Don’t give a woman the freedom to choose, because if you do she might just make the wrong choice.
Or so goes the reasoning of the majority opinion in the April 18 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Gonzales v. Carhart which upheld the 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey affirmed a woman’s right to choose, and previous Courts have allowed the State to regulate but not ban pre-viability abortion procedures. But the current Court, spearheaded by religious conservatives such as Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, is the first to allow an outright ban on late-term abortion by intact dilation and extraction, finding that there are some choices that just cannot be made available. Now women are denied a procedure that, in some cases, has been the best medical option available to them, simply because politicians in Washington, DC find it too gruesome.
Partial-birth abortions are usually performed in the second trimester (sometimes pre-viability and sometimes post-), often to abort a fetus that has a severe developmental disorder such as Down syndrome. The procedure entails partially delivering a fetus and evacuating the contents of the skull through a vacuum inserted into its base, which many people, understandably, find objectionable. However, the procedure has been performed in a tiny fraction of all abortions and many doctors consider it to be the safest option for the mother in certain situations, as it decreases the risk damaging the cervix or uterus and may be safer for some women who have certain medical conditions, such as heart disease.
Congress banned the procedure four years ago, arguing that a partial-birth abortion “is a gruesome and inhumane procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited” and that choosing not to would “further coarsen society to the humanity of not only newborns, but all vulnerable and innocent human life, making it increasingly difficult to protect such life.”
But apparently protecting life doesn’t extend to the health of women who have to make such difficult decisions.
The Supreme Court found that upholding the ban didn’t unduly interfere with a woman’s right to choose because other late-term abortion procedures are available, and it ruled that Congress was within its right to ban procedures that disturbed the moral conscience of society. But in the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court made two creepily paternalistic arguments to bolster this decision, both of which seem to assume an essentialist vision of motherhood. First, Kennedy wrote:
- Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child. Whether to have an abortion requires a difficult and painful moral decision . . . it seems unexceptional to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.
Thus, the government should protect all women from making a decision that some may regret. Given the nature of motherhood, the implication goes, isn’t it inevitable that women would–and should–regret having an abortion?
Kennedy went on to write:
In a decision so fraught with emotional consequence, some doctors may prefer not to disclose precise details of the abortion procedure to be used. It is, however, precisely this lack of information that is of legitimate concern to the State. The State’s interest in respect for life is advanced by the dialogue that better informs the political and legal systems, the medical profession, expectant mothers, and society as a whole of the consequences that follow from a decision to elect a late-term abortion.
In other words, not enough information is available to women to help them make the “right” choice. Beyond the notion of options, the judgment points to an opinion that no woman should want or need to get a partial-birth abortion, regardless of her individual circumstances, because to do so would go against her very nature.
It is certainly true that some women may come to regret the decision to abort at any stage of the pregnancy. It’s also true that if some women had more information about the nature of the procedure they might elect for a different option. As the Court acknowledged, the decision to get an abortion is never an easy one and the emotional consequences may be vast. But to assume, as this Court seems to and as others in the pro-life movement have asserted, that there is a “right” choice for women in general–one dictated by an innate female nature–is simply wrong.
The fact remains that not all women will react the same in a situation, nor face the same circumstances. For some a partial-birth abortion is simply the best option. And some women may understandably want to be spared the grim details of how that procedure is performed (although that information should always be available). But only the individual woman can know what is best for her; any choice she makes will be deeply personal, rather than a politician’s ridiculous test of her womanhood.
And remember–just because a woman decides she isn’t ready for motherhood at a given time doesn’t mean she won’t be quite ready and quite able for it later, that is unless her reproductive system is damaged either during a forced childbirth or–in the reality that some would choose–during a botched illegal abortion that leaves her unable to have the child she now wants.
It’s time to get real. As a society we need to not only respect the ultimate choices women make, but understand and respect the necessity of allowing individual women to make those choices in the first place. Because when it comes to a woman’s health and her own unique set of circumstances, there can be no such thing as one-size-(or one nature)-fits-all policy.