Choices and Lives: The Changing Politics of Abortion

By Camosy, Charles C. | The Christian Century, April 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Choices and Lives: The Changing Politics of Abortion


Camosy, Charles C., The Christian Century


THOSE WHO ATTEMPT to limit abortion in the United States are often described by their opponents as "moving backward." In the summer of 2013, for instance, the Texas legislature moved to ban abortion after 20 weeks and to require all abortion facilities to offer women easier access to hospitals in case abortions go wrong. Writing in the Washington Post, Jamila Bey spoke for many pro-choice people when she claimed that Texas was trying to "turn back the clock" on women's rights.

But those who view Europe as more progressive than the United States on social issues like abortion might be surprised to learn that the Texas law is rather tame in comparison to European restrictions. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Holland, Spain, and Sweden restrict abortions to well before 20 weeks. Many countries draw the line at 12 weeks, and many require that the procedure be done in a hospital.

Health care. Paid maternity leave. Ecological concern. Especially for progressives, Europe stands for ideas and policies to which many hope the United States will aspire. But something that I call the Costanza strategy is in effect in the United States. I've named this phenomenon for the character George Costanza in Seinfeld, who once adopted a strategy of doing the opposite of every instinct he had. While Republicans usually stand for small government, and Democrats energetically use government to protect the vulnerable from marginalization and injustice, both parties tend to "do the opposite" when it comes to abortion.

Evidence appears to show, for example, that Republicans play on the concerns for prenatal children by claiming to stand for a big government that will regulate the intimately private and personal reproductive practices of women. And the evidence also appears to show that Democrats play on the concerns of many for women's rights by claiming to stand for privacy and freedom of the individual over and against the government's interest in protecting the vulnerable.

The Costanza strategy also describes the political reaction to abortion laws in Europe. Conservatives, who often criticize attempts to use Europe as a model for social issues, are pushing our abortion laws to be more like those in France and Sweden. Liberals, who often evoke Europe as a place of social progress, imagine such changes to be moving backward. But the reality is that we are slowly becoming more like Europe when it comes to abortion restrictions. Though there is no serious attempt to make abortion totally illegal, dozens of bills have passed in recent years that significantly restrict abortion. Here are just a few:

* Thirty-three states have passed laws requiring informed consent (24 include a requirement for an ultrasound).

* Thirty-one states have passed abortion clinic regulations.

* Thirty-eight states have passed rules on parental notification or involvement.

* Thirty-eight states have wrongful-death laws that treat the unborn child as a person; 11 of these protect the fetus from fertilization onward. Thirty-seven states have fetal homicide laws, and 25 of these extend the protection from fertilization.

* Virtually every state today has prenatal-injury laws that compensate for prenatal injury at any time after conception.

* With the passage of the previously mentioned Texas law, Texas became the 13th state to ban abortion beyond 20 weeks.

The trend shows no signs of slowing. The year 2013 saw the second highest number of pro-life state laws passed in American history (2011 holds the record). There are many more in the pipeline. One of the few attempts to change the law in the other direction was defeated in New York State in June 2013, when both Republican and Democratic legislators rejected Governor Andrew Cuomo's attempt to expand access to late-term abortion.

So there's been a broad and dramatic shift, especially in the last 15 to 20 years, toward more abortion restrictions in the United States. …

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