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?