Abortion: Common Ground or The New Scarlett Letter?

One of the most frustrating things to me about the common ground discussions is the way that common ground advocates try to encourage pro-choicers to seek ways that we can join our more misogynist brethren in the art of casting judgment on women who get abortions, at least some of the time. We’re told that pro-choicers would be easier to like if we shook our fingers at women who get multiple abortions, who didn’t use birth control properly, or otherwise get abortions for the “wrong” reasons. We’re expected to wring our hands and demonstrate that we take the moral severity of abortion seriously…..and for what? To make anti-choicers feel morally superior to those of us who respect women’s rights, so that they’ll whine and cry less? I don’t see it happening. I just don’t see the value in adding to women’s unnecessary guilt, especially when abortion is the best decision for most who choose it.

All this is why I wasn’t too pleased to see Frances Kissling write an article suggesting more worrying and hand-wringing—though certainly no legal bans—on early term abortions done for the “wrong” reasons. As much as I usually agree with Frances, I couldn’t see the point of this piece. No one in the pro-choice community that I know of believes that doctors should perform abortions that cross their own moral line. But more to the point, I don’t see anyone demanding that we have a public hand-wringing over the reasons to have a baby. Frances decries a woman who had an abortion because she didn’t want her baby born under a certain sign. That sounds stupid to me, but on the other hand, I roll my eyes at people who have kids to shore up fading relationships, because they just happen to need a hobby, because they want someone to carry their name, or just because they never stopped to ask if that’s what they really want to do. If anything, bringing a child into the world under shady circumstances has always struck me as more suspect than having an abortion for seemingly frivolous reasons, since once you have a child, you’re bringing a helpless person into the situation.

In general, the focus in the common ground discussion on the reasons why women have abortions has suffered from this narrow-mindedness, this eagerness to judge, and an unwillingness to understand the complexity of the individual circumstances that lead women to choose abortion over childbirth when faced with an unintended pregnancy. Part of the reason has been that the mandate to reduce the need for abortion has meant that there’s more focus on the reasons women give for why they get abortions. In particular, there’s been growing enthusiasm for the theory that women are aborting pregnancies they’d like to carry to term because their financial situations won’t allow them to have another baby. And that we can therefore dramatically reduce the abortion rate by expanding the social safety net so more women choose to have the baby.

This widespread hope goes back in no small part to a survey done by Guttmacher (PDF) that shows that 73% of women who have abortions cite “Can’t afford a baby now” as a reason. It would be hard to imagine people drumming up as much enthusiasm as we have for the idea that we can dial back abortions through social spending if we didn’t have such an astoundingly high number of women pointing to affordability as a reason for abortion. Congressman Lincoln Davis, an opponent of abortion rights, certainly would like to believe that the main way to reduce the abortion rate would be to turn those 73% of abortions into childbirths.

Of the 1.29 million abortions performed annually, 73 percent of women seeking abortions list economic factors as contributing to the decision to have an abortion.

That’s his statement made to support the Pregnant Women Support Act, which is based on the anti-choice-friendly notion that the most important way to reduce the abortion rate is not to reduce the main cause of abortion—unintended pregnancy—but to promote some financial support for pregnant women (while giving money to anti-choice groups that like to bully women seeking abortion). The notion that you can actually reduce the abortion rate significantly by increasing WIC and SCHIP—or even if you make serious changes that the Act doesn’t cover, like creating a federally subsidized daycare system or giving Americans universal health care—has always seemed pie in the sky to me. A lot of countries that have a real social safety net and universal health care still have plenty of abortion, because they still have women getting pregnant when they don’t want to be.

My frustration with this simplistic read of the Guttmacher data led me to suggest on Twitter that maybe the Guttmacher’s practice of recording the reasons for abortion was ill-advised, at least for early term ones that are usually a matter completely of choice. After all, we don’t ask that women using condoms or birth control pills explain their reasons, nor do we ask women giving birth to come up with a reason for it. But upon further reflection, I was too hasty in making this statement, especially since I’m usually a loud proponent of scientific research, the more the better.

Anyway, the data on the page actually points to a different conclusion than the one being touted by Rep. Davis and other people pushing social spending as a way to dramatically reduce the abortion rate. If you actually look at the data, you’ll see that “can’t afford” often refers to life circumstances that policy can’t address. 42% of the women citing this as a reason point to their unmarried status, for instance, and I doubt the government is going to get into the business of handing out husbands. In general, most women had multiple reasons for aborting, and few cited poverty strictly.

Rachel Jones at the Guttmacher concurs that you can’t really draw the conclusion that Davis and other pro-lifers are drawing from this data. She told me:

For most women, ["can’t afford"] was one of several reasons they were obtaining the abortion; 23% reported that this was their most important reason, and I expect many of these women also cited other factors/reasons for their abortion in addition to money. I’m not saying that increased resources wouldn’t have allowed some of the women to make different a choice, but we have no way of knowing to what extent this type of strategy would reduce abortion.

It’s true that the lower you go on the income scale, the more likely you are to require an abortion at some point. I would caution against suggesting that this simply means that a lot of women who want more babies are getting abortions against their wills; for a lot of women, lack of resources means patchy access to contraception in the first place. As much as pro-lifers would like to pretend that the problem isn’t unintended pregnancy, we shouldn’t forget that all these other reasons that women cite on the Guttmacher survey are secondary to the unstated (due to obviousness) reason that they’re getting an abortion: they don’t want to be pregnant right now.

The irony of this whole misuse of Guttmacher data is that Guttmacher started to ask women why they have abortions because they wanted more clarity and not confusion about the issue. Jones explained to me:

It is our impression that there are a number of misperceptions about women who obtain abortions and their reasons for doing so (have you heard the one about the teen who gets an abortion so she can fit into her prom dress?); surveys like this one help provide context. They demonstrate that women have multiple reasons for obtaining abortions [and] that many of them are struggling to make ends meet (single, low income, already have children) and that they want to be good parents [to the children they now have or when they are ready to have children.]

I’m glad to see that common ground discussions are pushing the anti-choice community away from the older stereotypes of women who have abortions, namely that they’re soulless monsters who are aborting because they’re irresponsible. But I hate to see another stereotype—that women who have abortions are helpless victims of circumstance—replace it. And I worry that if increased social support doesn’t do much to reduce the abortion rate, we’re going to see anti-choicers claim that this means that the initial stereotypes of sluttiness and irresponsibility were correct all along, and that women seeking abortion don’t deserve rights.

None of this is to say that I think that increased social support is a bad thing. On the contrary, women who choose to have children need all the support we can give them. I just happen to think that women who choose to have abortion and contraception also need all the support we can give them, and that these two groups of women aren’t mutually exclusive. We should support women because it’s the right thing to do, not because we’re trying to exert undue influence on their personal choices.

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  • invalid-0

    I’m really starting to wonder why rhrealitycheck is doing this common ground project at all. You’re so busy worrying about what someone might be thinking and bemoaning how impossible it is to communicate with the select groups you have invited to debate the issue. If you can’t even agree that it’s wrong to abort a baby because of his astrological sign then it doesn’t make much sense to invest so much time in the common ground effort.

  • jodi-jacobson

    A few things.

    And I acknowledge it is confusing.


    RHRC is a site for news, analysis and commentary, just like the New York Times (or any paper) provides the same.  We don’t have "one view" on anything, except to the extent that our editorial positions (written by core staff such as Scott Swenson, Amie Newman, Brady Swenson, Emily Douglas and me) are based on our core philosophy which we describe at length on the site but can be boiled down to unapologetically pro-choice, pro-evidence, and pro-human rights.


    RHRC writ large published a wide array of authors and commentors and analyst.  Amanda is one of our long-time and leading columnists.


    The Common Ground page is part of RHRC but also separate; it is/was an experiment regarding devoting a page to a specific issue under the editorial guidance of Cristina Page.  


    While I realize it is confusing, RHRC per se is not "seeking common ground."  We are a journalistic and editorial enterprise, not a non-profit advocacy organization.  We therefore don’t act as would other organizations who are engaged directly in policy and legislation.  


    The page is meant to be an experiment in providing a dedicated space for that discussion.  It is meant not to "direct toward an outcome"–which we do not do–but to provide a range of views on this issue and facilitate debate.  There are and therefore will be a wide range of views published.


    Having the dedicated page does not mean that RHRC proper is not engaged its main mission: news, analysis, and policy from an unapologetically pro-choice, pro-evidence, pro-human rights perspective.


    Thanks for raising the issue as I understand why it might seem confusing.

    Best, Jodi

  • heather-corinna

    I really appreciate everything you’ve brought up and said here, Amanda. 


    I’d also concur from talking to many women pre-abortion that yes, stating a lack of financial resources and support for a child is one of the most common reasons, but that that also isn’t often a sole reason.  My experience is, in fact, that often women who terminate pregnancies tend to do so because of several different reasons, and several things making the proposition of remaining pregnant very difficult or undesireable — not just one — tend to be a big part of making that choice. 

  • amanda-marcotte

    I’ll tell you what I said in the comments of Salon: A woman who comes in and spouts that astrology line is quite likely saying, "I’m not mentally stable enough to have a baby right now."  It’s easy to stereotype women as simple-minded bimbos, but doesn’t actually reflect reality.


    What anti-choicers fail to remember is that their single-minded obsession with controlling women and punishing sexuality is that most people don’t think like anti-choice nuts.  We remember that if you don’t have an abortion, you will most likely have a child.  And not an imaginary child, a real child that lives and breathes and has needs and will grow up and therefore deserves a stable home environment.  We know that a child is not a fetus, and therefore you can’t just project whatever you want onto a child and wax poetic about "life" without having to confront the messy realities of life.


    Here are the messy realities.  Having a baby will not, no matter what anti-choice propaganda might imply:


    *Make the guy you had sex with suddenly fall in love with and marry you

    *Make you want to fall in love with and marry a guy that you don’t love now

    *Make your mental illnesses go away

    *Lift you out of poverty

    *Make everything all better in general.


    No, women who get abortions because they have problems like mental illness, which I wouldn’t rule out if someone is spouting wacky stuff about astrology, should be trusted if they feel they don’t really need to be raising children right now.  I fail to see why I should sit in judgment on someone who quite likely realizes that she’s not in a position to raise a child and acts accordingly.  


    Genuine concern in the well-being of children results in hearty support for tools for women to make sure they have children when they feel ready for it. 


    And there’s a lot of truth to the bumper sticker slogan: If you don’t trust women with a choice, why on earth would you trust them with a child?

  • invalid-0


    You said, “No one in the pro-choice community that I know of believes that doctors should perform abortions that cross their own moral line.”

    What is your position on OB/GYN’s who live in rural communities and morally oppose performing abortions? Guttmacher says that 87% of U.S. counties have no abortion provider. What if this doctor’s moral conviction forces women to travel hundreds of miles to obtain services. What if it forces them to have the baby because extensive travel is not an option for them?

    Should doctors be allowed to deny women abortion because of their personal beliefs?

  • progo35

    The unplanned pregnancy thing sometimes seems like a smokescreen to me. All the women I know personally who have had unplanned pregnancy scares have had them because, while they knew about contraception, they chose not to use it or did not use it correctly. All the free contraception in the world(which I do support) will not change that.

    Getting back to the factors surrounding abortion, women also have them because their significant other encourages/pressures them to do so. I remember when one of my good friends had a pregnancy scare and I was the first person she told about it. We talked about what she might want to do if she were pregnant and she said that she thought she would either keep the baby or give it up for adoption, but said that if she were pregnant, her boyfriend wanted her to get rid of it. His exact words were, “It’s okay if you’re pregnant, we just need to get rid of it.” She said, “no, I’m not going to get rid of it if there’s a baby in there.” He said, “why not? I flush my little swimmers down the toilet, it’s the same thing.” “It’s not the same thing,” I said, “and it’s really insensitive for him to phrase it in that way.” She agreed. Luckily, it was just a scare and she was not pregnant. But, clearly, her boyfriend wasn’t helping her make a choice that she wanted, he was pressuring her to have an abortion because he didn’t want to deal with the result of his choice to ignore her pleas to use a condom, not because he was trying to be supportive of her as a fully autonomous woman.

    Moreover, everyone agrees that unintended pregnancy is something to be avoided. I have never in my entire life
    heard a pro life person argue the positions that Amanda erroneously attributes to us: that having a baby will fix a relationship or help someone suffering from a mental disorder. Obviously, it would be best if unintended pregnancies didn’t happen at all, but to argue that the abortion and common ground issue is only about unintended pregnancy and contraception is shallow minded and ignores the other factors involved in an abortion decision.

    Moreover, it is also shallow to assume that a woman having an abortion because of her fetus’s potential astrological sign is mentally ill. That is ridiculous. Some people, unfortunately, really do place a lot of stock in astrological signs. Just because Amanda Marcott doesn’t doesn’t mean that any woman who does is mentally unstable.

    Finally, the woman who said that financial problems contributed to their decision did so voluntarily. They weren’t forced to provide this information. To get rid of the info just because you don’t like the conclusion that people draw is pretty immature.

    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • invalid-0

    “I have never in my entire life heard a pro life person argue the positions that Amanda erroneously attributes to us: that having a baby will fix a relationship or help someone suffering from a mental disorder.”

    Read again. She never attributed them to any particular viewpoint, she merely cited them as reasons why people sometimes choose to have kids. That’s neither a pro-choice or pro-life position, but reality.

  • invalid-0

    It’s my opinion that as a matter of public safety, OB/Gyn doctors ought to be willing to perform abortions. If a hospital deals with incomplete miscarriage or fetal death they have the skill set for abortion, don’t they? It’s a public health issue. A hospital or doctor that ‘doesn’t provide abortion’ is likely to delay performing a needed abortion to the point that a woman with a distress pregnancy will be put to more danger than she would have been if the abortion was performed when the problem was discovered. I remember reading an account of troubled pregnancies turning septic (& the woman dies) because the doctors kept trying to “save the baby” (and giving biased information to the woman about the risks involved) when the medical stats kept indicating danger. In that kind of hospital there isn’t enough care for the woman’s health. It’s a mindset of pregnancy-is-natural-so-it-can’t-be-a-burden. It’s a mindset it’s-ok-to-enforce-sex-roles. If a Hospital or doctor refuses to provide or make referrals for EC or early elective abortions then it’s at high risk of the above bad behavior. I think this should be the case even if there are other nearby clinics or hospitals that do “do abortions”.

  • crowepps

    As someone who’s participated in the common ground discussions, one thing that’s been very valuable to me is the realization that some of the ProLife advocates have very little knowledge of how reproduction actually works biologically.  Some of them don’t seem to grasp that there are life-threatening complications of pregnancy totally out of the control of the woman involved.


    They make statements like "there is never a need for an abortion" that are ridiculous on their face to someone who IS aware of those complications, but the common ground discussions have made me aware that they’re not just ignoring the facts, they are WILLFULLY IGNORANT of reality and actively reject education.


    When the discussion ignores biology and accurate information is provided, with neutral scientific research sources, having it rejected with a statement like "I can’t believe that" has given ME a real education in how trying to make policy based on Romantic Idealism would be disastrous in its real world consequences.

  • amanda-marcotte

    Most counties don’t have an abortion provider not because most gynecologists are misogynists obsessed with punishing sexuality, but because most gynecologists don’t want to deal with the headache.  TRAP laws designed to make running a clinic that provides abortion nearly impossible run a lot of doctors who provide abortion to friendlier places, and of course the ever-present threat of getting shot for providing a legal service scares many doctors out of it.


    The issue of lack of providers has not, as far as I know, ever been used to suggest that doctors who don’t want to provide abortion should be forced to.  What it means is that anti-choice terrorism is a real problem, and that legislative attempts to harass doctors and medical schools that don’t provide training are problems that need to be fixed. 


    But nice try!

  • amanda-marcotte

    Responsible legislation to improve contraception access has an educational component.


    It’s important to understand that many misconceptions about how contraception works come from anti-choice propaganda.

  • amanda-marcotte

    They don’t often state it directly, but a lot of anti-choice materials promote this idealization of motherhood as a cure-all.  I have seen a crisis pregnancy center that suggested that young men are eager to romantically rush into abortion clinics and stop an abortion, ready with ring in hand to renounce their commitment-phobic ways.  Feminists For Life is big on selling stories of young women in college who got pregnant, and because they refused abortion, are in idyllic marriages.  Obviously, the whole point of promoting "post-abortion syndrome" is to imply that women who have obvious mental health problems wouldn’t have those problems if they’d had the baby instead of the abortion.


    Piles upon piles of anti-choice material tell stories of women who considered abortion because the time wasn’t right, and who had a baby, and it all worked out great! Giving false hope that you can passively lay back and your problems will fade away is a big part of the anti-choice mythology.  That’s why it was more than a little funny to see Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston break up, because you could hear a million anti-choicers drooling at the chance of selling them as a story of how having a baby at 17 works out just great.

  • progo35

    Well, I often feel that various scenarios are given by pro life organizations to make the argument that having a baby at seventeen, while not ideal, is not the end of the world: that the mother can still get the education she planned, that she can still get married (or not, if she chooses), that women still have options when they get pregnant and it isn’t going to ruin their lives. I feel that pro choice arguments somtimes make unplanned pregnancy sound like a virtual death sentence for the woman and potential child involved. It just doesn’t have to be that way.

    As to the whole "a baby and marriage at seventeen is just great" I come back to my friend’s situation as an example of why I would never take that position. As the article "when partner abuse isn’t a bruise but a pregnant belly," recounted, it seems that pregnancy is more likely to happen if a girl or woman is involved with a man who does not respect her decision to use contraception or who uses sex as a form of control. My friend was actually in a situation where her boyfriend was an abusive, controlling jerk and if I would never have encouraged her to mary him, even if he offered. (She is now married to another controlling, abusive jerk, but that’s another story.)



    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • amanda-marcotte

    Is better than yours.  The fantasies they portray are irresponsible and condescencing.  The whole point is there’s no "excuse" for an abortion, that some women are just fine—or actually, they imply that it’s better.  (You get loved, you get to be an adult, best thing that ever happened, etc.)  It’s nonsense.  Women don’t choose abortion because they’re stupid.  And they don’t need an excuse.  A woman who believes that her boyfriend won’t come rushing into her arms if she has a baby or that having a baby at 17 will derail her education is right to believe this, especially since she knows her own circumstances.  Trying to upend her decision with fantasies is irresponsible.

  • progo35

    It is not opending her decision to present an alternate scenario, and the alternate scenario isn’t a "fantasy." My biological mother had me, had the opportunity to choose my adoptive parents, and recieve updates on how I was doing. She did not go to a home or have to stop going to school. It is inaccurate to believe that one must get an abortion or life will be over as one knows it.  



    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for this piece, Amanda. One of the things I find most frustrating about the common ground discussion is the repeated idea (from both sides) that pro-choice folks and/or women having abortions need to be more thoughtful about abortion. The funny thing is that I agree that we need to encourage more thoughtfulness and more careful decision making – but I don’t understand why abortion is singled out for the focus here. Well, actually, I understand it but I don’t agree.

    I would like to see our society and culture encourage more thoughtful and balanced discussion about a lot of issues, not just abortion. How about whether or not to have sex, when, how and with whom; whether or not to marry, when, why and with whom; whether or not to become a parent, when, why, how and with whom; and yes, if faced with a pregnancy that is unplanned and/or becomes unwanted or untenable, what options are there and what might you choose to do…? (I would also ground this dialogue in an awareness that we should ‘never say never’ because we often can’t really know what we will want or do in a situation until we are in that situation.)

    As a parent, this kind of thoughtful and nuanced exploration of values and beliefs is what I hope for my child. If we could encourage thoughtfulness, exchange of ideas, respectful debate, and an acceptance that different people will reach their own conclusions and make their own decisions, what a wonderful and different world it could be.

  • invalid-0

    Alright, well thanks for explaining that. It just was starting to seem to me like the whole effort (or at least the choice of bloggers to debate the subject with) was an unpopular one among alot of the writers.

  • invalid-0

    I also wanted to touch on this issue of economic or financial concerns as part of women’s abortion decisions. While I don’t think providing a living wage and child care and support for new parents and good public schools and universal health care will eliminate or even significantly reduce the actual number of abortions, I also don’t think we should dismiss the importance of the LACK of this kind of social support for many women – particularly women of color, low-income women and young women – as they make their decisions about pregnancy and mothering.

    I agree that our motivation in providing this support should be that it is the right thing to do. However, I also think that the pro-choice community needs to stand strong(er) in our belief that no woman should be pushed to have an abortion she does not want because she lacks the economic or social support to have that child, just as no woman should be pushed to have a child she does not want because she lacks access to abortion. And we need to put our money and our policy energy where our mouths are. Ensuring all women have accurate information and access to the option of adoption is an important and worthwhile part of addressing unplanned pregnancy. But the continued focus – by both the pro-choice and pro-life sides – on promoting adoption instead of on, for example, supporting single or poor mothers with greater welfare benefits, reveals a lot about our societal beliefs as to who should and shouldn’t be a parent, and our (lack of) commitment to really supporting the range of women’s reproductive choices.

    In my humble opinion, we should promote public policies that make all the options available to all women, along with support for thoughtful decision making before during and after pregnancy, and let go of our investment in the outcome of any woman’s decision. Frankly, I don’t care how many abortions there are, how many adoptions, or how many mothers – as long as each of those women came to the best decision for her under the best circumstances available.

  • crowepps

    Certainly people have strong opinions and disagree with the writers on issues, but most of the writers seem to be willing to engage and have discussions about those disagreements.  I personally think it’s helpful to understand the mindset of those passionate about the issue on both sides.

  • http://www.KnitaCondomAmulet.com invalid-0

    A 75 year old feminist, supporter of CHOICE, survivor of an illegal abortion in the 1950s, I fail to understand the effort to find “common ground” on the issue of what a woman does about carrying a child.

    Many old women like myself are the ones whose time and money have provided support for the CHOICE movement–through NOW, Planned Parenthood, etcetera. I am disturbed by all the attention given to trying to get us all to get along.

    My money will go to (1) programs that encourage medical schools, their students to continue to providing education on how to perform safe abortions–like the one I had (even though illegal) and (2) opposition to federal funds for “abstinence-only” education.

    naomi dagen bloom

  • invalid-0

    “I fail to understand the effort to find “common ground” on the issue of what a woman does about carrying a child.”

    Exactly. When women start bargaining away their rights because we find that standing up for not just ourselves but the CHOICES other women make we become no better than the misogynists and thologans who think it’s still perfectly OK to bully women into their own views.
    But then again, if men could get pregnant abortion would be a sacrament. Anyone who can’t see the hugely women hating side of the antis is living in a fantasy land.
    They do NOT actually care about the “vessel” no matter how much they try to say they do.
    Of course, what would one expect from followers of a book that they feel free to pick and choose passages that all must obey out of?

  • invalid-0

    Are you so filled with a propensity toward murder that you believe there is no reason to limit abortion?

    I had an abortion. It not only destroyed my child’s life, it just about destroyed my life.

    You women are fooling yourselves. And if you don’t figure it out in this life, you will be faced with the REALITY of it in the life hereafter.

  • invalid-0

    Add me to the list of those who doubt “common ground” in the first place.

    My ideal is that no woman should ever be pregnant when she doesn’t want to be – no matter WHAT reason she gives.

    Their ideal is that every pregnancy MUST go full-term; that nobody ever has sex unless they’re a straight married couple who is willing to have a baby every year; and that women have no say in what happens to their own bodies or sexuality.

    How on earth can we find “common ground” here?

    When the formerly pro-choice “common grounders” find themselves barefoot and pregnant, it will be very hard for me to resist the temptation to say, “I told you so.”

  • invalid-0

    I really hate the ‘common ground’ discussions and almost all the writers there and by ‘hate’ I mean they make me actively nauseous.

    The commentators appear to have been selected for their smug shared delusion of moral superiority, desire to proselytize and manipulate while forcing the rest of us to pay for it financially and in so many other ways and passive aggressive personalities begging for acceptance and validation while shoving a shiv in our sinner’s ribs at every opportunity.

  • http://www.smslegal.com invalid-0

    i have enjoyed reading the debate