Everyone from our celebrated allies to mainstream anti-abortion commentators have recently lauded the mantra that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. I’ve tweeted at these older (white) gentlemen in an attempt to explain why the “rare” framing is so problematic, but sometimes 140 characters just isn’t enough. Thankfully, I’m not the first to explore this subject, so instead of reinventing the wheel, I’m going to summarize one of my favorite articles on this: Tracey Weitz’s Rethinking the Mantra that Abortion Should be “Safe, Legal, and Rare.”
So what bothers me so much when even President Obama says he wants abortion safe, legal, and rare? Well, the safe and legal part I’m behind 100%. The “rare” aspect? Not so much. Here’s why.
1. By saying that you want abortion to be “rare,” you’re passing a negative judgement on the people who perform abortions and the women who have them. This judgement is harmful to women and clinicians. Dr. Weitz explains why:
“Rare” suggests that abortion is happening more than it should, and that there are some conditions for which abortions should and should not occur. It separates good abortions from bad abortions. It creates an understanding that women’s individual decision making is somehow responsible for the violent disruptive social conflict over abortion in the United States.
Do we really want to suggest that women who have abortions and clinicians who provide these health services are the reason that abortion is such a lightening rod social issue in the US? To do so is not only simplistic, but absolutely wrong.
2. Saying that you want abortion to be rare implies that there is something wrong with abortion, that abortion is somehow different from other parts of health care. Specifically, marginalizing abortion care
has contributed to the significant decline in the number of locations where abortions are performed in the United States…Increased access to care is not part of the “rare” message and efforts to expand services could be construed as working against the goal of making it less frequently used.
There should be as many abortions as there need to be. Instead of saying abortion should be rare, we should be working on expanding access to safe, affordable abortion services.
3. Wanting abortion to be rare suggests that training clinicians to provide abortions is unnecessary. In reality, we need more abortion providers to increase access to safe abortion care. In fact, as Dr. Weitz states,
The uniform acceptance that fewer abortions is good creates the inability to recognize the consequences of reduced access or to accept credit for efforts that actual increase the number of abortions.
What happens when abortion is not accessible to every person who needs it? According to Guttmacher, every year 47,000 women die as a result of unsafe abortion. What would that statistic look like if we trained every doctor worldwide to provide safe abortion care?
4. Another consequence of the “rare” framework is that it legitimizes the need for abortion restrictions, and these anti-abortion laws have the most dire consequences for women with the least resources. In addition to abortion restrictions being medically unnecessary and insulting to women and clinicians, there’s absolutely no proof that they actually reduce abortion rates. They just make it harder for women to access the care they need.
5. The “rare” framing sets up the unrealistic expectation that there’s a magic number of abortions that are acceptable, and once we reach that number, abortion will cease to be a divisive issue in American culture. Dr. Weitz uses the example of Dr. Tiller to elucidate this issue:
Unfortunately, numbers have little to do with ongoing opposition to abortion and the rarity of some abortions seem to be their reason for aversion. Take for example the situation of George Tiller, MD, the physician recently killed in Wichita, KS. In addition to having a robust practice of first trimester and early second-trimester procedures, Dr. Tiller also provided medically indicated abortions in the third trimester. While these abortions were “rare” in numerical sense, occurring only 2,400 times a year in the entire country, they were the abortions for which he was most reviled. The rarity of these procedures did not provide any protection for Dr. Tiller. Instead the specialness of those abortions provided evidence that such abortions were abnormal.
Bottom line? As Dr. Weitz puts it, saying that we want abortion to be rare “does not achieve the underlying goal of reducing the social conflict over abortion and has real consequences for women’s health and well-being, including reducing access to care, increasing stigma, justifying restrictions, and establishing unattainable goals.”
Where do we go from here? Thankfully, Dr. Weitz has four suggestions:
- Accept that abortion is a polarizing issue in the U.S.;
- Acknowledge that abortion has and will always be part of the human condition;
- Validate the rights of women to equal participation in society and control over their reproductive lives; and
- Engage in the hard conversations about abortion regarding the moral status of life, the extent of the rights and autonomy of women, the limits of the state to intervening in personal decisions, and
the role of religion in public life.
Instead of stigmatizing abortion by pushing for it to be rare, let’s work on achieving those goals instead.
I quoted extensively from Tracy Weitz’s article. Please go read it if you have the chance!