Thursday, January 24, 2008
Jan. 22 marked the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal.
The case was built on the social and legal trends in most states at that time to make abortion legal, more accessible and safe. By the late 1960s, a nationwide effort was underway to reform criminal abortion laws.
The effort reflected the growing recognition that women were seeking abortions despite the risks to their health and safety. Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. One analysis, extrapolating from data from North Carolina, concluded that an estimated 829,000 illegal or self-induced abortions occurred in 1967. In 1965, abortion was so unsafe that 17 percent of all deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth were the result of illegal abortion.
Some assert that women seeking to end their pregnancies are promiscuous, irresponsible and mostly young. According to a recent study, the majority of abortions today are for mothers whose concern is their ability to care for children they already have.
‘‘I Would Want to Give My Child, Like, Everything in the World: How Issues of Motherhood Influence Women Who Have Abortions,” by Rachel Jones et al., in the January 2008 issue of the Journal of Family Issues, finds that 61 percent of U.S. women who have abortions already are mothers, and more than half have two or more children.
These women are motivated to be good parents: women who have no children want the conditions to be right when they do; women who already have children want to be responsible and take care of their existing children.
Rachel K. Jones, senior researcher with the Guttmacher Institute, says, “Among those women with children, the most commonly cited reason for choosing to have an abortion was that having another child would compromise the care given to existing children. Women felt that they already were stretched thin financially, emotionally and physically – and they wanted to put the children they already had front and center.”
When abortion was illegal, the negative impacts on lower-income women and women of color were disproportionate. Higher income, white women were more able to travel or arrange for safer abortions. Death rates reflected racial and income disparities: In New York City in the early 1960s, one in four childbirth-related deaths among white women was because of abortion. By comparison, abortion accounted for one in two childbirth-related deaths among nonwhite and Puerto Rican women.
The mortality rate because of illegal abortion was 12 times higher from 1972 to 1974 for nonwhite women than for white women nationwide.
Current laws limiting access to safe abortions, including waiting periods, spousal permission, parental notification, and criminalization of certain procedures and doctors, tend to affect these same women more because of their limited access to time and money to handle these “inconveniences.”
Many of the women surveyed for the Guttmacher report made references to the “ideal” conditions of motherhood, saying children are entitled to stable and loving families, financial security and a high level of care and attention. Because the women were unable to provide those conditions at the time, they did not feel they could have a child or, if they were already mothers, an additional child.
Says Jones: “These women believed that it was more responsible to terminate a pregnancy than to have a child whose health and welfare could be in question.”
Several women indicated adoption was not a realistic option. The thought of one’s child being out in the world without knowing if it was being taken care of or by whom would induce more guilt than having an abortion.
There is much to celebrate on this 35th anniversary:
• The responsible and thoughtful decision-making process women undertake when faced with unplanned pregnancy;
• The abortion rate is at its lowest level since 1974;
• The increased post-Roe health, educational and employment outcomes for women–especially lower income women and women of color.
This anniversary is a good time to redouble our commitment to legal, safe abortions and increased access to the most effective tools to prevent unintended pregnancy: honest, sex education and better access to contraceptives.
Perhaps we will one day realize the dream that every child be born loved and wanted, and welcomed into a supportive, nurturing family environment.