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ABORTION

FIVE MYTHS ABOUT

1. Laws against abortion have always been based on concern about unborn life.

Abortion was generally legal in the United States until the mid-19th century. At that time, physicians eager to professionalize obstetrics pressed state legislatures to outlaw midwifery and abortion while granting doctors sole authority over pregnancy and childbearing. State anti-abortion statutes were primarily justified on the grounds that women needed to be saved from uneducated folk practitioners, infections, future infertility and other physical risks.

When early feminists such as Susan B. Anthony opposed abortion, they argued that the disconnect between sexual intercourse and maternity endangered women’s chastity – at the time considered their main basis for moral standing and personal dignity.

Then, in the second half of the 20th century, technology allowed us to see a fetus not simply as a potential life but as a patient sometimes entitled to more medical intervention than a pregnant woman.

New imaging techniques furthered the idea that the interests of a woman and her fetus may be inimical: the woman’s “right to choose” vs. the fetus’ “right to life.”

2. Until Roe v. Wade, back-alley procedures killed countless women, and that risk would return if abortion were outlawed.

There is little evidence that abortion caused high rates of morbidity or mortality before Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure in 1973. According to the Guttmacher Institute, for instance, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women in 1930 when estimates are that at least 1 million abortions were performed per year. By 1940, the number of deaths had fallen to fewer than 1,700, and by 1965, fewer than 200.

Even when abortion was illegal, it was often practiced with the knowledge and protection of district attorneys and police chiefs who considered these practitioners assets to public health.

Abortion rights advocates have argued that Roe shields women from “back-alley butchers.” But that is a consumer-protection argument, not an argument about what rights women have over their bodies. Before legalization, laws against abortion endangered women, keeping them from making fundamental decisions about their lives.

3. Roe led to a huge increase in the number of abortions.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, at least 1 million illegal abortions were performed in the United States each year before Roe. Today, the number of abortions performed annually is still about 1 million. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that almost half of U.S. pregnancies are unintended. About four in 10 of these are ended by abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and these are performed in clean, safe, medically appropriate settings.

Roe didn’t mark the beginning of an abortion era – it legalized an already widespread practice.

4. Women who end their pregnancies tend to suffer psychological and physical illnesses.

In 2008, Johns Hopkins University researchers conducted a comprehensive review concerning the effect of abortion on women’s mental health, finding that “the highest-quality research available does not support the hypothesis that abortion leads to long-term mental health problems.” The American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion concluded that, among women with unplanned pregnancies, the risk of mental health problems is no greater for those who obtain first-trimester abortions than for those who carry the pregnancies to term.

In the 1990s, some claimed an association between abortion and breast cancer. In 2003, the National Cancer Institute concluded that an abortion or a miscarriage does not increase a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer. In addition, contemporary studies have found that abortions performed in the first trimester pose virtually no long-term risk of infertility, ectopic pregnancy, birth defect, miscarriage, or pre-term or low-weight delivery.

5. “Choice” guarantees the opportunity to decide whether to become a mother.

The full legalization of contraception and the qualified legalization of abortion in the middle of the 20th century mean that women have a chance to make personal choices about their fertility. But some women have much better access to choices than others.

Decisions are shaped by laws and policies that can compromise personal choice. For example, the Hyde Amendment – a rider attached to appropriations bills each year since 1976 – forbids the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion, making the decision not to be a mother financially impossible for some women.

As states pass laws making abortion practice untenable for doctors, a growing number of women live somewhere without an abortion provider. Fewer than half of states mandate sex education, and 26 give preference to “abstinence only” sex education. Rather than providing dignity and safety for all women, “choice” is often an economic privilege.

Rickie Solinger is the author of “Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics” and “Reproductive Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.” She wrote this for the Washington Post.

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