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The Most Controversial Issue in America

Say it with a sticker!

There is no issue that divides and troubles my soul more deeply than the issue of abortion. And my soul simply mirrors that of America in general. Twenty-eight years after abortion was ruled legal in the United States, it continues to be the most controversial, polarizing, and divisive topic in contemporary American society. As Neda and I traveled through the South, we were able to see first hand how the abortion debate remains so incredibly contentious.

We talked with two activists on both sides of the issue. I admired both women for their passionate commitment and their willingness to fight for their ideals. However, both were so completely devoted to their respective positions thatthey didn't allow much room for compromise. As most Americans belong in the "mushy middle," I kept wondering why abortion activists seem to be more intent on tearing the other side apart instead of trying to find some common ground. In the 19th century, America split over the definition of "personhood" as it applied to enslaved African Americans. As we enter the 21st century, the battle over what constitutes a "person" has shifted to abortion. Let's hope it doesn't take another Civil War to resolve the issue.

My own beliefs have swung all over the map when it comes to abortion. In eighth grade, I wrote a paper condemning the horrors of abortion, proclaiming out loud to my classmates that, "An innocent human being should never have to be killed because of someone's stupid mistake." After discovering the powerful effects of cute boys in high school, I switched gears completely and put "Abortion on demand and without apology" bumper stickers on my cello case. Being in control of my body was the most important right I had and no one could take that away from me. During college, I began to question the notion of individual responsibility and I studied lots about the women's movement in the 60s. Women have so many more rights and privileges now than they had back then. Because of that, what excuse did I have if I were to want an abortion? My parents could help me take care of a baby. I knew all about the different types of birth control. I could not plead poverty or a lack of education. Even if abortion was unjustifiable for me, does that mean the law should make it so for everybody?

The abortion question has haunted America since the Declaration of Independence. Abortion was legal back then until the fourth month. The cut off point was known as "quickening," meaning that point when you first felt the baby kicking inside of you. Whenever there were periods of religious revival such as the Second Awakening, movements to outlaw abortion would spring up as well. In 1859, the American Medical Association finally succeeded in making abortion a criminal act in 40 states. Women during this time were also dying from herbal recipes and drugs that they were using to induce abortions.


Yikes! What hurts?

It took over one century and a full-fledged feminist movement in the 1960s before the question of abortion's criminality would take center stage again. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1965 that couples had a "right to privacy" regarding birth control. Women started agitating that the "right to privacy" should be extended to abortion. An unmarried and pregnant girl named Norma McCorvey sued the state of Texas in 1970. Using the name "Jane Roe," Norma said that the state was infringing on her right to privacy under the 14th amendment by not letting her terminate her pregnancy. Texas at the time only allowed abortions if the life of the mother was endangered. By the time the case reached the Supreme Court, Norma had already had the baby and given it up for adoption.

Nick at a Planned Parenthood. They don't just do abortion, but all sorts of women's health care.

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, ruled in Roe vs. Wade that abortion in the first trimester (first three months) should be legalized though states could put limits in the second trimester and outright prohibit it in the third. It has proven to be the most bitterly contested opinion since Dred Scott ruled that a black person was less than fully human under slavery

See Stephanie's dispatch.

Justice Harry Blackmun, in writing for the majority, said, "This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action ... or in the Ninth Amendment's reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." While in his dissent, Justice William Rehnquist (now the Chief Justice), rebutted that, ""I have difficulty in concluding that the right of privacy is involved in this case ... the Court's sweeping invalidation of any restrictions on abortion during the first trimester is impossible to justify under that standard."

Since that time, over 30 million abortions have been performed. On average, there are over one million abortions performed annually. The controversy is as strong as ever. In the past decade, violence at health clinics and towards doctors who perform abortions has increased, resulting in several high-profile shootings and bombings.

Emily Lyons, left, survived a bombing of her clinic and now speaks out to preserve a woman's right to choose

One person's whose life has been tragically affected by the violence is Emily Lyons, a registered nurse with 20 years of experience. In January 1998, a bomb exploded at her clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, killing a security guard and almost killing her. The bomb was made of dynamite and nails. The nails pierced Emily's entire body. She has since had over 18 operations. One eye had to be removed. She had a fist-sized hole above her abdomen, shins blown off so that the bones were exposed, and hands so crippled she cannot write or play the piano.


The pictures I see of her in the hospital are among the most gruesome photos I've ever seen in my life. But instead of silencing Emily, the would-be murderer only strengthened her commitment to abortion rights. "We're still fighting the same battles we were 28 years ago to protect a woman's choice. The bombing has made me a mentally stronger person. The suspect gave me a voice I did not have before." Emily also talked about the way abortion rights have been chipped away by the Supreme Court. Twenty-seven states have parental consent laws requiring a minor to get parental permission for an abortion. A girl can go to a judge to get a judicial bypass if she feels she can't go to her parents. Some states have mandatory waiting periods before a woman can receive an abortion.

Emily after the bomb

Emily does make a distinction between pro-lifers who condemn the violent tactics used against her and the extremists who wanted her dead. "No one should have to endure harassment or intimidation to provide reproductive health care," she said. "Someone did this to me over a difference in opinion."

Gen Wilson, former president of Georgia's Right to Life Committee, agrees that you can't be pro-life and then turn around and try to murder people. But she also says the pro-life position often gets distorted by the media who only highlight the few crazy people who advocate violence against pro-choicers (or pro-abortionists as she calls them). In college, Gen had written an essay in support of a pro-choice position. "I would have made a good politician," she laughed. "I tried to walk the line by saying I didn't think abortion was right, but that it needed to be available."

This is an unborn baby at 4 weeks old

But she changed her mind totally after one of her friends became pregnant for the fourth time and had an alcoholic and abusive husband. The local university promised her a free abortion if she would let the fetus be used for scientific experimentation. Gen recalled how her friend later suffered health problems because of the procedure and tried to commit suicide. "I realized women were used as pawns by the abortion industry. To me, abortion is the foundational issue for others. The sanctity of life is no longer taught and because of that, we have kids killing kids, men killing women." Gen also says abortion lets men escape their responsibilities for the women they get pregnant, an argument I am very sympathetic with.

The Georgia Right to Life group believes that because every life is precious, exceptions for rape or incest should not be made. As for the argument that women will use coat hangers and drink bleach if legal abortion is gotten rid of, Gen responded, "I don't deny that women did harmful things to themselves before abortion was legalized. But we don't legalize something like drugs just because some people may overdose from it anyways." The fact that abortion is often made into a "women's rights" issue bothers her. "I am a feminist. I believe that women should be treated equally and fairly. I'm very glad I live in a country where we have so many freedoms, but that freedom is regulated by laws. We don't have the freedom to slander another person and we should not have the freedom to abort a child."

As someone who regards abortion as an evil necessity, I wish both sides would speak more to making abortion obsolete. Pro-choicers often think that in order to be a feminist, you have to support abortion rights. I think that's totally false and I think it's very disturbing that pro-choicers dance around the question of whether a fetus represents life or not. I looked through several baby books and was awed by the miracle of conception and the way a fetus develops. Only one sperm in a million reaches the egg. After reading about how the nervous, skeletal and digestive systems form within the first few weeks and how by the third week, the embryo has developed a heartbeat, I find it really hard to argue that abortion isn't some form of murder.

However, as someone who reveres and cherishes life in all its forms, I find the obsession with abortion from pro-lifers to be troubling and narrow-minded. For instance, US foreign policy in Guatemala has helped cause the murder and rape of thousands of women and children, but most pro-life activists confine their lobbying simply to abortion. Gen asked, "Who knows how many Beethovens we've lost because of abortion? Or the scientist that could have cured cancer?" But what about the almost 20% of children in America that are living in poverty without decent food and shelter? I asked Gen if the Right to Life group lobbies on things like welfare reform, which has made poor women even more vulnerable. "We would lobby if there was a law requiring them to get an abortion if they had another baby, but not really in general." If the pro-lifers are so concerned with our attitudes towards human life, I would hope that they would find just as offensive the problems of war, poverty and hunger as they do abortion.

Expect more of these confrontations

With a pro-life President and Congress, the abortion battles are surely only going to get more explosive. I wish sometimes that all the energy expended on the debate could be used to ensure adequate health care for all women, or universal access to birth control, or getting men to pay child support. But for now, abortion continues to be the defining issue of our time.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - A fish, a bicycle and a woman named Gloria
Jennifer - If it's a man's world, what's a girl to do?
Neda - You go, girl! Empowering women everywhere
MAD - The abortion issue: In the hot seat, again