October 17, 2006

Banning Happiness in South Dakota

The decision by pro-lifers to focus on the well-being of the mother should backfire. Here's why.

Katharine Coldiron

Soon, voters in South Dakota will decide the fate of the most far-reaching abortion ban in the nation. Their state legislature passed the ban in March, and Planned Parenthood has collected enough signatures to force a referendum on it in November. I'm sickened by the ban, but it's not just the principle of the thing that bothers me. It’s the actual language in the bill, which proves to me more than anything yet that pro-life politicians have only thought about the abortion issue on the shallowest of levels. Here's some of the bill (via FindLaw):

To fully protect the rights, interest, and health of the pregnant mother, the rights, interest, and life of her unborn child, and the mother’s fundamental natural intrinsic right to a relationship with her child, abortions in South Dakota should be prohibited.

The language of the bill focuses more on women than fetuses, and a local campaign has followed suit by introducing a new twist to the old debate between the religious right-to-lifers and the screaming feminists—a claim that abortion hurts women, not fetuses.

Three women and a baby
Vote Yes for Life has focused its pro-life campaign on how abortion affects women.
Vote Yes for Life, which focuses on the adverse psychological effects of abortions on the women who have them, is winning points and voters in South Dakota with emotionally charged television and radio spots, as well as an effective website on which women tell their stories of how abortion hurt them. It’s a new direction for the anti-abortion camp, and the pro-choicers are still not sure how to deal with it. They've taken on the meek slogan, “This law simply goes too far,” referring to the lack of exceptions in the bill for pregnancies caused by rape or incest (Los Angeles Times). But this may not be enough to save the rights of women in South Dakota, or in such states as Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Georgia, and Rhode Island, which have been considering bans on abortion similar to South Dakota’s.

Granted, South Dakota’s population is less than a million, and before the passage of the ban, there was only one clinic in the state able to perform the procedure (about 800 are performed there every year), but this does not excuse the gross injustice of the law. Sarah Stoesz, the president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and North & South Dakota, told PBS: “It makes a bad situation completely intolerable for women.”

When I had an abortion several years ago, I had no other choice. I do not mean that I could not physically have had the child and given it up for adoption, nor do I mean that I could not have raised the child (in theory). I mean that my heart and soul would not have accepted either of those choices. Then, as now, I had no interest in children, was physically repulsed at the idea of being pregnant, and wanted nothing to do with the whole experience of motherhood. The prospect that the abortion might not be successful was far more terrifying than the abortion itself. My plans and dreams for the future did not include children, and making new goals around a child was unthinkable.

My choice turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me at that time. I had taken charge of my own future, in a way that I had not been forced to do before. I had made the best decision for myself, without consulting anyone else, and my life went on for the better. After that moment, I found that I had become far more stable, self-assured, and better equipped to make assertive, mature decisions.

The rhetoric in this bill is new, but the problem with it is the same: It fails to endorse the idea that every woman should be allowed to make her own choice. If it turns out that getting an abortion was the wrong choice for her, it's a terrible shame, but making bad choices and recovering from them is a part of being a mature adult. Girls cannot become women as long as they are being protected from making their own choices, and this is exactly what the South Dakota ban is trying to accomplish.

Let’s look again at the language of the law: “To fully protect the rights, interests, and health of the pregnant mother.” How does a ban on abortion protect a woman's mental health? How does it protect her interests, if her interests include never having children? Before my abortion, I was so physically disgusted by the notion of a fetus growing in my body that, if the option of abortion wasn't available, I might have drunk castor oil or enormous amounts of alcohol, or even used illegal drugs, to try to rid my body of the little alien. (I doubt that I would have drunk turpentine, though, as a Georgia family forced one of their own, a 16-year-old girl, to do in September in an attempt to end her pregnancy (Associated Press).) Because of my mental-health history, I would have spiraled into a serious depression if abortion were not an option. At that time, I would almost certainly have chosen to end my life rather than have a baby. If I had sunk to that level of desperation because of a ban on abortion, would my health have been protected? Again, this ban is supposed to be protecting my health, and presumably my life.

And the most ludicrous part of all: the protection of the “rights” of the pregnant mother. I understand that South Dakota is attempting to protect women, ironically, in a motherly way, by trying to ensure that abortions do not go wrong and kill them, and by helping them make the right choice for their lives. But the state is going too far in presuming that it knows what is best for them—that it knows what’s best for every single woman in the state of South Dakota. This presumption adds up to nothing more than disrespect for a woman’s intelligence, for her capability to know what is best for her by her own judgment, and for her constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness.

And then there is the second piece of this particular sentence in the bill: “[to protect] the rights, interest, and life of her unborn child.” So throwing a baby in a dumpster outside Wal-Mart rather than aborting it protects the life of the child? Allowing me, for example, to raise a child is not in the best interest of that child. I would be a resentful, disinterested mother. As for the adoption option, if I had carried my pregnancy to term, I would have completely disrupted my life for at least the last part of my pregnancy and for however long it took me to recover. I would have had to leave school and somehow pay medical expenses for obstetric care and the hospital stay—far more than the cost of an abortion.

And finally: “[to protect] the mother’s fundamental natural intrinsic right to a relationship with her child.” Not only a fundamental right, but a natural one; not only natural, but intrinsic. Methinks the bill doth protest too much. Yes, motherhood is a natural thing, and wonderful for, probably, the vast majority of women. I am happy for them, but I am not interested in this particular fundamental right. So this sentence thence contradicts itself—my interests are not protected by protecting the right to my relationship with my child, nor are the child's interests protected.

No one seems to be able to decide once and for all when human life begins, when an embryo becomes a unique individual. This issue seems to me an indeterminable, metaphysical question, one which engenders opinions rather than facts. The establishment of a soul cannot be re-created in a Petri dish. The South Dakota abortion ban has sidestepped this issue by pretending to center the debate on the well-being of the pregnant woman, not protection of the unborn fetus, and the Vote Yes for Life campaign is evidence that pro-lifers think this approach can work.

Claiming to safeguard a pregnant woman's health by taking away her rights is not protection—it is control. By breaking down the language of the ban, it becomes clear the true rights, interests, and health of the pregnant woman are only protected when she has control of her own destiny.

Katharine Coldiron is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland and, soon, on the web at kcoldiron.com

Related on the web
South Dakota state Senator and abortion ban supporter Bill Napoli made news earlier this year with some inflammatory comments about which sort of women should be eligible for the rape exception in the ban (Wikipedia). Many complaints followed, including this comic strip (which was later auctioned off as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood) by Stephanie McMillan.

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Article by Katharine Coldiron

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