Repeat abortion is a thorny issue in the choice debate. Antiabortion activists sometimes suggest that women who get abortions do so cavalierly and repeatedly, using abortion as a form of birth control. Perhaps as a consequence, the prospect of multiple abortions can carry some stigma even in pro-choice circles. Last year in the New Republic, Garance Franke-Ruta reported that when “asked about repeat abortions, a spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America declined several requests for comment.” In the same piece, one of Franke-Ruta’s interview subjects admitted, “I rarely talk about [my] second abortion because of society’s judgments about women who have a second abortion … It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re allowed one mistake.’”
But turning away from the reality of repeat abortions may create more problems than it solves. Liberal message-makers would probably have an easier time if repeat abortions were rare, but the truth is, they’re not: According to a report (PDF) released last week by the Guttmacher Institute, which we found thanks to a flare from the Kaiser Foundation, about half of the women who terminated pregnancies in 2002 had previously had at least one abortion. (The report notes that because many women do not accurately report their abortion experiences, these findings are “exploratory.”) Rates of repeat abortion have been on the rise since Roe v. Wade, and ignoring that fact isn’t doing women who need multiple procedures any favors.
Dodging the repeat-abortion issue also means passing up some valuable lessons. First, there’s the virtual no-brainer that women who have multiple abortions generally don’t do so cavalierly or in place of birth control. Kaiser summarizes, “Most women seeking abortions in 2002 were low-income … 60 percent had at least one child. In addition, the report found that most women who had more than one abortion were over age 30 and that most women who had an abortion in 2002 were using contraception at the time of conception.” So much for the decadent, irresponsible nymphets caricatured in conservative abortion lore (though, to be clear, irresponsible nymphets have just as much right to abortion on demand as responsible, low-income moms).
The Guttmacher report also highlights the fact that our country’s abortion and contraception policies are working at cross-purposes. Kaiser notes that “some states — including Colorado, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — will not appropriate funds for family planning services to clinics that have a relationship with abortion providers. In addition, federally funded Title X family planning programs must separate family planning services from abortion-related services.” At the time of the report’s release, Guttmacher president and CEO Sharon Camp issued a statement slamming the feds: “The ‘wall of separation’ that the federal government has erected between family planning and abortion services is, paradoxically, leading to more abortions,” she said. “These policies interfere with the ability of abortion providers to ensure continuity of care for their patients by guaranteeing that, following an abortion, every woman has an appropriate contraceptive method and is able to use it consistently.”
I’m not incredibly optimistic that choice advocates will take these talking points and run with them, since the abortion debate is still largely dominated by proselytizing right-wingers. Here’s hoping I’m wrong, though — many Americans could use a reminder that the key to lowering the abortion rate is preventing unintended pregnancies.
Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.More Page Rockwell.