"Timeouts" for grown women

Abortion "counseling" and waiting periods have no effect, other than to delay healthcare.

By Lynn Harris
Published May 13, 2009 3:04PM (EDT)

Twenty-four states currently have laws requiring women to receive counseling (or, more accurately, "counseling") and then wait, usually for 24 hours, before they can obtain an abortion. Basically, it amounts to giving grown women a timeout -- and, according to a new analysis of existing research (PDF)  by the Guttmacher Institute, it has next to no effect at all. Except this: "Mandatory counseling and waiting period laws that require an additional in-person visit before the procedure likely increase both the personal and the financial costs of obtaining an abortion, thereby preventing some women from accessing abortion services."

Previous research has confirmed, unsurprisingly, that women -- often having found trusted counselors of their own -- have usually decided to go through with the procedure before they call to make their appointment. So mandated, scripted in-person "counseling" is, at best, an exercise mainly in shame and burdensome logistics (time off work, child care, travel to distant clinic, sometimes with elaborate alibi). Guttmacher: "While it is important to ensure that women have the information they need to make an informed decision, the evidence suggests that mandated counseling serves only to delay women's access to a procedure they have already chosen, rather than to inform their decision making."

Several studies of the counseling law in Mississippi, revisited in this paper, found a resulting decline in the state's abortion rates, yes -- but also an increase in out-of-state and second-trimester procedures. "In other words, some women had to travel greater distances, and as a result, they decided not to have the procedure or to have it later in pregnancy, when the procedure is less safe and more expensive," said lead author Thomas Joyce.

These restrictions are sold to lawmakers and voters wrapped in the sheep's clothing of "informed consent." But their goal -- at best -- is to "reinforce the myth that abortion is a decision that women take lightly," as Kelli Conlin, president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, points out at HuffPo. Bottom line, "These laws are intended primarily to block abortion access," says Guttmacher co-author Lawrence Finer, adding that "the most disadvantaged women, who already have trouble accessing services, are disproportionately affected."

So these laws fail on their face, and yet they don't. Do they change women’s minds? No. Measurably decrease abortion? No. Gum up the works? Yes. That, in a way, is the most epic fail here of all: the amount of time and resources and energy spent to establish, administer -- and circumvent -- these spurious, fatuous laws. All of which could otherwise be spent, call me crazy, taking care of living, breathing women and children.

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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