Variables That (Should) Dominate Most of the Abortion Debate
I ended the previous article in this series on the note that
abortion policy’s impact on various individuals depends on specific policy solutions and circumstances.
Let us now review these solutions and circumstances to complete our checklist of what you need to win every abortion debate you choose to enter.
What circumstances matter for the abortion debate? Some, such as whether the mother’s health is in serious jeopardy, are regular staples of the conversation. But how could we arrive at a comprehensive overview of everything we ought to consider?
Personal stories are a great way to start. And Medium is a great place to find such stories. So I began by conducting a fairly thorough Medium search, which yielded many tales, each with its own personal perspective and insight. Like
- Brandi’s heart-wrenching story, whose decision to abort plagued her with grief even though her fetus faced
an array of dismal prognoses (…) — severe mental and physical disability, a feeding tube, seizures, and the inability to ever be a functioning adult, requiring a lifetime of constant care.
- The story of how a preacher’s daughter’s pregnancy and abortion taught her family that
Abortion is a topic that everyone thinks they have a fully formed opinion on — until it touches them.
- Christopher’s story, which inspired my take on abortion’s impact on men.
There are, of course, hundreds more. Nor is Medium the only place to look.
A prime example of viral twitter campaigns, the #YouKnowMe movement, brought to light thousands of such stories (if you’re only interested in a snapshot, try this rich and contextualized selection of a few). It also spawned pro-life counter-movements like #regretabortion and #abortionhurts, each a veritable source of cases in its own right.
Stories are amazing. They engage our brains in ways nothing else can and have unparalleled potential to reveal the emotion-filled deep context of real people dealing with real issues. We’re lucky to live in an age when we have access to so many at our fingertips!
Yet, the beauty of stories is simultaneously their crucial shortcoming: each of them is unique. Consequently, they can’t teach us anything about the big picture. For that we need data.
The Guttmacher Institute’s 2005 paper is a great one to begin with, focused on uncovering the whole gamut of reasons women themselves give for getting an abortion. Regarding the rest of the (American) public, we have General Social Survey data to rely on, which contains nationally representative responses on several circumstance-related items. Finally, this UN report provides an overview of what circumstances are considered by policy makers with regard to abortion worldwide.
As you see, finding information wasn’t a problem. The challenge was to digest that information and come up with a sensible structure in which to present it. I attempted to construct one with two goals in mind: to retain as much information as possible with as few variables as possible.
Here’s the result.
All but two of the items on the list in the right under ‘Circumstances’ are binary variables, questions to which there is a clear yes/no answer. What this means in practice is that ‘Fetus: serious deformity?’ is short for ‘is there a strong chance that the fetus will be born with serious impairment?’.
Four other binaries, namely health risk, sufficient income, rape, and incest, are simple to understand along similar lines. There are, however, two yes/no items that require a bit more explanation.
The mother’s psychological readiness is represented in the list because it’s qualitatively different from the rest of the circumstances covered. According to this paper, almost one-third of the women polled gave ‘not being ready to have a child’ as their reason for wanting an abortion.
It’s understandable, too: as we saw in a previous article in this series, the effort and costs the mother has to bear to raise her child can be enormous. Furthermore, not being ready may impair her chance to be as good a mother as she’d like to be. Even without this argument, the mother’s choices may have a huge impact on the fetus, herself, and others. Thus, her feelings do matter!
The next variable, non-material resources, refers to the conditions in the home the child would be born into. Whether that home and the people in it can ensure the unborn’s safety and secure attachment, along with meeting his or her other emotional and cognitive needs, is a very important argument that must be represented in the discussion.
I also included two variables (both italicized in Figure 1) that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.
The mother’s age can make a significant difference in a number of ways. Adolescent fertility, for example, is recognized by policy makers as problematic for a plethora of reasons. Accordingly, the majority of countries have a policy to reduce teenage pregnancies, including many polities that otherwise face a demographic crisis.
Pregnancy over 40 is a more debatable issue. It’s entirely possible for a 40+ year-old woman to deliver a healthy and happy baby. Pregnancy may even come with a set of benefits! Nevertheless, pregnancy at a more advanced age is also associated with several well-documented risks such as a higher chance to miscarry; suffer health complications (e.g. blood pressure issues or gestational diabetes); and for the fetus to have certain genetic problems like Down syndrome.
Both 18 and 40 are arbitrary numbers that can (and should) be vigorously debated and challenged. The larger point, however, stands: the abortion question may be different depending on whether the mother is too young, too old, or in between.
The second non-binary variable, trimester, is very common in the pregnancy literature. It’s generally accepted that the three parts of pregnancy are qualitatively different for the mother and the fetus alike.
The ruling in Roe v. Wade made the trimester framework a crucial part of the abortion debate, establishing different possibilities to allow or prohibit abortion depending on trimester. If this alone isn’t enough, consider that the fetus’s age is a crucial component of the ‘where does life begin’ debate and you’ll see why this variable has to be a part of our comprehensive view.
The only piece of the puzzle we’re still missing at this point is specific policy solutions. Fortunately, two sources were sufficient for a reasonably complete summary: The Guttmacher Institute’s overview of US policies and its worldwide equivalent presented by The Center for Reproductive Rights.
In order to make sense of the many solutions that have been tried to address abortion, I split the middle column of Figure 2 into three main sections.
All but the last two points in the before the procedure section represent what is euphemistically referred to as ‘counseling’. In reality, it usually entails forcing the mother to complete some of the items on the list, such as watch an ultrasound image of her fetus or receive information on the ostensible link between abortion and mental health.
The last bullet point in the same section is a bit different as it’s concerned with people other than the mother. Specifically, policy may state that the father and/or the mother’s parents (common in cases of underage pregnancies) be notified or provide written consent to abortion before the procedure may take place.
The second part concerned with the procedure itself details various rules that have been used to regulate abortion when it happens. Who may perform it? Must it take place in a hospital or can it happen at a specialized clinic (like Planned Parenthood)? Who has admitting privileges and what building regulations apply?
Unlike the two sections above, what happens after the procedure has not been part of existing solutions. I chose to include it because the impact of abortion may not stop at the procedure itself.
If something goes wrong during abortion or the mother is among the few experiencing mental health consequences in its aftermath, medical intervention or counseling (in the real, psychological sense of the word) could really help.
If, on the other hand, the mother decided not to abort or was denied that possibility, she still had reasons for wanting an abortion in the first place. So once again, she could probably use some form of help, be that financial assistance or real counseling.
And finally, completely outlawing abortion is, of course, an option in some or all circumstances. If that’s your or your opponent’s choice, none of the other solutions mentioned in this section apply.
3. How can you use all this?
Figure 2 admittedly contains more information than most of us are accustomed to digesting in one visual. I made it this way to provide you with a true one-pager you can easily take to any debate.
The simplest way to use it is by picking a few points from two or three columns and chaining them together into questions like
- Did you consider the impact on the father when the fetus has a high chance of being born with severe impairment?
- Do you support a mandatory waiting period (or any other form of counseling) when the mother was raped?
- Did you consider the impact of denied insurance coverage on other children in the family when the household’s income is insufficient to raise another child?
With the help of Figure 2, you can generate hundreds of such questions with ease. That’s considerable ammunition to take into a debate with you. But does it make you bulletproof? Is it enough to guarantee you will never lose again?
Almost. But not yet.
Find out what we’re still missing in the next article or let us know your guesses in the comments below.