Most, if not all, people would agree that almost all medical procedures outside of the standard, regular checkup would best be rare. Setting bones hurts, and casts itch. Cancer treatment is lengthy, painful, emotionally wrenching, and expensive. Myomectomy is awkward, uncomfortable, and messy. Given the choice between breaking a bone/having cancer/having endometrial polyps and not doing those things, most people would choose not to, and thus not require the aforementioned medical procedures.
Ideally, we’d live in a world where we all had access to affordable healthy food, clean water, and preventive health care; clean air, plentiful sidewalks, and safe neighborhoods; and more societal understanding and less judgment–just imagine how the need for nonelective medical care would plummet in that kind of a utopia. But the vast majority of us don’t live like that, and when we pull a muscle or develop diabetes or have a heart attack, the availability of safe, legal health care can be a lifesaver. And outside of a few truly horrible types of people, few would argue that we need to outlaw balloon angioplasty because we’d all rather people not need it, because ouch and ew. Safe, legal, rare angioplasty is seldom up for debate.
Until you talk about abortion. Turn the subject to abortion, and suddenly the only answer is to destroy these women in order to save them. You don’t hear a lot of arguments that angioplasty should only be available for patients with congenital defects, because everyone else “got themselves into that position and now has to deal with the consequences.” (God has a plan.) Or that heart transplants should be outlawed because of the documented tendency for depression and anxiety in transplant recipients. No one pretends to try to protect people by making Prilosec or insulin pumps harder to obtain. (If Prilosec is so great, why would doctors bother curing acid reflux?) But to the anti-choicers, abortion is both the symptom and the disease. It doesn’t matter how a woman became pregnant or why she wants an abortion. Banning abortion outright solves the problem, because the lives of actual women are of no concern.
Many things can go wrong to bring abortion into the picture. A woman doesn’t have access to birth control. She has access, but she doesn’t know how to use it properly. She has access, but she’s been given deliberate misinformation. She has access, but her partner pressures her to not use it or sabotages it outright. She uses birth control, but it fails. She’s raped, but the hospital won’t give her emergency contraception. She can’t afford to be pregnant. She doesn’t want to have an abortion but is afraid of her parents or her partner. She has a medical condition that would make pregnancy life-threatening. She’s carrying a very-much-wanted fetus that will never make it to term or will live a short, excruciating life. These are all things that can be addressed, albeit not always resolved outright, through social programs, support, education, effective health care policy, responsible and responsive law enforcement, and basic respect and human decency. Taking better care of women will result in less need for this medical procedure and make it less traumatic in cases where it is needed. Which is important–if you actually care about women.
So yes, we should want abortion to be rare–not because there’s anything wrong with it as a procedure, or because it’s horrific or universally traumatizing, but because we’d generally rather not have to pay money and undergo minimally invasive medical procedures if we can avoid them. Um, hi. It’s also often a sign that societally, we’ve missed a few holes we need to fill in. You don’t fix that by outlawing the solution–you fix that by fixing the problem, creating a world where women who don’t want to be pregnant don’t have to get pregnant and women who want to carry their pregnancies to term are able to do so. And until you’ve fixed that–and forevermore after you’ve fixed that–your only option is to protect the hell out of a woman’s right to choose what’s best for her life.
Since abortion first had a substantive presence on the Democratic Party platform in 1992, the standard line has followed Bill Clinton’s classic “safe, legal, and rare,” sometimes in so many words. The 2008 Democratic Party platform dropped “rare,” and it’s stayed gone in 2012. And with good reason–”rare” practically invites antis to derail and reframe. “Well, if abortion is so great, why do you want it to be rare?” It’s a stupid question for anyone bright enough to also wonder why we might want to see fewer tonsillectomies or ACL repairs. It’s also not a sincere question; it’s a “gotcha.” And there is no good answer to that that fits on a bumper sticker or in a video soundbite. Let that question–that stupid, stupid, insincere question–out of its cage, and the antis have a handy weapon. “Abortion is so bad, even the baby-killers don’t like it!” The only safe thing to do is avoid the question, avoid diluting the argument, and focus on the other equally crucial aspects of reproductive rights. Safe and legal. Access without exception. Health safety rights agency choice choice choice.
In doing so, though, we have to recognize that it kind of lets the antis off the hook. It bypasses the fact that while they claim their goal is just to eliminate abortion, they’re obviously full of shit, because they’re ignoring a host of women-focused initiatives that would help do just that in favor of the one option that harms women. It bypasses the fact that we’re talking about lives and they’re trying to score points. Because the answer is, “You’re goddamned right abortion should be rare. And the very fact that you’re using that as some kind of a ‘gotcha’ question shows that you don’t actually give two shits about women.” Too long for a bumper sticker, really, and too… emphatic for the evening news. But honest. Back to the drawing board.