For as long as the United States government has existed, it has been shirking a critical moral obligation. We are talking, of course, about our nation’s failure to protect the right of every woman to receive an affordable abortion on demand.
Abortions in the United States are technically legal, but in practice they can be very difficult to come by. Many women cannot afford the cost of a safe abortion, and even for those who can, a devastating shortage of qualified abortion providers means that they often have to travel long distances in order to reach a clinic. Once they do get to a clinic, they are frequently met with threats of violence from right-wing extremists or stymied by state regulations deliberately designed to make it as hard as possible for them to receive the care they need. The United States is very far indeed from providing universal access to abortion services, and the results of this oversight are nothing short of tragic.
A government’s failure to provide abortions constitutes depraved indifference to human life. This is a dicey ethical point and it bears explanation. Laws and social mores do nothing to decrease the demand for abortions: a 2007 study by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization found that in places where abortions are banned or access to legal abortions is otherwise restricted, there is no decrease in the per capita number of abortions that are actually performed. The difference is that where women do not have access to legal abortions, they are forced to seek unsafe illegal abortions that are generally performed without proper medical skill or proper medical standards. According to the same WHO study, each year, unsafe abortions are directly responsible for the deaths of 70,000 women worldwide, a figure that is likely an underestimate, as maternal mortality is widely under-reported. Given the fact that the same number of women will seek abortions regardless of laws or policies, governments around the world are knowingly allowing these 70,000 women to die each year by failing to provide adequate abortion services. This is an outrage, and it’s only the beginning.
Equality of the sexes is impossible without free access to abortions. Unwanted pregnancies inevitably occur, and when they do, it is women who bear almost all of the consequences. A woman who is forced to remain pregnant against her will faces huge obstacles to success in her education and work, in the form of damage to her physical and mental health, stigmatization within society, and the sheer drain of time and energy involved in bearing a fetus to term. In this way, any lack of access to abortion services heavily disadvantages women and thus becomes a mechanism of sexist oppression.
Inadequate abortion services also promote class inequality. Rates of unintended pregnancy are much higher among poor women, who are also least likely to be able to afford an abortion. Since Medicaid coverage of abortions is restricted to exceptional cases by the Hyde Amendment, poor women with unwanted pregnancies are often faced with a terrifying choice. Either they can seek an unqualified abortion and risk their health and safety, or they can carry and give birth to the baby, which is a huge financial strain before one even considers the fact that many women lose their jobs as a result of being pregnant. There is no way around the conclusion that the cost of abortion puts an unfair burden on the poor. This is why it is so important that abortions be not only openly available, but also free of charge for those who cannot afford to pay. The government has a duty to ensure that no financial premium is placed on our reproductive freedom.
And what of the children of unwanted pregnancies? Many are born to single mothers or families that are scarcely able to support them. Many others are victims of abuse or neglect. Anti-choice agitators promote adoption as an alternative to abortion, but our social services system is overburdened and riddled with problems of its own, and foster care can be a miserable experience. We do not mean to callously suggest that these children would have been better off if they had never been born. What we do mean to say is that if every woman had a choice about whether to allow each embryo to develop into a child, we would have better social services and happier families. For all of our sakes, the right to that choice should be guaranteed at the federal level.
The United States has an unmet obligation to provide its citizens with access to safe and affordable abortions on demand. We are a long way from this goal: We need more abortion providers, fewer regulations, and a lot of social change. The state of affairs in the rest of the world is even more dire. Most countries in Central and South America and Africa, for instance, have a blanket ban on almost all abortions. But the situation seems to be improving. The U.S. has made remarkable progress in its abortion policies in the span of the last few decades, and we can only hope that that progress will continue both here and elsewhere. We look forward to a world in which every woman is guaranteed her right to an abortion whenever she wants, for any reason.
Colin McSwiggen is a senior in Courses VIII and XVIII. Fatima Hussain is a senior in Course I and Women’s and Gender Studies.