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.