Abortion Is Not A Thought Experiment


The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed by Kevin Williamson in which he addressed whether he supports capital punishment by hanging for women who have abortions ― a previously stated view that led to his high-profile firing from The Atlantic. 

Williamson asserted his earlier words did not represent his position at all, yet he continued to theorize how we should punish women for abortions if the practice is once again criminalized:

I differ from most pro-lifers in that I am willing to extend criminal sanctions to women who procure abortions and to those who enable abortions, assuming they are mentally competent adults ordinarily answerable for their actions.

The thing about Williamson’s thought experiment is that it’s really not a thought experiment at all: Across the U.S. and globally, politicians are proposing criminal sanctions for people seeking abortions. Women like Purvi Patel, Bei Bei Shuai, Anna Yocca, Kenlissia Jones and others have already been arrested or prosecuted for terminating their pregnancies (or for being suspected of doing so). Williamson’s theories are already being tested, and people are already being punished.

History has shown us that criminalizing abortion does not make it go away. It simply makes abortions harder to access, targets women of color for prosecution and fuels mass incarceration.

Instead of examining the current state of abortion in our nation, Williamson elevates France ― where abortion is legally restricted after the first trimester, with a few exceptions ― as a model. However, this argument overlooks a vital point of France’s policy: Health care, including abortion care, is readily accessible and funded by the government’s national health system.

Whether Williamson accepts it or not, abortion is an integral part of pregnancy and health care.

Like most other European countries, France makes abortion care widely available in hospitals and clinics, by vacuum aspiration or pill. In fact, medication abortion was approved for use in France in 1988, a full 12 years ahead of the U.S.

Through national health systems, many European nations have eradicated significant challenges faced here in the U.S., including having to travel to a distant clinic, spending weeks saving funds for the procedure and fighting with insurance companies for coverage. Most European patients receive all their health care ― including contraception, prenatal care and abortion ― at no additional cost. The European abortion bans still make access difficult for those who need later abortion care; however, the large-scale efforts to make abortions accessible earlier simply cannot to be compared to current medical practices in the U.S.

While Williamson concedes that a French-inspired policy would not address more than 90 percent of abortions, he believes the “gradual legal prohibition of abortion, even if it were enforced with relatively mild penalties, would close the clinics and separate the medical profession from the abortion business.”

It seems that he is unaware that several states have already unconstitutionally — nonetheless successfully — attempted this, including his home state of Texas. And the closure of clinics has not decreased women’s need for abortions. Instead, it has led to lessened early abortion access and increased waiting times, which simply forces patients to delay abortions and require more expensive later abortion procedures. Patients generally prefer abortion as early in pregnancy as possible, when the procedure is also safest.

History has shown us that criminalizing abortion does not make it go away.

Whether Williamson accepts it or not, abortion is an integral part of pregnancy and health care. All U.S. obstetrics and gynecology residency programs are required to provide training in comprehensive women’s reproductive health care, including abortion, though residents with religious or moral objections may opt out. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the leading professional organization for women’s health practitioners, recognizes that abortion is “an essential component of women’s health care.”

Furthermore, abortion access, including later abortion, is critical to ensuring safe pregnancies, particularly at a time when the maternal mortality rate for Black women is unacceptably high. A proliferation of restrictions as envisioned by Williamson will not diminish the commitment that women’s health clinicians have to their patients.

As he flagrantly ponders abortion restrictions, it’s troublesome how little he understands the medical science behind pregnancy. A proposed solution to abortion, he writes, is “easier access to non-abortive contraception.” But this isn’t even a legible medical concept. All FDA-approved contraceptive methods ― including emergency contraception ― exert their effect before a pregnancy is established; contraceptives prevent pregnancy rather than cause an abortion, which terminates an established pregnancy.

Like many anti-abortion advocates, Williamson postulates adoption as the solution for unintended pregnancies, but this willfully ignores the reality of pregnancy decision-making. The decision is rarely between adoption and abortion, as anti-abortion extremists claim. Most women who have abortions are already parents, and research has found that most women seeking abortion are aware of adoption but are not interested in pursuing it or continuing the pregnancy. Additional research shows that most women placing infants for adoption were deciding between parenting and adoption, not adoption and abortion, and chose adoption because they did not have the economic or familial support they needed to parent.

As Williamson flagrantly ponders abortion restrictions, it’s troublesome how little he understands the medical science behind pregnancy.

If anti-abortion advocates are truly interested in supporting women facing unintended pregnancies, they must confront the realities of economic coercion created by conservative austerity measures and their impact on pregnancy decision-making. Increasing access to all forms contraception, to affordable abortion and prenatal care and to comprehensive sexual health education would help; policies strengthening the welfare system for families and eradicating racial disparities in health care also must be part of the conversation.

Rather than reduce women’s lives to a misogynistic thought experiment for op-ed pages, we should listen to what it is women say they need to lead fulfilling lives, have healthy pregnancies and build thriving families — not punish them.

Renee Bracey Sherman is a writer and activist committed to the representation of people who’ve had abortions at the intersection of race and class. She is a member of Echoing Ida, a Black women’s writing collective, and her writing has been featured in The New York Times and The Guardian.

Daniel Grossman, M.D., is a professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and the director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. He is also an investigator with the Texas Policy Evaluation Project.

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