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February 19, 2014 10:34 AM Early-Term Abortions and the Anti-Choicers

By Ed Kilgore

In a New Yorker column on the lack of enthusiasm of the anti-choice movement about statistics showing signficantly reduced abortion rates in 2008-2011, Margaret Talbot focuses on RTL unhappiness with the inability to take credit for the reduced rates:

[S]ince 2008, states have enacted more than a hundred laws related to abortion, most aimed at limiting access to the procedure. The researchers, however, concluded that the new laws, with few exceptions, had had little impact on the number of abortions. Instead, much of the decline is probably attributable to more effective contraception, some of it available through the federal funding—“Uncle Sugar,” in Mike Huckabee’s creepy coinage—that Republicans like to rail against. Right-to-lifers could be promoting contraception and touting its success in averting unwanted pregnancies, but that doesn’t seem to be news that they want to hear, let alone spread.

What Talbot seems to miss is that antichoice activists almost universally regard the very contraceptive measures most associated with reduced abortion rates, especially the highly effective IUD, not as contraceptives at all but as “abortifacients,” because they operate (or might operate) to interfere with the implantation of fertilized ova on the uterine wall. So for them it is impossible to concede that such methods have led to a reduction in abortions, because they are responsible for an entirely unverifiable number of additional abortions. They don’t much want to talk about this issue publicly, because to an awful lot of Americans, the idea of the IUD as a little abortion machine sounds crazy.

While Talbot misses that nuance, she does usefully make it clear that anti-choicers seem especially interested in interfering with the kind of early-term abortions that a lot of people—including many who probably think of themselves as “pro-life”—find relatively unoffensive, and certainly far preferable to late-term abortions.

For reasons both moral and practical, most Americans think that if an abortion is to be performed it should be done early in the pregnancy. Yet many of the laws that right-to-life groups have pressed for in recent years have tended to produce the opposite effect, resulting in later abortions. Consider the case of medical abortions, induced by the drug mifepristone, the so-called abortion pill. The Guttmacher report shows that, between 2008 and 2011, there was a striking increase in the percentage of such procedures—in 2011, they accounted for twenty-three per cent (up from seventeen per cent) of all non-hospital abortions—even as the over-all rate declined. By definition, these are early abortions: they are performed before nine weeks’ gestation. (Unlike surgical abortions, they can be done almost as soon as a woman receives a positive pregnancy test.) From the public-health, reproductive-choice, and moral-comfort points of view, an increase in the percentage of abortions performed this way is beneficial.
Yet the latest vogue in anti-abortion legislation is to ban medical abortions. One approach has been to short-circuit programs that allow mifepristone to be prescribed through telemedicine. A program started in Iowa, in 2008, allowed a woman to receive ultrasounds and talk to a counsellor at a satellite clinic, and then video-conference with a doctor in another location. The doctor could remotely unlock a drawer in the clinic and the necessary medication was dispensed to the woman. After the program began, women seeking abortions in Iowa tended to do so earlier; nevertheless, the over-all abortion rate in the state declined. The program’s safety record and women’s reported satisfaction with it were solid. (It was especially helpful in rural areas.) But in 2010 Iowa elected an anti-choice Republican governor, who appointed new members to the state medical board, and it subsequently ended the program. A judge stayed the ban in November, and the matter is now being litigated. Meanwhile, legislatures in fourteen other states have prohibited the use of telemedicine for medical abortion—“Webcam abortion,” as opponents call it—even though the system hasn’t even been tried on any significant scale in those states.

None of this, however, is the least bit surprising if you think all abortions—including the “abortion” of fertilized ova that may occur when an IUD or a Plan B pill—or any other hormonal birth control method—is used—are equally horrific acts of homicide. That is the position of virtually every “right to life” group in the country. So their propaganda focus on late-term abortions is entirely strategic. For all the millions of tears shed about the “barbarity” of the tiny handful of late-term abortions performed legally (or illegally, as was the case with Dr. Kermit Gosnell, whose clinic antichoicers have seized on with enormous glee), the antichoice goal is as it has always been to use widespread instinctive unease with late-term abortions as a stepping stone to a total abortion ban, which would extend to “abortifacient” devices like IUDs. Nobody should forget that for a moment.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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