Anti-abortion protesters line the sidewalk outside the Dr. Emily Women's Health in Bronx, New York. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg
Last week researchers at the Guttmacher Institute revealed that abortions had decreased in the US by a rate of 13 per cent from 2008-2011. This puts abortion at its lowest level since 1973, the year Roe v Wade legalised it.
It must be noted that this decrease is not a result of the recent abortion restrictions introduced in many states. There were 205 state-level regulations introduced from 2011-2013 which, the study's authors were careful to note, came into effect after the period of the study.
Nor was the decline a result of more women deciding to maintain their pregnancy due any moral aversion to abortion as championed by pro-life organisations: "Rather, the decline in abortions coincided with a steep national drop in overall pregnancy and birth rates. Contraceptive use improved during this period.”
But that didn't stop pro-life groups, including the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) from claiming that their tactics were making women see the “tragedy” of abortion: “That abortion rates and numbers continue to decline is heartening because it shows that women are rejecting the idea of abortion as the answer to an unexpected pregnancy… This latest report from Guttmacher shows the long-term efforts of the right-to-life movement to educate the country about the humanity of the unborn child and to enact laws that help children and their mothers are having a tremendous impact.”
It's not surprising that the NRLC would attempt to contradict Guttmacher on the findings of its own study. After all, the entire worldview of the pro-life movement hinges on women accepting their traditional and primary role as mother.
In imposing this worldview on women, pro-lifers assume – or pretend to - that women have been blindsided by feminism and only have abortions because they don't really know what an abortion entails. Hence the laws forcing women to have ultrasounds and listen to lectures by doctors about the "separate unique individual" they carry in their uterus. The idea being, of course, that as soon as the woman knows “the truth” her maternal instinct will kick in immediately.
As insulting to women as this is, the idea that pregnant women will simply stop having abortions if they are harder to access is the far more dangerous one. History has shown, time and again, that women will still require and seek abortions, whether they are legal or not.
The latest proof of this is taking place in Texas where the recent restrictions on abortion have forced most of the state's abortion providers to close their doors. This has left many Texan women with the prospect of a return trip of up to 800 kilometres to the nearest abortion clinic. The logistics and expenses involved in such a trip is out of the question for many low-income women.
However, this has not stopped women from seeking other alternatives.
According to this story in New Republic, some doctors who performed abortions before the restrictions are now informing pregnant women that, although they can't legally perform abortions, they can – and will - help any woman who arrives at their clinic bleeding from a miscarriage.
It is known as “miscarriage management” and New Republic calls it “the next front in the abortion wars”.
While doctors can't flat-out advise women to end their pregnancy, they can tell them which drugs, such as Misoprostol, induce miscarriages. The drugs are prescription-only in the US but sold freely over the counter in Mexico. And so, more and more Texan women are either crossing the border or picking up the drugs in local flea markets.
One doctor, Lester Minto, claims to have seen more than 200 patients since late October, with about half of them returning to “resolve miscarriages”.
Those who are quick to judge doctors such as Minto should be aware that “miscarriage management” is actually nothing new. Before Roe v Wade, doctors, who couldn't legally perform abortions, often advised women to use sharp objects or visit a back-alley abortionist before returning to seek medical help. Once a woman turned up bleeding, doctors were legally permitted to treat her.
This of course, came with a slew of risks that left many women injured, unable to have more children, or dead. Likewise, Misoprostol and other self-inducing drugs are not risk-free. There is a danger, for example, that they will not empty all the contents of the uterus, leading to infection. This means women must seek medical help, whether they have taken the drug after seeing a doctor or self-administered without medical consultation.
Seeking medical help is not yet an issue in Texas, where a woman cannot be prosecuted for self-inducing miscarriage. In Ireland, however, where abortion is illegal in almost all cases, women who need medical attention after miscarrying must convince medical staff they miscarried naturally, or face prosecution.
Despite these risks, thousands of Irish women are turning to websites that sell Misoprostol at a low cost. Although it is legal for women to travel to the UK for a termination, the prohibitive costs involved means women are still risking their health and freedom to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Of course, this negatively impacts on women who do actually spontaneously miscarry. The more these drugs are used, the more that women who turn up to hospitals with miscarriage symptoms will be suspected of self-inducing.
Unlike the declining abortion rate, this can be attributed to the work of the pro-life movement. The more difficult abortions are to obtain, the more stigmatised all pregnant women become.
In El Salvador, where abortion is illegal in all cases, no exceptions, women who miscarry are liable to find themselves jailed for up to 40 years for murder. Some are outright accused of self-inducing, while others are told they “should have saved the baby's life.”
Yes, in a world that is growing increasingly hostile to abortion, the Guttmacher study is heartening, but not for the reasons the NRLC claims. Pro-life activists want us to believe that abortion is a scourge that descended on humanity with the rise of feminism, and that outlawing abortion is the only thing that will end it.
For this reason, they ignore the actual results of the study - which point to the importance and effectiveness of contraception - and try to claim credit for the decrease in abortion rates. But in doing so, they succeed only in driving abortion underground once again.
As long as there are unintended pregnancies, there will be abortions. The question is, does society value women enough to give them a safe and legal option?