The Guttmacher Institute released a study earlier this year reporting that both the rate and the total number of abortions performed in the United States had declined by 13 percent between 2008 and 2011. Researchers also found that the abortion rate had reached its lowest level since 1973. As Joerg Dreweke at Guttmacher notes, the study’s authors couldn’t point to concrete causation, but hypothesized that the decline was related to increased use of highly effective methods of contraception (including the intrauterine devices that private corporations and government officials want to prevent from being covered by insurance) and improved access to sex education.
This seems pretty straightforward. Having the tools to prevent pregnancy — and knowing how to use them effectively — should prevent pregnancy in most cases. But Michael New, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn writing this week for the conservative National Review Online, disagrees with Guttmacher — and most medical and public health associations and people with good functioning brains in their heads. New argues that contraception is not the real reason behind the decline. Instead, he believes that “pro-life efforts to change the hearts and minds of women facing crisis pregnancies” are driving the trend.
This is a funny thing. Not because it’s entirely off base to suggest that anti-choice efforts have had an impact on abortion rates — they likely have. (More on this later.) But it’s New’s framing that strikes me as particularly bizarre. The anti-choice movement has been wildly successful in recent years in its mission of eradicating legal abortion in the United States, but that success has crud to do with “changing hearts and minds.” To suggest otherwise is pretty much a dark joke. Anti-choice politicians have used restrictions on clinics, doctors and the procedure itself as blunt instruments to put abortion out of reach — both geographically and financially — for millions across the country. This isn’t gentle persuasion, this is a state agenda that forces pregnant people to carry to term whether or not they want to, or find ways to terminate pregnancies on their own.
And what of the protesters themselves? The people on the front lines of this “hearts and minds” movement? Bud and Tara Shaver drive around their neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a van featuring images that appear to be mangled fetuses. Operation Rescue sends high school students bused in from out of state to protest outside of a Holocaust museum and the confrontation becomes so heated that the place is forced to shut down for the afternoon. Others from the same organization have printed the names, photos and contact information of abortion providers and clinic escorts from across the country with the not at all subtle implication, “We know where you live and we know where you work.” Coming from a group that was affiliated with the man who murdered George Tiller, it’s impossible to ignore the subtext. Antiabortion protesters stand outside of clinics — and far from being “plump grandmas” asking for a quiet chat, these men and women physically obstruct and hurl vile insults at patients entering these facilities. Sometimes, they shoot people.
Is this the “hearts and minds” outreach that New seems so convinced is carrying the movement forward? I’m having a hard time sharing his rosy view.
But New is right about one thing, though not at the scale he imagines. Anti-choice laws are having an effect, even if organizations like Guttmacher have not yet been able to quantify it. But talk to any woman in Texas or an abortion provider in Mississippi and you know that these laws are having a chilling effect, or straight up putting the procedure out of reach for far too many women.
Cheryl Chastine, the medical director of South Wind Women’s Clinic, wears a bulletproof vest to work every day at her clinic in Wichita, Kansas. She’s received letters from anti-choice activists at her home and has lost jobs because of harassment from protesters at her private clinic. “It’s amazing what you get used to, honestly,” she recently told Salon. “And so much of this fades into the background, because every day, I get up and I do what I have to do. And so it’s only when I’m asked to sum it up that I look at it as a whole, and that I think I’ve been forced unnecessarily to make so many sacrifices.”
Laws and restrictions in states like Texas, Mississippi and Utah have made accessing the procedure virtually impossible for many women — particularly low-income women of color — but they have also created an atmosphere in which some believe that abortion has ceased to be legal altogether. Dr. Leah Torres, a provider based in Salt Lake City, recently told Salon that some of her patients travel distances of more than 500 miles to access basic medical care. “Women are traveling extreme distances to access basic care; they are missing days off work, which can mean the loss of a job,” she said. “These are very real situations. When women can’t see their local doctor to get this kind of care, it impacts the rest of their lives.”
This has more than just a practical impact. The consequences are cultural, too. “Several of my patients have said, ‘I can’t believe I can actually have this done,’” Torres added.
And here’s what clinic harassment — the domain of the “plump grandmas” — looks like up close:
New can ignore the positive impact of contraception all he wants (though Dreweke has done a great job of debunking these claims), but he should at least be honest about what these “pro-life” efforts actually do: threaten, intimidate and squash women’s constitutional rights. That’s not changing hearts and minds. That’s scaring people into submission.