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A Brief Reprieve, in Idaho, From Legislated Cruelty : Abortion: Attacking it as a casual form of birth control was devious--and punitive to the many whom birth control fails.

April 01, 1990|PHYLLIS N. SEGAL | Phyllis N. Segal is president of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund

The Draconian Idaho anti-abortion bill vetoed Friday by Gov. Cecil Andrus promoted a fraud. The Idaho Legislature had rushed to join forces with opponents of abortion to test how far today's Supreme Court is prepared to go in unraveling constitutional protection for reproductive freedom, and how much the voters are willing to swallow. Other states considering this route should follow the governor's lead and firmly reject it.

The fraud? By characterizing their legislation as a "ban on abortion as birth control," the anti-abortion movement was advancing the myth that "responsible" women will never need to seek an abortion. The insinuation is that irresponsible women choose abortion as a matter of convenience when they could have avoided the unintended pregnancy. Are they seriously suggesting that any woman would risk costly surgery to terminate a pregnancy every month for a fertile life span averaging 40 years, rather than use a diaphragm or birth-control pills?

In fact, studies of women who have had an abortion confirm that more than half had been using a contraceptive in the month they became pregnant. The Alan Guttmacher Institute reports a 16% failure rate for the diaphragm, 14% failure rate for condoms and a 6% failure rate for the pill (the most effective form of birth control currently available, but with side effects that prevent many women from using it). The rhythm method--the only method sanctioned by certain religious groups--has a failure rate of 16%. And spermicides have a starting 26% failure rate.

The odds of contraceptive failure increase with lack of access to medical professionals, and incomplete or inaccurate information about how to use birth control properly, a problem particularly for low-income and young women. Yet the Reagan-Bush Title X regulations eliminate funding for family-planning clinics if the clinic even mentions abortion when providing referral or counseling for pregnant women. The courts have split on whether these regulations are constitutional. If upheld by the Supreme Court, they would make birth-control counseling even more inaccessible. The high cost of birth control--which is not covered by Medicaid or most private insurance policies--compounds the problem.

Fewer methods of birth control are available to women and their partners in the United States than in other countries. The controversy over abortion has had a chilling effect on contraceptive research, with at least one major pharmaceutical company pulling out of the field in the face of threatened boycotts of its other products by anti-abortion groups.

A ban on abortion "as birth control"? The Idaho legislation would have outlawed abortions except in cases of rape reported within seven days--despite the fact that the courage to report this atrocity often comes only after prolonged support and counseling. Also excepted were cases of incest (if the victim was under 18 and the crime had been reported), profound fetal deformity, or where the life or physical health of the mother was threatened. Nearly 95% of all abortions in Idaho would have become illegal. Putting aside for the moment the cruel hoax that the narrow rape and incest exceptions ruled out all pregnancies resulting from nonconsensual sex, the facts belie the insinuation that all other pregnancies could have been prevented by birth control.

This newest anti-choice rallying cry attempts to cloak an extremist position in moderate clothes. In light of the facts about the availability and effectiveness of contraceptives, who has the right to judge any woman's efforts to control her destiny when she finds herself pregnant, whether or not she was using contraceptives?

Surely not any man who has ever had sexual intercourse without wearing a condom. Surely not any woman who uses any form of contraceptive; if she does not wish to be pregnant, she must understand the feelings of any woman who is pregnant and did not wish to be. Surely not anyone who realizes that banning abortion as birth control would force every pregnant woman to explain the most intimate details of her personal life to prove to strangers exactly what steps she took to avoid conception, or to lie about them.

If Idaho lawmakers, or any others, truly want to reduce the number of abortions, their action would be aimed at increasing access to family planning and encouraging development of safe and effective methods of birth control. While Idaho's bill purported to aim at "abortion as birth control," plainly its reach was much broader. Perhaps the biggest hoax is the label that names the movement "pro-life."

In fact, time and again extremist abortion foes have shown their interest in making the living suffer. The bill that fell one signature short of becoming law in Idaho would have endangered women. It would also have jeopardized the principles of individual freedom and tolerance on which this nation was founded.

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