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What If? – Obama, Abortion, and the Debate

October 17, 2008

This is a long post, so bear with me, but it’s just a little thought exercise about our assumptions about abortion and the women seeking them.

At Tuesday night’s final Presidential debate, Obama again made a statement that some reproductive rights supporters and feminists have objected to throughout the course of the campaign, for understandable reasons, regarding abortion: “But what ultimately I believe is that women in consultation with their families, their doctors, their religious advisers, are in the best position to make this decision.” See discussion at Shakesville for some example commentary.

Obama has previously stated that the abortion decision is made between a woman, her doctor, her family, and her pastor, as he said at an April 2008 forum:

“Those of us, like myself, who believe that in this difficult situation it is a woman’s responsibility and choice to make in consultation with her doctor and her pastor and her family.”

The objection to these statements is that it is a woman who plays host to a fetus, her body and life that is primarily affected by the consequences of pregnancy, and ultimately abortion is a woman’s decision alone to make. Just as families, doctors, and pastors shouldn’t force women to have abortions, it’s not their place to force them not to have them, and the affected woman bears the responsibility for the decision.

I can certainly agree with this objection, but want to think about the assumption that Obama means that a woman cannot make the decision alone. What if we applied a different frame to the statement and assume that Obama is reflecting what really happens when a woman is faced with an unplanned pregnancy? I want to make it very clear that I am not claiming that this is Obama’s intent, but am simply imagining a scenario in which women feel free to talk about their choices and in which we acknowledge that some women do seek consultation with others in making this choice.

In other words, what if, rather than our collective stereotype of abortion-seeking women as consisting solely of only young, childless, single, irresponsible girls, we acknowledged that, although unmarried women have a higher rate of abortion, nearly 20% of the women obtaining abortions each year are married.* What if we acknowledged that 60% of women obtaining an abortion in a given year are already mothers? That for the most recent set of stats, the abortion rate was highest for women who had three previous live births and lowest for those who had one previous live birth?

Some of these women may very well be making choices in consultation with their families, and many are making their choice based on how it will affect their existing family. They are also required to speak to a healthcare provider to obtain the procedure, thus having consultation with a physician (and indeed, clinics such as Planned Parenthood go to great lengths to make sure women are sure of their decisions). We talk about reducing the shame and stigma around abortion by increasing women’s ability to talk about the subject and acknowledge it, but we automatically assume that the Obama quote means that women must make these decisions in consultation with others, rather than assuming that many women do make these decisions in consultation with others.

What if we acknowledged that the women seeking abortions are not wily women doing something furtive, but women who are making the best legal choices they can for themselves in their situations, and that those situations often include spouses, partners, and existing children?

Likewise, in a sample of women seeking abortion in 2000/2001**, only 22% reported no religious affiliation – 43% said they were Protestant (including 13% who called themselves “born again” or evangelical) and 27% said they were Catholic. As such, we know that the stereotype of the abortion-seeker as anti-religious or not informed as to what some religious leaders would have to say about the issue is incorrect – many women seeking abortion are religious, even actively so. Even some of those who publicly protest or denounce abortion for religious reasons obtain the procedure, as observed by clinic workers.

In no way do I think that religion should be the ultimate arbiter of whether abortion is available or legal according to the government, or that religious leaders should be able to force their own views onto individual women. However, I don’t think we’re being honest if we don’t challenge the stereotype that no women seeking abortion have taken into consideration their personal spiritual beliefs (and perhaps those of their religious leaders), or that religious women are not among those obtaining abortions.

Again, I want to reinforce that I don’t agree with Obama 100% on everything he’s ever said about abortion (although I agree much less with McCain), and I don’t claim to know his intent with these statements about the decision-making process. I also believe that the affected woman is the ultimate decision-maker on this issue, and support her right to choose. Thinking it through, though, I wonder if our interpretation of his words as meaning that women should decide in consultation with families and others – rather than reflecting the reality that many women do – says something about us as much as it does about him.

Note: Along these lines, RH Reality Check published an essay from the book Choice, which looks at the reality of various ways and reasons women make reproductive decisions. Susan Ito’s piece here is a powerful example of how our cultural assumptions about women obtaining abortions can be very, very wrong.

*All data from CDC reports unless otherwise noted.
**Rachel K Jones, Jacqueline E Darroch, Stanley K Henshaw. Patterns in the socioeconomic characteristics of women obtaining abortions in 2000-2001. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. New York: Sep/Oct 2002. Vol. 34, Iss. 5; pg. 226, 10 pgs.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Jesse permalink
    October 17, 2008 10:11 am

    Based on Obama’s general collective view on all other matters, I would assume his position with this issue is no different. People are not entitled to make decisions for themselves in Obama’s world.

  2. Jesse permalink
    October 17, 2008 10:33 am

    i understand my take is different than the point you make but I don’t think my perspective is that out of line with your interpretation and suggestion.

    The message of abortion as a choice is tough to do when running for office and the words Obama uses to convey his position is important for those who align with that idea. Therefore, fine-tuning the language is critical. I agree.

    I just wanted to point out that his underlying appproach to governance is the reason for the language he uses.

    Can you point to any posts/links that are specific the question of “Where life begins?” It concerns me that some, such as Obama, can’t answer this question with any sense of certainty. It makes sense to me that Life begins at conception. All other points in time of pregnancy seem arbitrary in comparison and that state of confusion is not conducive to discussions of law.


  3. MomTFH permalink
    October 17, 2008 1:02 pm

    Jesse, I am confused. First of all, I don’t agree that there is anything in Obama’s platform or speeches that indicates that he is against free will or people making choices. I think this kind of extremist accusation is so out of touch with reality that you will have a hard time having discussions with people if this is how you start conversations.

    Secondly, the beginning of a pregnancy is at implantation. This is a commonly accepted medical definition and is not controversial. Any major medical group in this country defines it as such.

    The beginning of life is at birth. This is also not controversial in medical or legal circles in the United States. Women do not have to get death certificates for miscarriages. Women who exercise heavily or drink lots of caffeine are not charged with murder when they have heavy periods. Police to not come and go through their biological garbage to do autopsies on their blood clots. I am in medical school, and my reproductive physiology teacher stated in class that about 1% of fertilized eggs implant. So, 99% of them pass. Depending on how you look at the world, this is either God’s plan or nature’s plan. These are not deaths of humans. This line of argument is seriously ridiculous.

    Termination of pregnancy is the most common surgical procedure in this country. 40% of women in the United States of reproductive age have an abortion at some point. It is not illegal in any state, like murder obviously is. Only a small minority of people think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, and even most of those people don’t think that women who get abortions or their doctors should be charged as murderers and put in jail. Your opinion is very extreme, you must realize that, based on these facts.

    Your ideological definition of life is irrelevant, nationally, since it would be extreme and contradictory to the current, accepted medical and legal definitions. It is relevant in your own life and actions, which is where personal ideologies matter.

  4. Jesse permalink
    October 17, 2008 1:48 pm

    thanx for the response.

    well, you say you don’t understand what i am saying and then claim that i have an extremist position. i claim that makes no sense. so we can skip over this part for now. although it “is relevant in your own life and actions, which is where personal ideologies matter.”

    maybe we can pick this one up later.

    on the subject of the post and your response:

    if life begins at birth… then what happens if a baby (or whatever your term is for an ‘unborn’ child) has complications and “dies” (“The beginning of life is at birth”) while one is seeing a doctor. can the doctor be held responsible for this loss of…. “life”? (whatever term you use for an ‘unborn’ child)

  5. October 17, 2008 1:52 pm

    When reproductive rights advocates are eager to define abortion as a medical issue, I think it makes perfect sense to imply that a non-medically-trained woman wouldn’t be qualified to decide whether to seek abortion on her own. Unfortunately, this introduces a route in for the “But if you have an abortion you’ll get breast cancer and a mental illness,” lie, and you get people’s ideologically-influenced opinions on science being pitted against each other, and it devolves into the “is not!” “Is too!” argument that we see with global warming. Fortunately, the Constitution defines the right to abortion as one of privacy, and not just a right to medical care.

  6. MomTFH permalink
    October 17, 2008 3:01 pm

    Oh no, Jesse, I never said I didn’t understand what you were saying. I said I was confused as to where you would get such an idea about Obama, first of all, and secondly why you would choose to share it on this particular blog. I am sorry if that was not clear.

    It is extremist and insulting to say the candidate who the vast majority of support from your fellow citizens is running a campaign in which he says he is against people making choices in their lives. Are you seriously saying he is campaigning to be our puppet master and that we will be calling him for orders? That is what it sounds like you are saying, and it is ridiculous and insulting to his supporters, which include major newspapers, politicians, and many prominent groups and individuals who would be surprised to be told they are supporting someone who has been clear all along he is some sort of insane fascist who will control our every move. Read over your first reply and let me know if that is not what you are saying, because I can’t see any other way to interpret it. I understand it just fine, it’s just a totally bizarre and incorrect description of the leading candidate for president’s campaign.

    My term for blastosphere, embryo, fetus depends on the appropriate medical term for the gestational age of the pregnancy. If a doctor unfortunately does not care well for a woman’s pregnancy, that doctor is liable for malpractice for the outcome of the pregnancy in civil court. The doctor is not arrested for murder and tried in criminal court. Good point!

  7. Jesse permalink
    October 17, 2008 5:18 pm

    i brought it up because the author mentioned the “interpretation of his words” which are very important when discussing policy and the appeal to voters.

    i did say “People are not entitled to make decisions for themselves in Obama’s world.”

    this is a longer and deeper discussion that is not part of the authors intention. i am sorry for bringing it up. the reason i wrote this was due to the context in which the comment was made (a debate on governance).

    i did not intend to have this discussion here though it is a valid concern to have in light of the conditions the american public is faced with today.

    this statement is not sufficient:
    “major newspapers, politicians, and many prominent groups and individuals who would be surprised to be told they are supporting someone who has been clear all along he is some sort of insane fascist who will control our every move.”

    there are many instances in history that prove this is an invalid argument. just because a politician says things doesn’t make it so.
    his actions speak louder than words.

    so, back to the issue. i do have my own views in the debate on abortion and am just curious what the various arguments are. it is a devisive issue and way too politicized. i am sympathetic to both “sides” of the debate and i see no political solution except to leave it to the most local level possible and get the federal government out of it. the presidents should not be spending time on this. it is outside of their authority from what i can tell.

  8. October 17, 2008 6:57 pm

    Hilary, thank you for your comments. Jesse, you too – I think you’re trying, although I disagree with the kind of over-generalization that says that people won’t be allowed to decide anything for themselves under an Obama administration. You very specifically did say, “People are not entitled to make decisions for themselves in Obama’s world.” It’s right up there.

    It may “make sense” to you that “life begins at conception,” but as Hilary points out, this is not the standard. Conception is not detectable. Under that standard, almost every sexually active woman would be counted as having numerous miscarriages over a lifetime. Every time a woman menstruated, it would be a question of whether she had just expelled a “life.” Until and unless implantation occurs, there is no chance of creating an eventually independent life. And then we still have ~40 weeks to get through with both woman and fetus alive and healthy, which is not at all a given.

    You say “leave it to the most local level possible” – I say, “The most local level possible is a woman’s body.”

  9. Jesse permalink
    October 18, 2008 6:05 pm

    please define ‘conception’.

    also, on the idea of having a right to choose, what other issues can we apply this to?

    i think we can and should apply this to so many other areas of life.

    “the kind of over-generalization that says that people won’t be allowed to decide anything for themselves”

    again i point to the language they (the candidates) use.

    i still claim the evidence is in my favor. this is off topic, but i suppose i could ask a question here. what is the job of the president?

  10. MomTFH permalink
    October 19, 2008 2:45 pm

    Jesse, I would love examples of “the candidates” (you said Obama previously) language that implies that he is against people making choices in their lives. The evidence is not in your favor if you have yet to produce any.

    I don’t know why you want us to define conception for you, since it is part of YOUR definition of life, not ours, but conception is the successful joining of an egg and sperm. Most of the time it happens without the creation of a new human life, which would REQUIRE successful implantation, pregnancy and birth. Again, no evidence on your part, just many assertions that both Rachel and I have successfully countered. Just saying you are right isn’t enough.

    As for other areas in life that we can apply the concept of choice to, how about the choice of the gender of a marriage or sexual partner? How about the choice to teach the truth about contraception in public schools? How about the choice to be on birth control and have it covered by your insurance? How about the choice to be on a private phone call without the NSA eavesdropping on you? How about the choice of legally protesting at or outside a presidential or campaign event? How about choosing a doctor or dentist for your children even if you are poor?

  11. Jesse permalink
    October 19, 2008 3:54 pm

    “I don’t know why you want us to define conception for you, since it is part of YOUR definition of life”

    i ask because you claim to know what you are talking about. what is the scientific definition of conception?

    i said it makes sense to me that life would begin at conception, and i add… especially in contrast to life “beginning at birth”. that to me just seems absurd. how you can say that a baby is not alive until actual birth. that’s just a contradiction if not outright denial. obviously not all babies are born alive or healthy. that’s just life as they say. this does not mean that one would not care for the baby. the baby is alive and needs nourishment to survive. if you don’t treat yourself well then you may kill the baby or harm the health thereof. i don’t see how that is disputable.

    which is why i am curious about the timetables we are identifying.
    so fine, pregnancy requires implantation. when does this occur?

    “the beginning of a pregnancy is at implantation”
    “my reproductive physiology teacher stated in class that about 1% of fertilized eggs implant. So, 99% of them pass”

    are you saying that %99 of the time a woman finds out she is pregnant it is unsuccessful? if not, what is the success rate?

    on a personal level i would define conception (which i did not do in my first comment) as the moment that one understands that they are pregnant. that is the moment when these types of choices will be made.

    again, i have not laid claim to any particular or actual political or personal choices in this matter. it no ones business but my own. its a private matter.

    i repeat what i stated above: “i am just curious what the various arguments are.” “i am sympathetic to both “sides” of the debate and i see no political solution except to leave it to the most local level possible”

    with regards to our off-topic comments about the job of the presidency, all i ask is that you listen carefully. there is evidence. in fact, as you note above, this concern for freedom is not unfounded and there are plenty of examples to draw from. you have your set of issues and i have mine.

  12. October 20, 2008 11:15 am

    To get back to Rachel’s post, I really didn’t hear Obama’s phrasing on the question as prescriptive. I didn’t take it as 100% descriptive, either; I see it as bit of reframing. It rejects prima facie the trope that women who choose abortion are irresponsible sluts. As such, I like it.

  13. Teri permalink
    October 20, 2008 7:43 pm

    You are discussing (at least) two separate issues. One is political/social/legal, the other medicinal/biological/scientific.

    In the first case, I am not sure how it matters much what the candidates views are, the are only presidents to be, not dictators to be. For the pro-choice camp, the worse case scenario is a vocal anti-abortion platform. The president does not make law, he merely signs or vetoes it. The largest risk (presidentially speaking) to abortion ‘rights’ comes from the makeup of the supreme court. It i easily feasable that the next president could appoint 3 supreme court justices.

    If those justices were strict constructionists, and if a case came to them which Roe V Wade addressed, the Roe V Wade could be overturned. Whether you like Roe V Wade or not, it is sloppy law, and likely constructionist judges would overturn it. However, that merely returns the right to decide such matters of law, to the individual states. Most states would probably allow abortions, travel is not difficult, and there are other abotifacient means besides surgery. Most women, therefore, could elect to terminate a pregnancy even in this worse case scenario.

    The point was made that no death certificates are required for miscarriages etc. However, charges of murder have been filed in cases where a fetus was lost during the commision of a crime, and convictions obtained. Therefore, the personhood of the fetus, has ben established in some cases. What this amounts to is, if the pregnant woman initiates the termination of her unborn child, it is not murder, but if someone else does, it is. The woman decideds if it is a crime or not.

    From a biological standpoint, one can scarcely see how a collection of cells, with it’s own blood type, metabolism, and unique genetic structure and DNA, could be anything but life. It has all the properties of life, the genetics and DNA are human, and this life is distinct from it’s host (the mother). Humans in their early stages a parasites, biologically, but they are still life, still distinc, and still human.

    Personhood, however, is a legal descriptor. Do pre-born humans have rights under the constitution is the real question there.

    While I am against abortions in most cases, I have a lot of respect for those women who are honest and brave enough to say:

    Yes, it is alive, it is human, it is my unborn child, and I want the right to decide whether it lives or dies. That at least, is honest. So far, I have only met one such woman, who was honest and brave enough to understand what is at stake, and it was refreshing to not have to dance around smokescreen arguments and phony definitions.

  14. Jesse permalink
    October 21, 2008 1:49 am

    thank you terri.

    and that is exactly the issue that we were having difficulty with, mostly due to ill-use of language and my lack of knowledge in this area.

    obviously it makes no sense to subsidize irresponsible behavior. likewise it is tyrannical to outlaw such controversial issues.

    with regard to the presidency, you did well to apply such powers to this specific issue, but i think the comments made were in broader context.

  15. October 21, 2008 8:35 am

    Teri, I think what you may be missing is that most pro-choice people do not dispute that a fetus is “alive” or “a life.” Where we disagree is whether that life, with the potential of developing into an independent human life automatically trumps the existing independent human life it is drawing from for sustenance in the pregnant woman. As a woman, I want the final say, and I have yet to run into any pro-choice people who think a fetus is a rock or some other inert material. Again, you’re talking in stereotypes.

    If “most states would allow abortions,” I suggest you look into the trigger laws a number of states have already enacted to essentially state that no protection is guaranteed should Roe v Wade be overturned.

    I find it interesting that neither of you have actually addressed the main thrust of the post, which is acknowledging the realities of the situations of women who choose abortion, rather than stereotyping these women, as you have done Teri by assuming that what you say you would respect is not exactly what we’re saying.

  16. Jesse permalink
    October 21, 2008 11:27 am

    teri was responding to me specifically it seemed,

    “acknowledging the realities of the situations of women who choose abortion”

    right, i think this is very important.
    most often it seems, the reasons are social in nature, not medical.

    the reasons for having an abortion are very important. i think this is why there is so much opposition. life is all we have. so this issue takes center stage as a single issue for many people.

    those opposed want to ensure that responsibility for and in life is not thrown away.

    those who are in favor of choice take their position for the same reason. and that is another respectable position.

    hence, politics is not the answer. there is no answer. all we can do is protect life as best we can. this means acknowledging that a a baby does not have to be born to be alive. it means taking responsibility for our actions to prevent as well as to accept.

    i am very wary of both sides of the debate because the ends do not justify the means.

  17. October 21, 2008 12:00 pm

    Jesse, I’m not going to take any more comments on this post that are not specifically in regards to the premise of the original post. I think you’ve made yourself as clear as it possible for you to do.

  18. Susanna permalink
    October 21, 2008 4:14 pm

    Going back to the original question, I think Rachel is reading too much into what Barack was saying. He was simply a politician cornered into telling his opinion on a very controversial issue. I think he was trying to pander to both sides.

    Probably Barack would prefer to allow women to have abortions at will, maybe he does feel they should not make the decision alone, but I don’t think he would put up a fight for women’s abortion rights if a greater good (in his mind) was endangered, whatever that might be. There is the sort of danger of abortion rights being chipped away under his presidency there would not have been if Clinton had become President. But I’m putting the cart ahead of the ox.

    In Britain they are getting rid of the need for a woman to ask permission from two physicians before having an abortion. They say it is paternalistic and insulting. Good for them!

    As to Jesse, I wish these people realized how wholly natural and common early miscarriages are. The body itself is aborting the embryo. If abortions are so evil, why is God performing them?

  19. Jesse permalink
    October 21, 2008 5:13 pm

    “Thinking it through, though, I wonder if our interpretation of his words as meaning that women should decide in consultation with families and others – rather than reflecting the reality that many women do – says something about us as much as it does about him”

    I think it says more about you all. It’s none of Obama’s business, just as it is none of mine.


  20. October 22, 2008 4:01 pm

    I just wanted to clarify some terminology that another poster has repeatedly confused:

    99% of fertilized eggs pass without implanting. A woman does not know she is pregnant until the blastosphere implants, which occurs at least 8 days after fertilization. Then her body is connected to the blastosphere, which begins burrowing into her uterus and the placental connection is formed. This point is referred to as implantation, not conception. Conception is fertilization.

    The implantation process causes human chorionic gonadotropin to be released. Progesterone is also elevated by this. Only know is a woman pregnant, and at this point she would begin to get a positive result on a pregnancy test, and may start feeling symptoms of pregnancy like nausea and breast tenderness.

    This implantation process is dependent on a slew of factors, and is not very successful. Even considering this, an estimate 50% of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. After this point, it is estimated that 30% of pregnancies terminate spontaneously (i.e. miscarry) in the first trimester.

    And, thus ends the women’s physiology lesson for the day. And I hope it is clear to everybody that this pro choice woman doesn’t think it’s just a random bunch of cells. Arguments about what “life” means on a blog doesn’t change the fact that legal abortion and access to birth control save lives, and if life is sacred, no matter how we define it, being pro choice is also being pro “life”.

  21. Susanna permalink
    November 12, 2008 12:43 am

    Hilary, are you sure your figures are correct? 99%? There’s only one egg per month, so it would take more than 8 years to have even an implantation…


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