Tag Archives: abortion debate

The Dobbs Case: What Would Solomon Decide?

I wish the Dobbs decision had never happened. For months leading up to it, I dreaded its potential impact on our fractured body politic. Now that it has happened, I am doing my best to find a forward-looking response. I doubt that any legal decision regarding abortion can satisfy anyone completely. I doubt that abortions will ever stop being performed, whether legally or illegally. I doubt we can ever reach an American (or global) polity in which every child is deeply wanted and loved, in which no mother dies from complications of pregnancy or delivery, and each new human is born into a fully functional family and society.

In the wake of Dobbs, activists on all sides of the U.S. abortion debate have increased their fundraising, outreach, and advocacy. Personally, I believe abortion prior to fetal viability should be primarily the decision of the mother-to-be, that her rights supersede any supposed state interests. However, I also believe that some common sense restrictions on abortions can be consistent with goals of family integrity and human rights. How can I best express my views? How do I act on my beliefs? When does life begin? How can we possibly know?  

Headlines tend to emphasize exceptional cases—the 10-year-old girl in Ohio who in May, 2022 was raped. After seeking care in Ohio, she had to travel to Indiana for an abortion because she’d exceeded the six week gestational limit mandated by a 2019 Ohio law triggered by the Dobbs decision. Overall statistics make less absorbing headline fodder, but are still abysmal. Over the preceding five years, Ohio had an average of over one abortion per week for a child aged 15 or younger. 

In ideal cases, a developing fetus is the result of consensual sexual activity between prospective adult parents. Ideally, once a woman’s egg is fertilized, the resulting zygote begins to divide, then implants and thrives in utero throughout the pregnancy, which ends when a healthy mother delivers a healthy infant. Many hazards exist between conception and birth, though—miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, maternal health complications, lethal fetal abnormalities. The rate of spontaneous miscarriage is estimated at between 11 and 22 percent of confirmed pregnancies. Possibly over half of all pregnancies end even before pregnancy is confirmed. About 2% of pregnancies are “ectopic”—the embryo attaches outside the uterine cavity, potentially threatening the life of the mother. In 2020, the US had the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations: 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. About 3% of babies born in the U.S. have birth defects of varying degrees of severity, with the most severe defects causing about 20% of deaths in infants below the age of one.

Ideally, prospective parents are financially and emotionally ready to raise to adulthood any child they conceive. However, a study from the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 found then that nearly half of pregnancies were either “unplanned” (27%, maybe later?) or “unwanted” (18%, not now, not ever!). Per their research, unintended pregnancy rates are highest among low-income women, women younger than 24, unmarried women cohabiting with a male partner, and women of color. Economic studies repeatedly link limiting access to contraception and/or abortion to increases in child poverty and crime. 

To help ground me since the Dobbs ruling, I’ve returned to my Christian roots, revisiting Biblical stories of King Solomon to try to find wisdom to help me through this most recent set of conflicts over reproductive choice. A seminal account involves Solomon deciding a difficult case shortly after he has asked God in a dream for wisdom in guiding his people. As recorded in I Kings 3:16-28, the case involves the death of a newborn and two frantic mothers’ competing claims on the one surviving child. To help determine the rightful claimant, Solomon threatens to cut the surviving child in two. The real mother cries out to let the other mother keep the child, willing to relinquish her child rather than have it killed. Through his decision, Solomon does his best to honor the mothers, the child, and the child’s future.

The Dobbs decision was injected into a United States with many festering debates. Abortion has been, and continues to be, even thornier than the dilemma posed to Solomon, with no clear one-size-fits-all answers. What seems clear so far is that many women, their families, and their doctors are fearful and upset at Dobbs’ sweeping change in national policy. The change overturned fifty years of judicial precedent, including many cases attempting to strike some sort of balance among competing rights—the mother’s, the developing fetus’s, and that of the governmental apparatus charged with supporting families and children. 

I like to think that Solomon in his wisdom would have come up with ways to help us broaden our focus, leaving us less obsessed with the period between conception and birth. It is a rare pregnancy that lasts more than nine months, a rare (though tragic) instance when a life after birth lasts less than that, a strange anomaly for a girl/woman to conceive before typical puberty, which happens between ages 8 and 13. 

Perhaps we can see beyond our differences to lessen the damage we are causing to the already born and to women not ready to become mothers. Our faith, our gender, our life circumstances can help impart the wisdom we need to navigate post-Dobbs America. If Solomon could consider the mothers, the child, and the future, might we be inspired to behave similarly?  Are we each doing our best for the human family of which we are a part? Are we helping to preserve a livable planet for future generations?  What would Solomon decide?    

Choosing Life

It’s rare that I dedicate more than one blog post to a particular topic. Usually, I’ve said all I need to say in a single entry. This year I’ve made exceptions for the ongoing abortion debate, adding this entry to two earlier ones: The Politics of Human Reproduction (March 8, 2021) and Review: The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler (October 26, 2021).  

According to a Wikipedia article on abortions in the United States (which included 207 citations when I accessed it on November 8, 2021), American abortion laws were codified and made stricter over the course of the 19th century. This changed and laws began to be liberalized starting in the late 1960’s. In 1967, the state of Colorado legalized abortions in cases of rape, incest, or maternal disability. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling legalizing abortions throughout the U.S. for early term abortions in 1973 (Roe vs. Wade), abortions were already legal under some circumstances in 30 of the 50 U.S. states. However, when the plaintiff called “Roe” had begun her suit in Texas in 1969 demanding the right to an abortion, state law there prohibited abortions except to save the life of the mother.

Prior to the Roe decision, some states with less restrictive laws became “abortion magnets” for women in adjoining areas who needed or wanted the procedure. Abortions were more readily available to women with the financial means to pay and to travel if necessary. In one high-profile case in 1962, a married pregnant woman from Arizona went to Sweden for an abortion after she learned that thalidomide, an ingredient in a medicine she’d taken early in her pregnancy, could cause severe birth defects. It turned out that the fetus she’d carried was badly deformed. Had it not been aborted, it would likely have died at birth. 

Among the statistical charts in the Wikipedia article is one plotting annual rates of abortion in the U.S. from 1973 through 2017. It shows a dramatic increase during the 1970’s, and since then a generally downward trend. By 2017, the rate among women of childbearing age (considered as 15-44) had dropped from a peak of about 30 per 1000 women to only about 13. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_in_the_United_States#Number_of_abortions). The vast majority of abortions were being performed during the first 13 weeks of pregnancy.  

By the time of Roe, I’d been married for four years and was successfully using birth control. I have never had to choose whether or not to have an abrupt marriage to “legitimize” a child, whether or not to give an infant up for adoption, whether or not to end a pregnancy to conserve my own health or to forestall the birth of a badly deformed child. Other women have had more difficult choices. Starting in junior high school, I heard rumors of girls who’d “gotten in trouble.” Several very early marriages had taken place by the time I was in ninth grade. The phenomenon of “seven month babies” for new brides was quite common. Through high school and then college, more of my female classmates dropped out or disappeared for several months. Some later resurfaced, still single. A few had an infant; others told plausible stories of family distress or financial hardship that had taken them away.

It turned out just as I left home that I’d lived for most of my teens within half a mile of an illegal Maryland abortion clinic. Our neighborhood’s sylvan setting included many homes built far back from the street. Some were completely out of sight. In 1960, as seventh graders, my friend Ann and I had paired up to visit every house along our one-mile road to help boost our Girl Scout cookie sales. At one secluded house, we almost left because it took a long time before anyone answered the doorbell. Just as we turned to go, a well-groomed middle-aged man opened the door. We didn’t see inside and weren’t asked to come in. He bought four boxes of cookies, though. We were pleased with ourselves. Although we’d never match our troop’s star performer (whose mom worked at a major military base nearby), our efforts had moved us up in the cookie sales standings.

During the summer of 1965, Ann got a temporary job as clerical assistant to our county’s prosecutor. One day she noticed that the criminal case she was typing up included a familiar address—the secluded house up the road where we’d sold the cookies. People at that address weren’t cited for any maternal injuries or deaths, just for performing then-illegal abortions. I never learned, from Ann or anyone else, the disposition of the case, or if the clinic staff were fined or jailed. I recently garnered a few additional details from a former neighbor who’d lived across the road from the clinic as a child. While it was operating, her family had regularly noticed cars with out-of-state license plates going in and out of the driveway. Now I wonder how the clinic operated in those pre-Roe, pre-internet days. How did they get referrals? How did they schedule? What health and safety measures did they use? Were staff members medically qualified? Did they have protocols in place for unexpected doorbell rings? 

Norma McCorvey, whose pseudonym was “Jane Roe” in the 1973 Supreme Court case, may have reflected the ambiguity many of us feel about the abortion issue. By the time her case was decided, the pregnancy she’d wanted to end had long since gone to term. She’d put the resulting infant up for adoption. Once her identity became known, McCorvey was enlisted as a pawn by first one, then the opposing set of pressure groups in the ongoing abortion debate. She died in 2017 in Texas, her legacy as muddled as the current state of our understanding. A documentary filmed during the final year of her life indicates she was used by partisans on both sides. However, she also profited from the inflammatory issue to gain funds and notoriety (https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/may/22/aka-jane-roe-documentary-norma-mccorvey).  

The pressures on our court system to rule definitively on abortion are immense. The likelihood of good outcomes is miniscule. Some of our prior national experiments with prohibition may serve as a cautionary tale. Even as abortion rates continue their general decline, rhetoric about the issue continues to escalate. The documentary about McCorvey tries to plumb her successive stints in the “pro-choice” or “pro-life” camp, but it is hardly that simple. As one advocate who’d worked with McCorvey for over a decade put it: “The thing is, we want our stories to be tidy. And humans aren’t tidy.” 

Review: The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler

Few books have hit me with the emotional wallop of Ann Fessler’s 2006 study, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. I’d recently done an online search for books, either fiction or non-fiction, about the ongoing abortion debate in the United States. Publicity is mounting about increasingly restrictive abortion laws in some states. One or more related cases will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. I wanted to re-inform myself about women’s options before the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. 

Ann Fessler is a visual artist and author born in 1949. She has always known she was adopted. Her adoptive parents loved her and nurtured her to adulthood. However, well into her adulthood, she’d thought little about the perspective of the woman who’d relinquished her for adoption shortly after Ann was born. Then, in 1989, Ann attended an art event where she was approached by a woman who thought Ann might be the biological daughter she’d given up 40 years earlier. Ann began to consider the possible emotional and physical consequences to the original mother of giving up a child. Her subsequent work has chronicled the stories of these child-surrendering mothers. As she continued her research, Ann also began taking tentative steps toward finding her own biological mother.


As a girl child born in 1947, I’ve lived through the period of Ann’s research. Growing up in a small Maryland town, I was always somewhat aware of social pressures to conform—“What will the neighbors think?”—but I didn’t understand the full brunt of the ruptures such pressures could cause until I was in my late teens and had started seriously dating. Reading Ann Fessler’s book resurrected insecurities I’d almost forgotten I had.

In the young women’s sexual lottery, I was lucky: my mother practiced birth control and explained the rudiments of sex to me before I became sexually active. Once I did decide to have sex, my boyfriend and I were less careful than we should have been, but no pregnancy resulted. However, there were millions of girls, many from families like mine aspiring to become middle-class, who were not so fortunate. They did become pregnant. Very few had a legal option to terminate their pregnancies. Most had limited financial and emotional resources and were under tremendous societal pressure to conform to the stereotype of the “good girl,” one who presumably did not have sex.

Before Roe, a major option for a pregnant young woman was a rushed marriage, typically to the baby’s father and typically before the bride began to show external signs of the impending birth. Anecdotal evidence from classmates and friends of my generation suggests there were many such marriages, though definitive statistics seem hard to come by. Another possibility was to attempt to self-abort, or to obtain an illegal abortion. Either could have serious legal and health repercussions. Estimates of the number of “stealth abortions” in the U.S. before Roe vary widely, but such abortions did occur, along with related maternal injuries and deaths.  


Ann begins her narrative with an estimate of the number of young women who surrendered infants for adoption during the pre-Roe period 1945-1973 (pegged at roughly 1.5 million). She then personalizes the statistics through individual oral histories of the experiences and trajectories of over a hundred of these mothers who were willing to be interviewed about their lives—before, during, and after their adoptive pregnancy. 

Ann tells us: “In June of 2002, I began tape-recording the oral histories of women who surrendered a newborn for adoption between 1945…and 1973. … These years were a time of enormous change for young women. … And though premarital sex was certainly not a new phenomenon, it became increasingly common… For women born after 1949, the odds were that they would have sex before they reached age twenty.

… Fearing that sex education would promote or encourage sexual relations, parents and schools thought it best to leave young people uninformed. During this time, effective birth control was difficult to obtain. … The efforts to restrict information and access to birth control did not prevent teens from having sex, however. The result was an explosion in premarital pregnancy and in the numbers of babies surrendered for adoption.”  


The era of the 1950’s and 60’s had a severe double standard about the consequences of sexual activity for young men and young women, some of which persists. As Ann remarks: 

“Hearing these women tell their stories today, one can’t help but acknowledge the unfairness of calling them ‘bad girls’ and of the social scorn that was inflicted almost exclusively on them, and not on the young men with whom they had conceived.” 


Through her interviewees, Ann paints a vivid picture of the emotional shaming of young women who “got in trouble”: 

“This was in that period of time when there wasn’t much worse that a girl could do. They almost treated you like you had committed murder or something. —Toni” 

Most girls who acceded to societal pressure were sent to homes for unwed mothers to wait out the remaining months of their pregnancies, give birth, and almost immediately decide on the future of their newborn child. Conditions in homes for unwed mothers varied, but most in postwar America exerted strong pressure to relinquish the infant. Ann found that: 

“The degree of pressure put on the women to surrender sometimes crossed the line from persuasion to outright coercion. Many of the women I interviewed recalled high-pressure campaigns waged by the maternity-home staff.”  

“Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep the baby, or explained the options. I went to the maternity home, I was going to have a baby, they were going to take it, and I was going to go home. I was not allowed to keep the baby. I would have been disowned. …Joyce I”

Few women were given any counseling about the sense of bereavement they’d feel on surrendering their infants. For many, this has left lifetime scars: 

“Giving up my son was a seminal moment in my life. People will say, ‘Get over it.’ I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘Aren’t you ever going to get over it?’ Never. You never get over this. Men often go to the military and fight in wars and they never really get over what they see. This is like one of those huge tragedies in your life. That’s how I look at it, as a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because it didn’t have to happen.    —Maggie” 

“I couldn’t (move on) and I can’t. It’s a big issue to those who lived it. There are women out there who lost their firstborn child and never got to grieve. I can’t even put it into words.  —Suzanne”


No single solution can heal the scars that remain. Partial palliatives exist: 

—The stigma of unwed motherhood has diminished as societal norms have evolved, so more mothers are keeping their babies.
—Some women’s access to well-paid work has increased to the point that they are able as single mothers to provide for a child.
—Registries for adoptees and their birth parents have expanded.
—Some restrictions to accessing original birth certificates have been loosened.
—More women who relinquished infants for adoption have been able to reestablish contact with their now-adult children, many with families of their own. Most, but not all, reunions have been healing. 

Despite some progress, we as a society have much remaining work to do, both to help heal past wounds and to reduce the extent and severity of the new wounds we create. Further restricting abortions will not make abortion go away. It may further fracture an already fractious society around this difficult issue. 

Perhaps we could work more consistently and conscientiously to create social structures to reduce the likelihood of unintended pregnancies:

—provide better sex education 
—provide more widely, more equitably available contraception
—withhold judgment of those whose prior sexual conduct we may disagree with
—learn to listen better
—instill in young women, and young men, a sense of self-worth
—instill in young women, and young men, a sense of responsibility for their sexual conduct

Then, we could support whatever decisions a mother-to-be is able to make, with as little coercion as possible. If the mother (and maybe the father) decide to keep the child, we could provide extra mentoring and support for the young parent(s). 


Abortion law in and of itself will remain a very small part of the work that needs to be done. I’m most grateful for Ann Fessler’s pioneering work at helping us see a bigger picture. 

The Politics of Human Reproduction

As a post-menopausal woman, I’m no longer directly impacted by the twists and turns of abortion debates and legislation. During my fertile years, I was privileged to live in areas where reliable contraception was available and reproductive options were improving. I was blessed with two much-wanted, much-loved children and a long-term partner who helped provide both material and emotional support as we navigated the great adventure of parenting. Once our children were past their most vulnerable years, I chose to end my fertility early, in part to avoid overpopulating an already human-crowded planet. 

Therefore my initial strong reaction to coverage of the “fetal heartbeat bill” passed recently in neighboring South Carolina surprised me. This particular fight has long since been joined by still-fertile women. I have no direct interest. Why, then, did a still photo of South Carolina governor Henry Dargan McMaster, an older somewhat sanctimonious male, white, signing South Carolina’s Senate Bill 1 while surrounded by other mostly older men, mostly white, plus a few women, rankle me so? On reflection, I suspect it’s a combination of personal and societal history.

Until after I was grown and married, I had little notion what abortion was. After a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalized abortions under certain circumstances, protracted legal and political battles erupted. Political candidates and office holders were sometimes judged primarily or solely based on their stance on this one issue. Through decades of debate, I’ve been exposed to lots of “pro-life”  and “pro-choice” publicity. Arguments at both extremes disturb me. I lean toward a “pro-choice” stance, but remember, too, the moral ambiguity captured in author Gwendolyn Brooks’ haunting 1945 poem “The Mother” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43309/the-mother-56d2220767a02). 

In early 1975, when my husband dropped me off to get a pregnancy test at a women’s health clinic, to confirm what we both hoped would be true, I had to walk a gauntlet of anti-abortion protesters shouting, waving signs, and thrusting literature into my hands about the sanctity of all life. It did not seem to occur to these zealots that a women’s health clinic might perform services other than abortions. Their brochures contained images of a generic early-term fetus. In decades since, while driving through parts of the U.S. South, I’ve seen similar fetal images on huge roadside billboards. One even advertised a “pro-life registrar of wills.”

The particular legislation just passed in South Carolina does not directly penalize women seeking abortions, but makes performing an abortion after a “detectable heartbeat” (typically between 6 and 8 weeks of gestation) a felony, with possible hefty fines and up to two years of jail time. The South Carolina bill is among a number of recent bills, most enacted in poorer Southern states, circumscribing legal abortions to the point that they become nearly inaccessible to poor and at-risk women.

Globally, both the incidence of abortion and the legal restrictions placed on it have been declining in recent years, with only five countries (El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Malta) placing total or near-total bans on the procedure. Between 1994 and 2014, the incidence of abortion in industrialized countries declined 19%. Rates of abortion are roughly comparable worldwide, whatever a particular nation’s abortion policy—estimated at between 34 and 37 per thousand women annually. (For more information, see https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(16)30380-4.pdf). What differs markedly are the rates of maternal injury and death resulting from unsafe abortions (see https://www.who.int/health-topics/abortion#tab=tab_2). 

What has often non-plussed me about the abortion debate, in the U.S. and globally, is how much it tries to compartmentalize the period of gestation, making it ostensibly separate from the periods before and after a pregnancy. Though alternative pregnancy options such as surrogacy, in vitro fertilization, and even transgender pregnancy are becoming more available in industrialized countries (though hugely expensive), the proportion of such pregnancies is small. The vast majority of fetuses are the result of male/female intercourse. 

What about the fathers-to-be? What are their roles? What legislation impacts them? More to the point, once a baby is born, what support is provided by someone other than the mother, be it another family member or an institution? We can too often seem lax in our efforts to provide the “village” it takes to raise a child. In 2021, I can find myself  juxtaposing fetal images with images of starving children in war-torn Yemen, their heads disproportionately large in comparison to their shriveled bodies (https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-01-04/yemeni-boy-ravaged-by-hunger-weighs-7-kg).

On this International Women’s Day, I can applaud some of the improvements made in fetal, maternal, and child health globally. I can honor SC Governor McMaster’s wife and daughter. I can listen to the beating of my own heart. I can honor women’s choices around the issue of childbearing, while I hope and work for a society that concentrates less on what happens inside the womb and more on what happens in the world into which babies are born.