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Once upon a time, before women were seen as a threat, abortion was an unregulated, unrestricted procedure.
During election season, abortion is an inescapable topic. And yet it is one rarely brought to the debate stage.
So during last week’s televised standoff, it came as a surprise that presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were presented with an opportunity to share their views. While Clinton’s response was policy-based, giving viewers the chance to absorb her goals and interests and decide for themselves if they agreed with her or not, Trump’s comments were of a different nature entirely.
When it was his turn to speak, Trump asserted that late-term abortion is “not OK,” because “you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.” As medical professionals, women’s rights advocates, and women who have had late-term abortions have pointed out, this is simply not accurate. Late-term abortion is much more complicated, nuanced, often medically necessary procedure than what Trump described in purposefully violent language.
This is not the first time in this election, however, that the technicalities of abortion have been skewed to almost surreal levels. Former Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz claimed that Clinton supports abortion “even on the due date of the unborn child,” or “up until the moment of birth.” Carly Fiorina passionately lectured about the content of a fake viral video in which Planned Parenthood was keeping an aborted fetus alive in order to “harvest its brain.”
Were these candidates given a copy of Saw instead of The Miracle of Life? Hard to say. Yet the baffling medical untruths spouted by the likes of Trump and his denizens are hardly even the most shocking element of this discussion. Rather, it’s the spread of this misinformation, this perpetuating of these grotesque scenarios as truth, that warrants real concern.
“For Republicans, abortion is a showpiece, a high-functioning mask for the large-scale manipulation of women, people of color, and those living in poverty.”
Republicans do not discuss abortion as a medical procedure, nor do they ever give it the complex debate it deserves. It’s instead a showpiece, a high-functioning mask for the large-scale manipulation of women, people of color, and those living in poverty.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but in the early to mid-1800’s, the average woman could have an abortion with few restrictions. The procedure was widely practiced and unregulated by the United States government. As historian Leslie Reagan points out in her book When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine and Law in the United States, it was no coincidence that the morality of abortion was first called into question at the same time women began seeking admission to Harvard Medical School for the study of obstetrics and gynecology. Dr. Horatio Storer, a Harvard alum and practicing gynecologist, started the “Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion” and spoke openly about how a “true wife” should make the appropriate sacrifices to raise a child. Storer rallied with the American Medical Association to place restrictions on abortion, and his campaign was wildly successful over the next 30 years.
Around this time, there was another imminent threat that needed to be dealt with: immigrants. In 1892, Ellis Island opened and more than 450,000 immigrants arrived in that first year alone. The upper-class, purebred medical community saw an opportunity: In condemning abortion, not only would women be deterred from higher education, the white population would maintain superiority and numbers over the incoming immigrants. At the same time, with women kept from the working world, they’d have plenty of time to raise all these new bundles of joy.
By 1900, abortion was a felony in every state.
A close examination of who’s having abortions now, 116 years later, reveals that women’s bodies are still being manipulated for larger political purposes.
It starts with the present cycle of poverty: Black and Latina women are less likely to have access to healthcare and contraception, such as the pill, and are therefore at a higher risk for unintended pregnancy. In a survey, 73 percent of women having an abortion cited economic hardship as their primary reason for terminating a pregnancy. In another survey focusing on late-term abortions (procedures occurring after the 16th week of pregnancy), 48 percent of women stated that they had not been able to make arrangements for the operation, despite wanting to do so earlier.
The above surveys don’t even take into account the vast number of women who not only lack the economic resources to raise a child, but lack the funds to have an abortion at all. Thus, entire demographics of women are at risk of unwillingly perpetuating their own poverty.
The United States prides itself on being a forward-thinking, medically and scientifically advanced nation where all its citizens have an equal right to a high quality of life. Yet this does not extend to women regulating over their own bodies. Women are expected to bear the full burden—even death—of the consequences of that body.
In reality, the United States is distinctly behind its contemporaries regarding abortion policies and philosophies. In Canada, a woman has access to a government-subsidized abortion at any phase of her pregnancy. In Japan, abortion has been legal since 1948, and now has an acceptance rating of more than 80 percent. The procedure itself is regarded as highly clinical, while a secular ceremony called mizuko kuyo, for which shrines have been built around the country, gives women and families a place to openly contemplate and grieve abortions and miscarriages if need be. This combination of viewing the procedure itself with medical clarity while acknowledging a woman’s range of emotions over the decision and allowing the mourning of loss, is a model the United States could learn from.
To break the cycle of oppression women face in regards to governing over their own bodies, it is up to us to equip ourselves and educate those around us. The Feminist Women’s Health Center has a wealth of resources on the topic—from technicalities of the procedure, to local laws, to debunking common myths. The Guttmacher Policy Review provides a platform for the discussion of federal policy surrounding reproductive health care, in addition to providing hard statistics relating to abortion. Planned Parenthood, at 100 years old, is a long-standing leader in providing up-to-date, thorough, and confidential information. Whether someone is passionate about the cause, or just learning about abortion for the first time, any of these resources can be equally beneficial.
Whether you’re pro-choice or “pro-life” (another loaded politically coined term), anyone with an opinion on abortion should at least have the knowledge necessary to separate fact from fiction. The conversation surrounding abortion needs to revert from highly inflamed rhetoric to one of nuanced medical practicality. Only then will productive policy be enacted that enables women bodily autonomy and peace of mind.
Kate Fustich is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can visit her at katefustich.com.