This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.
The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception
By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010
The Destructive Effects of ‘Personhood’
Bans of Elective Abortions
If fully enforced, Amendment 62 and comparable measures would ban all abortions, except perhaps in cases of extreme risk to the mother’s life. As a result, the measure would cause permanent injury or death to some at-risk women, as we shall see. Even in less dire circumstances, the measure would do serious harm to women (and their partners and families) by forcing them to bring any pregnancy to term, regardless of the woman’s judgment about her best course in life.
The potential impact of “personhood” measures depends partly on how many women seek abortions. In 2006, there were around 4.3 million births in the U.S. The same year, there were around 846,000 legal abortions. Put another way, there were around five live births for every abortion. The Guttmacher Institute reports for 2005: “In Colorado, 100,500 of the 1,001,833 women of reproductive age became pregnant in 2005. 69% of these pregnancies resulted in live births and 16% in induced abortions.” In other words, according to the proponents of Amendment 62, around 16,000 Colorado women committed murder via abortion in 2005. According to the logic and stated intent of the measure, had it been in effect then those women should have been arrested, tried, and punished with life in prison or the death penalty.
Most abortions take place early in a pregnancy. Viability, the age at which a fetus possibly can survive outside the womb with advanced medical assistance, generally is considered to be around 24 weeks at the earliest. In 2006, 62 percent of abortions were performed within the eighth week, and only 1.3 percent of abortions were performed beyond the 21st week. Abortion generally takes place in the first trimester, long before the fetus is viable. By granting zygotes the legal status of persons from the moment of fertilization, Amendment 62 would outlaw abortions even in the earliest stages of pregnancy.
Why do women get abortions? A 2005 article in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health published relevant polling results. Thirteen percent of women cited “Possible problems affecting the health of the fetus.” Twelve percent cited “Physical problems with my health.” One percent got an abortion because of rape, and fewer than half of a percent got an abortion because of incest. The most popular answer given (where women could list multiple reasons) was, “Having a baby would dramatically change my life,” at 74 percent. Many women also offered financial reasons (73 percent), lack of a partner or problems with a romantic relationship (48 percent), or desire not to have another child (38 percent).
It is clear that most abortions are elective. It is equally clear that, if fully enforced, Amendment 62 (and comparable measures) would totally ban such abortions.
Most Americans support restrictions or bans on elective abortions. Gallup found that, while 19 percent of Americans said that abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances,” 54 percent said it should be “legal only under certain circumstances.” (Twenty-four percent said it should be “legal under any circumstances.”) Older results from Gallup suggest that many Americans favor legal abortion only “when the woman’s life is endangered,” “when the child would be born with a life-threatening illness,” or “when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.”
However, contrary to that popular opinion, any ban on elective abortions, whether via “personhood” laws or other anti-abortion laws, would have far-reaching and disastrous consequences. (A later section of this paper will address the morality of elective abortions.)
Under a ban of elective abortions, a woman would be legally compelled to add a child to her family, even if she is not physically, emotionally, or financially prepared to raise the child, and regardless of the costs to her, her partner, or any existing children. True, a woman could instead opt to put the child up for adoption, and that is a good option for some. However, that requires months of pregnancy, delivery of the child, physical recovery, the time and stress of finding a suitable adoptive family, the emotional trauma of giving up a child, lifelong angst about the child’s fate, and possible worry about a future reunion. Given these high costs, it is no surprise that many women seek an elective abortion, even when illegal.
If a single state, such as Colorado, banned abortions, women who wanted an abortion would simply travel (or move) to other states to obtain one. However, the aim of “personhood” advocates is to impose universal abortion bans. What then?
Only the naive imagine that an abortion ban would put an end to elective abortion. Many women would continue to seek abortions through illegal means, either by using legal drugs and herbs to illegally induce an abortion, inflicting physical trauma on themselves to induce an abortion, buying illegal drugs to induce abortion, or turning to underground practitioners of abortion.
Rachel Benson Gold writes for the Guttmacher Institute:
Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. …One stark indication of the prevalence of illegal abortion was the death toll. In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women–nearly one-fifth (18%) of maternal deaths recorded in that year. …By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17% of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. And these are just the number that were officially reported; the actual number was likely much higher.
With the imposition of harsh legal penalties for abortion, women would be less likely to seek professional medical assistance in cases of a “back-alley” abortion gone wrong, leading to more deaths and permanent injury.
The enforcement implications for elective abortion bans are alarming. Under today’s laws, police officers routinely pose as prostitutes or drug buyers to “bust” johns and drug dealers. If abortion were outlawed, police officers could also pose as abortion providers in an attempt to ensnare women seeking abortions, then arrest and prosecute them. Or police officers might pose as pregnant women seeking abortions in order to arrest and prosecute doctors providing illegal abortions.
Moreover, women who sought an abortion could, under an enforced “personhood” measure, be arrested under attempted murder or related statutes. If a parent threatened to murder his or her born child, arresting the parent would result in physically separating the parent from the child, thereby keeping the child safe. However, a pregnant woman arrested for attempted murder or menacing could not be physically separated from the embryo or fetus. Instead, any woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy would have to be physically restrained until the fetus was forcibly delivered under state supervision. Thus, the ultimate alternative to legal abortion is police officers strapping an uncooperative woman to her bed for weeks or months and forcing her to give birth–then throwing her in prison for attempted murder.