Friday, July 12, 2013

Abortion: The Global Debate

Chilean president Sebastián Piñera made headlines this week for praising an 11-year-old rape victim’s willingness to have her rapist’s baby. Not that she has any choice in the matter: Chile, like six other countries worldwide, completely bans the practice of abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, and to save the mother’s life. The 11-year old Piñera was lauding for her “maturity” was repeatedly and brutally raped for two years by her mother’s boyfriend. In a television interview, the child said that having the baby would be like “having a doll,” a statement that indicates just how mature and ready to raise a child she actually is.

The global debate about a woman’s right to abortion touches virtually every country on earth. In countries that strictly ban the practice such as Chile, stories often surface of people who make good cases for its legality. In Ireland last year, the decades-long complete ban on abortion was called into question by the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died while having a miscarriage but was not allowed to have a life-saving abortion of her already dying fetus due to the fact that it still had a heartbeat. The scandal was complicated by the Catholic basis of Irish law on abortions since Savita was a Hindu. Her death has led to the first ever “exception law” being passed today in Ireland, allowing abortions in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the mother.

Yet in countries like the United States and China where abortion is legal, there are equally powerful cases against the availability of abortion. In Asia, gender-selective abortion has contributed to the loss of 100 million girls who are not alive today (studies show that statistically, there should be at least this number of female children born in the last decade who have been selectively aborted). The practice has grown due to early-term ultrasounds’ inexpensive availability in China and India, where having a girl is viewed not only as a dishonor to the family, but also as a financial burden.

In the United States, the abortion pro-choice versus pro-life debate rocks political life regularly. The Texas legislature’s recent attempt to pass a law that would effectively shut down all but five of the vast state’s abortion clinics was met by a now famous filibuster, in which congresswoman Wendy Davis stood for 13 straight hours speaking on the subject to block the law’s initial passing. She has since become a national star of the pro-choice movement and is rumored to be a serious contender for Texas’s next governor.

On the other side of the debate, last year, doctor Kermit Gosnell was convicted of third-degree murder for cutting the spines of babies born after he botched their abortions. His abortion “house of horrors” offers an example of the worst kind of legal abortions: ones performed in clinics that observe no standards of hygiene or cleanliness, perform late-term abortions illegal in most states, and then kill babies who are born as a result of incorrectly performed abortions. His case has offered fodder for the pro-life side, especially given its graphic and horrific nature.

Lost in all of the rhetoric is often the simple fact that strictly banning abortions does not decrease the rate of abortions, it simply forces them into the illegal realm of “backdoor” abortions, performed by amateur physicians at best, and heartless and skill-less profiteers at worst. My grandfather Russell was an OB-GYN in the age before Roe v. Wade, and would tell my mother horror stories of the women who would come to him after suffering through coat hangers – and worse – forced into their bodies, completely putting their lives at risk and destroying their future chances of childbearing. A recent essay by Dr. Waldo L. Fielding for the New York Times tells the same tale, recounting a woman whose intestine had been ripped out of her vagina by a botched abortion.

If those on the pro-life side globally truly want to decrease the demand for and rate of abortions, they would need to abandon religiously-founded beliefs against contraception, not an easy task given the Catholic church’s stance on birth control. Only the provision of condoms, birth control pills, IUDs, etc. has been shown to decrease abortion rates. A practical long-term solution to ending abortions is allowing women to have the tools to choose when, and how, they become pregnant by offering affordable (if not free) contraceptives. Unfortunately, the same religious beliefs backing much of the anti-abortion faction also are anti-contraceptive.

Also lost in the fray is one simple fact: having an abortion, or choosing not to, is the one of the most difficult choices a woman can make in her life, if she has the right to do so. When it comes to matters of life and death, no decision is ever easy.

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