Chapter 3: Why Abortion?

After affluent, well-nourished Henry Hyde, a United States Congressperson from Illinois, succeeded in halting federal funding of abortions for needy women, that law, upheld by the United States Supreme Court, set into motion tragedies that occur every day. Women who are homeless, who are abused, battered, raped, or who have serious illnesses or are carrying defective fetuses no longer have the choice of abortion.

While a few states decided to appropriate state monies for the purpose of assisting needy women tragically or inappropriately pregnant, most of them did not, with the result that in much of the United States the pregnant woman who is poor is destined to reproduce, no matter how critical or deplorable her circumstances may be.

The reasons most poor women seek abortions are compelling, and their stories, for the most part, go untold. In my extensive counseling and referral experience, I have found the following are the most common reasons women ask for help in securing abortions.

  • The pregnant woman who is poor seeks abortion because she can not take care of herself and the children she has. Most of the pregnant women helped by the Women’s Medical Fund have children—many with two or three, some with as many as 10. Another birth will draw the family deeper into poverty.
  • She is a battered woman. Battery is as common as ragweed, and anyone should understand that a woman who has just had her teeth loosened or requires stitches in her head because of battery does not want to produce that batterer’s child.
  • She is pregnant from rape or incest. Although some states say they will pay for abortions for women on welfare when pregnancies result from rape or incest, in actual practice relatively few ever are paid for. The typical requirement that it is not adequate to report to a physician, or to a health department, but only to police, means most rape goes unreported. This is understandable. Many police departments still treat very badly those women reporting rape, and, even more intimidating, a woman who is afraid of her rapist, if he is known to her, is not going to tell police about him out of fear of retribution. Twelve and thirteen-year-old incest victims are not about to name “daddy” or “uncle” or their mother’s new husband to police. Reporting requirements need to be changed. In Wisconsin where state monies are supposed to pay for abortion in instances of rape, incest and serious threat to the woman’s health from a pre-existing medical condition, in all of 1992 only six abortions actually met the stringent reporting and eligibility requirements. It is simple for antiabortion bureaucrats to circumvent the intent of the law.
  • She is pregnant and ill. Although some states make provision for abortion payment for serious illness of the woman on welfare, here again in actual practice, few qualify. The Women’s Medical Fund has paid, in part or in full, for abortions for women on welfare carrying the HIV virus, testing positive for tuberculosis, having serious gestational hypertension, recovering from major surgery, having repeated C-sections, even for a woman in a wheelchair.
  • She is carrying an abnormal fetus. This is not rare and includes spina bifida, Tay-Sachs, encephaly (brain not developing), Down syndrome, organs developing outside the body, intestines in the chest cavity and other abnormalities incompatible with life. Because of the Hyde Amendment, many very needy women have had to carry these pregnancies to term, at risk to themselves, producing an infant that will die at birth or soon after, or may suffer from a devastating, degenerative illness causing great anguish to the child and those around it. Even when everyone involved knows that continuing such a pregnancy can only result in tragedy, the dictum holds—there is no public funding for these women.
  • The pregnant woman abuses alcohol and/or drugs. In recent years the devastating results of fetal alcohol syndrome have been documented. Alcoholics and drug addicts are impossible parents at special risk of producing brain-damaged children. Here again are women unable to take care of themselves.
  • The pregnant woman is homeless. Increasingly, women are leaving big city ghettos, with their children, in search of safer lives in safer cities. Often they will call the Women’s Medical Fund from some temporary shelter asking for help in securing an abortion.
  • The needy pregnant woman seeks abortion because her husband or partner is incarcerated or because she herself is in jail or prison.

It is a temptation for many people to shrug and blame the woman who is pregnant. “Why doesn’t she just use birth control?” they ask, forgetting what an imperfect art that is. Condoms break, condoms slip, the pill—especially the low estrogen content pill—just does not work for all women. Birth control pills may fail if someone is put on an antibiotic, or changes pill prescriptions. Diaphragms, sponges, spermicides all have impressive failure rates. Our most effective birth control method, sterilization, is not available in all areas, especially in those communities “served” by Catholic hospitals. Even when available, there are waits and substantial red tape. A 19-year-old with four children, for example, does not qualify for a tubal ligation until she is 21.

It is quite common for middle class people to apply middle class values to women who are poor. You can’t do it; it doesn’t compute. You can not expect the woman who grows up in poverty, who may or may not have finished eighth grade, whose only role model is another welfare mother, to be scrupulous about sex, or using effective contraception. Just be glad she has the common sense to recognize that she will never improve her situation by having more children when she can not as yet support herself. She makes a very moral decision in opting for abortion, and she should have support—not roadblocks thrown in her way.

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