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Sifting Through Anti-Abortion Propaganda

Sandra M. Chung

On Wednesday, President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act into law. I am grossly understating the situation when I say this new law sets some terrifying precedents.

Contrary to assertions by opponents of the law that it does not allow abortions that save a mother’s life, the text of the law does indeed state that the ban “does not apply to a partial-birth abortion that is necessary to save the life of a mother whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself.” I doubt it would have made it through Congress otherwise. However, it does not make any provisions to protect the mother’s psychological health, or even just her health, period. Keeping someone from dying is not the same as keeping her healthy or functional.

These are the official arguments justifying the ban on partial-birth abortions at the expense of the mother’s health and choice: that partial-birth abortions are unsafe, extremely unpleasant, and “never medically necessary.” Technically the last argument is true; there are alternatives to partial-birth abortion in the second and third trimesters. However, none of them are any safer or any more pleasant: the mother gets to choose between something involving major abdominal surgery, and something involving toxic injections that either induce violent labor, or cause her to deliver a dead, shriveled baby some days later. So the logic of this ban is extendable to most forms of second- and third-trimester abortion. This seems like the beginning of a step-by-step plan to completely ban abortion, a little bit at a time. No, I’m not being paranoid; for the last decade that has actually been the strategy espoused by the leaders of the anti-abortion movement.

We should ask whether legislators should be making decisions about medical procedures. If I find a lump in my breast, I’m not going to consult my district representative about it. An abortion is a medical procedure and the decision to have one is very personal, made according to one’s personal beliefs. As Barbara B. Harrell, M.D., wrote in a letter to The New York Times, “The question we should be asking is whether any person has the right to inflict on any other person, against his or her will, the bodily ailments and injuries that frequently accompany pregnancy, including prolonged nausea and vomiting; anemia and fatigue; hours of excruciating pain; and major abdominal surgery. In any context outside the military, the answer to this question is no.”

In addition to being a medical decision, abortion is a matter of psychological health as much as it is one of physical health. Does anyone have the right to force a woman to bear a dead baby, or an anencephalic baby (one without a brain), or one with a serious disability? How does one justify subjecting others to avoidable trauma? If people are not fully willing to accept the grief and burden of bearing a dead child or raising a live one, they sure as hell shouldn’t be forced to do so. What business does Congress have forcing children on parents who are unwilling and thus incapable of adequately caring for them? Or on an orphan care system that is already in such dire straits that states have to offer substantial financial incentives to recruit adoptive parents? There’s much more to life than just being alive and clothed and fed, or living with parents who are paid to raise you.

You may argue that the moral issues outweight the practical ones, that it’s more wrong to kill fetuses than it is to bring them into a world that doesn’t want them and can’t take care of them. Yet you should still question the idea that Congress has any business legislating morals, especially when legislated morality clashes with your personal morality. Speaking of legislated morality, the ban includes a section that allows the father -- if married to the mother -- and the maternal grandparents -- if the mother is younger than 18 years old -- to sue for emotional and physical damages stemming from the violation of the ban. Why does being married to the mother make a legal difference in the father’s ability to win damages from the mother? His not being married to the mother doesn’t mean he cares about the child any less. And if these people, linked to the mother by biology but not necessarily by love, feel sufficiently disturbed by a decision she makes about her body and her life, they can sue her and her doctor for going against their wishes. This is a recipe for litigious mayhem, if I ever saw one.

Is it more important that partially delivered fetuses have the right to live, or that full-grown adults have the right to live the life they choose for themselves? Should we be bringing more children into the world when we’re incapable of taking care of the ones we already have? Should my parents be able to sue me for what I do to my own body? It no longer matters what we as individuals think or believe about these issues. Congress has decided for all of us.

The Partial Birth Abortion Act is not even the first example of the state taking control of our reproductive systems. As recently as 1963 it was legal in some states to sterilize people without their consent. In fact, according to a Yale study, over 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized between 1907 and 1963 under eugenics laws in 18 states (incidentally, MIT was a hotbed of eugenic science in its heyday). Someday, graphic photographs of STDs may convince Congress that sex -- morally repugnant act that it is -- ought to be outlawed and replaced with in vitro fertilization. Legislation has arrived at the crossroads between health care and morality, and while it is there it threatens to assume control over our values and our bodies.