The Right of Abortion

Except in the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, I cannot think of a more startling example of mass refusal to see the obvious than is presented by current attitudes toward the population problem on the one hand and abortion on the other.

For several years, we have heard warnings about the population crisis. Indeed, so concerned are we that there now are voices in the land calling for "compulsory sterilization" and "compulsory birth control," for the withholding of public support for illegitimate children in excess of a certain number, for conditioning welfare monies or parole or whatever on coerced sterilization, and so on. Yet little is done to make sterilization easily available on a voluntary basis, particularly to the poor and underprivileged. Despite the lack of legal strictures against it, it is often withheld by doctors and hospitals from those who need it and want it most. At the same time, there begins to appear on the part of some an alarming readiness to subordinate rights of freedom of choice in the area of human reproduction to governmental coercion.

Notwithstanding all this, we continue to maintain strict antiabortion laws on the books of at least four fifths of our states, denying freedom of choice to women and physicians and compelling the "unwilling to bear the unwanted." Yet, as Doctor Christopher Tietze and Sarah Lewit point out in the Scientific American for January, 1969: "Abortion is still the most widespread...method of fertility control in the modern world." According to experts who participated in a United Nations Conference on World Population in Belgrade in 1965, abortion is indeed the chief method of birth control in the world today, and they estimated that about 30 million pregnancies are purposely terminated by abortion each year. Of these, studies indicate that almost one million are in the United States. Since, however, abortions are still so difficult to obtain, we force the birth of millions more unwanted children every year. If we really want to cut our population growth rate on a voluntary basis, we should make abortion available on a voluntary basis, at least in the early stages of pregnancy. When Japan liberalized its abortion laws some years back, it halved its rate of population growth in a decade.

Population dilemma

I do not recommend abortion as a birth-control method of choice. I merely state that it is in fact the most important single method of birth control in the world today, and to cut down on population growth we should make abortion easy and safe while we continue to develop other and more satisfactory methods of family limitation. In addition to the 5 million women in the United States without access to birth control for whom abortion would seem a matter of right when they want it, there are the uncounted thousands who after conception suffer some disease (like German measles) or discover some defect which makes the birth of a live and healthy baby unlikely, and the many, too, whose contraceptive methods occasionally don't work. As the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women notes in a pamphlet:

"There is no perfect contraceptive. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that the intrauterine devices, one of the most effective contraceptives available today, have a failure rate of 1.5 to 3%. This means that if all married women in the United States could and did use these contraceptives, there would still be about 350,000 to 700,000 unwanted pregnancies a year among married women alone. Even sterilization is not a 100% effective method of contraception; some operations fail. Therefore, in order to insure a complete and thorough birth control program, abortion must be made available as a legal right to all women who request it."

Starting in the mid-1960s, some erosion of the anti-abortion laws began to take place. But these efforts have not been supported by many of the more vocal groups who are trying to do something about excess population growth; to them, compulsory birth control and compulsory sterilization are apparently more palatable than voluntary abortion.

The result is legal chaos—which has been the situation with reference to abortion since it was first made illegal in this country. Contrary to popular belief, the legal strictures against abortion are of comparatively recent origin. Until the early nineteenth century—at common law both in England and in the United States—abortion before quickening was not illegal at all. It became so only in the early 1800s. And according to Professor Cyril Means and others who have studied the problem, the reason for the enactment of the laws was not protection of morals or of the "soul" of the fetus, but rather a reflection of the fact that at the time all surgical procedures were highly risky because of the probability of infection (this was before Lister). Abortions were made illegal for this reason except where they were necessary to save the life of the mother; that is, where the great risk of infection which every operation involved was outweighed by the risk of carrying that particular pregnancy to term. The situation is today reversed; abortion under modern hospital conditions is safer than childbirth.

Nor is there any evidence that abortion involves psychological health hazards. A poll of the American Psychiatric Association in the mid-1960s revealed overwhelming support for more easily available abortions and a conviction that adverse psychological sequelae from abortion are negligible both on an absolute standard and as compared with such sequelae from childbirth and unwanted children.

Though the population experts have not yet aligned themselves on the side of abortion-law reform, something is beginning to happen. Seven states—Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, New Mexico, and North Carolina—have amended their laws to permit abortion not only to save life but also to protect the health, mental and physical, of the mother, in cases of rape and incest, and to avert the birth of defective offspring (Governor Reagan forced the omission of this ground in the California law). Many other states have been and are now considering abortion reform or repeal bills but usually without the support of the powerful groups who are backing other forms of population control. The old laws are also beginning to face challenges in the courts and are being attacked on a variety of constitutional grounds.

Presented by

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In