Abortion: It is More Than Just a Single Moment
Abortion has been a highly controversial topic in American politics throughout U.S. history. Regulation and restriction of abortion in the U.S. has taken a winding course since the 1800’s. According to the Chicago Tribute (2018), in “1821 America’s first statutory abortion regulation [was] enacted in Connecticut”, but by “1967 Abortion [was] classified a felony in 49 states and Washington D.C.” In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Roe Vs. Wade, ruling that blocking women’s right to abortion was unconstitutional; however, left regulatory policies up to the individual states.
According to Guttmacher Institute (2018), 43 states currently prohibit abortion after a specific point during pregnancy, 7 states have no restriction. A majority of the states who have abortion restrictions have restrictions on abortions regarding fetal age. These restrictions range from 6 weeks into the third trimester; however, a majority of the states have bans after 27 weeks. Both the legalization and/or banning of abortion has psychological, financial, physical, and socioeconomic implications on families. Today in the U.S., one in four women will have had an abortion by the age of 45 and 59% of women who get an abortion are already a mother (Guttmacher Institute, 2017). If abortion is legal in the U.S. and highly practiced, why does it remain so controversial today?
From a historical standpoint, abortion has been both legal and illegal at various times throughout history since the 1800’s. Historical data illuminates the fact that abortions occur during both legal and illegal historical periods. The Center for Reproductive Rights (2007) states: “before Roe, it is estimated that ‘between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegally induced abortions occur[red] annually in the United States’”. Risk of maternal harm and death is shown to be correlated with the number of illegal abortions. Willard Cates Jr and Roger Rochat report in “Illegal Abortions in the United States: 1972-1974” (1976) that: “legalization of abortion has been accompanied by a sharp decline in abortion deaths—almost entirely due to the drop in illegal abortion deaths, from thirty-nine in 1972 to just three in 1975.” The U.S. supreme court case Roe versus Wade occurred in 1973, in the period between 1972 and 1975, during when the drastic decrease in abortion deaths took place.
Women report needing or having had an abortion for various reasons. “Reasons U.S. women have abortions: Quantitative and qualitative perspectives” published in the journal of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health (2005) reported that in a study conducted of 1,209 abortion patients, 74 percent of participants listed the need for abortion as inadequate finances. Socioeconomics has additionally been studied over the duration of years post abortion and post birth for women who could not secure an abortion. Diana Greene Foster, M. Antonia Biggs, Lauren Ralph, Caitlin Gerdts, Sarah Roberts,and Maria Glymour, observe in a study published in The Journal of American Public Health (2018) that in a study conducted between 2008 and 2010, which was then followed for a span of 5 years, that states “women denied abortions who gave birth had higher odds of poverty 6 months after denial” and “six months after denial of abortion, women were less likely to be employed full-time and were more likely to receive public assistance than were women who obtained abortions”, differences that remained significant for 4 years. These findings conclude that abortion pushes outward beyond the individual’s life at the time of the pregnancy substantially for years after abortion or birth.
When focusing on the abortion itself, the morality of the procedure is brought into question. As science advances with the technological era more studies are being conducted on fetal development, more specifically if the fetus is enduring trauma during the abortion procedure. In a systematic multidisciplinary review done by Susan Lee, Henry Ralston, Eleanor Drey, John Partridge, and Mark Rosen, published in the American Medical Association (2005), asserts:
Pain perception requires conscious recognition or awareness of a noxious stimulus. Neither withdrawal reflexes nor hormonal stress responses to invasive procedures prove the existence of fetal pain, because they can be elicited by nonpainful stimuli and occur without conscious cortical processing. Fetal awareness of noxious stimuli requires functional thalamocortical connections. Thalamocortical fibers begin appearing between 23 to 30 weeks’ gestational age, while electroencephalography suggests the capacity for functional pain perception in preterm neonates probably does not exist before 29 or 30 weeks.
Glenn Cohen and Sayeed Sadath supported these findings in a “Fetal Pain, Abortion, Viability, and the Constitution” (2011), by concluding that
…some of the anatomic structures within the developing nervous system are present in a normally developed fetus at 20 weeks postfertilization gestation, it is misleading to suggest this physical reality is sufficient for a fetus to ‘experience’ pain. It is further misleading to suggest that observable neuroendocrine, metabolic, and reflexive responses to stimuli are equivalent to meaningful pain perception. Each of these later responses can be elicited even in the absence of nociception and none require consciousness.
Adoption is arguably an alternative to abortion if the child is unwanted or the biological family is unable to sufficiently care for the child. According to PBS [public broadcasting service] (2010) “about 135,000 children are adopted in the United States each year. Of non-stepparent adoptions, about 59 percent are from the child welfare (or foster) system, 26 percent are from other countries, and 15 percent are voluntarily relinquished American babies.” This means approximately 100,000 domestic adoptions happen annually in the U.S. “The range for an adoption agency adoption is from $5,000 to $40,000+, with almost 60% falling within $10,000 – $30,000, and the average being around $28,000 (Davenport, 2013). However, adopting through the foster care system is substantially cheaper, with minimal or no cost to the family. Adopt Us Kids (2018) informs there are approximately 400,000 children in the foster care system, with 20,000 children a year aging out of system without finding a home.
Family Impact Analysis
One of the most significant findings in this research is the socioeconomic impact to families. As stated earlier in the research findings, a large percentage of women who are seeking abortion cite financial insufficiencies as their reason for seeking abortion. More than half of all abortion patients are already mothers (Guttmacher Institute, 2017). The economic impact placed on women and their families by a child or additional children can last for years. Giving birth and parenting a child can increase poverty, increase dependency on government aid, and jeopardize full-time employment status. An unwanted or mistimed pregnancy may cause undue harm and instability in the lives of families.
When examining the abortion procedure, evidence currently shows that the nervous system of a fetus is still developing into weeks 20 through birth. Structures which allow for the conscience perception of pain are underdeveloped until at least 23 weeks. Structures begin to appear around that time, but not enough is known about the functionality of those structures to determine whether or not (at this point) the fetus can consciously feel and experience pain. Because pain is subjective, pain level is indeterminable beyond understanding of the physical structure of the brain that allows for pain signals to be produced and understood.
Adoption, although and alternative, is a limited alternative. The foster care system is flooded by 400,000 children, with only approximately 100,000 domestic adoptions per year. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] (2017), there were 652,639 reported legal abortions in 2014. With 650,000 possible added births, adoption rates would not keep up with the high volume of children who would be seeking adoption. Private adoption is costly and not a viable option for many Americans. 20,000 children age out of the foster care system annually without ever being permanently placed with a family, further demonstrating the discrepancy that already exists between adoptive parents and foster children (Adopt Us Kids, 2018).
In summary, the U.S. supreme court ruled banning abortion was unconstitutional in 1973. Today, abortion regulation laws and policies are created and enforced independently by each state, the vast majority have age bans after the gestational period of 27 weeks (Guttmacher Institute, 2018). Research shows the majority of those who seek abortions are already mothers who list financial insufficiencies as the top reason for obtaining an abortion. When women seeking an abortion were denied, the likelihood of poverty is shown to increase; consequently, putting families at a greater need for government assistance. This impact remains for years after birth of the unwanted or mistimed pregnancy. Historical context illuminates hidden dangers of criminalizing and/or banning abortion. The 1973 Roe v. Wade case legalized abortion and dropped maternal harm rates dramatically due to the significant increase in safe abortion practices. Given that there were an estimated 200,000 to 1 million illegal abortions annually in the U.S., it is clear that banning abortion does not eliminate the practice (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2017)
Additionally, when examining policy recommendations, it is important to take into account the research findings stating that: fetus’ do not develop the physical structures, nor a nervous system with enough complexity to consciously interpret pain until the approximate age of 23 weeks of gestation, the discrepancies between the number of foster children and annual domestic U.S. adoptions, and the long-lasting socioeconomic hardships placed on families by the birth of an unwanted or mistimed pregnancy. Given these research findings, policies should reflect the legalization of abortion inconsequentially up until the gestational age (pregnancy duration based off the mother’s menstrual cycle) of 22 weeks and/or the fetal age of 20 weeks (age of the fetus starting at conception). At this point in fetal development, research is limited and inconclusive on the potential harmful impacts to the unborn child and the child’s conscious interpretation of pain as the nervous system increases in complexity and the infant has the physical brain structures to feel pain. Due to the limitation of the current research, policies should ban abortion after the fetal age of 20 weeks due to the unknown harm it could cause to the fetus due to developmental probability of pain reception. Access to abortion is shown to reduce poverty risk, number of children in foster-care, maternal harm/death, and creates better socioeconomic outcomes for women and their families, especially when children are present from previous pregnancies. With no sufficient viable alternatives to parenthood when unwanted or mistimed pregnancies are carried to term, due to shortages of adoptive families, over-flow of children in the foster care system, and financial shortcomings, policies which support uninhibited access to abortion (including insurance coverage) during the pregnancy until the fetal age of 20 weeks, promotes the well-being of women, children, and their families.
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