Reproductive rights theoretically allow “all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so…free of discrimination, coercion and violence”. This covers contraception, and more controversially, abortion. Despite the controversy, however, these rights allow women* crucial autonomy in their reproductive choices, and help reduce the severe adverse effects that can blight the lives of both unwanted children and reluctant parents. Thus, access to reproductive services is important, and yet far too frequently stigmatised or unavailable. The subject is sensitive, but denying access to, for example, abortion services, is not as simple as ‘saving’ the unborn. Statistically, the ‘pro-life’ are working to damn mother and child to poverty and mental illness.
Claims that being ‘unwanted’ – that is, born after an abortion has been denied – might have a negative effect on a child are not unsubstantiated. Longitudinal studies in Sweden and Czechoslovakia demonstrate an overall lower quality of life for these children: including underachievement, an increased likelihood to commit crime and a greater chance of developing mental health problems. The Czech study deduced these effects to be derived from the parents being unable to meet the children’s emotional needs, causing the children to suffer in terms of intellect and overall mental stability. It is hardly an ideal fate, and more tragic still for all involved if one considers the hardship might have been avoided had the parents’ right to family plan had been upheld. On top of this, a high percentage of the mothers who bore unwanted children developed mental illnesses themselves, as well as high stress levels and lasting feelings of resentment toward their offspring. Although one half were able to resolve this over time, it remains that one half were not. Perhaps intuitively, women denied abortions were also more likely to require state support, be out of full time work, and be living in poverty. These are all factors which further explain the statistical disadvantage of the unwanted. To compound the issue, a different study notes that minority, under-educated, already economically challenged women are more likely to be unable to obtain abortions. An unwanted pregnancy might cause them and their family to spiral ever further into poverty and difficulty, and is a strong case for making abortion truly universally accessible. However, regardless of a woman’s background, and regardless even of one’s stance on abortion, it remains true that families with unwanted children suffer. This complicates the ethics of any objection to abortion based on the grounds of suffering; it suggests that the pro-life, while entitled to their views, value existence over a good quality of living.
This is still an important issue. Even in the ‘developed’ world, where one might expect comprehensive healthcare to be readily available, access to this service is still being denied, even where it is legalised. The US is a prime example (see: p.10 onwards). 33 states subject women considering the procedure to mandatory counselling, which is misleading and often medically inaccurate. 21 states prevent any state funded organisation from referring a woman to abortion services, let alone providing them. 28 prevent medical insurance plans from covering abortion services. 47 states allow certain organisations and individuals to refuse women specific reproductive health services. Some states even have unconstitutional bans on abortion altogether: unenforceable today, but poised to pounce, should the court case legalising abortion be overturned. The list goes on, but the message stays the same. The state is not interested in the well-being of women, or indeed their potential future offspring, and thus the discussion remains important. The state are interested in preventing women from obtaining abortions. Indeed, the American political landscape is dominated by anti-choice politicians (p.6), making the unenforced bans harboured by some states all the more chilling in their possibility. And, as abortion gets harder to access, those on lower incomes will inevitably suffer the most: less able to sacrifice time and money in order to end a pregnancy they may not want or be able to afford. Closer to home, the problem is worse: abortion is completely illegal in Ireland unless the mother’s life is in danger, with Northern Island also criminalising it in most cases. The denial of reproductive rights is real and must be fought.
If one is on the fence about the issue, the names of the two movements are very enlightening: ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’. The former is merely a belief in the right of having a choice, the latter is an absolute. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that many who seek to bar women from abortion are doing so with what they believe is benevolence. One pro-life organisation claims that abortion increases child abuse (albeit with no source to substantiate such a claim), and there are many religious arguments made too. The same organisation also deems the fetus an ‘individual’, and argues that because of this, a woman considering abortion is not simply making a choice about her own body. It is definitely a tricky area, and not one where everyone is likely to agree. In fact, it is not necessary that everyone agree.
Provided that reproductive health services are readily available, and provided that no woman is ever pressured into doing anything she doesn’t want to do, surely the issue is as resolved as it can be. Those women who want to have abortions will be able to do so, and the number of unwanted children will plummet. Those women who do not want to have an abortion will not have one: they will, hopefully, carry their pregnancy to term and love and want their child, unless they have previously decided they wish for it to be adopted. Those unsure will have access to unbiased information, and will make their choice in due course. Contraceptive advice can also be dispensed.
The essence of the case is thus: limiting services that enable a person to control their own reproduction verges on immorality. Abortion cannot be viewed through a black and white lens, and the termination of a pregnancy could prevent a great deal of hardship. After all, having a child changes a person’s life. Having an unwanted child could seriously damage a family’s fate.
Why do so many value mere existence over life?
*For ease of style, the word ‘woman’ will be used throughout, although the author acknowledges that the issues discussed affect any person assigned female at birth, including trans men and non-binary individuals.