What If? – Obama, Abortion, and the Debate
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.