Today’s political rhetoric in the U.S. makes it easy to fall into the trap of viewing abortion services as outside the realm of women’s health care—but a recent event in Manhattan belied that logical flaw, just as Scientific American did in an editorial in its May 2012 issue. Abortion services, which can include counseling, pain management, abortion pills, and in-clinic abortions, are part of family planning, health care and a critical element of women’s health care, in particular.
At the event last week hosted by Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health to mark the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade, Dr. Curtis Boyd, who has provided abortion care for about 50 years in clinics in Texas and New Mexico, talked about his years of practice before the landmark decision in 1973. During that time, he saw women patients in the hospital who were bleeding, infected and sometimes dying as result of botched illegal abortions. His decision to help women gain access to safe but then illegal abortions rested on “the certainty that an unwanted pregnancy can ruin a woman’s life. I thought it was not fair—women were at a disadvantage, a significant disadvantage.” Similarly, as Scientific American’s editorial board wrote, family planning has “saved lives, opened new horizons for women and kept populations from soaring,” all of which are major contributors to economic well-being.
Boyd, whose name was not publicized as part of the event on the advice of the FBI due to threats against him for his work providing abortions, was joined on stage with Dr. Linda Prine, who brings reproductive health services to primary care, serves on the faculty at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, and teaches at Planned Parenthood in New York City, and Dr. Willie Parker, an obstetrician-gynecologist who serves on the boards for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and Choice USA.
Prine suggested that people learn to talk more openly about their experiences around abortion to take the stigma and fear out of the decision and procedures to terminate a pregnancy, as well as to help women understand that abortion is sometimes a part of life, a part of women’s experiences.
Along with reminding the crowd of the importance of abortion services to women’s health, the panelists also corrected a perception that abortion can ever be “rare,” as Sen. Hillary Clinton advocated in 2005 in a speech where she tried to reframe her party’s position on abortion to making it “safe, legal and rare,” in part with more abstinence counseling for teens.
“Abortion as we know it will never be rare, because birth control pills are not perfect,” Boyd pointed out. They fail 3 percent to 4 percent of the time. Multiply that by the number of women having sex on any given day and you’ll arrive at a lot of unwanted pregnancies, which tend to fall disproportionately into the lives of low-income women and African-American women in the U.S. “Every contraceptive has failures,” Boyd noted, also mentioning that other factors can intervene even with planned pregnancies such as the death of a partner, desertion by a husband or boyfriend, and pre-natal detection of birth defects. “Rare will never be the case,” he added. “You do it as often as it is needed.”
Parker said that he reversed his position on whether he should provide abortion services as a physician after several years of opposing them. He was meditating one day on a sermon delivered by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the sermon, King broke down why the actions of the Samaritan were good as he helped a beaten traveler even though the unfortunate was from a despised group. Parker’s reflections led him to reverse the question of concern in the sermon to “What would happen to this person if I didn’t stop to help him?” At that point, Parker said, he came to feel the immorality of not providing abortions if he was to represent himself as a women’s health provider.
He agrees that the reason a woman has for an abortion should not be subjected to hair-splitting. “At what point does a woman lose her humanity to make the decisions over this organism, over her life?” Parker said, adding that questions about abortion services force us to think about what is essential to human dignity and what it means to allow women to live out their lives with dignity.
Parker said his dream regarding reproductive health is a day when abortion is a non-issue, when a woman “is pregnant when she wants to be. That’s different from saying we want abortion to be legal, safe and rare.” This statement drew loud applause from the 120 or so in the audience, a roughly equal mix of men and women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. “How many abortions?” Parker continued. “As many as necessary!”