goal of researchers in the field of reproductive biology for decades (Points 106). The ingenious work of French scientists led to the approval of RU 486 to be used as an alternative to surgical abortion in France in September of 1988.
RU 486 is not a magic pill that allows a woman to have an easy or painless abortion. In fact, a RU 486 abortion, which can be done up to the forty-ninth day of pregnancy, requires three office visits over more than two weeks. On the first visit, a physical exam, medical history and a possible vaginal ultrasound (to determine how far along the woman is in her pregnancy) is performed. Then she swallows three RU 486 pills to block the action of the hormone that makes the uterus receptive to an embryo. She waits half an hour (in case she vomits) and goes home. Two days later, her second visit, she is given a second drug, a prostaglandin, to trigger contractions that cause a miscarriage. She waits at the clinic or doctor’s office for several hours while the miscarriage occurs. Between the two appointments, the woman may experience bleeding, cramping, nausea, and vomiting. A third visit is necessary to confirm that the abortion was complete (Points 106).
The long- and short-term effects of using RU 486 are unknown. It would be impossible to compare the death rate from surgical abortions to that of present RU 486 figures because only 100,000 RU 486 abortions have been performed (Bender 145). One major difference is that the majority of RU 486 abortions were performed under strict trial conditions. Accidents are more likely to happen in less controlled general use. A drawback to RU 486 becoming legalized in America for general use is that since 30 percent of fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, large numbers of women may be unnecessarily exposed to the drug. Once approved, this drug should be administered only by physicians and under strict conditions to protect women from possible extreme reactions.
RU 486 does not seem to make abortion painless, but it would make it more available. Research shows that doctors who do not perform surgical abortions today would offer the drug to their patients once it is legalized for use in America (Carlin 6). Even if it is legalized, many women may still prefer to have a surgical abortion instead.
Surgical abortion may be opted for over RU 486 since many women may be against using drugs with unknown long- and short-term effects. Surgical abortion requires less time spent at the hospital or clinic than that of a RU 486 abortion. In a surgical abortion, the doctor inserts a long tube into the uterus, which is used for suctioning the fertilized egg out of the womb. The woman will feel some cramping, but the pain should not be intense. The doctor then checks for any excessive bleeding and instructs the patient to return for a checkup in two weeks to confirm that the abortion was successful.
What kind of abortion to have is a personal, and often difficult, decision. Some women find that a chemical abortion is troubling because of the unknown long-term effects the chemicals may have on the body although, to date, no health problems have been associated with RU 486 (Alcorn 88). Some women prefer surgical abortion because it is more convenient for them since less time is required at each visit. Other women would prefer RU 486 because they do not want surgical instruments put inside their uterus. With either procedure, fewer than one percent of women suffer serious complications. An advantage to taking RU 486 is that after taking it, a woman has two days to think about what she is doing. If she has decided that she has been too hasty in making her decision, she can choose not to go in for the prostaglandin that triggers the contractions which aborts the fetus. With surgical abortion, you do not have that chance. The cost of both procedures is about the same, around $250.00. This may be a high cost to pay for poor women or for those who are not able to afford an abortion.
Many poor women are having children, many of them illegitimate, simply because they are unable to afford an abortion. This social issue leads the abortion debate down another heated debate: should the government fund abortions for the poor? Charles Murray, an advocate for government funded abortions, wrote "Illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time--more important than crime, drugs, poverty, welfare or homelessness, because it drives everything else." (Alcorn 125).
In 1978, an amendment banned the use of federal funds for poor women's abortions. The number of federally funded abortions fell from 294,600 in 1977 to 165 in 1990 (financing permitted because the mothers' lives were in danger) (Bender 96). Publicly financed abortions makes a lot of sense. For every tax dollar spent on abortions for poor women, the public saves at least four dollars in public medical and welfare expenditures in the first two years of the child's life alone. If abortion were fully funded in every state, the net savings for the nation as a whole in a two-year period would total between $435 million and $540 million--four to six times the $95 million to $125 million it would cost to publicly fund abortions for all medicaid-eligible women who want one (Bender 102). Pro-choice supporters are in favor of reinstating federally funded abortions, but staunch pro-lifers do not care about the costs inflicted upon themselves as long as the lives of unborn babies are saved.
Saving unborn babies is the ultimate goal of many radical pro-lifers. No matter what the consequences are, these people are willing to put their money and their freedom on the line for the chance to save “innocent human beings”. An example of such devotion to this cause is the slaying of Dr. David Gunn. On a sunny morning in Pensacola, Florida, Dr. Gunn was shot in the back and killed as he tried to enter Pensacola Medical Services. His murderer, Michael Griffin, cried, "Don't kill any more babies," as he fired (Bender 199). Michael Griffin was convicted of murder and sent to prison, losing his personal freedom for his beloved cause. One anti-abortion demonstrator was quoted saying, “We have found that the weak link is the doctors.” Dr. Gunn’s murder reflects the violent oppositions that have occurred over abortion in this country. Instead of quiet civil disobedience, anti-abortion activists are trying to get America to listen to their side by shooting doctors, burning down clinics, bomb threats, vandalizing clinics, and assaulting patients.
Not every patient who goes to these clinics are going in for an abortion. The main priority for many family planning clinics is to educate people about safe sex. They provide services such as treatment for STD’s and AIDS. They test women for cancers of the ovaries or cervix, provide PAP smears, pregnancy tests, safe contraception and a whole bunch of other family planning services at a lower price than what hospitals would charge. They also council people on such issues as unplanned pregnancy, how to be more responsible about their bodies, and how to be a more responsible parent. By harassing every patient that goes to these clinics, the demonstrators are hoping to put them out of business.
In the aftermath of Dr. Gunn's slaying, some pro-choice groups are using this incident to link quiet protesters to violent protesters. Civil suits brought by abortion clinics and others asked and got large sums of money which virtually bankrupted groups such as Operation Rescue. In bankrupting these organizations, the anti-abortion groups are not helping their cause financially, but other effects of the violence are making a significant difference.
The violence and harassment are having a profound effect on the staff and the patients of targeted facilities. The surge of violence has also affected the staff and patients at facilities who have not been a direct victim of violence, but who perceive themselves as a potential "next target". There are also larger social consequences, including reduced availability and access to abortion services and increased costs for abortions and contraceptive services where abortion is available. The staff of facilities that provide abortions learn to live with bricks thrown through their windows, threats toward them and their children, and many jeering picketers and blockaders surrounding their cars as they come to work. The cumulative effect of years of violence has no doubt taken its toll, and some physicians have stopped performing abortions because of the risks involved (Rubin 53).
There is no evidence that these tactics from anti-abortion activism have stopped women from having abortions, but they are making it harder for the women who seek one. Women have to be escorted into the clinics by staff members to shield them from the protesters who try to keep them from entering the clinics. Nonetheless, the taunting remarks and the graphic pictures of aborted fetuses has caused untold stress and trauma. One can only assume that it is a hard enough decision to have an abortion without having protesters make you feel like you are committing murder. The violence and jeering protesters have created unnecessary health risks and the loss of personal integrity and privacy for hundreds of thousands of women.
At least one positive thing has come out of all this turmoil: national polls have revealed a wave of public revulsion at the behavior of the extreme anti-abortion groups. This revulsion must now be turned into a positive community action with all nonviolent and pro-choice citizens ensuring that their own communities, their own clinics, and their own physicians are not targeted for violence and intimidation. The purveyors of violence win only as long as people shake their heads, say "Isn't that terrible?" and keep on walking without a backward glance. Americans cannot accept violence as a solution to a social problem. Laws must be put into place that protect each side of the abortion debate, but how to come to such a compromise seems very far out of reach.
There is no easy solution to this provocative social dilemma. Coming to some sort of a compromise seems impossible. All ideas are rejected with some opposition. Even the invention of RU 486, which would flush out an embryo before it even has a chance to grow, is rejected on the grounds that it is still killing a human being, no matter that it is at its earliest stage in life. Since there are no compromises forthcoming thus far, it seems that as long as abortion is available, the scare tactics of pro-life activism will also continue.
Legislation needs to be stricter against the violent protesting. It is a strange concept that some radical anti-abortion activists think that killing an adult human being in order to save the lives of the unborn is acceptable. These people need to spend more time and effort with their own families instead of harassing doctors, staff members and patients at abortion clinics. With or without the violence and harassment, women will seek abortions. It is a hard enough decision to make. Lets not make it any more difficult for them to do what they believe is best under their circumstances.
After extensive research on the subject of abortion, I find myself straddling both sides of the fence on this debate. I do not agree with abortions that are later than 12 weeks but abortion should remain a safe and legal alternative. There are many women who are not ready to take on the challenges and responsibilities of raising children. To have millions of poor, homeless and unhappy children in the world to cope with life’s injustices would be far more heartbreaking than extracting an embryo from a uterus. Abortion is a very complex issue that should remain a personal decision. The bottom line is that each woman should make her own decision based on her own morals and beliefs.
Alcorn, Randy. Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments, Portland: Multnomah, 1992
Bender, David. The Abortion Controversy, San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995.
Carlin, David R., Jr. "Going, Going, Gone." Commonwealth 10 Sept. 1993: 6-7.
Cunningham, Amy. "Who Are The Women Who Are Pro-Life?" Glamour Feb. 1994:
Driefus, Claudia., Seizing Our Bodies: The Politics of Women's Health. New York:
Vintage Books, 1977.
Flanders, Carl N., ABORTION, New York: Facts on Life, 1991.
Points, Dana. "The Truth About The Abortion Pill". Mademoiselle Oct. 1994: 106.
Rubin, Rita and Susan Headden. "Physicians Under Fire." U.S. News & World Report 16
Jan. 1995: 52-53.
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