David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, May 26, 2019
Missouri has joined Alabama and Georgia in an apparent race to provide the Supreme Court an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973), which first established the trimester demarcations regulating states’ legal ability to regulate abortion. The “Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act” that Governor Parson signed Friday bans abortion after eight weeks with an exception only for the life of the mother. The Roe decision allows women to make their own decisions until 12 weeks gestation and later if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.
The Roe decision, which I read when it was decided in January 1973, was immediately expected to achieve landmark status, but few anticipated it would create a chokehold on American politics for almost 50 years. Abortion regulation involves two worthy and cherished values: the sanctity of life and the dignity of individual autonomy. Each value has devoted activists pushing their perspective but most often with rhetorical overload for their “team” rather than attempting to resolve the issue.
Abortion, even more than guns, has been the engine driving the polarization of American politics. So far, both nationally and in states like Missouri, that has been very good for Republicans, but political tides often turn. For advocates for a balanced, competitive, responsible two-party system, it is unfortunate that there are not many pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats.
American public opinion has been rather consistent since 1973, with about 65 to 70 percent agreeing that abortion should be a decision made by a woman and her doctor. Unfortunately, the abortion issue never received “closure.” Instead it has been kept on the political agenda of politicians and special interests with the threat of a Supreme Court decision altering Roe as the major stimuli. Donald Trump’s 2016 election is partially attributed to his signaling his conversion to an anti-abortion position after a lifetime of being pro-choice.
Since 1973, rhetorical and policy proposals have become more extreme. Pro-choice forces should have reduced conflict by agreeing to parental consent rather than having it forced into abortion law by Republican activists; anti-abortion activists should have been more responsible and restrained in their rhetoric about fictitious late-term abortions.
The number of abortions both nationally and in Missouri has decreased. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that between 2006 and 2015 the number of abortions nationally decreased 24 percent to about 638,000. The Missouri Department of Heath reports that 3,903 abortions were performed in 2017 in Missouri, compared with 19,043 in the peak-year of 1980.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, nationally about two-thirds of abortion in 2015 were performed at under eight weeks, and more than 90 percent were performed under 13 weeks gestation. About one-quarter of American women will have an abortion before the age of 45. Estimates are that 1 or 2 percent of abortions are a result of rape.
Guttmacher Institute reports that in 2014, some 60 percent of women having abortions in Missouri were in their 20s; 59 percent had one or more children; 86 percent were unmarried; 75 percent were economically disadvantaged and 62 percent reported a religious affiliation. Moreover, 39 percent of women obtaining abortions were white, 28 percent were black and 25 percent were Hispanic.
Undoubtedly, placing restrictions on abortion, such as Missouri’s 72-hour waiting period after mandatory counseling, were a factor. The most likely cause of the decline in abortion frequency is better sex education, health care and the adoption of free contraceptive distribution programs. Public policy should redouble these efforts.
At the root of the 50-year abortion debate is our perspective that a fertilized egg is either life or it is not life. There is a third alternative: it is potential life. Anti-abortion laws inherently acknowledge this because they do not charge the woman getting an abortion with “aiding and abetting” a murder. Instead, they charge the doctor for performing the abortion. Surely a fertilized egg’s rights are not equivalent to a fully viable, breathing person. If there is a decision between the rights of a full human being and potential life, the needs, rights and care of a person should be the greater priority. It is troubling that those arguing for protecting the sanctity of life have chosen to ignore the damage done to fully developed human beings and their families by sexual abuse, capital punishment, adopting “preemptive war” rather than “just wars” and ignoring the needs of at-risk children.
My political and personal values have become clearer to me since I first read the Roe decision in 1973. First, all babies should be wanted. If there is a responsibility that requires 110 percent commitment, readiness and adequate resource As many lactating mothers know, it is darn hard to teach a newborn to breast feed. It takes a commitment that is the basis for maternal bonding. No one respecting the sanctity of new life would want to impose this on a mother not fully able and committed to the tasks of mothering.
Second, public policy in a democracy should be guided as closely by public opinion as is possible. At the state level, let’s have referenda to move the abortion issue to closure. Twenty-five states have had one or more ballot measures relating to abortion, many concerning funding. Pro-choice advocates would be surprised that voters defeated a pro-life measure in Arizona in 1992 and Mississippi votes defeated a “life begins at fertilization” measure in 2011.
In 1973, about half the states allowed abortion and half did not. In the unlikely event that the Supreme Court would totally overturn Roe, states would have the authority to regulate abortion. It is likely that after 50 years of political polarization and agenda detours, we will end up with about half the states allowing abortion and half banning abortion.
Our time and resources would have been better spent on the underlying problems of health education and care, reducing poverty and increasing family stability.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.