Abortion and Women’s Rights in the USA

By Marianna Karakoulaki

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Introduction*

1973 is marked as a very important year for women’s rights in the USA. It was that year that abortion became a constitutional right and was legalized on a federal level across the USA with the historical Supreme Court Decision Roe v. Wade. Since then, however, the conservative right and religious leaders across the states have been trying with every means they have to overthrow the decision. With every chance the republican controlled legislatures have, they change their state laws in order to make it more and more difficult for a woman to have an abortion or even take contraceptives. Especially this year, abortion and contraception in general became one of the most discussed issues on the agendas of the republican primaries due to the Birth Control Mandate that the Obama Administration tries to push forward.

This paper discusses the impact that the debate on abortions has on women’s rights in the United States. The first part will focus on the pro-life and pro-choice arguments in order to give a brief introduction to the readers; in addition, the second and main part of this paper focuses on the debate in the USA by firstly presenting the main and most influential Supreme Court decisions and bills and, secondly by presenting the republican opposition and the developments so far. The main point of this brief overview of the current situation in the USA is that women’s rights are being undermined by the efforts of the Republican Party to vote bills that will ban abortions either entirely or make it extremely difficult for a woman to have one.

Pro Life vs. Pro Choice Arguments[i]

Before moving forward with the discussion it is essential to introduce arguments of both proponents and opponents of abortion.

Pro-Life Arguments

The basic argument of pro-life proponents is that abortion is murder. They base this argument on the fact that they consider the fetus as human; therefore, killing potential people not only is it wrong but also illegal. In addition, there is the argument on fetal rights; that is, since the fetus is a potential human then human rights apply.

But one of the most debatable arguments concerns the time human life begins. Pro-life supporters argue that human life begins from the beginning of conception since the fetus fulfils 4 criteria: metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli and reproduction[ii]. Furthermore others argue that abortion violates feminist principles[iii]: since the fetus is considered a potential human, abortion is the murder of potential women.

“We believe in a woman’s right to control her body, and she deserves this right no matter where she lives, even if she’s still living inside her mother’s womb.”[iv]

A more extreme interpretation of the above argument is that abortion was created by men and is used to make women available whenever men want.[v]Last but not least, pro-life advocates support that abortion endangers women’s health, thus connecting abortion with psychological illnesses and even breast cancer; arguments that that have no scientific base.

Pro Choice Arguments

On the other hand, one of the most basic pro-choice argument is that women should be in control of their body and no one should mandate how it should be treated thus women have the right to decide what to do with their bodies otherwise it violates the freedom of personal choice. In addition, pro-choice supporters argue that abortion is vital for gender equality. With free access to abortion women will be able to achieve social, economic and political equality. According to Brian Frederking[vi], pro-choice advocates see abortion as a civil liberties issue. If that is the case then, the government cannot infringe upon that right. If women do not have the right to decide on abortion then their civil liberties are being violated and consequently they are not equal to men. Last but not least, the third argument that should be emphasized is that banning abortion risks women’s health since that would lead them to seek alternative – and illegal – practices of abortion that could have dangerous implications, including even death.

One of the basic differences of pro-life and pro-choice advocates is the moral question of “when does life begin”. Pro-life advocates support that life begins at the moment of conception whereas pro-choice advocates argue that life begins at the moment of birth. Michael Perry[vii], who has argued the moral aspects of human rights, supports that all human beings have inherent dignity and argues that unborn humans have inherent dignity too, therefore abortion is morally wrong[viii]. However, even though there the human rights treaties do not define the moment life begins and therefore they do not define whether the fetus is considered a human, most treaties adopt the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which emphasizes the fact that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. In this statement the word “born” is used intentionally in order to support that human life begins at birth.

The Abortion Debate in the USA

Law Overview

As it is mentioned in the introduction, it was in 1973 that abortion became legal in the USA on a federal level and that was because of the historical Supreme Court Decision “Roe v. Wade” which made abortion a constitutional right based on the right of privacy, implied by the 9th and the 14th amendments of the US Constitution. Quoting from Roe v. Wade:

“This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent.”[ix]

In addition to Roe v. Wade, the Doe v. Bolton Supreme Court Decision mandated that in cases of maternal health the woman’s right to an abortion could not be limited by states.[x]

Despite the importance of these two decisions, over the years the conservatives with a handful of arguments either on ethical or religious grounds tried to attack the constitutionality of abortion rights. They have also tried to overturn Roe v. Wade by promoting several bills and court decisions as state laws; this means that despite the legality of abortion on a federal level there is a large number of restrictions in every state separately.

For example, there are state laws that make counseling essential before the operation. There is nothing wrong with that of course. However, during these counseling hours, which are usually 24 hours before the operation, doctors must mention some facts, that are not entirely scientifically proven, for example such as that abortion is connected to breast cancer or mental illness. Still, the most disputed bill though is the “fetal pain bill” which states that the fetus can feel pain after a gestational age of twenty weeks or older[xi].

Public Funding 17 States: Use their own funds for Medicaid32 States and DC: Use of States Funds Prohibited (exceptions apply)
Coverage by Private Insurance 8 States: restricted coverage, coverage only when woman’s life is endangeredMost states allow abortion coverage at additional cost
State Mandated Counseling 19 States: Counseling before Abortion
Waiting Periods 26 States: specified waiting period, usually 24 hours before the operation, between counseling and operation

Source: Guttmacher Institute[xii]

Birth Control Mandate

The latest controversy over abortion was sparked after the proposed birth control mandate by the Obama administration. With the new contraceptive rule under the health law, insured women will qualify for contraceptives without a co-payment as part of a range of preventive medical services[xiii].

The conservative right and religious leaders see this mandate as an attack to religious freedom. They base their arguments on the fact that abortion, as a contraceptive method, comes in contrast to their beliefs thus it is unconstitutional and should not pass.

During a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on February 2012 that discussed the mandate with religious leaders the republican representative (and Tea Party member), Joe Walsh, told that Barack Obama’s plan to eliminate co-pays for birth control was an attack on religious freedom arguing that the mandate was not about women but about religious liberties[xiv].

In addition, John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives opposed the mandate by saying that the religious beliefs of the American people are being violated. However this specific hearing has caused a lot of controversy due to the fact that no woman was present in order to represent women and express women’s opinions over the mandate.

In an additional hearing, supporters of the mandate, including Nancy Pelosi who was the one that took the initiative to hold that hearing, claimed that the mandate was not an issue of religious beliefs but an issue of women’s health. In her speech, on March 2012, she supported that:

“It’s a matter of conscience for each woman, her doctor, her husband, her family and her God to make their own decisions. And as a Catholic, I support the right of a woman to make that decision,” (…)  “The birth control and contraception is not just about reproduction; it’s also about women. It’s all in the larger sense about the fuller picture of women’s health.”[xv]

However the fact is that the mandate is surely not about religious rights but about women’s health and women’s rights. According to pro-choice advocates in the USA, Religious ideology should not mandate laws for all citizens, especially since religious freedom is constitutionally established by the First Amendment[xvi].

As far as the abortion laws are concerned, the new mandate can have a serious impact on them and on women’s lives. Until now 8 states restrict coverage of abortion in private insurance plans, most often limiting coverage only to when the woman’s life would be endangered if the pregnancy were carried to term. Most states allow the purchase of additional abortion coverage at an additional cost. Seventeen states use their own funds to pay for all or most medically necessary abortions for Medicaid enrollees in the state. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of state funds except in those cases when federal funds are available: where the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Forty-six states allow individual health care providers to refuse to participate in an abortion. Forty-three states allow institutions to refuse to perform abortions, sixteen of which limit refusal to private or religious institutions.[xvii]

The benefits of the mandate cannot be denied. Women’s lives will be improved not only economically but also socially. The mandate will give access to basic health services for women, such as contraception, mammograms, prenatal and cervical cancer screenings, and other preventive care which until now it was difficult due to their high cost.

Conservative Opposition and the Elections

There is no surprise that the official stance of the religious leaders in the US is against abortion with their main argument being that “Life begins at conception”[xviii]. However, most of the attention is given to the Christians and their denominations due to the influence they have in the public. Abortion is one of the main political debates in this year’s primary elections in general with the conservative right paying attention to their Christian values and the more liberals giving emphasis on women’s rights. The republican candidates have given a special emphasis on the fact that they were all pro-life and that was an important issue in their campaigns and one of their main arguments against Barack Obama who is in favor of the Roe v. Wade decision.

Rick Santorum, who is a Roman Catholic and considered to have some of the most extreme pro-life ideas, supported that abortion should be illegal even in cases involving rape and incest. He has also taken the debate a step further by calling for abortion doctors to be prosecuted for crimes[xix]. To make matters worse, Santorum, when asked what he would do if one of his daughters was raped, got pregnant and wanted to have an abortion, he said that he would advise her to “accept this ‘horribly’ created baby because it was still a gift from God, even if given in a ‘broken’ way”.[xx]

Conclusions

To sum up, there are a lot of arguments both by pro-life and pro-choice advocates. Yet, there is one fact that cannot be denied: Abortion is a woman’s choice or at least it should be a woman’s choice. In a country that is famous for its civil rights movement it is absolutely unacceptable to discuss about women’s rights without discussing about abortion rights. If the birth control mandate does not come into effect then there will be a serious drawback not only for women’s rights but for gender equality in general.  The birth control mandate puts an end to several problems that exist in the US Health Care System, especially for the less fortunate, since it will allow women enrolled in Medicaid to have the right access to contraceptive methods.

Furthermore, the fact that the mandate was introduced this year has had a serious impact on the presidential race as it became one of the most discussed issues during the primary elections. Nevertheless, there was no surprise on the republican primaries’ stance especially due to the fact that they never forget to mention their religious (Christian) values to the end of gaining the support of the most religious part of the population. That has caused an important dilemma among the more conservative democrat voters.

To conclude, it should be said that as long the debate against abortion rights continues in the USA, gender equality and women’s rights will not be fully achieved.

ABORTION LAWS OVERVIEW
Physician and hospital requirements 36 States: Abortion by licensed physician20 States: Abortion in a hospital after a specified point20 States: Involvement of a second Physician
Gestational Limits 40 States: Abortions prohibited for Medicaid enrolees (except when necessary)
Partial Birth 18 States: Prohibited
Public Funding 17 States: Use their own funds for Medicaid32 States and DC: Use of States Funds Prohibited (exceptions apply)
Coverage by Private Insurance 8 States: restricted coverage, coverage only when woman’s life is endangeredMost states allow abortion coverage at additional cost
Refusal 46 States: Health Care providers can refuse participation in abortion16 States: limited to private and religious institutions
State Mandated Counselling 19 States: Counselling before Abortion
Waiting Periods 26 States: specified waiting period, usually 24 hours before the operation, between counselling and operation
Parental Involvement 37 States: parental involvement required22 States: one or both parents11 States: inform one or both parents4 States: both parental consent and notification

Source: GUTTMACHER INSTITUTE

* Part of this article was presented at the Second Annual POLSIS Conference: Cosmopolitan Dimensions at the University of Birmingham, UK


[i] BBC Ethics Guide: abortion available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/abortion

[ii] Cleaver Ruse, C. & R. Schwarzwalder,  “The Best Pro-Life Arguments for Secular Audiences”. Available at:  http://www.frc.org/brochure/the-best-pro-life-arguments-for-secular-audiences

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Dworkin A. (1983), Right Wing Women. Available at:http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/RightWingWomenAbortion.html

[vi] Frederking, B., “Gender Equality and Abortion” (2006) at: http://faculty.mckendree.edu/brian_frederking/columns/gender_equality.htm

[vii] Perry M. J., Toward a Theory of Human Rights. Religion, Law, Courts (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

[viii] Ibid (p.53-64)

[xi] “State Policies in Brief: An Overview of Abortion Laws” Guttmacher Institute (2012) at: http://www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spib_OAL.pdf

[xii] At the end of this paper there is a full list of the overview of abortion laws in the USA

[xiii] Appleby J., “5 Things You Need To Know About the Birth Control Mandate”, MSNBC (02/03/2012) at: http://vitals.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/03/02/10554349-5-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-birth-control-mandate

[xiv] “Joe Walsh: Birth Control Debate Not About Women” The Huffington Post (21/02/2012) at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/21/joe-walsh-birth-control-d_n_1288822.html?ref=chicago&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

[xv] Parkinson J., “Women’s Health vs. Religious Freedom: House Leaders Debate Birth Control Mandate”, ABC News (01/03/2012) at: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/03/womens-health-vs-religious-freedom-house-leaders-debate-birth-control-mandate/

[xvi] “(The) Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” U.S. Const. amend. I

[xvii] “State Policies in Brief: An Overview of Abortion Laws”, Guttmacher Institute,  (2012) at: http://www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spib_OAL.pdf

[xviii] “Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Abortion” The Pew Forum,  (2012) at: http://www.pewforum.org/Abortion/Religious-Groups-Official-Positions-on-Abortion.aspx

[xix] “Rick Santorum On Opposition To Abortion In Cases Of Rape: ‘Make The Best Out Of A Bad Situation’” The Huffington Post (23/01/2012) at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/rick-santorum-abortion-rape_n_1224624.html

[xx] Ibid.

9 thoughts on “Abortion and Women’s Rights in the USA

  1. Pingback: Cosmopolitan Dimensions Follow Up « Irrationally Bound

  2. There are a few people who follow logic , argument rather sense of feeling determines our opinion . If writter is not enough brave to response my three Questions , She should leave her opinion about Abortion and rewritte the post against Abortion . We want to see what she follow i) Logic or ii) her sense of feelings about abortion . If writter wants to follow her sense which is of course not natural . If atheist claim of being natural is true , why they support an atrocious matter like Abortion ? Is it natural thinking that a mother kills her child or women do not want to be a mother ? Of course it is not . The sentiment leading women to abortion is also responsible for killing child , broken family bond and bad parenting . We have ruined the trust between mother and child in our society , how can we trust other and how can mental peace be obtained ? N.B: my remark may annoy the writter but it is also matter of consideration that her opinion also creates pain in our mind as we do not want to see people making logic on behalf of murder .

    • Dear Conservative vs Liberal and moral value,

      First of all thank you for spending time reading my article. However, I can’t really understand why you attack me in such a way. Since you make some points, let me make some points myself, rather than sending you a dull reply…

      1. The fact that I didn’t reply does not mean that I am not brave enough to reply or that I have nothing to say. It’s not about bravery or anything.. I just didn’t want to engage in a discussion with someone that clearly didn’t understand the points I make.

      2. Abortion is not a murder simply because a fetus is not a person. However, since you didn’t understand the article let me explain that it doesn’t focus on the ethical aspects of abortion but on the contraception debate in the United States. In this article I do not say whether abortions are good or bad rather I present the current situation in the US. I do not care whether abortions are ethical or not, I just say that they should be legal.

      3. Women should have the right to choose whether they will have an abortion or not. Their choice should not be regulated by the government or any religious institution. If they want to have an abortion they will have it either way. Simple as that. Why should they risk losing their lives by choosing illegal means?

      4. In one of your comments you mention atheism. I didn’t say anything about religion, I have briefly presented some of the religious institutions’ arguments. I do not present any atheistic arguments or promote any atheist agenda. This article is not based on my religious beliefs. I haven’t said anywhere in this article what my religious beliefs are. So I can’t understand why you mention that. I might as well be a muslim, a chistian or a jew – my religious beliefs do not shape my opinion about social issues. Ohhh and for future reference the Quran, the Bible or the Torah do not mention anything about abortions. Finally, if someone is an atheist does not necessarily mean that they support abortions.

      5. Your remark doesn’t annoy me at all. Everyone has a different opinion and I respect that. I suggest you do the same, instead of attacking people that you don’t know, never spoke to or met.

      6. No, I will not write another article supporting the other side just because someone who is not brave enough to use their real name said so. If you don’t like what I write, then don’t read it.. I won’t mind at all.

      With that being said I suggest you re-read the article in order to understand the arguments I make. Thank you again for the comments and have a nice weekend.

  3. There are a few people who follow logic , argument rather sense of feeling determines our opinion . If writter is not enough brave to response my three Questions , She should leave her opinion about Abortion and rewritte the post against Abortion . We want to see what she follow i) Logic or ii) her sense of feelings about abortion . If writter wants to follow her sense which is of course not natural . If atheist claim of being natural is true , why they support an atrocious matter like Abortion ? Is it natural thinking that a mother kills her child or women do not want to be a mother ? Of course it is not . The sentiment leading women to abortion is also responsible for killing child , broken family bond and bad parenting . We have ruined the trust between mother and child in our society , how can we trust other and how can mental peace be obtained ?

  4. Well written with depth argument focusing on both side. .I want to share three points here i) Fetus is potential human or not , it is not my point but you have prevented a Human life from coming into being . It is the actual matter . For your intention , one human could not come into this world , so why it is not a murder ? It must be taken into consideration that in most case abortion is done when a life has already appeared . It happens most in Asia . 2) “”A more extreme interpretation of the above argument is that abortion was created by men and is used to make women available whenever men want “””. It was just a concept but now is it not true ?but we just need to amend the sentence ” Abortion was created by WOMEN and is used to make HERSELF avialable when SHE WANTS TO . . . . . . That means final situation is same . 3) Anti social behaviour can be legalized in name of Freedom ? Nature has bestow women a great responsibility to give birth child and look after the child . Which is why a child needs his or her mother desperately , but father ? It is not so . It is not possible for a man to give birth a child . But some women , who want to do abortion , do not want to complete the responsibility given by nature . Is it the real reason of why women want abortion ?

  5. Dear Loreen,

    Thank you so much for spending your time in order to read and comment on my article! I do appreciate that! I do know that what I am writing is against the christian beliefs but in this article I do not attack the catholic church or the christian religion.
    If you actually read my article you would understand that the main point is that, not allowing women to have an abortion legally, violates their rights! If someone wants to do an abortion or take contraceptives they will do it either way. Some women in the US go to different states where they can have abortions legally spending huge amounts of money or in the worst case scenario they use illegal means which put their own lives at risk in order to have one… In my opinion the government should provide help to these women. they should give them the choice!

    Also I am sorry but the bible does not mention anything about abortions in general and anyone can interpret the parts that you quoted in any way they want… that was the main purpose of the person that wrote them anyway… I would prefer it if you used some scientific facts rather than science fiction quotes in order to support your argument.. however, I do appreciate that you commented anyway.

    In a final note, I would like to thank you for praying on the behalf of my lost soul, but you don’t have to, there are other people on the world that might need it more than I do… especially other people who actually believe in praying, god, etc etc

    Amen and out,

    Marianna K.

  6. Well, this article clearly belongs to the culture of death, The Catholic Church opposes abortion because it believes that life is sacred and inviolable. In 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical letter called Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life) in which he spoke of “the sacred value of human life from its very beginning” and of the struggle between the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death.

    The Bible clearly teaches that abortion is wrong. This teaching comes across in many ways and for many reasons he accounts of the creation of man and woman in Genesis (Genesis 1:26-31; 2:4-25) tell us this: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

    God commanded our first parents to “Be fertile and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Why? God Himself is fertile. Love always overflows into life. When the first mother brought forth the first child, she exclaimed, “I have brought forth a man with the help of the Lord” (Genesis 4:1). The help of the Lord is essential, for He has dominion over human life and is its origin. Parents cooperate with God in bringing forth life. Because this whole process is under God’s dominion, it is sinful to interrupt it. The prophet Amos condemns the Ammonites “because they ripped open expectant mothers in Gilead” (Amos 1:13).

    “Truly children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3).

    The phrase “conceived and bore” is used repeatedly (see Genesis 4:1,17) and the individual has the same identity before as after birth. “In sin my mother conceived me,” the repentant psalmist says in Psalm 51:7. The same word is used for the child before and after birth (Brephos, that is, “infant,” is used in Luke 1:41 and Luke 18:15.)

    God knows the preborn child. “You knit me in my mother’s womb . . . nor was my frame unknown to you when I was made in secret” (Psalm 139:13,15). God also helps and calls the preborn child. “You have been my guide since I was first formed . . . from my mother’s womb you are my God” (Psalm 22:10-11). “God… from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace” (St. Paul to the Galatians 1:15).

    The killing of children is especially condemned by God through the prophets. In the land God gave his people to occupy, foreign nations had the custom of sacrificing some of their children in fire. God told His people that they were not to share in this sin. They did, however, as Psalm 106 relates: “They mingled with the nations and learned their works…They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons, and they shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, desecrating the land with bloodshed” (Psalm 106:35, 37-38).

    This sin of child-sacrifice, in fact, is mentioned as one of the major reasons that the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians and the people taken into exile. “They mutilated their sons and daughters by fire…till the Lord, in his great anger against Israel, put them away out of his sight” (2 Kings 17:17-18).

    Abortion is death. Christ came to conquer death, and therefore abortion. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

    The final outcome of the battle for life has already been decided by the Resurrection of Christ. We are not just working for victory; we are working from victory. We joyfully take a victory that has already been won, and proclaim, celebrate, and serve it until He comes again to bring it to its fullness. “There shall be no more death” (Revelation 21:4). “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

    May God bless the author of this article and the Holy Spirit to exorcise the satanic thoughts of her mind so the false teachings of the ancestral serpent may not interfere with the establishment of the Kingdom of heavens.

    Amen

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