Roe at 40-Celebration of Midlife Crisis?

by Alexander Sanger

A 40th Anniversary – a cause for celebration. A 40th birthday – a midlife crisis. Roe v. Wade, turning 40 next week, is cause for both.

First, the midlife crisis. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America unveiled a new campaign this week that attempts to move the argument over abortion away from the labels, “pro-choice” and “pro-life”, or “anti-choice” and “pro-abortion”, into more nuanced, and real life territory. The campaign, entitled, “Not in her Shoes”, begins:

“Most things in life aren’t simple.And that includes abortion.

It’s personal. It can be complicated. And for many people, it’s not a black and white issue.

So why do people try to label it like it is? Pro-choice? Pro-life? The truth is these labels limit the conversation and simply don’t reflect how people actually feel about abortion.

A majority of Americans believe abortion should remain safe and legal. Many just don’t use the words pro-choice. They don’t necessarily identify as pro-life either. Truth is, they just don’t want to be labeled.

What they want is for a woman to have access to safe and legal abortion, if and when she needs it.”

In my book, Beyond Choice, published in 2004, I argued that supporters of reproductive freedom needed to move beyond the labels and into a discussion of the reproductive goals of woman and men. We need to recognize that the default position of couples is to have children – that, in fact, all of us reading this article had ancestors who did just that and did it successfully.  BUT—and this is the key point—our ancestors didn’t have children haphazardly. They pursued, consciously or not, strategies to enable themselves and their offspring to be born healthy and survive to adulthood so these children could then repeat the process. Women, especially, since they bear the medical risks of childbearing, have had to plan, space and limit the number of children they bear so that they and their offspring get the nutrients and support to survive and thrive and in turn reproduce.

One hundred years ago, because of lack of access to family planning and safe abortion, women and babies in this country had mortality rates similar to a developing country in Africa today.

In 1913, there were 2.8 million births, with 250,000 babies dying before their first birthday, and about 23,000 mothers died during childbirth—figures that are comparable to many African nations today—and untold others died or were grievously injured as the result of clandestine abortions. One source estimated the number of deaths from botched abortions to be only slightly lower than the number of mothers dying in childbirth, or about 15,000 women annually.

What changed this dismal picture, in addition to economic development, increased education and antibiotics, was the legalization of birth control and abortion.

The Roe v. Wadedecision de-criminalizing most abortions, handed down 40 years ago, is a symbol of what kind of a country we want to be. There are only two choices: a country where abortions are legal and safe, as is the case in most of Europe and North America, or a country where they are illegal and unsafe, as most countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. The number of abortions will remain essentially unchanged, though there is data that suggests that the number of abortions is higher in countries where they are prohibited, because family planning services in these countries are also restricted.

The American people understand this, as conflicted as they are about the procedure and its consequences. And this is where we have cause for celebration: In the exit polls following the 2012 election, 59% if Americans said abortion should be legal and 36% illegal, an almost two to one majority. Within these two broad categories are as many different gradations of opinion and personal circumstance as people responding to the question. It is these personal stories that must become part of the national dialogue on abortion.

Similarly, to move the dialogue forward, it is crucial to engage young people.  Today’s younger generation is remarkably uninformed about Roe,with a recent Pew Survey finding that only 44% of young people knew that the Roe decision was about abortion. Still, the survey found that people under 30 supported legal abortion at the same rates as those in their 30’s and 40’s. Reframing the discussion away from labels and recognizing the complexity and uncertainties of young people’s lives can only lead to the recognition that legal abortion is a public, and personal, health and reproductive necessity.

Hence the message of “Not in her Shoes”. Each woman has to make the decision to bear a child and not be forced into involuntary motherhood. It is time to go beyond the labels of pro-choice and pro-life and time to respect the individual human dynamics of childbearing and realize that reproductive freedom benefits all of humanity. If crisis equals opportunity, this is an opportunity to have real discussions about Roe.

The forgoing appeared in the North Jersey Record on January 20, 2013


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