Paternalistic Lawmakers Should Step Back From Abortion Debate

A mother and daughter participate in a pro-choice demonstration in Missouri. Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com

Few issues divide Americans as sharply and passionately as the issue of abortion. This is understandable, considering that there is nothing in life more precious than a child. But those who preach pro-life, as well as those who argue pro-choice, do so in an increasingly polarized fashion.

Rather than create basic and reasonable legislation, we are watching a woman’s choice, as well as her basic right to safety, get stripped away by extremist politicians running on emotion-fueled agendas to gain votes.

As a mother, as well as a supporter of women’s rights, I find myself in a position where I can see validity on both sides of this debate. But I can no longer stand idly by while my rights as a woman are diminished to something that looks more like 1955 than 2015.

Laws are made to protect citizens, preserve civil rights and among other things, regulate society. Yet, some laws are targeting women’s rights by criminalizing personal medical decisions in regards to their own bodies.

Politicians, not doctors, are pushing legislation about women’s health care.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Then later, in July, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker signed legislation banning abortions after 20 weeks. Those in the pro-life camp may consider this another victory in 2015.  

But is it really? These types of laws ban abortion unless a woman’s life is in danger, but not her health.  Hypothetically speaking, if pregnancy complications caused a woman to go blind, or her kidneys to fail leaving her on dialysis treatments for the rest of her life, that would not be reason enough to terminate the pregnancy.

Those are the kinds of experiences she should live with, according to some politicians. But do they have the right to punish and criminalize women who choose not to sacrifice their health or risk their life?

According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 1 percent of abortions occur at or after the 21-week mark, whereas 89 percent occur within the first 12 weeks. Have lawmakers ever paused to ask why? These statistics point to a small percentage of mothers making decisions based on medical findings, which may be unattainable before 20 weeks (testing for fetal abnormalities most often occurs between 18 and 22 weeks of gestation). Sonograms and ultrasounds during this stage can reveal major birth defects, missing organs, brain and heart defects. After these screenings, some women (and their partners), face difficult decisions about whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. Such decisions are not made lightly. Criminalizing abortions after 20 weeks fails to recognize the medically necessary reasons some women seek them.

Dallas resident Nicole Stewart was excited about the baby growing in her womb, looking forward to the joys of parenthood. Her pregnancy was going well, or so she thought, until she was given the results of her routine 20-week sonogram. Stewart was shocked to discover her baby boy had multiple abnormalities. Further screenings revealed fluid building in the brain and lungs.

“The entire brain was abnormal. The baby was going to stop being able to swallow and essentially drown,” Stewart says. Knowing this, she and her husband chose to have an abortion at 22 weeks. Under the currently proposed ban, she would have been forced to carry the deformed baby to term knowing, with medical certainty, he would be born to suffer and die shortly thereafter. Forcing a woman to suffer so unnecessarily hardly seems ethical, much less legally palatable.  

Abortion, an ugly term, conjures mental images of innocent babies gouged to death by rigid medical instruments inside a woman’s womb. Few politicians, or angry protesters, believe a loving mother, much less a couple, would opt to terminate a pregnancy.

But, of course, love has nothing to do with it. Love, feelings, and religious alliances should not be the building blocks of legislation.

Anti-abortion photos are the stuff nightmares are made from. Gruesome images of bloody babies with tiny hands and feet, with contorted limbs that look as if they have been pecked at by a pack of vultures. These images practically demand any human with a shred if decency to jump on the anti-abortion bandwagon. Which is exactly how these photos are designed – as emotional missiles meant to implode within each and every one of us.

But what about the mothers facing an impossible but necessary decision they’d rather not make, but are forced to for one reason or another?

It’s one thing for groups to exercise their right to free speech, protesting decisions they disagree with. But it’s not fair for government to intervene in a personal, complicated decision that will forever change a women’s life.

With a paternalistic tone, the government is essentially saying to women everywhere, “It’s not your right to decide what happens within your own body.” Listen to the political rallies of mostly male candidates on the campaign trail, or read the seemingly constant stream of legislation by mostly male lawmakers and it becomes clear: Daddy government is protecting us women from ourselves, telling us what’s best for us and our bodies.

But Daddy government makes for a lousy doctor.

In 2012, Missouri Republican Representative Todd Akin suggested anti-abortion laws didn’t need an exception for rape because, as he put it, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down” so naturally rape rarely results in pregnancy. That same year, Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh made similarly erroneous statements, proclaiming, “There’s no such exception as life of the mother, and as far as health of the mother, same thing, with advances in science and technology. Health of the mother has been, has become a tool for abortions any time under any reason.”

Men hold anti-abortion signs at a rally held in North Carolina in May. J. Bicking/Shutterstock.com

Men hold anti-abortion signs at a rally held in North Carolina in May. J. Bicking/Shutterstock.com

Not all pregnancies go as planned, whether it’s an infection, renal failure, or eclampsia, pregnant women may face dozens of pregnancy related health issues despite our medical advances. Severe maternal morbidity affects over 50,000 women each year in the U.S., according to the CDC, and that number is on the rise.

Perhaps Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren put it best as she urged her colleagues, from the Senate floor, to rethink the issue. “Did you fall down and hit your head and think you woke up in the 1950s? Or the 1890s? Should we call for a doctor? Because I simply cannot believe that in the year 2015, the United States Senate would be spending its time trying to de-fund women’s health care centers,” said Warren. “On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. The Republicans have had a plan for years to strip away women’s rights to make choices over our own bodies.”

I was only 15 years old when I entered my first Planned Parenthood. Nervous I’d be caught by an angry religious mob, I quickly darted in and awaited the next hurdle. Anonymity. I didn’t want anyone to know I what I was doing. Which presented another problem: money. I didn’t know how I’d pay, but was hoping to find the help I so desperately needed anyway.

No, I wasn’t getting an abortion. A fact lost on many politicians is that teenage girls have reproduction needs outside of aborting fetuses. Women’s health care centers, like Planned Parenthood, get a bad rap from politicians who are quick to label them “abortion clinics.”

My mom never talked about sex, and what little I knew I’d learned at school through other kids, teachers, and books. While I hadn’t actually had sex yet, I was curious, had a boyfriend and knew it would happen sooner rather than later. I knew that before I had sex I needed two things: condoms and birth control. At that point I was less worried about STDs than getting pregnant. A baby was the last thing I wanted in life. And that is why, as a low income teen, I went to my first Planned Parenthood.

The women were friendly and accommodating, I felt safe. They taught me about different birth control options and even sent me home with a bag full of condoms and detailed educational pamphlets. It was free, helpful, and filling a void of important knowledge. Donations were encouraged but not required. Growing up very poor, I continued to use Planned Parenthood for all of my woman’s health needs for many years.

Every week or so there were protesters in the parking lot, or on the sidewalk in front of the building aggressively working to prevent young women from entering the facilities. They frightened me.

As I walked past them, they called me a baby killer and shoved gut wrenching photos of tiny dead fetuses in my face. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten. I explained why I was there, whether it was for treatment for a urinary tract infection or to pick up birth control. They called me a liar. The protesters weren’t seeking the truth because they’d already made up their minds. Just like so many politicians.

In June of this year, the Ohio House of Representatives voted to introduce state legislation to ban doctors from performing abortions on women who want to terminate their pregnancy if their baby has Down Syndrome. This changes the abortion debate; shifting focus from the viability of a fetus to a mother’s motivation for termination. Whether or not to proceed with a fetal abnormality, is a personal, private and often emotionally distraught decision for any parent, one that shouldn’t be unduly burdened with issues of legality. While this bill focuses on Down Syndrome, if passed it creates a legal precedent for potentially banning other fetal abnormalities. This is a slippery slope.

As a mother, I understand how precious life’s little miracle can be: I would do anything for my son. But as a woman I can also understand the ensuing chaos and what sadly, more often than not, feels like a loss of rights.

The fight for women’s legal reproductive rights should be over. But it’s not.

In 1973, Roe vs. Wade set the abortion standard: a mother’s rights come first until the third trimester, at which point abortion laws could be enacted to protect the fetus as it then becomes viable outside of the mother’s body. Despite the clarity of this ruling, it’s still a hot political topic more than 30 years later.

We are now on the precipice of another monumental moment for women’s rights.

As the frequently coined “abortion debate” wages on, politicians are pushing laws that damage, not benefit, women. It’s time to rethink what’s really happening.

This not an abortion debate, it’s a women’s rights issue. Taking a side – choosing to be “pro-choice” or “pro-life” – ignores the real issue, which is government dictating dominion over a woman’s body.