Back in the 1950s when abortion was illegal, my mom had already had four young sons and was pregnant again … and she and our father were not even married. She was running a 280-acre cattle ranch mostly on her own, and she knew that she was already very near to her breaking point. It was clear to her that another child would surely break her, and if she broke it would be the end for the four sons she already had and whom she loved dearly and protected fiercely against all odds.
So after much internal debate about what to do, she repeatedly jumped off a table until she miscarried. She came close to killing herself in the process, and she rendered herself sterile.
I remember her face when years later she finally told me about what she had done, I can never forget it. Seeing her going through all those emotions again made me weak in the knees, and I don’t think she ever told my brothers.
And at that she was lucky. In those days back alley abortions cost far too many women their lives every year.
Now, folks are popping up and telling me that my mother was bad and wrong to do what she did, and that it was wonderful and fantastic that abortion was illegal back then, even though that almost killed her, and even though abortion being illegal caused the death of thousands and thousands of women annually. NPR says:
In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women in the United States, though there were likely many more unrecorded mortalities.
And here’s the National Institutes of Health showing that this is not just yesterday’s problem (emphasis mine):
Every year, worldwide, about 42 million women with unintended pregnancies choose abortion, and nearly half of these procedures, 20 million, are unsafe. Some 68,000 women die of unsafe abortion annually, making it one of the leading causes of maternal mortality (13%). Of the women who survive unsafe abortion, 5 million will suffer long-term health complications.
Think about that. Back-alley abortions are still one of the leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide in the 21st century. Why is that?
For one simple reason. Because abortions in many countries are still illegal.
As Dr. Grimes writes in ThinkProgress, in an article called “What Americans Have Forgotten About The Era Before Roe v. Wade” (emphasis mine):
In the decade when Grimes was born, the 1940s, there were records of more than 1,000 women dying each year from unsafe and largely self-induced abortions. Every large municipal hospital in the U.S. had a “septic abortion ward,” and treatment for the complications from so-called “incomplete abortion” was the single leading cause for admission for OB-GYN services across the country. National Opinion Research Center surveys conducted in the 1960s found that hundreds of women were attempting to self-abort by penetrating themselves with knitting needles, coat hangers, bicycle spokes, ballpoint pens; others tried to swallow chemicals like turpentine, laundry bleach, and acid.
Let me be clear. I have great compassion for those opposing legal abortions. I can understand their reservations and considerations, and I respect their passion about the matter … but I must inform you that their claim that abortion is clearly and obviously a horrible immoral thing is a huge insult to people like my mother who have actually had to face the issues up close and personal.
And abortion opponents preening themselves and claiming that they have the high moral ground, when their proposals would cause the deaths of thousands and thousands of women annually from back-alley abortions? I’m sorry, but that is a lethally simplistic and untenable moral stance.
The issue is far from as simple as the abortion opponents and the Heritage Foundation are claiming. The choice is not abortions or no abortions. Vice President Mike Pence recently predicted that legal abortion would end in the U.S. “in our time.” Perhaps legal abortion in the US will end, perhaps it won’t, but here’s the ugly truth—both history and current events conclusively prove that WOMEN WILL NOT STOP GETTING ABORTIONS JUST BECAUSE IT IS MADE ILLEGAL. Never happen. Instead, we’ll just go back to the bad old days of coat-hanger abortions.
Here is the bottom line—there is no choice called “No abortions”. That’s a Mike Pence fantasy, because women will continue to have abortions whether or not they are legal. The only available choice is between sterile medical abortions and dirty coat-hanger abortions … and yet bizarrely, many people keep claiming that the option where your daughter or your mother or your niece or your sister dies from a back-alley abortion is the clearly noble, ethical, and moral choice.
Sorry to be so direct, but I’m sick of people pretending that the answers to this most difficult and complex question are somehow simple or pre-ordained. They are neither. There is no moral high ground in this one. There are and will be deaths no matter what laws we put into place. Pretending otherwise is a great disservice to people like my mother, who made a terribly difficult decision for the very survival of our family. There are no easy answers here—whichever path you support is paved with death.
My own wish in this? I wish that abortion be safe, legal and rare … and obviously, of course, YMMV …
Let me also say that I think that not one dime of taxpayer money should be spent on people’s abortions. To me, that’s as wrong as using taxpayer money to pay for people’s guns. The government has no business doing either one. I discuss this in my post “Unplanned Parenthood“.
Finally, I realize that for most people this is an extremely emotion-laden subject. So let me ask you all, in honor of my mother and what she told me was the hardest decision of her life, to treat myself and your fellow contributors as people who after much thought and study have made what they see are moral and defensible choices, and to leave any personal attacks out of the discussion. In general, people have not come to their conclusions about abortion lightly or foolishly, so please, let’s cut each other some slack here. Almost invariably, I let anyone say anything they want on my site, it’s a First Amendment zone … but in this special case, if it gets too ugly or personal I won’t hesitate to cut your comments or to shut it down.
My very best to you all on a clear winter night, with tendrils of fog sneaking in from the ocean, what an astounding world we have the privilege to inhabit …