What is so bad about thinking that abortion should be rare?

5 Mar

Everyone from our celebrated allies to mainstream anti-abortion commentators have recently lauded the mantra that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. I’ve tweeted at these older (white) gentlemen in an attempt to explain why the “rare” framing is so problematic, but sometimes 140 characters just isn’t enough. Thankfully, I’m not the first to explore this subject, so instead of reinventing the wheel, I’m going to summarize one of my favorite articles on this: Tracey Weitz’s Rethinking the Mantra that Abortion Should be “Safe, Legal, and Rare.” 

So what bothers me so much when even President Obama says he wants abortion safe, legal, and rare? Well, the safe and legal part I’m behind 100%. The “rare” aspect? Not so much. Here’s why.

1. By saying that you want abortion to be “rare,” you’re passing a negative judgement on the people who perform abortions and the women who have them. This judgement is harmful to women and clinicians. Dr. Weitz explains why:

“Rare” suggests that abortion is happening more than it should, and  that there are some conditions for which abortions should and should not occur. It separates good abortions from bad abortions. It creates an understanding that women’s individual decision making is somehow responsible for the violent disruptive social conflict over abortion in the United States.

Do we really want to suggest that women who have abortions and clinicians who provide these health services are the reason that abortion is such a lightening rod social issue in the US? To do so is not only simplistic, but absolutely wrong.

2. Saying that you want abortion to be rare implies that there is something wrong with abortion, that abortion is somehow different from other parts of health care.  Specifically, marginalizing abortion care

has contributed to the significant decline in the number of locations where abortions are performed in the United States…Increased access to care is not  part of the “rare” message and efforts to expand services could be construed as working against the goal of making it less frequently used.

There should be as many abortions as there need to be. Instead of saying abortion should be rare, we should be working on expanding access to safe, affordable abortion services.

3. Wanting abortion to be rare suggests that training clinicians to provide abortions is unnecessary. In reality, we need more abortion providers to increase access to safe abortion care. In fact, as Dr. Weitz states,

The uniform acceptance that fewer abortions is good creates the inability to recognize the consequences of reduced access or to accept credit for efforts that actual increase the number of abortions.

What happens when abortion is not accessible to every person who needs it? According to Guttmacher, every year 47,000 women die as a result of unsafe abortion. What would that statistic look like if we trained every doctor worldwide to provide safe abortion care?

4. Another consequence of the “rare” framework is that it legitimizes the need for abortion restrictions, and these anti-abortion laws have the most dire consequences for women with the least resources. In addition to abortion restrictions being medically unnecessary and insulting to women and clinicians, there’s absolutely no proof that they actually reduce abortion rates. They just make it harder for women to access the care they need.

5. The “rare” framing sets up the unrealistic expectation that there’s a magic number of abortions that are acceptable, and once we reach that number, abortion will cease to be a divisive issue in American culture. Dr. Weitz uses the example of Dr. Tiller to elucidate this issue:

Unfortunately, numbers have little to do with ongoing opposition to abortion and the rarity of some abortions seem to be their reason for aversion. Take for example the situation of George Tiller, MD, the physician recently killed in Wichita, KS. In addition to having a robust practice of first trimester and early second-trimester procedures, Dr. Tiller also provided medically indicated abortions in the third trimester. While these abortions were “rare” in numerical sense, occurring only 2,400 times a year in the entire country, they were the abortions for which he was most reviled. The rarity of these procedures did not provide any protection for Dr. Tiller. Instead the specialness of those abortions provided evidence that such abortions were abnormal.

Bottom line? As Dr. Weitz puts it, saying that we want abortion to be rare “does not achieve the underlying goal of reducing  the social conflict over abortion and has real consequences for women’s health and well-being, including reducing access to care, increasing stigma,  justifying restrictions, and establishing unattainable goals.”

Where do we go from here? Thankfully, Dr. Weitz has four suggestions:

  1. Accept that abortion is a polarizing issue in the U.S.;
  2. Acknowledge that abortion has and will always be part of the human condition;
  3. Validate the rights of women to equal participation in society and control over their  reproductive lives; and
  4. Engage in the hard conversations about abortion regarding the moral status of life, the extent of the rights and autonomy of women, the limits of the state to intervening in personal decisions, and
    the role of religion in public life.

Instead of stigmatizing abortion by pushing for it to be rare, let’s work on achieving those goals instead.

I quoted extensively from Tracy Weitz’s article. Please go read it if you have the chance!

10 Responses to “What is so bad about thinking that abortion should be rare?”

  1. eliz March 5, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    i have mixed feelings about this. i don’t think that abortions should be rare in that if people want them, i want them to have more access to them than there is now (free! easy to access! destigmatized!). but, i also know that having such an unjust system around class, around providing supports for parenting, around a society that is so disableist, around criminal justice constraints, means that people are having abortions who want to have children (and want to have the children they could have if they didn’t have an abortion), because of a lack of resources to parent.
    so while i hate the rhetoric of rare abortions, i also think that i do want abortion to be a choice that people can make freely in both directions, and i think that oppression really constrains both options right now.

  2. Steph L March 5, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Unintended pregnancies are what should be rare (which by default reuslts in less abortions). Saying abortions are what should be rare is stigmatizing to women who have them.

  3. Peggy March 5, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    I agree with Steph L.’s formulation. I believe that what is underlying the desire to have abortions “rare”, at least among those of us who are pro-choice, is to acknowledge that the decision on how to handle an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy is for many, if not most, women a difficult decision and a serious life event for the woman as well as impacting anyone she includes in her decision-making process, REGARDLESS of the ultimate decision. The goal should be to have, as the Planned Parenthood slogan goes, “Every child a wanted child”. I agree that abortion should not be stigmatized. The stigma should go to anyone who puts obstacles in the path of a woman’s right to control whether or not she will get pregnant and, if she chooses to, when and how often. Who she consults in making that decision is her business, not the governments’.

  4. aMuseandAngels March 6, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    “For the question remains, do women want abortion? Not like she wants a Porsche or an ice cream cone. Like an animal caught in a trap, trying to gnaw off its own leg, a woman who seeks an abortion is trying to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self-loss. Abortion is not a sign that women are free, but a sign that they are desperate…
    Women’s rights are not in conflict with their own children’s rights; the appearance of such a conflict is a sign that something is wrong in society.” – F.M.G.

    For the woman abortion might provide relief but it is also ,at the very least, expensive and mildly uncomfortable , and as safe as it may be- not without health risk. At worst it’s very physically painful , deeply regretted , and emotionally tramatic. We shouldn’t deny the existence of the women who hated their abortion. Who wish they had known more, who wish they had more options, had more support , who wish that it hadn’t been an option for them presented sans stigma and well-intentioned cooercion .

    Some women mourn their choice. Some women are forced and never had a choice. And this should also carry weight for the thoughtful and compassionate choicer who champions women’s equality.

    I do not understand the extreme choice agenda. Disdain for any goverment regulations * e.g. requiring clinics to meet the safety standards of other surgical clinics/ or ensuring physicians have record of providing potentially life saving ultrasounds to patients* Abortion on-demand, at any gestation . Abortion without informed consent.

    I understand loving woman. Wanting us to be safe, and unashamed. But I do not understand having such a love-affair with politics at our expense.

    Abortion as rare is a good thing, no matter how you slice it. Whether it becomes rare because motherhood is no longer stigmatized, children no longer considered tragic, consequences, burdens, or the end of our meaningful journey as free individuals. Rare because children and mothers are no longer oppressed and marginalized.
    But central to the community. And honored.

    Or if it becomes rare because unwanted and unplanned pregnancies become rare.
    If all abortions that are done are safe and legal- then why wouldn’t “rare” abortions be desireable? Don’t we desire them specifically because illegal is unsafe? Because we know that motherhood , in patriarchal culture, too often means a lonely kind of slavery.
    But what if it weren’t? Wouldn’t rare be exactly best?
    In an equal and free society why would a healthy unplanned pregnancy be a regrettable thing?
    Women don’t need easy abortion access as much as they need a society where they have equal opportunity whether they are mothers or not.
    I think driving towards rare abortions is a good thing. You can only do it through destigmatizing motherhood/childhood , revamping the societal model to allow such things like babies in the workplace, daycare on campus, food for anyone hungry ever etc , having free condoms virtually everywhere, providing not only comprehensive sex education, but also comprehensive education on alternatives to abortion, abortion, human development, parenting and low income resources etc.

    We shouldn’t be afraid to call a spade a spade. Abortion isn’t awesome. Maybe it’s necessary, but it sucks. And we’d be better off not to need it- because we’d be better off not to need it and because we’d be better off not to have it.

    I believe we can be free and equal without abortion. And I think that’s where feminists should focus their efforts.

    Instead of damning ourselves to a system where women will *always* want abortions, because we always have. How about we change the system instead? You can’t tell me this is as good as it gets.

  5. Steph Herold March 7, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    Hi aMuseandAngels,

    I’m not sure if you know this, but the quote that you begin your comment with is from an anti-abortion organization. I’ve written before about how I think the quote actually does more harm than good–for example, it compares women to animals (we are not animals. we have moral agency. etc) and it compares abortion to destructive self-mutilation, which it is not.

    I don’t think dismantling abortion stigma denies the experience of women who regret their abortion experience. In fact, I think alleviating stigma creates an open environment where many types of abortion experiences are possible. There is some evidence that stigma itself may be a factor in why some women have negative feelings about their abortions.

    I do not believe I’m having a “love affair with politics at our expense.” What I’m saying is that wanting abortion to be “rare” not only perpetuates abortion stigma, but in fact has negative consequences for women seeking abortions and clinicians who provide them. We want abortion to be safe and legal. We don’t want to place limitations on when a woman can and cannot have an abortion, which is what the “rare” framing implies.

    Perhaps in an ideal world with universal access to 100% effective contraception and with everyone using contraception 100% correctly, we would no longer need abortion. But you’re living in a fantasy if you think that’s the world we’re in right now. Until then, we want abortion to be safe, legal, and accessible. Rare? Not the point.

  6. Luna March 7, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    Did you read even one word of this incredibly well-written post, or the article it references? You “comment” (aka your own blog post) is full of judgements about women who have had abortions – such as the horrible, misleading analogy about “an animal caught in a trap gnawing its own leg off” or the idea that women all actually really want to be mothers but feel “a lonely kind of slavery” in motherhood, or your most disturbing analogy that “a woman who seeks an abortion is trying to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self-loss”. And it is these kinds of judgements which make it clear how important the fight to ensure that this medical procedure remains accessible, safe and legal. Because this isn’t about the procedure itself, as your comment would suggest, but about the fact that you seem to think it’s OK for a group of total strangers, mostly white men, to be allowed to make decisions on my behalf about what is best for my health and what I can and cannot have access to. It’s about the notion that these judgements you make that I have referenced are acceptable and truthful, when they are neither. It’s about the removal of *this* stigma.

    You state “We shouldn’t deny the existence of the women who hated their abortion. Who wish they had known more, who wish they had more options, had more support , who wish that it hadn’t been an option for them presented sans stigma and well-intentioned cooercion.” In fact, this statement seeks to deny their existence, supports providing less options and information, and seems to indicate that you think we are living in China where women are dragged against their will to forced abortions and sterilizations.

    You also state “I believe we can be free and equal without abortion.” The terms “Free” and “Equal” are in direct conflict with the term “without”. Because to imply that a person should be “without” anything is to deny them the freedom to make a choice, and the equality to know that they are not lesser than another. It is to be “without” rights.

    While your piece is well written and clearly well thought out, it is clear you haven’t understood this post, the article, or the fight we’re in. At worst, it is anti-choice rhetoric without the overt hate.

  7. SarahC March 8, 2012 at 11:42 am #

    Actually, there are very good reasons to want abortion to be rare, completely ignoring moral judgments about it. You see, abortion of an unwanted pregnancy is more painful and more stressful than not getting pregnant in the first place. That’s not being moralistic, saying abortion is bad. It’s saying abortion is a medical procedure, and as a general rule, medical procedures aren’t fun, but when you’ve gotta have them, you’ve gotta have them. Think of it as being analogous to something I have going on right now, deep vein thrombosis (It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it’s something I’m familiar with). As part of the treatment, I get injections of a low-molecular-weight heparin twice a day for a week or so.

    There’s nothing inherently bad about these injections. I’m not a bad person because I have a blood clot. Hell, I’m not even a bad person because I was on birth control (and having sex), and that’s basically what caused the clot. But, despite being a safe and necessary treatment, these shots are stressful, and they’re a bit painful, and they’re really a pain in the ass to work around my schedule. Therefore, it would obviously be better for me (and, I extrapolate, other people with the condition) if I (or they) didn’t have DVT, and therefore need the shots, at all. So you could say, I want these injections to be rare. But that doesn’t mean I want people to have DVT and not be able to get any one of the treatments that exist.

    The same is true of abortion and unwanted or dangerous pregnancy. When I say abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, it’s not saying “I want fewer women who might want abortions to get them, but they should be sorta available in a safe way, just in case they’re bound and determined.” I’m saying “I want abortions to be safe, legal, freely available, and, as a result of fewer unwanted and/or dangerous pregnancies, rare.”

    Maybe “safe, legal, and rare” isn’t the best way to phrase it, I grant that. There is a quite a bit of room for misinterpretation there. But if you’re looking for something that can fit on a metaphorical bumper sticker, it’s, unfortunately, what there is. If someone can come up with something clearer and similarly snappy, I’ll absolutely start using that instead.

  8. aMuseandAngels March 10, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    The quote ,while coined by lifer Frederica-Matthewes, was used by her to attack the judgement and lack of compassion that she found prevalent amongst those in her movement. Since then it has been quoted significantly more often by pro choice activists. Choicers have ,rightly, used it to combat the stereotyped attitude that women abort frivolously. But we would not risk our physical lives if that were true. There would not be an epidemic of back-alley deaths when abortion is illegal, no perforated uteruses if abortion were a choice of convenience. We do not risk our lives unless we believe we can not meaningfully survive otherwise.

    Comparing women to animals wasn’t the quotes intention. The point was to compare the drive to abort as primal as the drive to stay alive- that all living beings have in common.But I will reflect on your contention and be mindful of it’s usage. Comparison of women to animals, in this pervasively sexist culture perpetuates subconcious anti-women attitude. Thank you for your insight.

    As to destigmatizing it because some evidence suggests that it’s stigmatization is what causes some women to have negative feelings about their abortion I wonder if this thought isn’t the other side of the coin of paternalism. Perhaps the women who have negative feelings have them because it was , in fact, negative. Not because someone else told them it was. I’ve heard lifers assume women who do not feel remorse or regret are “lying to themselves” or have been brainwashed by the destigmatization of a choice culture. And then I’ve heard that women who do feel remorse and regret are “lying to themselves”, that it couldn’t be the abortion, but an underlying psychological imbalance, having prior spiritual notions, or any number of reasons that come down to “your feelings are not what you think they are.” That they’ve been brainwashed by prolife stigma.
    I haven’t fully fleshed out my thoughts on this, but intuitively it seems like two camps with different agendas are using the same approach.

    I apologize for implying you have a “love affair with your politics” etc. I felt passionate and carelessly misspoke, but did not mean to conjecture about you personally.

    Lastly, my position is that, I agree we should pursue more effective contraception. For example male birth control should go hand in hand with female contraception.
    We should continue to reject anti-mother , anti-child attitudes and make motherhood a choice that is actually possible, and equally as free as choosing not to parent. Otherwise abortion is not a choice, but a necessity. If it’s a necessity women are not free.
    And “Access” can not hold more weight than “safe”.
    Sometimes to the purpose of keeping access unhindered safety has been allowed to slip and that is counterintuitive.

  9. aMuseandAngels March 10, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

    Luna- I actively try and deconstruct my rogue sexist and judgmental thoughts. 🙂 As I , like everyone else, was socialized under patriarchy sometimes I do not recognize them. At this time ,though, I do not see that I was judgmental in my overly wordy comment, but at the least I clearly misrepresented myself.

    The author of the analogy wrote it with the intent to dispel hatred and the judgment that women procure abortions frivolously. A step, I think, in the right direction.

    I certainly did not mean to speak for all women who have abortions. That would be silly. There are always exceptions to every generalization. All generalizations are compromised of uniquely different individuals.

    But the two things can not both be true. If the evidence is true that abortion rates don’t decline when it is illegal, that means most of the women aborting now would also risk their life to illegal back alley providers/self-abortion if it were not legal. Only a desperate situation could compel a person to risk death and injury. If most women were NOT facing desperation abortion rates would drastically drop the minute it was illegal: unsafe and life threatening.

    I do NOT think all women want to be mothers, or even that they would want to be mothers if motherhood wasn’t the second class citizenship that it is today, and has been historically. Many women have zero interest in parenting and that is more than valid!

    But, I do think that if bearing children didn’t mean second class citizenship and/or desperate circumstances , for women and for their children , unwanted pregnancy wouldn’t be something , that in the absence of being legal and safe, women would literally risk their life over.

    As for “strangers, mostly white men,making decisions about our health” I assume you include doctors.
    And for doctors who practice dubiously, for connecting medicine with legal health and better business agencies ensuring checks, balances, accountability and honesty between them all- we have the law. The law can be abused of course, but in the interest of safety it does have a vital role in the “safe” part of “safe, legal and rare”.

    I do not understand how my comment that included: not denying the women who mourn, who wished they had more options, suggested to you that I did seek to deny their existence. I did not imply that “rare” included denying access or information, but rather ensuring all access is safe and that options ,support,and comprehensive information are offered liberally.

    We may not live in China but some women in this country do have forced abortions. Just as some women are beaten even killed by their partners. Just as some women are raped. Girls sexually assaulted. These women exist. Every forced abortion is a part of the conversation as every forced pregnancy is too.

    I also think women can be, and should be,free and equal *without* children. I look to a future where we can also be free and equal *with* them. We’re not there yet.

  10. Lynette Cowper March 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    I think perhaps a better phrase would be “safe, legal, and rarely needed” — because we as a society should be working toward a world where contraception is readily available, inexpensive, more often used, more effective, and safer; where pregnancy in general is safer and some of the medical reasons to seek an abortion are reduced or eliminated; and where women who get abortions now for financial reasons or societal pressure would have more resources to make other choices viable for them if they so desired. In other words, a society that is more egalitarian, safer and healthier for women.

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