By Samantha Stephenson
Samantha Stephenson is a Catholic wife and mother of 3, host of the podcast Brave New Us, and the author of the upcoming book Reclaiming Motherhood From a Culture Gone Mad. Follow her blog, Mama Prays, or sign up for her Faith + Bioethics newsletter to receive the latest updates on medical research, technology, and culture.
However joyous the faithful may be over the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion suggesting it will overturn Roe v. Wade, this highly contentious news serves to heighten tensions in an already deeply-divided America. Pro-life Christians are being persecuted for their beliefs. Churches and pregnancy centers have been vandalized and set on fire. Abortion advocates have interrupted Masses, chanting the message, “Without abortion women can’t be free.”
Their provocative statement is a falsely empowering lie that, tragically, even some pro-life Christians believe. Rhetoric insisting that abortion is a woman’s right is embedded in our cultural consciousness, so much so that many are reluctant to condemn abortion even when they recognize the dignity of the fetus. This is where much of the dialogue on this issue remains gridlocked. Abortion is almost always painted as a conflict between the good of the mother and the good of the fetus. It is time we changed the conversation.
Far from being a basic “right,” abortion is deeply damaging to women; it is not the means to a level playing field that its avid supporters believe it to be. This faulty perception relies on decades of accepting a poor societal “solution” to the “problem” of women’s fertility. In addition to doing women serious physical and psychological harm, abortion contributes to a society that is less hospitable to women, not more so. Contrary to widespread misperception, abortion does not expand options for women; it has brought us merely the illusion of “choice.” Abortion is not an equalizer but an assault on women, a poison that masks the ailment but is slowly killing the patient.
In the United States today, women are woefully uninformed about the realities of abortion. By their own accounts, 84 percent of women who have had abortions felt they did not receive adequate counseling prior to the procedure; and 64 percent felt pressured to have an abortion. When women do receive in-depth counseling about potential side effects and risks, only 33 percent choose abortion, as opposed to the 94 percent of Planned Parenthood’s patients who choose the procedure. The implications? When informed about the health risks of abortion, the majority of women choose another option.
A view that is truly pro-choice and not merely pro-abortion is one that supports the disclosure of information about the risks associated with abortion. In order to make truly free decisions, women need all the information.
Tragically, they aren’t likely to get it from organizations like Planned Parenthood and the pro-abortion American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), both of which publicly declare abortion to be without risks. Their declarations grossly exaggerate the supposed “safety” of the procedure and fail to account for the spectrum of afflictions women can and do experience as a result of abortion.
Studies show a great deal of risk associated with abortion across the spectrum of women’s health and fertility. For example, one study revealed a 44 percent increase in risk for breast cancer after a single abortion, rising to 76-89 percent after multiple abortions. Complications from abortion can include scarring, Asherman’s Syndrome, and incompetent cervix, both of which can result in difficulty carrying future pregnancies to term.
Damage from abortion is not limited to the women who procure them; it can also affect their future children. Studies point to an increased chance of preterm birth of 25-27 percent that rises to 51-62 percent after multiple abortions, with a 71 percent higher chance of a very early preterm birth prior to 26 weeks.
In addition to the health risks, abortion can carry serious psychological consequences for women. Although the American Psychological Association (APA) officially denies the existence of mental health risks associated with abortion, their own research shows a strong correlation to that effect. Another study found an 81 percent incidence of mental health problems in women who had undergone an abortion, 10 percent of which were directly attributable to abortion.
Anecdotal evidence supports the idea that abortion causes long-term trauma, as evidenced by the existence of Project Rachel and similar ministries whose charism is to aid in the healing of women who deeply regret choosing abortion.
The suppression of information regarding abortion’s risks in service of expanding access to the procedure runs contrary to the ultimate good of women. While this point might fall on deaf ears at Planned Parenthood and other organizations with a vested financial interest in the perpetuation of abortion on demand, this information is vital to the women who will potentially be harmed by abortion, as well as to those who genuinely seek women’s advancement in good faith.
As many are coming to realize, abortion is not a panacea for women’s inequality. Far from it. Reliance on abortion limits rather than expands options for women. As Gloria Purvis points out, abortion is “integral to upholding systems that oppress women.”
As I argue in Chapter 4 of Reclaiming Motherhood from a Culture Gone Mad, abortion and contraception are coercive technologies. Their widespread use contributes to the structuring of society in such a way that it becomes increasingly difficult to opt-out of its use. Fewer children and fewer families result in a society that is less hospitable to families. The less society feels its collective responsibility toward our children, the less likely we are to see policies that support the needs of families.
And reproductive coercion influencing women to forgo motherhood is expanding. Because maternity leave and medical coverage for dependents come with added costs, corporate policies often encourage women to delay or forgo childbearing. Tech companies have even begun offering coverage for egg freezing, a “benefit” that supposedly offers women greater reproductive choice (despite the implied coercive message that women who take their careers seriously ought to delay motherhood in order to establish themselves). Never mind that egg freezing is itself risky, and delays in childbearing age correlate with increased maternal health risks and infertility.
Instead of fighting for the freedom of women to be women—whose fertility and desire for motherhood are integral parts of their identity—abortion advocates insist that our liberty can only be found by muting our fertility and forcing our healthy bodies to mimic those of men. If the single path to freedom in our society is one that requires the stamping out of uniquely feminine abilities, then the problem lies with society and not with women’s bodies. As Leah Jacobson writes, “Rather than elevating culture to appreciate and support women’s bodies, we settled for a culture that says our bodies are for sexual pleasure only, making the right to alter, suppress, and destroy our fertile, life-giving female bodies the supreme ‘women’s right.’”
How can such a narrow view of women’s “rights” account for the needs of those who choose motherhood?
The answer: it doesn’t. If it did, support and funding for women’s childbearing “choices” would not be so asymmetrically skewed in favor of those who choose abortion over those who choose motherhood and carrying to term.
In the state of California, where abortion is nearly as accessible as fast food at a drive-through window, the need for a proposed $61 million in additional abortion funding in the governor’s budget seems dubious. Where is the funding for those who pursue motherhood? In a San Diego Tribune op-ed, women asked: “Where are the recommendations to address the millions of missing housing units, the unaffordable childcare situation, the inadequate prenatal care many women receive, the deadly maternal mortality rate compared to the rest of the developed world, or the dismal state of women’s preventive care?” As Gloria Purvis observes, “When you have this asymmetrical emphasis on funding and marketing towards abortion, that’s not freedom to me. That’s coercion.”
These coercive effects are magnified for women living in poverty, for whom state funding provides easy access to abortion and relatively little support for carrying to term. For women grappling with the realities of poverty, lack of affordable housing, and domestic violence, the idea of having a “choice” feels distant indeed.
“Without abortion, women can’t be free.” An emotionally compelling statement, to be sure. But is there any logical weight to it? Are American women free to choose when they have sex and with whom? If so, it seems that self-restraint is an obvious alternative path to freedom that these protestors hadn’t considered. If not, there is a gravely serious issue we need to address, one that abortion does nothing to solve.
While contraception and abortion may be relatively cheap and expedient ways to open a greater number of doors for women, our societal reliance on them as the means for inclusion of women is wildly insufficient.
What does women’s full inclusion in society look like? (To explore that question, we would first have to be able to agree on what a woman is.) As Teresa Collett, Helen Alvaré, Erika Bachiochi, and 240 female scholars and professionals argue, women don’t need abortion for equality with men. What women need for inclusion in the workplace are options such as paid maternity leave and flexible work schedules—policies that do not penalize them for pursuing motherhood.
But perhaps what we hunger for more deeply is a recovery of the sense of the dignity of motherhood. Perhaps if we remember that joy and meaning are more often found in the giving of ourselves than in the piling up of accolades, then we will recover from impoverished notions of “equality” and “advancement” that define women’s flourishing so narrowly in terms of career success. If we can learn to prize and prioritize relationships, maybe we will stop seeing those with our children as impediments in need of severing.
Whatever shape the society that most fully enables women’s full flourishing may take, one thing is certain: focusing on abortion has not gotten—and will not get—us there.