Abortion, Contraception, Rape, and Free Speech:
In the almost 50 years since the Supreme Court established the constitutional right to privacy for married couples through the Griswold vs. Connecticut case involving contraception for married couples and Eisenstadt vs. Baird (1972) for all individuals, it would seem that contraception would be understood as an integral part of reproductive healthcare for women. In the 41 years since the Supreme Court affirmed the right of privacy relative to reproductive decisions of the individual through the Roe vs. Wade decision, it would seem that abortion would be an accepted medical procedure for women faced with an unwanted or medically compromised pregnancy. The numerous court decisions in the decades after Roe vs. Wade (see Supreme Court Abortion Cases and Key Abortion Rulings) have affirmed abortion rights repeatedly and yet here we are, on the anniversary of Roe, with a political landscape in which a minority of elected officials, typically Republicans, prioritize abortion for their legislative legacies (see State Policies).
The politicians choose to ignore the verified experiences of reproductive health complications before Roe (see Repairing the Damage, Before Roe) in the United States or what is happening globally as factually reported by the New York Times, World Health Organization, and Guttmacher Institute. Instead, they grandstand women who regret their abortions and mislead the public with terms like “post-abortion syndrome” that no professional medical or mental health organization recognizes, and fairly addressed by the American Psychological Association.
There are women who regret abortions just as there are women who regret childbirth and adoption choices; no legislator would ever get away with identifying the latter two regrets as pervasive syndromes. What is most striking is that the first point of contact suggested for women suffering from the supposed syndrome is none other than a Crisis Pregnancy Center – nonprofits established to dissuade women from choosing abortion. While medical practices that provide abortions must meet rigorous government and professional standards, CPCs are not required to be staffed with medically trained personnel. They are unregulated and the one certification many of them acquire is from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability which is committed to “establishing and interpreting standards of accountability that are biblically based”. They do not share scientifically or medically verified information; they impart information that is steeped in religious and personal perspective.
Particularly disturbing are the other issues that have become part of the abortion debate over the past 41 years.
Rape laws – and perceptions of rape –have become murky. If anti-abortion legislators allow abortion at all, it is for rape – which they are also redefining – and maybe incest (see “Legitimate Rape”, “Men Defining Rape: A History”, and “Rape Pregnancies are Rare”). Anti-abortion legislators, with the help of material from organizations such as Georgia Right to Life, minimize rape or pregnancy resulting from rape. The fetus is far more important than the rape victim in their world.
Some would argue that a generally bizarre cultural attitude about rape has evolved among Republicans. The recent statement by Virginia State Senator Dick Black that “spousal rape is not a crime” or Michigan lawmakers discussing the option of abortion insurance in their healthcare program in the event a woman gets pregnant from rape is abhorrent. Texas anti-abortion legislator Jodie Laubenberg dismissed the need for a rape exception to a restrictive abortion proposal, claiming that rape kits “clean out” women.
So frequent the Republican comments about rape and abortion are, a website was established to track the comments. It indeed appears as if many Republicans have a goal to further stigmatize rape so that women will return to a time in which underreporting and unfair scrutiny of the victim were the norm and all claims about pregnancy resulting from rape were questioned. The perception many political moderates have of the Republicans is that their ongoing references to rape when abortion is discussed implies that they have a basic distrust of any woman who claims to have been raped and certainly any woman who claims that her pregnancy resulted from rape. A Mother Jones summary of the rape related commentary from politicians across the country during 2013 can be found here.
Free speech is another area that has become front and center in the abortion debate, especially over the past ten years or so. Last week the Supreme Court heard arguments in a Massachusetts case in which anti-abortion activists claim that restricting protesters to a 35-foot buffer zone impedes their free speech. As a fierce advocate of free speech I want anti-abortion people to have the right to express their views. I genuinely believe that all issues achieve a certain balance in large part due to the ability of all views to be heard. I am torn, however, on their right to “in-your-face” share selective, or outright incorrect and unscientific, information with patients who did not ask them for their view. These protesters claim to be “counselors” seeking to share information about abortion alternatives. In my own experience and observations of more than three decades, “counseling” is not what happens. Nonconsensual delivery of harsh judgments and rhetoric about the choice of abortion is what is typically conveyed.
There are indeed some protesters who are kind, gentle, and truly express their convictions about abortion in a meaningful way. But, no one asked them to do so. As an editorial in a Boulder publication stated, “Unless you consent to it, no one can run up scream in your face that you shouldn’t be getting your Viagra any more than they counsel you from obtaining birth control…” Would this “sidewalk counseling” be protected speech, or tolerated at all, if it concerned some other medical procedure, like plastic surgery or immunizations, both of which can invite controversy? What is okay ever about showing up at a medical practice to talk with people you think are patients? Specific to abortion clinic buffer zones, there is a public interest to be served by upholding the current Massachusetts law. If the zones are removed, women will be prevented from exercising their constitutional right to abortion if they do not feel that they can enter the clinic safely or comfortably. Period. At the moment, the anti-abortion speech is protected – there is nothing interfering with the protesters praying loudly, holding graphics depicting their views, or being heard. The only difference to their prior speech is that the buffer zones appear to have impeded them from forcing their unrequested, nonconsensual “sidewalk counseling” on patients entering the clinic.
Continuing with free speech, how ironic is it that anti-abortion/anti-contraceptive people want restrictions placed on sharing abortion information with indigent women (Rust vs. Sullivan), advertising reproductive healthcare, sharing family planning information with high school students, using established medical protocol to inform abortion patients about the procedure, and the like, but they don’t believe they should be restricted in any way whatsoever in their efforts to dissuade women from obtaining an abortion by stating falsehoods about abortion?
Anti-abortion politicians want to enjoy free speech to the extent that it conveys their personal and religious opinions through laws dictating what abortion providers must say to patients and yet they oppose the inclusion of medical facts if the facts are not aligned with their views. So many of these politicians seem to think that upon election to office, they acquire medical degrees; they know exactly what doctors should say to abortion patients through scripted dialogues, such as that in South Dakota, or forced and narrated ultrasounds like the one thankfully just struck down in North Carolina. A Missouri state Senator’s social media rant that late term abortions are for convenience more often than to protect the life or health of the mother is an example of a politician wanting his free speech protected as he attempts to stifle the facts another person tried to convey about late term abortion. The saddest aspect of it all is that these politicians expect their views to be included as fact in public policy debates and proposals.
Time and again Republican lawmakers claim to want smaller government. Some even claim that they oppose President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act because they “don’t think the government should be in between you and your doctor.” This issue can begin in Texas. As you read this post, there is a family grieving over the loss of their loved one, Marlise Munoz, who was declared brain dead in late November. Because she was 13-15 weeks pregnant at the time of her death, the hospital determined that despite the wishes of her family, she must be kept on life support technology (see The Cruelest Pregnancy) due to the abortion law enacted in Texas in 2013. Small government, eh? I guess this case also illustrates how much Texas wants the government out of the doctor-patient relationship — unless it involves a fetus, regardless of probable outcome for that same fetus.
It is acceptable that many oppose abortion or contraception on the basis of their personal religious or moral views, which are different than mine and roughly half of all other Americans. Unbiased polling consistently illustrates that most of us want abortion to remain legal; whatever variations exists in the conditions placed on legal abortion, most do not want Roe vs. Wade overturned (see Abortion and Birth Control polling). I understand and respect strong opinions and convictions. I do not understand the form of absolutism that imposes one set of convictions on others.
The United States has continuously grappled with costly court cases, polarized debate often void of indisputable scientific facts and full of outrageous claims, and public policy proposals that are frequently deceptive and attached at the last minute to unrelated legislative packages or bills. In recent years, state legislatures have introduced a myriad of anti-abortion laws – in 2011 a whopping 92 were proposed! During 2013, almost 50 new restrictions were placed on abortion in 17 different states by midsummer, with other restrictions making it through one court or another. Make no mistake; the efforts at the state level are ultimately targeting Roe vs. Wade. The constitutional right to abortion may continue but as all readers here are aware, if there is no access, what exactly is the right?
On this 41st anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision, it would be fitting for pro-choice people to take a look back and ask how such extensive erosion to abortion rights happened? How did rape and free speech become so intertwined with the politics of abortion that we now see the public manipulated at times by the anti-abortion messaging? It is time to stop the politics and return to the facts alone. The anti-abortion politicians, if you think about it, have given the pro-choice cause a few gifts with their ridiculous behaviors, proposals, and words. Now is a good time to begin reversing the damage that happened as so many of us thought the Constitution and the courts offered protections.