« Just in Case You're Collecting Fact Patterns for Next Year's Exams . . . | Main | Pure Social Norms and the Seinfeldian In-town Courtesy Call »

Monday, June 08, 2009

Federalism and Abortion


Today’s Washington Post includes a depressing article   for those of us who are pro-choice.  The article documents how the abortion fight has moved to the state level, and details some of the means by which anti-abortion groups are chipping away at a woman’s right to choose.

My first job after I graduated from college was working at the National Abortion Rights Action League.  True, I was a mail clerk, but, as I checked packages to make sure that we were not receiving any bombs, and as I mailed out material supporting the right to choose, I felt like I was doing good and meaningful work.  Almost 30 years later, I can’t believe how little has changed in the culture wars over abortion, and I’m struck by how much positions have hardened.

When the Supreme Court guaranteed the right to choose in the seventies, the focus was on the changing lives of women, and the often tragic circumstances of those resorting to risky, illegal abortions.  Today, the women seeking abortion have almost disappeared from sight, replaced, when they are thought about at all, by inaccurate caricatures that overlook the fact  that poor women who lack systematic access to effective contraception are those who have the greatest need for access to abortion.   The overlooked issue in the abortion debate is its effect on poor women, who are more likely to get an abortion than are wealthier women.  As the Post article notes, poor women are disproportionately affected by the practicalities of obtaining an abortion and by legal restrictions. The Guttmacher Institute reports that the abortion rate for women whose income is lower than the federal poverty level “is four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level (44 vs. 10 abortions per 1,000 women).”    The higher rate is, at least partially, due to the much higher rate of unintended pregnancies among poor women. 

Even when they are able to obtain abortions, two-thirds of poor women report that they would have liked to have undergone the procedure at an earlier time.   Clearly, access to abortion is critical to the reproductive choice for poorer women.  The decrease in the number of abortions through the nineties was, perhaps surprisingly, not primarily due to legal restrictions on abortion.  Instead, the decline was based, at least in part, on states making a commitment to sex education that was not abstinence-only and on states making contraception widely available.  


            As June Carbone and I have argued, reproductive autonomy is most readily available for the affluent,  and it is increasingly beyond the reach of the most vulnerable. Family planning efforts of all kinds have been the biggest casualty of ideological politics. 

Posted by Naomi Cahn on June 8, 2009 at 09:13 PM in Gender | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Federalism and Abortion:


Only a psychopath could defend murder.

Posted by: Ted | Jun 13, 2009 12:59:25 PM

Taking off from Cameron's comment, and on your observation that "[a]lmost 30 years later, I can’t believe how little has changed in the culture wars over abortion, and I’m struck by how much positions have hardened", it seems to me that the chief culprit in the "culture wars" is the Roe / Casey regime, which (a) removed what I believe a reasonable person has to regard as a morally (and legally) contestable question from the arena of democratic deliberation, dialogue, and compromise, and then (even worse) (b) told those of us who object to that removal that we should (paraphrasing) "shut up, go home, and get over it."

For many of us (most, I suspect) who believe that the unborn child is morally entitled to legal protections against violence, the abortion-rights regime that would result from politics -- a regime that would almost certainly confer a right to abortion that goes beyond what many of us believe to be morally justifiable -- would be much easier to take, and even to live with, than the current one is.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 11, 2009 3:01:38 PM

To be honest, I can't follow your post. Your point seems to be that "poor women are disproportionately affected by the practicalities of obtaining an abortion." Fair enough, although one might point out that poor women are disproportionately affected by the practicalities of obtaining *anything*, being poor and all.

The evidence buttressing(?) your claim is the fact that poor women have more abortions than non-poor women. Couldn't this cut both ways, also as evidence that poor women have pretty good access to abortion, compared to non-poor women? I mean, it seems like you'd have a very compelling case if, say, wealthy women were having 10 times more abortions than poor women.

And then you explain away the recent statistics showing less abortions among poor women, which you claim are not because of less 'disproportionate practicalities', but rather increased sex-education. But can't less abortions among poor women support your claim that they're getting less access? And if the legal restrictions didn't reduce the number of abortions in the 90's, then why are you so concerned about the legal restrictions now?

Posted by: Aaron | Jun 10, 2009 12:17:20 PM

"I’m struck by how much positions have hardened."

The hardening positions on this issue should be no surprise. Issues which turn on moral considerations will always ignite the most strident response because ultimate compromise is impossible. Abortion presents the clear moral choice between putting higher value on the life/potential life of a child/fetus or putting higher value on the choice of a woman to rid herself of that burden. This moral dilemma involves many factors but essentially comes down to how “human” one thinks a developing fetus is.

The moral dimensions of this issue have been clear since long before Roe. But before Roe, and even for some time after Roe, many did not understand/recognize/care about this moral issue. Roe ignited this moral debate and it should be no surprise that the more attention that is brought to it, the more hardened the positions get. The more we talk about it, the more people will choose moral sides which are ultimately unreconcilable.

And, of course, if the moral determination comes down to how human one thinks the fetus is, medical advancements which reveal more about the development of a fetus and extend viability of a fetus will tilt the moral debate in favor of anti-abortionists.

Posted by: Cameron Kynes | Jun 10, 2009 11:17:17 AM

It is hard to see a record low number of teen births or a recent first in which low income women have lower fertility rates than high income women as hard evidence that times are worse than they used to be. Legal abortion by constitutional decree has made pregnancy reduction (the Clintonian, safe, legal and rare formula) the focus of moderates who are seeking common cause and effective policy.

Wider availability of both emergency contraception and RU-486 has also provided affordable alternatives in many cases to surgical abortion.

The muddy middle also remains dominant, as illustrated by the defeat of a near absolute abortion ban (patently unconstitutional) by voters in socially conservative South Dakota. And, subsequent litigation has elevated Roe v. Wade to "superprecedent" status in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Roe has also set up the perennial political debate question ("what would you tell your daughter if she was thinking about an abortion?"), which forces any politician with a meaningful chance of getting elected to frame the question as one of choice, rather than in absolute terms.

Are poor women at a disadvantage? Yes. But, the economic fate of women generally is surely better now than it was in 1972. Indeed, greater economic prospects have been a factor which has made choice a valuable cause for women to support. Why fight an unwanted pregnancy if you have no future alternative to protect?

It is easier for the private sector to make money and information available to people in need than it is to make services banned by law available as they were pre-Roe, even though it is different work.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jun 8, 2009 10:47:08 PM

Post a comment