Sunday, January 20, 2008

Abortion Battle Still Hot After 35 Years

As a white male who can't get pregnant, I've always felt I should remain a sideline observer in the heated debate over abortion rights in this country.

I certainly have opinions on the subject. But my main observation is this: If you believe in a Creator God, as most Americans apparently do, it seems clear that said God took pregnancy and gave it exclusively to females. To me, that means pregnancy, and issues related to it, should remain in the hands of females--not government officials, not protesters, not televangelists, and certainly not politicians.

So call me pro choice. But even if I had "pro life" leanings, I don't think I could stomach the tactics of the pro-life movement. And I've been too close for comfort to the tactics used by some who oppose abortion rights.

All of this comes to mind as the nation marks the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that struck down state laws restricting abortion. Birmingham has been a hot spot in the abortion-rights debate for some time, and demonstrators/protesters on both sides of the issue held events yesterday in the city.

Reading about those activities took me back to the morning of January 29, 1998. I was sitting in my car reading the newspaper before going into work when I heard an explosion that seemed to come several blocks to the southeast. I thought perhaps there had been an accident at a construction site, and I remember thinking, "I hope no one got hurt."

I had been at work only a few minutes when word quickly spread that a bomb had gone off at the New Woman, All Women health clinic, which is three blocks south and two blocks east of where I had been sitting in my car. The clinic is probably less than 100 yards from Purple Onion, one of my favorite Southside lunch spots.

The blast killed police officer Robert Sanderson and critically injured nurse Emily Lyons. Thanks mainly to the remarkably alert actions of Jermaine J. Hughes, a student at nearby UAB (University of Alabama at Birmingham), authorities were able to track down Eric Robert Rudolph.

Rudolph wound up confessing to the Birmingham bombing, the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing, and a bombing at a gay night club in Atlanta. None of those crimes probably would have been solved without the actions of Hughes, who in the shocking moments after the Birmingham bomb saw a man walking away from the area and followed him, leading to detection of the license-plate number on Rudolph's truck.

Where are we in the abortion-rights debate? The Los Angeles Times reported last week that the number of abortions in the United States has dropped to 1.2 million a year, down 25 percent from 1990. Experts attribute part of the drop in surgical abortions to an increase in medical abortions, in which two pills are taken under a doctor's supervision to induce miscarriage.

Abortion-rights advocates say women are more likely now to avoid unwanted pregnancies, thanks in part to emergency contraception, known as the morning-after pill, which is sold without a prescription to women 18 and older.

Another study reported last week found that about half of the women who have abortions each year are 25 or older. Only about 17 percent are teens, and about 60 percent have given birth to at least one child prior to getting an abortion. A disproportionately high number are black or Hispanic, and regardless of race, high abortion rates are linked to financial difficulties.

We now know that abortion rates are falling, and the typical abortion patient is different from what many of us might have thought.

The tone of the abortion-rights debate remains disturbing. Consider conservative columnist Cal Thomas, who takes a "pro life" stance. Like many conservatives, Thomas blames abortion for all sorts of societal ills--from divorce to illegal immigration to the heartbreak of psoriasis. Of course, one is hard pressed to find any reputable social-science studies that show abortion contributes to any of these problems. One prominent social scientist has shown that legalized abortion has actually helped reduce crime rates.

Some social indicators seem to have gotten worse since Roe was decided in 1973. But the same problems have gotten worse since the rise of the Religious Right and the dominance of the Republican Party. Did those trends cause social breakdown? And what about the decline of blue laws, a trend that has caused Sunday to become just another shopping day? That, I would argue, is more likely to cause social decay than Roe v. Wade.

Like many "pro lifers," Thomas plays fast and loose with the language. "One does not begin to kill babies until other dominoes have fallen," he writes. And here's another line: "After 35 years of slaughtering our young, isn't it time to stop."

This is the kind of language, I suspect, that helps produce nut jobs like Eric Rudolph. And Cal Thomas should know better. Most of us can agree, I think, that an abortion is not a desirable outcome. But an abortion is an abortion--nothing more or less. It is not "killing," it is not "murder," and a fetus is not a "baby."

Pro lifers have so mangled the language over the past 35 years that many people no longer even blink at nonsensical statements like "abortion is murder."

It's interesting that conservatives who oppose gay marriage say we must not mess with the traditional "man-woman" meaning of marriage. (I would agree that the definition of marriage should not be changed; but I support the rights of gays to have the exact equivalent of marriage, under whatever term would be appropriate.) When it comes to abortion rights, conservatives have been changing the definition of "baby" and "child" and "murder" and other terms for years.

My hope is that Americans will quit wasting so much energy on the abortion-rights debate. In my view, abortion is not even an issue; it's a symptom of an issue. The real issue is unwanted pregnancy. If we deal with the causes of unwanted pregnancy, the abortion rate will shrink to almost nothing.

You cannot deal with the issue of unwanted pregnancy without examining the sometimes irresponsible sexual behavior of males/men/guys/dudes. Pro lifers, interestingly, seem comfortable giving guys a free pass in the abortion-rights debate.

Here's a suggestion for pro lifers: Next time you are at a clinic, politely ask the women going in (assuming they actually are pregnant and seeking an abortion) for the name, phone number, and address of the guy who is responsible for their pregnancy. Then, go to his home or place of business and protest there. Wonder if that would change the nature of the debate.

And here's another thought: How much damage is done by the constant portrayal in movies and television shows of sexual activity without consequences? When's the last time you saw a fictional character have sex and then have to deal with an unwanted pregnancy? Or when have you seen a character have sex and then go to the doctor with a strange rash on his or her privates only to be told that he/she has a sexually transmitted disease that cannot be cured?

I wonder how many young people soak up our sex-obsessed culture and come away thinking they can have all kinds of carnal romps without having it come back to bite them on the butt.

If we really want to reduce abortion rates, these are some of the issues we need to address.

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