Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Guardian: A is for Abortion

•A is for abortion

Branding women with a 'scarlet letter' won't reduce abortions. As a global study shows, contraception and education are key

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is forced to walk amid her small, Puritan community wearing a red "A" on her chest for the social crime of having sex outside of the bounds of marriage. Some things in America haven't changed as much as we'd like to believe.

A new law scheduled to take effect in Oklahoma would establish an online, publicly accessible database of information about every woman in the state who sought or had an abortion. While it would not require doctors to report the names and addresses of patients seeking or obtaining a legal medical procedure many conservative lawmakers think should be outlawed, the 37-question survey would (among other things) establish the women's race, age, education level and county of residence.

Women would be required to disclose if they are state employees and what method of insurance, if any, they are using for the procedure. It would require women to specify the number of pregnancies, children, miscarriages and previous abortions they've had. And it even asks for the length of the pregnancy and whether the women were using birth control when they conceived.

The surveys would all be sent to the Oklahoma health department, where state employees would aggregate the data into a searchable, sortable database and make it available to "researchers" online.

Aside from the fact that a woman working for the state health department could, in fact, have her survey reviewed and posted by her own colleagues (and have her identity compromised to her co-workers), there are other privacy concerns. In Cimarron County, for instance, the US census says that there are 2,500 residents, among them 18 African-Americans, 32 Native Americans, five Asians and 485 Latinos. If there is, say, only one 35-year-old African-American woman in the county with a college education who seeks to have an abortion, the fact that she did so will be immediately apparent to her neighbours – and to the anti-abortion protesters whose tactics include individual threats and harassment.

Legislators who passed the law are open about their motivations. They want to use the questionnaire and the online database to stop women from having abortions. Seemingly, they don't care whether they do so by intimidating women, allowing others to harass them or by making it difficult to obtain medical care. But the absence of any political will to do so through comprehensive sex education, economic support or a dedication of law-enforcement resources to protecting women from rape and sexual abuse seems rather telling about the anti-abortion movement's priorities.

A new study published by the Guttmacher Institute this week shows yet again that anti-abortion advocates' obstructionary tactics do little to reduce the prevalence of abortion. The decline in worldwide abortion rates is almost entirely due to a decline in unintentional pregnancy through access to contraception and education – and there's no correlation to the legality of abortion or not.

Making abortion illegal or difficult to obtain doesn't reduce its prevalence in a country. It simply increases the health risks to the women who seek them anyway. The only proven way to stop women from having abortions is to help them make their own choices about when to become pregnant.

Unfortunately, anti-abortion advocates are no sooner going to turn into pro-contraception advocates than they are to adopt the children that result from forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. As the pro-choice movement has often charged, they don't care about making it easier for women to avoid unwanted pregnancy or carry a child to term despite her economic circumstances. Their focus is on the foetus, and the foetus alone.

Republicans like to tout themselves as the party of limited government, and, this summer, town halls in Oklahoma and elsewhere echoed with the refrain that the government should never, ever come between its citizens and their doctors. But when it comes to reproductive health decisions, it seems, Oklahoma Republicans are proud to stand between their female constituents and their doctors, scarlet letters at the ready, and be the party of a limiting government.

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