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Opinion: Newborn Tragedies

Poli Psy


Published August 30, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

In August, while the headlines reported the mounting deaths of already-born Lebanese and Israeli children, a bill to save American "children," both "pre-born" and pregnant, moved toward passage. Senate bill 403, the Child Custody Protection Act, criminalizes the transport of a pregnant minor across state lines to get an abortion, if the transporter isn't the girl's parent and is thereby circumventing home-state parental-consent laws. The bill still needs to be reconciled with a similar one passed in the House this spring, then go to the President, who is eager to sign it.

The usual arguments were joined. Champions of the legislation spoke of evil abortionists fishing for business in parental-consent states; of older men smuggling their teen prey down the highway to destroy the evidence of seductions gone awry.

Pro-choicers countered that the CCPA would hurt more teens than it would help. For some girls, the disclosure of a pregnancy may meet with parental rage. The Center for Reproductive Rights dubbed the bill the "Teen Endangerment Act."

And as they've done with each of four similar bills that have reached the floor, pundits dismissed the CCPA as pure politicking - a Grand Old Party favor tossed to the base. They suggested that claims of violence and death for thousands of teens - either prevented or caused by the law, depending on your viewpoint - were hyperbolic. If the CCPA affects anyone, they said, the winners and losers will be counted at the ballot box.


I'm here to tell you that abortion law affects women. During the months when I live in New York, I volunteer with Haven, a group whose members open their homes to women traveling to the city for late-term abortions.

The Hyde Amendment, the first restriction of Roe, passed only four years after the landmark law, pretty much rules out abortions for women without money by prohibiting Medicaid from funding them. That affected "Tiffany," who lives with her daughter in a working-class suburb of Philadelphia. Tiffany's boyfriend had left. Her parents were a menace. "If my dad knew, he'd beat the shit outa me, and my mother would cheer him on," she said. "Good thing I'm fat." (At 23 weeks, her pregnancy barely showed.) A part-time car-service dispatcher, Tiffany qualified for Medicaid, to no avail. By the time she'd scraped up $350 for an early abortion, it was no longer early, or $350 - or, in her town, even available.

The "Partial-Birth" Abortion Ban, passed in 2000, affected Desiree, a waitress and college student in her mid-twenties, whose irregular periods gave no clue to her pregnancy. Most providers in her West Virginia county had stopped offering the procedure much earlier, perhaps as a result of incessant picketing or even fire-bombing. But the ban was the coup de grâce: Now doctors risked not only their lives, but also their medical licenses, by performing an operation that might include any "late" removal of fetal tissue. The closest clinic that would do it, said Desiree, was in Manhat- tan. She added carfare and two days' lost wages to the $1000-plus price, which she paid out of pocket: A 1996 federal law eliminated abortion from her husband's Navy medical benefits.

The Child Custody Protection Act would affect Mary, who accompanied her 17-and-a-half-year-old pregnant "baby sister" Lila from Massachusetts on the Greyhound bus. The family is Hawaiian; their mother, religious, uneducated and naïve, they implied. "She wouldn't understand," said Lila, who already had a small son. Added Mary: "It would hurt Mama so much." In fact, it hurt Mary, who told me she is "pro-life" and infertile - and longed for a baby. It must have been hard for Mary to support Lila. Would threat of jail prevent this act of sisterly love?


No question: Abortion restrictions hurt women. And the laws are less effective than their supporters would like. They don't generally prevent abortion, just postpone it. That compounds anxiety, medical risk and cost. It also exacerbates the troublesomeness of the ordinary troubles that lead to unwanted pregnancy and late-term abortions in the first place: poverty, family or relational conflict, denial and personal ineptitude.

If unwanted pregnancy was a crisis before 1973, Roe turned it into a problem, a soluble problem. These laws have turned it back into a crisis.

One place this is expressed - and you could hear it in the debate over the Child Custody Protection Act - is in the political rhetoric: the whole story of abortion must be a melodrama from start to finish. Both sides feel compelled to present the most harrowing of circumstances.

The text of the CCPA is such a narrative of violence and predation. Pro-choice pols talk the same way. "Sometimes tragedies happen, and sometimes families are not just negligent but abusive," declared Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking against S.403, "and sometimes young girls are taken advantage of by a member of their family, people in whom they should be able to trust." Typically clinging to the fence, Clinton left unclear whether the "tragedy" was the abusive family or the abortion itself. Later, she predicted the law would lead to teenage deaths.

The only amendment the Democrats managed to get into the bill was Barbara Boxer's, imposing criminal penalties on fathers who aid their daughters in aborting the fruits of their own sexual abuse. Conservatives who'd rather eat scorpions than vote with a California liberal hurried to sign on. Why? In the tragedy contest, Boxer had trumped even abortion - with incest. She later voted against the bill.

Before Roe, a pregnant woman might get an abortion if she could convince a doctor that having a baby would make her incurably ill, drive her insane or kill her. After Roe, human fallibility was enough to inspire sympathy. The ordinary horribles - carrying an unwanted fetus, giving up a baby for adoption, raising a child you can't support or don't love, losing your life as you know it - were, briefly, justification enough. Now, to legitimize abortion, a woman must also become pregnant "innocently," preferably by victimization.

Unwanted pregnancy can no longer be an ordinary problem, or even an ordinary crisis.