Brown writes for On Faith as part of our expert roundtable on the Mississippi personhood initiative, a constitutional referendum on whether or not to call a fertilized human egg a ‘person,’ thus giving it legal rights and protection. Read Francis Kissling, former head of Catholics for Choice, who asks, Does Mississippi really respect life?, Colleen Carroll Campbell of EWTN, who writes, Personhood begins when life begins, and Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life on Taking ‘personhood’ back. Cast your vote in our poll: Should personhood start at fertilization?
In “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance,” Atule Gawande’ s remarkable 2008 collection of essays, his final advice for all of us struggling with tough problems in complex societies is to count things – things that matter to us. He suggests that by counting, we may see new ways forward.
The current storm over the upcoming Mississippi vote to define personhood as beginning at the moment of conception has brought Gawande’s advice to mind. This bill and pending vote are just the most recent effort to eliminate abortion, although as Jessica Valenti and others have recently pointed out, this effort has implications far, far beyond abortion – implications that should give all of us pause and deep unease. But to stay on point, the Mississippi madness should be properly seen as only the latest in a long list of ways that those who oppose legal abortion have tried to eliminate it from the scene.
How many have there been? There have been countless efforts to challenge the basic legality of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing the legal right to abortion in the US (a decision whose principal effect was to replace illegal abortion with legal abortion, according to the Institute of Medicine, and thereby dramatically reduce both maternal mortality and morbidity). There have been many, many protests at the entrances to abortion facilities involving harassment of women, fetuses in jars and insulting posters and signs held aloft. There have been efforts—some successful—to require outpatient facilities that perform abortions to have medical equipment and safety procedures in place that countless other outpatient facilities (such as clinics that perform colonoscopies and plastic surgery on an out-patient basis) need not secure. There have been requirements for sonograms and directive counseling to discourage women from having abortions. Waiting periods and consent requirements have been imposed. And those who actually perform abortions have been threatened with law suits and in fact have been sued. And they also have been murdered..
And here we must stop counting because not only is the list too long and painful, but it also reveals a most curious and distressing fact. Note that none of the passion and fervor that animate these countless efforts have centered on the simplest and most direct approach known to reducing abortion, which is to reduce the unplanned, unwanted pregnancies that lie behind well over 90 percent of all abortions. To the extent that we can help men and women control when and under what circumstances they become pregnant and bear children, we immediately reduce abortion in a direct, humane and simple way.
And yet opposition to abortion virtually never centers on this most obvious and available remedy, which is the widespread, careful use of contraception –what I often call, “old-fashioned family planning.” Instead, we are presented with personhood propositions. Or the harassment of frightened, upset women at abortion clinics. Or severed public funding for birth control. Or lawsuits. Or murder.
How can this be? Are we to conclude from this deeply perverse state of affairs that that those who oppose abortion see contraception as equally repugnant? Isn’t it clear and obvious that contraception is preferable to abortion? That it presents far less of a moral challenge (perhaps no moral challenge at all) than abortion?
The notion that opposition to abortion should translate into deep support for contraception is a widely shared point of view. For example, my group is about to release results of a public opinion poll showing that over eight in ten (85 percent) unmarried young adults agree that policymakers who are opposed to abortion should be strong supporters of birth control; sixty-two percent strongly agree. Opposition to abortion is a defensible position; it has roots in faith and feeling, and reasonable people can see that it poses important questions. But what is the logic that leads those who oppose abortion down the personhood path rather than the prevention path?
Sarah Brown is director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.