Abortion: The Way Out

A pro-choice vigil at the U.S. Supreme Court, Jan. 22, 2013

Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Every year, near the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, NARAL Pro-Choice America publishes a report on abortion-related legislation around the country. This year’s report, released today, shows how the landscape has changed. The most forward-looking legislation isn’t about abortion. It’s about birth control. 

NARAL was founded when abortion was illegal. Back then, it was the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. After abortion became legal nationwide, the organization kept its acronym but changed its name to reflect the new political situation. It became the National Abortion Rights Action League. Later, to broaden its agenda and message, it became NARAL Pro-Choice America. Its mission statement, reaffirmed in today’s report, is “to guarantee every woman the right to make personal decisions regarding the full range of reproductive choices, including preventing unintended pregnancy, bearing healthy children, and choosing legal abortion.”

There’s a lot of talk in the report about seizing the initiative. Pro-choicers are tired of spending all their time and money fighting off anti-abortion legislation, clinic harassment, and crisis pregnancy centers masquerading as neutral abortion counselors. “In an environment of constant attacks on reproductive freedom, we play a lot of defense,” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue warns in a letter introducing the report. “A permanent defensive posture is a losing strategy. You win some battles, you lose others, but you’re only ever ceding ground.”

Hogue’s idea of offense, according to her letter, is a new law in California. She explains that it would

expand abortion access by letting qualified medical professionals like midwives and nurse practitioners provide early abortion care. California’s new measure should be a model for the rest of the country; making abortion more accessible means making it safer. More important, it should be a model for the entire pro-choice movement. We should be working every day to make it easier and safer for women to obtain abortion care.

NARAL is right about this measure and about the broader principle: Abortion is safer for women when our laws make it easier, not harder, for well-trained and well-intentioned medical people to offer the procedure. But making abortion safer for women won’t diminish the onslaught of anti-abortion legislation. What will diminish that onslaught, in the long run, is an alternative agenda that addresses what gives the pro-life movement its political power: abortion itself. The pro-choice movement has to offer and pursue pro-choice ways of satisfying pro-life objectives.

That’s what makes the details of the new report so interesting. On the organization’s list of six “Key Pro-Choice Victories in 2013,” only two pertain to protecting the right to abortion. Three are about sex education and birth control. Above this list, the only accomplishment NARAL touts as an example of “Pro-Choice State Measures Enacted in 2013” is a Hawaii law “to guarantee emergency contraception in the emergency room for sexual-assault survivors.”

The pattern continues as you scroll down to NARAL’s list of “Pro-Choice Laws” enacted in the states. Most categories on the list don’t pertain to abortion. Four of the seven categories are “Contraceptive Equity,” “Emergency Contraception,” “Guaranteed Access to Prescriptions,” and “Low-income Women’s Access to Family Planning.” When you click through to see how many states have enacted pro-choice laws on these subjects, birth control beats abortion hands down. Pro-choice policies on the three abortion topics—“Freedom of Choice Acts,” “Protection Against Clinic Violence,” and “State Constitutional Protection” for abortion rights—have been adopted in seven, 16, and 16 states, respectively—an average of 13. Pro-choice policies on the four birth-control topics have been adopted in 28, 22, seven, and 32 states, respectively—an average of 22.

NARAL isn’t going to drop the fight for abortion rights anytime soon. That fight is in its DNA, and somebody has to make sure that when all else fails, a woman can find someone better than Kermit Gosnell to help her. But the fight to protect abortion rights will always be ugly and unsatisfying. The most plausible way out of this perpetual war is to convince the public, not just through words but through policies and results, that the best way to prevent abortions is to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place.