Sometimes abortion is the better choice

Should the U.S. government really be in the business of encouraging women to have babies?

Published August 3, 2009 10:22AM (EDT)

This Feb. 4, 2009 file photo shows Rep. Rosa  DeLauro, D-Conn. during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Seeking elusive common ground on abortion, prominent activists and clergy on both sides of the debate are throwing their support behind a bill aimed at preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting pregnant women. The so-called Ryan-DeLauro bill _ first introduced in 2006 is being reintroduced Thursday, July 23, 2009 by Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
This Feb. 4, 2009 file photo shows Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Seeking elusive common ground on abortion, prominent activists and clergy on both sides of the debate are throwing their support behind a bill aimed at preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting pregnant women. The so-called Ryan-DeLauro bill _ first introduced in 2006 is being reintroduced Thursday, July 23, 2009 by Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

 The Chinese coerce abortions, bulldozing houses when the family violates the one-child policy and arresting lawyers who defend women. The Romanians used to coerce pregnancy and ended up with lots of developmentally challenged children in orphanages. Iran has swung both ways, forbidding abortion when it needed soldiers and legalizing it when the economy got tough. Such heavy-handed policies are unlikely in the U.S. Almost all of us probably agree that women should not be forced to have children or forced to have abortions, whether the goal is meeting military quotas or saving the planet or obeying someone else's moral code. It tramples human rights. But should we be applying any pressure at all in one direction or the other? Is a nudge too much? And if we should nudge, is nudging them toward pregnancy a good idea?

Do we really believe the conservative religious line that women who act "heroically" by continuing unintended or difficult pregnancies are somehow more moral than those who chose to abort? In the current rush to end the U.S. abortion war, some very pro-choice people are suggesting that a push toward pregnancy continuation is a reasonable response to high abortion rates. Take for example, Rep. Rosa DeLauro's remarks at the press conference introducing the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act in late July. DeLauro, D-Conn., strongly supports a woman's right to choose abortion and as strongly supports contraception as the best way to reduce the need for abortion. Common sense tells us that if you don't want to need an abortion, use contraception so you don't get pregnant. It might fail, but far less often than not using it will.

So far most of us are singing from the same hymnal. Americans overwhelmingly support family planning. But what's the right thing to do if you do get pregnant when you weren’t planning to have a baby? DeLauro wants us to "foster an environment that encourages pregnancies to be carried to term." Really? All pregnancies? Why? Is it always or almost always morally superior to bring a child into the world once conceived than to decide that it would be better that this potential person, at this time, under these circumstances should not come to be?

In its extreme application DeLauro's ideal would applaud Pope John Paul II's plea to Muslim women in Bosnia and Herzegovina who had been raped by Christians during the war. In a 1993 letter he called on the community to draw close to these raped and degraded women and "help them transform an act of violence into an act of love and welcome" by having their rapists' babies.

Of course this is not what DeLauro intends. Most likely she is simply attempting to find an uncontroversial area of common ground with those opposed to abortion. With the economic provisions of her bill, she is also looking for a level playing field in which women will not be forced to base their decision on whether a pregnancy should be continued or ended on not being able to afford bearing and raising a child.

We are, however, still decades away from having such a level playing field. We do not see children as the responsibility of the community and we don't provide much help to parents or their children. Middle-class parents face failing public schools and employers who won't pay for the kids' health insurance. Low-income parents, especially single women, find that Aid to Families With Dependent Children, food stamps and other government programs lead to hunger and even homelessness. DeLauro is working to provide additional benefits for pregnant women and for the first years of a child's life, but her bill provides a pittance against the cost of raising a child for 18 years. The Department of Agriculture estimates each child will cost a lower-income family just under $150,000. Yes, it probably sounds like a bargain for the professional families in New York, San Francisco and Chicago and the high-level government officials in D.C. who will pay that in private school tuition in the first eight years of school for each of their children, but if you make the $28,600 per year that the DOA estimates for a lower-income family, $150,000 for each child is a fortune

Eighteen percent of children already born and under 18 years of age currently live in poverty, and 8 million children, along with 12.5 million women of reproductive age, have no health insurance. Of the more than 6 million women who become pregnant each year, almost one in four are living below the poverty threshold; 13 percent are adolescents up to 19 years of age; and among those over 20, 16 percent don't have a high school diploma. Thirty percent are unmarried and not "cohabiting"; these women are on their own.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, "Birth defects affect about one in every 33 babies born in the U.S. each year." Some defects may be minor; others major, but most of these kids will require extra help. Ask educated, well-connected parents of disabled children how easy it is to get that help. 

It's outright obscene for a government that does as badly as ours in caring for children to even consider encouraging women to continue pregnancies. Benign neglect would be a less evil alternative. And, while encouraging women to have abortions is beyond the pale, we need to acknowledge that choosing abortion could be the most moral decision a woman can make.

But such things are not supposed to be said. Only unreconstructed racists and population control freaks, people who hate the poor and resent their sexuality, would possibly suggest that sometimes, perhaps many times, it is the morally best thing not to continue a pregnancy. If you are pro-choice, you also fear that such a statement will brand you as "pro-abortion" -- a bad thing. Good liberals don't want to seem like bad people, so they ignore the effect having children under horrible circumstances has on everyone's life and concentrate on changing social conditions, on making government more responsible. I'm all for responsible government, but I refuse to ask women to have children they can't care for, or who are likely to have seriously diminished lives, because some opponents of abortion think having children under any circumstances is the only moral option. I think we must refuse to paint the rosy pictures antiabortion religious leaders falsely put forward of how much help is out there if a woman will only have her baby.

So what do we say to the 22-year-old unemployed single woman sitting in the counseling room of the local Planned Parenthood who has just been told she is pregnant for the second time in two years? She may be one of the 50 percent of women with unintended pregnancies who was using contraception or one of the other half who weren't. It matters; but it is not determinative. However she got pregnant or however many times she's been pregnant, she now needs to make a moral decision about whether or not bringing a child into the world is a morally good thing. It is the future she needs to consider, not her past.

Do I wish she had thought about this before she had sex? Do I think she had a moral obligation to think about it and to do everything she could have to avoid becoming pregnant if she was not ready or able to create a new and vulnerable, dependent human being? You bet. I might even be disgusted that she seems cavalier or sympathetic because she has low self-esteem and seems very confused about life. And being poor and ignorant and living in a country that doesn't care that you are both doesn't eliminate personal responsibility or moral agency. Somewhere along the line it would be helpful if feminists acknowledged that far too many women (and men) are irresponsible when it comes to sex and pregnancy. If we want to say that women can be trusted to make good decisions about reproduction, then we need to demand of each other that we make good decisions about not becoming pregnant.

But once she is pregnant, whatever putative personal failings contributed to that pregnancy are moot. There is a new moral decision to be made; is it a responsible act to carry the pregnancy to term?

Poor people can be responsible; even 16-year-old boys and girls can rise to the occasion and be good parents. On the other hand, financially well-off and well-educated parents can abuse and neglect their children.

Unwanted pregnancies can become wanted children and abused children can become successful, compassionate adults.

Every pregnancy has possibilities but there are also realities. More often than not, potential parents who are seriously ill-equipped for parenthood can't or don't do a good job. They may decide to become parents anyway, and that is their decision to make, not ours. But it is not our place to encourage them, either. They need the cold hard facts about all options including how tough raising kids is and how little help they will get if they do choose to become parents. If we care about women and children, our policy proposals will be focused on what's best for them and not on what makes us look good or achieves a cease-fire in the abortion wars. 

By Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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Abortion Birth Control