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Why are We Afraid of the Facts?

June 28, 2012


Over the last few months, there has been a veritable firestorm in the media in response to certain government efforts regarding abortion.  The first controversy involves the Texas sonogram law, which requires women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound 24 hours before the abortion, and requires doctors to display the sonogram image, make audible the fetal heartbeat (where possible), and to provide a verbal description of the state of fetal development. The second, more recent controversy has to do with the efforts by the Texas State Health Services Council to conduct a trend analysis by requiring women obtaining abortions to report their level of education and other information.  [1]


The main thrust of the pro-choice argument against these government efforts is that they are intended to shame the pregnant woman and are an invasion of privacy.   Most of the discussion in the media on this issue has been in a tone of anger at the opposing side’s supposed callousness or judgmental, self-righteous behavior.  Pro-choice advocates seem to think that pro-life supporters have no compassion for women seeking abortions and just want to shame them into changing their minds.  They also seem to believe that pro-life advocates would think that a woman who dies from a back-alley abortion would just be getting what she deserved.  On the other side of the equation, pro-life advocates perceive a heartless attitude among pro-choicers toward the unborn child.  The truth is that abortion is always a tragedy for both the woman and the child. Even President Obama, who is famously pro-choice, has said, “no one is pro-abortion.” 


After the election of 2008, there seemed to be a moment in which both sides could find some common ground.  It began when Hillary Clinton said that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”  President Obama has also said that both sides could agree to work on reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies, supporting pregnant women, and reducing the need for abortions.  Admittedly, for most pro-lifers, “safe, legal and rare” would only be progress, but not success, since every abortion is the destruction of a unique human life.  But I think most pro-life advocates would also agree that significantly fewer abortions would be a very good thing. 


If both sides can agree that “safe, legal and rare” would be progress, then one would think that having more information about the facts about abortion would be a good thing. Psychological studies indicate that people tend to discount information that conflicts with their ideological beliefs or their personal desires.  But I believe we should never be afraid to know all the facts, particularly when serious moral decisions are involved.  The sonogram law is designed to provide women with complete information about the effects of their decision in order that they may be fully informed.  Both the United States Supreme Court and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals have upheld informed consent laws as being in the interest of the of the mother.  [2] 


Similarly, any efforts to gather information about the circumstances leading to abortion should be welcomed.  This information can then be used to help women avoid unplanned pregnancies and to support women in that situation.  However, in the current climate the abortion issue is so fraught with emotion that it is extremely difficult to have a rational discussion about the facts, or even any facts.  For example, a 2009 study found that 41% of all pregnancies in New York City ended in abortion – and 59.8% of those were to African-American women.  A billboard designed to highlight this troubling information showed a picture of a little black girl with the words, “The Most Dangerous Place for an African American is in the Womb,” led to protests and threats against the building owner.  It was quickly taken down, and an important opportunity for discussion was lost. 


To be fair, this argument about accurate information cuts both ways.  I was recently surprised to learn some new information about Plan B, the so-called “morning after” pill.  Recent studies have shown that this method of contraception may act differently than previously believed.  Plan B appears to prevent pregnancy by preventing ovulation and by inhibiting the path of sperm, thus preventing fertilization.  There does not appear to be any evidence that it prevents implantation of a fertilized egg.  While I am neither a scientist nor a theologian, I believe that for most people, this is a critical difference.  Pro-life advocates must also take care to state the truth when referring to Plan B, which, if this information is correct, cannot accurately be called an “abortion pill.” [3]


Prenatal testing can also provide important information to prospective parents.  Rick Santorum stated in his presidential campaign that he was opposed to insurance coverage for prenatal testing, because of the likelihood that it will increase the number of abortions due to fetal abnormality. His concerns are not unfounded, since over 90% of Down Syndrome pregnancies now end in abortion.  The information itself is not the issue, however, but the decisions that follow its disclosure. 


Another important development that can provide information to pregnant women is a new form of paternity test, which can prove the identity of the baby’s father as early as the 8th or 9th week of pregnancy.  If this information causes a father to enter the picture more fully and provide emotional and financial support to the mother, it could encourage the mother to continue the pregnancy and may even result in a healthier outcome for both mother and child.


I don’t understand why efforts to gain accurate information about pregnancy and abortion are subject to so much criticism.  To me, the appropriate response to unplanned pregnancies is to offer compassion and support to both the mother and the unborn child.  In order to do this successfully, people on both sides need to be willing to look at all of the facts, even those that may not seem palatable to our perspective.   If both sides of the abortion debate can agree that “safe, legal and rare” is something to strive for, why should we not have as much information as possible?




[1] See Floyd, Jacquielynn, “An Abortion? The state has a few questions first.” The Dallas Morning News 19 June 2012: B1+; Hoppe, Christy, “ ‘Doonesbury’ lampoons Texas anti-abortion sonogram law.” The Dallas Morning News 09 March 2012. 19 June 2012

[2] In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, while upholding Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court also upheld a similar informed consent law, noting that it was designed to further the psychological well-being of the woman by allowing her to make a fully informed decision.  And in Texas Medical Providers vs. Lakey, reviewing the Texas sonogram law, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stated, “the required disclosures of a sonogram, the fetal heartbeat, and their medical descriptions are the epitome of truthful, non-misleading information.”


[3] I stand by my belief that contraception is a moral issue, and not just a health issue as many claim, particularly where fertilization may have already occurred.  However, as with any moral decision, knowing the facts is crucial.

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One Comment
  1. Joseph VH permalink

    What I like most about this post is that it does a nice job of challenging “pro-choice” people to clarify their beliefs, and to divide into clearer camps. Either they really do think that abortion is bad and harmful, but it should be legal because women would get “backalley abortions” and this would be even worse (that is the logic suggested by the old moderate Democrat rhetoric of “safe, legal, and rare”), or they think that abortion really is the right choice for many women, and they should be protected from feeling guilt (this is ultimately the logic behind Doonsbury’s inabilty to focus on any purpose to the sonogram law other than “shaming” and vengeful humiliation of women). If moderate “pro-choicers” can get beyond the rancor and the spin to articulate what they truly believe, they may actually find that they value these new laws on their own terms.

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