In July of 2015, an organization calling itself the Center for Medical Progress released a video that purported to show a high-ranking executive at Planned Parenthood arranging to sell the body parts of aborted fetuses. The video was later proven to be highly edited and intentionally misleading, but the image of ripped apart babies and profiteering doctors took hold and the damage was done.
In the wake of this video, new cries went out to defund Planned Parenthood. Politicians introduced bills and pandered to their conservative constituents while anti-choice supporters shouted about the rights of the unborn and the evilness of abortion providers.
Soon after, those on the pro-choice side of the debate started shouting back:
Save Planned Parenthood because they provide cancer screenings!
Save Planned Parenthood because they provide STI testing!
Save Planned Parenthood because they provide low-cost contraception!
Save Planned Parenthood because providing safe and legal abortions is only three percent of what they do!
Suddenly, that three percent statistic was everywhere as people rallied behind an idea that allowed them to support Planned Parenthood without all of that pro-choice baggage. In response, several anti-choice groups have been putting out a different statistic, claiming that abortion is actually 94 percent of what Planned parenthood does. The statistic is misleading at best and a blatant lie at worse, but what if they are right? What if abortion services are much more than three percent of Planned Parenthood’s services? Would that matter?
The answer is no, because abortion is legal, and limiting access to abortion is detrimental to both women and the larger society.
I get it. Planned Parenthood and other providers of abortion are under attack, and the easiest way to deflect that attack is to take away the main target. It is hard for people to actively fight against cancer screenings, so maybe, just maybe, if we convince people that this small number of abortions really aren’t important enough to bother with, they will let us go about the business of improving lives. The problem is that this particular rallying cry has the potential to do more harm than good. In our effort to make Planned Parenthood seem less offensive, we legitimize the idea that abortion is wrong and further stigmatize a very necessary social service , thereby making it harder for that service to reach the women who need it most.
History has proven that when women do not have access to legal abortion they will find alternatives, and positive consequences resulting from those alternatives are far from guaranteed. If a woman cannot terminate her pregnancy safely, she is forced to choose between raising a child that she is not fully prepared to care for, the health and emotional risks of carrying a child to term and giving that child up, or finding a way to terminate the pregnancy herself.
Before the Supreme Court decided on Roe v. Wade in 1973, many women took the chance on the third option and suffered serious consequences. Dr. Daniel Mishell professor and chairman of the ob-gyn department at the Keck School of Medicine at USC was one of the doctors tasked with helping women who inserted everything from coat hangers and knitting needles to chemicals such as radiator flush into their uteruses in their desperation:
“I’m telling you, it was really an awful situation. It touched me because I’d see young, [otherwise] healthy women in their 20s die from the consequences of an infected non-sterile abortion. Women would do anything to get rid of unwanted pregnancies. They’d risk their lives.”
The stories of back-alley abortions gone wrong in the days before Roe v. Wade are numerous and heartbreaking, but they are also a warning of what could happen if we allow our country to take the huge step backward that some members of both state and national legislatures are attempting.
In the last few years there has been a major, but relatively quiet, push to restrict access to abortion. The Guttmacher Institute reports that as of January 1, 2016, “24 states have laws or policies that regulate abortion providers and go beyond what is necessary to ensure patients’ safety.” These policies range from specifying the size of examination rooms to requiring the centers be within a certain distance from local hospitals, despite the fact that first-trimester abortion is one of the safest medical procedures. The sole purpose of these regulations is to make it harder to get an abortion, and they are working.
In Texas, for example, a law that led to the closing of half of the abortion clinics in the state, also led to increased waiting times, increased traveling, and increased costs, all of which can severely hinder, or, in some cases, eliminate, access to safe, legal abortion. The women left without access may, like their predecessors, find other, more dangerous options.
It does not matter if abortion is three percent or 30 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services; here is what does matter:
- Half of pregnancies among American women are unintended.
- Four-in-10 unwanted pregnancies are terminated by abortion.
- 69 percent of women who have abortions are economically disadvantaged.
- The proportion of women living in abortion restrictive states rose to 56 percent in 2013.
All of the services provided by Planned Parenthood are vital for women’s health, and what matters is that the women who want to terminate a pregnancy have access to a safe place to do so. It is wonderful that so many stood up to support Planned Parenthood as it faced its attackers, but if that support comes at the cost of demonizing safe, legal abortion, what have we really won?Image Credits: Charlotte Cooper