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  A hot-button issue
The changing politics of abortion in the USA

Alan Miller
posted 13 September 2007

The issue of abortion seems to be one of the few remaining 'hot-button' topics of the impending US presidential election. That said, it seems that most of the American population find themselves somewhere in the middle of the counterposed positions.

Interestingly, where once those who were clearly pro-choice argued their case from the point of view of women's rights and the freedom to retain individual autonomy and control over one's body, it seems to be increasingly the case that arguments are being reposed in therapeutic terms. While some groups, such as the National Abortion Federation, have pointed out that this was originally a position argued by the anti-abortion groups who felt like their position was not winning people over, and preferred to talk in terms of Post Abortion stress syndrome, for example, the broader culture now promotes the idea that a host of human experiences can only be understood in the context of trauma and stress. 'Syndromes' seems certain to influence women who experience a whole host of emotions (as do new mothers of course) when making the decision about whether they are able to continue with a pregnancy or not.

The recent Supreme Court decisions on partial abortion bans obviously received a great deal of attention. Pro-lifers have argued that there is little evidence to suggest that second trimester partial birth procedures are safer for women, whereas others, such as Judith Warner argue this simply makes it more burdensome for women. Will Saletan put forward the idea in Slate that technology has now got to the point where we can dispense with the requirement of second trimester abortions altogether. However, this does not tackle the thorny issue of who decides about what happens to a woman's body - and why. Ann Furedi, CEO of The British Pregnancy Advisory Service makes this point well in a paper she has written.

Donna Crane, government relations director at NARAL Pro Choice America, has warned that we should be very concerned about the idea that the issue will go back to the states as many in Congress would love a chance to undermine Roe vs Wade. Ironically, although there seems to be noise from pro-lifers, perhaps the fact that they no longer claim the morality of right and wrong but instead prefer to talk about syndromes and genetic testing as an attempt to put people off, indicates that those in favour of a woman's right to choose have an opportunity to take the high ground and move forward.

When the best that can be dredged up is the shoddy line that the harm done to women will not be discussed due to the 'billion-dollar abortion industry' and lobbyists - we know that things have changed. It seems that all sides of political 'debate' these days like to take refuge in blaming the big, bad bogeymen of multinational corporations - though this does little to explain the dicier and more complex issues that arise out of an honest and open debate about abortion.

It is clear that this issue will be one that plays out across a political landscape that has very little in the way of competing ideas in the upcoming US elections. To what extent though it will be about rights is another matter. The notion of choice and freedom these days seems to have been degraded to ideas of consumption (choice of sneakers/ music/food or the 'right to be happy' and 'the right to have opinions respected') rather than the old battle lines of fundamental human universal rights.

Whatever one's position on this issue, a broader debate that grapples with the complexities is surely required. It seems to me a pernicious notion that a woman that makes the decision that is right for her is then considered as being susceptible to mental health problems. What may seem like compassionate concern for her mental state could actually be far more like a new form of social engineering. A world where therapeutic intervention is considered de rigeur with third parties treating us like children is surely a concern for anyone interested in liberty and rights.

In the end, when arguments are posed about 'viability' and technology and any other matter, it really boils down to whether one will defend the - unequivocal - right of women to control their own bodies. Like freedom of speech, we either have it or we don't; it isn't negotiable. To use an old fashioned phrase that always seemed to me to sum up the best approach to abortion: as soon as possible and as late as necessary.

Alan Miller is a co-director NY Salon.


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