"Women should have the right to kill children, as long as they are still inside of them. But, it is killing children. It's just that it is OK if they do."
These are the words of comedian Louis CK when he performed last month in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre. The 20,000 people in attendance applauded and laughed, pushing down any evidence of being offended and basking in the hilarious logic, wavering in their own minds as to whether it was offensive, non-fictional or both.
Pro-life marchers go to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C. to mark the Roe v. Wade decision, Jan. 22, 2015.
Abortion is probably the most divisive, complex issue in modern times. It ensnares every other polarizing conversation like religion, gender, socioeconomic conditions, class warfare, politics, even race. A collision of emotional anguish and legalese envelops all those who dare engage with the impassioned teams from the other side -- the enemies of truth, the hypocrites too drunk on ideology to engage sensibly.
I always believed that as a man I should just keep my head down when tempted to weigh in on the abortion debate. A part of me still feels that way, but after my partner and I brought two kids into this world I felt an incorrigible, nagging voice that will not go away. This voice, when I allow it to speak, feverishly runs through the typical pro-life and pro-choice mantras, arguing with itself until I am mentally exhausted from the mutual blind spot of each side. I only knew two things for certain: if my wife had had an abortion a year and a half ago, my daughter would not be on my lap as I type this piece, and she should never lose the right to end a pregnancy.
You are either with us, or you are a murderer. You are either with us, or you hate women.
There are several contradictions embedded within the two accepted positions of abortion politics. In the pro-choice camp, the definition of a fetus changes depending on whether or not the mother wants to keep the baby. If she doesn't, a fetus is just a bunch of mingling cells, an organic compound that does not constitute an actual living thing. But if she does want to start a family, that fetus becomes a miracle, something to be protected at all costs. This malleable definition is understandable, given the enormous magnitude a decision like having an abortion carries, but is still impossible to reconcile considering the deference to logic and consistency we must give the definition of a singular thing.
Meanwhile, the pro-life camp continues to place religious people front and centre to articulate the notion of a fetus being a living thing. After decades of losing the argument by putting god before science, religion before logic, they still appear unable to grasp why theocracy is not an effective starting point if your goal is to increase the support for preventing abortions in the first place. Add to that a vehement tendency to place abortions side-by-side with strangulations and drive-by shootings, and you have a camp unwilling to adjust their dogma to the detriment of society itself.
Anti-Trump demonstrator protests at abortion rights rally in Chicago, Jan. 15, 2017. (Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)
Everything about this issue makes my head explode. First and foremost, there is an unhealthy prerequisite of undying support for one group or the other, a destructive starting point steeped in deliberate polarization that works as a barometer and an albatross for both groups.
You are either with us, or you are a murderer.
You are either with us, or you hate women.
Lovely, I know, but also an accurate depiction of the insanity that grips this issue. Accusations of misogyny are a typical ruse by pro-choicers when describing pro-lifers, a fallacy of epic proportions as it ignores one obligatory fact: far more women are against abortion than men. In fact, if it were not for men co-signing a woman's right to choose, abortion laws would have been challenged more fiercely a long time ago.
But in our hyper-chivalrous society, men are being asked to shut up and nod politely as they help hold the abortion door open, a cynical reality given the vital role they play in the debate. And while there is some fodder to spotlight where old men attempt to be the sole arbitrators of women's health, by and large men are the most valuable allies in the fight to keep abortion legal.
I believe as a society we should strike the balance between supporting this right and labelling it accurately.
All of this leads me to believe that we need to scrap the pro-life and pro-choice labels so we can usher in a new era of rationalism and honesty. Taken on its face, I am more inclined to side with a pro-choice argument from a legal standpoint, but the branding of that label has been poisoned, commandeered by radicals who are disinterested in discussing real ancillary issues such as mental health and the societal impact of abortion. If you've ever known a woman who has had a miscarriage or who has given birth to a stillborn baby, you know the emotional toll both those situations carry. Abortion, from what I am told by women who have had to make that difficult choice, is nearly identical.
On the other hand, from a biological perspective, I am more inclined to side with a pro-life position; abortion means ending a life. But again, this label has been politically poisoned and is a paradoxical position if you do not believe in forcing women to give birth, or in punishing them if they do.
Once you really boil down the dominating talking points and focus on the scientific, emotional and legal realities, you come to a fairly uncomfortable conclusion: Louis CK was right. Abortion should remain legal, and it is literally like ending a life. Our society, for better or worse, has decided that this is a self-defence issue, in the realm of justifiable homicide where a woman is given the authority to destroy another human being in the early stages of life, and I believe as a society we should strike the balance between supporting this right and labelling it accurately. By doing so we can probably better educate men and women on birth control, mental health, and the impact abortion has on relationships between mothers and their families.
And perhaps, by erasing the pro-choice/pro-life labels, we can succumb to a more rational, less polarized dialogue where demonization becomes a relic from the past.
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REALITY: Over 99.75 percent of abortions do not cause major medical problems. Less than one-quarter of 1 percent of abortions performed in the United States lead to major health complications, according to a 2014 study from the University of California, San Francisco, that tracked 55,000 women for six weeks after their abortions. The researchers note that this makes an abortion statistically about as risky as a colonoscopy. If that fact seems surprising, consider how American pop culture misrepresents the risks of abortion: Nine percent of film and television characters who have abortions die as a direct result of the procedure, according to another 2014 study from UCSF.
REALITY: About one in five abortions are medical abortions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 19 percent of abortions in 2011 were medical abortions and that 28.5 percent of those took place in the first nine weeks of pregnancy. The Guttmacher Institute also found that medical abortions increased substantially from 2008 to 2011, meaning more women have ended their pregnancies with this alternative to surgery.
REALITY: Most women will not regret their decision, and are no more likely to experience mental health problems than women who carry an unplanned pregnancy to term. While many women experience mixed emotions after an abortion, 95 percent of women who have abortions ultimately feel they have made the right decision, according to an August 2013 study from UCSF. "Experiencing negative emotions postabortion is different from believing that abortion was not the right decision," the researchers explained. Furthermore, while unplanned pregnancies often cause emotional stress, there is no evidence to suggest that women who choose to terminate their pregnancies will be more likely to suffer from mental health issues, according to a 2008 report from the American Psychological Association that investigated all relevant medical studies published since 1989. The APA found that past studies claiming abortion causes depression and other mental health problems consistently failed to account for other risk factors, particularly a woman's medical history. The APA accounted for these factors and found that, among women who have an unplanned pregnancy, those who have abortions are no more likely to experience mental health problems than those who carry the pregnancy to term.
REALITY: Fetuses cannot feel pain until at least the 24th week of pregnancy. Experts ranging from Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agree with that timeline. In fact, research from UCSF found that fetuses can't perceive pain before 29 or 30 weeks of development. Then why have so many states banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy? Perhaps misrepresentation of research is partly to blame: Many of the researchers most frequently cited by pro-life politicians told The New York Times that their research does not prove anything about fetal pain.
REALITY: Most Americans support a woman's right to choose. According to a Gallup poll from 2014, 78 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances. (Fifty percent said "some circumstances," while 28 percent said all.) What's more, in 2012, Gallup found that 61 percent of Americans think abortions that take place during the first trimester of pregnancy should be legal. (Nine out of 10 abortions in the U.S. do take place during that time period, according to Guttmacher.)
REALITY: The abortion rate in the United States is the lowest it's been since 1973. The abortion rate has been on the decline for years, and hit its lowest level in 2011, according to the latest data available from the Guttmacher Institute. The study's author partially credited the decline to better contraceptive use and more long-term contraceptive options, such as the IUD.
REALITY: Women face a growing number of barriers to accessing abortions. More than 57 percent of American women live in states that are hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights, according to the Guttmacher Institute. That represents a marked increase from 2000, when 31 percent of American women lived in such states. In 2011, 89 percent of counties in America had no abortion clinics. This is no accident: Across the U.S., lawmakers have enacted 231 new abortion restrictions over the past four years, according to a Guttmacher analysis from January 2015. As a result, many women have to travel great distances to reach an abortion clinic, where they may face 24-hour wait periods. These barriers particularly affect women living in rural areas and low-income women, who often can't afford to take time off work and pay for gas and a hotel room. Other laws force women to go through potentially distressing procedures, such as viewing their own ultrasound photos, in order to move forward with an abortion.
REALITY: Women rarely cite pressure from family or partners as leading to their decision to abort. A 2005 study from the Guttmacher Institute found that less than 1 percent of women surveyed cited such pressure among their main reasons for having an abortion. A 2013 study from UCSF reached a similar conclusion, and found that while women rarely cited partner coercion as a reason they sought an abortion, many did cite the desire to escape a bad relationship or domestic violence.
REALITY: Most women who have abortions are already mothers. Sixty-one percent of women who had abortions in 2008 were mothers, and 34 percent had two or more children, according to the Guttmacher Institute. That number only increased after the 2009 financial downturn. The National Abortion Federation told Slate that between 2008 and 2011, 72 percent of women seeking abortions were already mothers. A study from Guttmacher found that mothers typically have abortions to protect the children they already have; they simply cannot afford to raise another child.
REALITY: Requiring abortion clinics to meet these standards does little to improve patient safety and forces many to shut down. Currently, 22 states require abortion clinics to meet a set of restrictive and often arbitrary standards, dictating that they be close to hospitals and that their hallways and closets meet certain measurements. Clinics often need to undergo expensive renovations in order to comply, and leading doctors' groups say the laws do little to improve patient safety. What's more, 11 states now require that doctors at abortion clinics obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, but many hospitals flat-out refuse to grant these privileges. As a result, hospitals essentially have the power to shut down nearby clinics.
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