This text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensee. Preface



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9.3 Abortion

LEARNING OBJECTIVES


  1. Summarize the history of abortion and abortion law in the United States.

  2. Explain why there are regional differences in abortion rates.

  3. Describe some of the correlates of views on abortion.

A major consequence of unplanned pregnancy, during or after the teen years, is abortion. As noted earlier, about 40 percent of all unplanned pregnancies are terminated by an abortion. The more we can reduce unplanned pregnancies through the various strategies just discussed, the fewer abortions we will have. This section presents some additional information on abortion while acknowledging the incredibly strong passions that abortion raises on both sides of the issue. Many people believe that abortion represents a woman’s right to control her own body, while many other people believe that abortion is murder. We will not review these arguments, which should be very familiar by now, but we will look at the history of abortion and present some public opinion data about abortion and public health data on its prevalence. We end with a brief discussion of abortion policy.

A Brief History of Abortion


Like drug use discussed in Chapter 7 "Alcohol and Other Drugs" and prostitution discussed later in this chapter, abortion has a very long history. In fact, sex historians Vern Bullough and Bonnie Bullough (1977, p. 92) [1] note that abortion has “been widely practiced since the beginning of recorded history.” Although early Christianity regarded abortion as murder, there was no general agreement regarding how old the fetus must be for an abortion to be considered murder. During the Middle Ages, most religious scholars thought abortion was not murder unless quickening (when a woman begins to feel the fetus moving) had occurred, which is usually about four to five months into a pregnancy. In a notable development, Pope Pius IX declared in 1869 that abortion was murder no matter how young the fetus was, and that remains the current belief of the Catholic Church.

During the nineteenth century, many countries passed new laws that banned abortion, and most US states did so as well. Bullough and Bullough (1977, p. 111)[2] say that these new laws were intended to protect pregnant women from unskilled abortionists, but that the laws backfired because “desperate women turned to illegal practitioners.” Many illegal abortion providers were simply unskilled to perform abortions, but even doctors and midwives who provided abortions illegally did not have access to hospitals or medical clinics if something went wrong. After antibiotics came into use during the twentieth century, illegal abortion providers also did not have access to these miracle drugs and thus could not treat infections that occurred after they performed their abortions. By the early 1960s, the only legal abortions in most states were those done to save the mother’s life, with about 8,000 such therapeutic abortions performed annually.

In addition to these legal abortions, an estimated 400,000–650,000 illegal abortions were also being performed annually by the early 1960s. For the reasons just given, these abortions were often risky procedures and resulted in a “very high maternal mortality rate” (Bullough & Bullough, 1977, p. 112). [3] In plain English, many women died from illegal abortions.

The sheer number of illegal abortions and maternal death and health complications helped ignite a new abortion rights movement. This movement also believed that women have the right to control their own bodies without government interference. By 1970, sixteen states had legalized abortion or had made abortions easier to receive under certain circumstances. Some courts began to rule that laws against abortion violated women’s constitutional right to privacy. Finally, the US Supreme Court supported legal abortion in its famous and controversial 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade. This decision allowed all abortions during the first trimester (a roughly three-month period of pregnancy) and permitted states to regulate abortion during the second trimester to protect the mother’s health, but states could still not prohibit abortion during this trimester. For the remaining trimester, states were allowed to prohibit abortion except when the mother’s life or health was at stake.

The legalization of abortion by the Roe decision was controversial from the beginning and remains controversial today (see Note 9.14 "Applying Social Research"). Amid all this controversy, it is important to keep in mind that theRoe decision protected the health and lives of many pregnant women. As the Guttmacher Institute (Cohen, 2009, p. 2) [4] explains, “The United States legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, in part because of the clear evidence that restrictive laws were not ending abortion but were exacting a significant public health toll, notably on lower-income women who could not travel or pay for safe services. Almost immediately afterward, pregnancy-related deaths and hospitalizations due to complications of unsafe abortion effectively ended. The United States was not the first country and has been far from the last to recognize this relationship and move to liberalize its law.”


Applying Social Research


The Abortion and Crime Rate Controversy

In 2001, two scholars published an article on abortion and crime rates. The article concluded that the legalization of abortion after the Supreme Court’sRoe v. Wade decision in 1973 lowered the crime rate two decades later. They reasoned that the Roe decision increased the number of abortions among poor teenagers, whose children are at risk for delinquency and crime when they reach adolescence and young adulthood. Because the increased number of abortions meant that these children were never born, the crime rate in the late 1980s and 1990s was lower than it would have been because of the Roe decision.

This article set off a firestorm of controversy, with people on both sides of the abortion debate appalled at the implication that abortions should be promoted to lower the crime rate many years later. The article also set off a wave of social science research to determine the validity of the article’s conclusion.

The research that has been published in the decade since this controversial article has yielded mixed results. Some studies have found that legal abortion did lower the crime rate; other studies have found that it did not lower the crime rate; and some studies have even found that it raised the crime rate. Even if abortion might have lowered the crime rate during the 1990s, most criminologists think that the crime rate decline during that decade mostly stemmed from other reasons, including more effective policing and a thriving economy.

It remains highly debatable whether any possible crime-reducing effect of abortion is a relevant factor for the debate over legal abortion. Regardless of its possible relevance, however, the social science research on this issue is so equivocal that it is premature to assume that abortion does, in fact, lower the crime rate.

Sources: Chamlin, Myer, & Sanders, 2008; Donohue & Levitt, 2001; Kahane, Paton, & Simmons, 2008 [5]

Despite the fact that Roe v. Wade ended the health risks of unsafe abortions, access to abortion has weakened in the years since this case was decided in 1973. In a 1992 ruling, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court weakened Roe by ruling that states could ban abortions after the fetus became viable at twenty-two or twenty-three weeks, which is before the end of the second trimester. This ruling also allowed states to require a twenty-four-hour waiting period, the signing of an informed consent form, and the signing of a parental consent form for minors. Various acts by Congress have also made it more difficult to receive an abortion. In particular, Congressional legislation in 1976 banned Medicaid funding of abortions.

Many states have passed various measures to make it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion. As of March 2012, these selected measures were in effect (Guttmacher Institute, 2012) [6]:


  • Thirty-two states prohibit the use of state funds for abortions unless the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

  • Nineteen states require that a woman receive counseling before an abortion that includes information on one or more of the following topics: the ability of a fetus to feel pain, mental health consequences following an abortion, the availability of ultrasound, or the claimed link between abortion and breast cancer.

  • Twenty-six states require a waiting period between receiving counseling and receiving an abortion.

  • Twenty-six states require consent from one or both parents for a minor to receive an abortion, and fifteen states require that one or both parents be notified; included in these numbers are four states that require both consent and notification.

  • Two states require a woman to have an ultrasound before having an abortion.


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