The right to an abortion isn’t just about extreme, horrific cases – it’s about our bodily autonomy,Lindsey Osterman,The Skeptic

In the days following the leak of Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, you may have seen folks furiously circulating copypasta which began: “I’m not pro-murdering babies.”

The writer says they are instead pro-Becky and pro-Susan and pro-Theresa, all of whom have excellent reasons to have abortions, ranging from being the victim of sexual abuse by a family member to having a medical condition that would render pregnancy fatal.

I appreciate the sentiment. Reproductive choice is a literal matter of life and death in too many cases, and as we reeled from the news, posts like this one gave voice to our deepest anxieties about the consequences of overturning more than 50 years of legal precedent about the right to privacy.

About two-thirds into the laundry list of abortion-seekers is the following line: “I’m pro-Christina who doesn’t want to be a mother, but birth control methods sometimes fail.”

Indeed they do. A little over eight years ago, my partner and I enjoyed an amorous camping trip. Two weeks later I missed my period. I took a pregnancy test and in far fewer than the supposedly required 10 minutes, I had an unambiguous result.

I was 25. I’d never wanted children, but I did vaguely believe the many people (mostly women) who had assured me starting in my mid-teens that my feelings would change. They said at some point, I would start dreaming about pregnancy and motherhood so persistently that I would be unable to think of much else.

I was curious to see these powerful desires develop given how remote they felt at the time. The prospect of having children always felt to me like the prospect of a mortgage: an adult responsibility that I would probably have someday, but hopefully not too soon.

My relationship was still quite new, but I loved my partner. I didn’t have any savings, but I had a stable job—my dream job, in fact. I had just finished my first year of a tenure-track professorship, which I felt very lucky to have. The immediate future felt full of possibility.  

If any part of me wanted to become a parent, I could have decided to do it in that moment. I imagined parenthood and searched for any feeling of desire or fulfilment in that future. What I found instead was dread and visions of my most important life goals dissolving.

I felt ashamed for seeking an abortion. I felt my reasons for wanting one were selfish and insufficient. Abortions were designed to protect those who could not be pregnant. Abortions were for those with medical conditions that made pregnancy dangerous, and for children who were sexually abused by family members, and for rape victims who couldn’t bear a permanent reminder of their assault. Abortions were not for middle-class 25-year-olds who “just didn’t feel like it.”

I felt ashamed for seeking an abortion. I felt my reasons for wanting one were selfish and insufficient. Abortions were designed to protect those who could not be pregnant… Abortions were not for middle-class 25-year-olds who “just didn’t feel like it.”

Ashamed or not, I set up an appointment with Planned Parenthood. My insurance company did not cover my care, because this was an “elective abortion” rather than a medically necessary one. I had two appointments, which were more than 24 hours apart, during which I was treated to a vaginal ultrasound, an opportunity to view the ultrasound and listen to the heartbeat (if audible), and I was informed of my options: parenthood, adoption, or abortion. Was I sure that I wanted an abortion? I was. I briefly met with a physician who dispensed mifepristone and misoprostol, and explained how condoms work. And that was it.  

Since my abortion, I’ve travelled to Costa Rica, and gotten pretty good at karaoke. I’ve learned how to make craft cocktail bitters. I’ve done piles of studies with my research students, gotten really good at teaching statistics, and earned tenure. I’ve listened to at least millions of podcast episodes, and even recorded some. I’ve watched The Good Place 6 times.

I have never regretted my abortion. In a parallel universe, another version of me was unable to make that choice, perhaps because Roe was overturned prior to her camping trip, or because she holds strong, Christian beliefs that I do not. My guess is that she has done her absolute best to be a good and caring mother, because if I’d had no choice, that’s what I would have done. I work hard at everything I do. But I suspect parallel-universe me—like many who are denied abortions—has very dark moments in which she feels trapped and resentful that she wasn’t free to make a different choice.

The Turnaway Study and the Immoral Consequences of Forced Pregnancy

My parallel-me prediction was tested empirically in The Turnaway Study, a ground-breaking, rigorously designed, longitudinal study by UC San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH). To date, this project has produced over 50 peer-reviewed publications on the life-changing consequences of abortion access.

The study measured outcomes associated with receiving or being denied an abortion for approximately 1,000 women across the US who sought abortions from 2008 to 2010 and did so either just prior to or just after the gestational cut-off (which ranged from 10 to 26 weeks across facilities). Women completed measures for five years after seeking abortions. A number of harms were associated with denying wanted abortions, including increased socioeconomic insecurity, thwarted goal setting and attainment, and diminished well-being of the participants’ children:

Compared to those granted abortions, women who were denied abortions were nearly 4 times more likely to be experiencing poverty six months later, and this was still true 4-years later (by 5 years, the difference diminished to a statistically non-significant level); a separate paper suggested that abortion denial was also associated with diminished credit scores and higher frequencies of bankruptcies and evictions.Women who were granted abortions were more likely to have positive goals (e.g., for educational or employment attainment) for the year following their abortion compared to their counterpoints who were denied abortions, and one-year later, they were also more likely to have achieved their goals compared to women who became parents as a result of being denied an abortion.  The children of women who were denied abortions also suffered relative to the children of mothers who were granted them. One study examined the outcomes for the existing children of mothers who had or were denied abortions and found that the existing children of mothers who were denied abortions scored lower on a tool used to detect developmental delays and were also more likely to be living below the poverty line.Another study compared the well-being of children who were born because an abortion was denied to that of children born five or fewer years after their mothers’ abortions. Echoing a result discussed above, children who were born because their mothers were denied abortions were more likely to live in lower-income households, without enough money to cover basic living expenses. Additionally, women experienced worse maternal bonding with children they carried to term after being denied an abortion, meaning that they were more likely to affirm statements like “I regret having my baby” and “I feel trapped as a mother,” and less likely to affirm statements like “I feel close to my baby.”

Most of the women who participated in The Turnaway Study are not “Becky”s or “Susan”s or “Theresa”s. They sought abortions because pregnancy simply was not the right decision for them. And whether or not they were able to access an abortion materially changed their life own trajectories and those of their existing and subsequent children.

(No) Concessions to Christian Theocrats

Of course I support Becky, Susan, and Theresa from the copypasta. My heart breaks for people who find themselves in circumstances so extreme and awful that despite wanting to have a child, they are unable to do so. We absolutely must protect abortion rights in cases of rape and medical emergencies. But the vast majority of people who seek abortions do so because they do not want to remain pregnant, for reasons that are too often treated—explicitly or implicitly—as insufficiently urgent to morally justify an abortion.

Most nonreligious people do not believe it is moral to prioritise a pregnancy over the autonomy of a pregnant person, regardless of whether they chose to have the sex that caused it, or are technically capable of carrying a pregnancy to term. A Pew Research Poll conducted in March 2022 indicated that 93% of atheists (and 81% of agnostics) polled consider abortion morally acceptable in “most” or “all cases,” or not to be a moral issue at all; only 1% of atheists said they consider it wrong in “all cases.”

Those of us who believe this should be unflinching in our defence of reproductive autonomy for its own sake. Too often, secular pro-choice arguments lean on rare, horrific cases to justify abortion access, and in doing so, we tacitly accept the terms of the argument as Christian pro-life activists have defined them—and that’s dangerous.

If we do not believe a soul enters the foetus at any point during or after prenatal development, then we should not humour arguments about personhood or “when life begins” that originate with that explicitly religious belief. If we do not believe that having sex for pleasure rather than reproduction is sinful, then we should avoid arguments that lean on the circumstances of rape victims. Such arguments only make sense if we believe that whether or not someone chose to have sex is relevant to whether they “deserve” the consequences of pregnancy and parenthood.

The abortion debate in the United States isn’t about the definition personhood, or when the foetal heartbeat develops, or the protection of innocent life, and it never has been. All of those superficially secular arguments serve only to obfuscate the desire to codify specific Christian doctrines into law, in a country that was founded explicitly on religious freedom.

Support for an abortion ban is support for Christian theocracy, and not even one that serves all Christians. According to a 2016 article from Pew Research Center, a law banning abortion would be consistent with the official positions of, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Southern Baptist Convention; but it would be inconsistent with the positions of, among others, the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Methodist Church, and Presbyterian Church. Therefore, to support an abortion ban is to say that Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians—to say nothing of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and of course atheists, agnostics, and other nonreligious individuals—should be sent to prison for a choice which violates the religious beliefs of Catholics, Latter-day Saints, and Southern Baptists in particular.

The United States Supreme Court is going to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer. When that happens, abortions in all or nearly all circumstances will become illegal in 23 US states; only 16 states plus the District of Columbia have laws that explicitly protect abortion rights.

Atheists and all other opponents of theocracy need to lead the fight in protecting abortion rights in a post-Roe world, not just because of the excruciating circumstances of some, but because of the centrality of reproductive autonomy to the wellbeing of all.

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Discussing abortion rights on the terms of the religious right is a damaging mistake – the right to an abortion isn’t just about ‘morally acceptable’ reasons like assault or medical emergencies
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