Thursday, January 27, 2011

Safe, Legal, Free, and Rare

Last Saturday, Jan 22, marked the 35th Anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, in which the Supreme Court legalized abortion.  Every year the anniversary is marked with marches, pro and con, and the same arguments on either side.  The irony is that although abortion is legal, it is inaccessible for most women who need it either because of the cost or because no doctor or clinic in their community provides this service.  In the early days of working for abortion rights, feminists insisted that abortion be safe, legal and free.  Eventually we settled for “legal” only, dropping the demand for “free” and assuming that legal would insure “safe.”  In retrospect, as many feminists predicted, this was a major mistake, in large part because the power to determine what is legal remains primarily in the hands of men and the decision to have or not have an abortion is not something men will ever experience directly. 

What is a commons view of abortion?  To think this through requires stepping back to a larger view of health care, which of course, would be universal and would include a range of reproductive choices.  Excellent free pre-natal care, day care, maternity and paternity leave would insure that no one had an abortion simply because they could not afford to have a child.  Access to a range of birth control, along with a social norm that says sex between consenting adults is not only normal but even fun and joyful, would mean that people would not get pregnant unless they wanted to or in the rare occasion that birth control failed.  Abortion in the case of rape or incest would be the norm and no one would have to justify seeking an abortion under those circumstances.  In a commons society, abortion should be safe, legal, free and rare.

The above scenario seems so simple, but it requires not just universal health care, but a larger change in our society—to accept ourselves as sexual people free of guilt and shame over our sexuality and the fact that we are sexual—we have sex, we want to have sex, we enjoy sex.  When we can accept that, we will take appropriate precautions when we want to have heterosexual sex if we don’t want to become pregnant. 

The debate over abortion and birth control is complicated and multi-faceted.  The so-called “pro-life” forces are often anti-abortion but pro death penalty and rarely seen at demonstrations against war.  The so-called “pro-choice” forces have not done enough to address all the issues surrounding reproductive justice, which include making sure women don’t work in toxic environments that can cause miscarriage and infertility or making sure that women are not bribed or forced into birth control.  And both forces ought to join sides to call for universal health care, then debate all that would be offered under that rubric.  As it is now, the debate is about power over women, and who will have it.  When the debate becomes about the common good, we can really address the issue of abortion in an appropriate and larger context.  Until then, look for more anniversaries of “legal” and more notices of women dying of back alley abortions, or bearing children they have no social safety net to help them raise.   

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