Thursday, May 9, 2013

On the Risk of Coerced Abortion

Coerced abortion

The argument

In a recent discussion I heard a novel argument: legislating for abortion may increase the risk of women being coerced or forced to have abortions.

This is an interesting approach and one that bears unpacking. When we discuss legal access to abortion we are faced with a choice between allowing women to be the ultimate controllers of their wombs or taking that authority from them and giving it to society. The argument recognises that pro choice favours the first approach and posits that legislation may in cases remove choice from women by providing a legal framework that could facilitate coerced abortions. It culminates by proposing that prohibition on abortion will prevent this denial of choice.

A response

The premises as I see them are as follows:
  1. To be pro choice is to support a woman's autonomy on reproductive choices
  2. To coerce someone towards abortion denies them a choice
  3. Prohibition of abortion is an effective deterrent against coerced abortions
This leads to the conclusion:
  • Legislation for abortion rights will result in denying some women reproductive choices
The immediate responses are unsatisfying. To crunch numbers and calculate if there is a net gain or loss in choices exercised will undoubtedly favour legislating for abortion, but it seems somewhat callous to treat this as an accounting problem. One could also wash one's hands of the problem and say that the blame lies with those who coerce, not those who seek legislation, but that too seems unsatisfying.

Is there a deterrent?

Instead I'd like to start by examining premise three. Does our current legal situation provide an effective deterrent against coerced abortion? It's always important to remember that thousands of Irish women have abortions every year. So long as one is financially comfortable, physically capable of travel, or, alternatively, willing to risk abortifacients purchased online the option of abortion is open to you. We should also factor in the stigma attached, the necessity to be secretive, and the absence of support when far from home. How much of this applies when, say, a parent or partner pressures a woman into abortion?

I argue very little.

Holding such power over another person strongly implies holding financial control too, and financial dependence is too often what prevents escape from such abusive relationships. The total cost of an abortion to an Irish person is in the region of 1,500 Euro - prohibitive to a student or low earner, generally manageable for a parent or a partner who controls two incomes. The stigma, absence of support and requirement for secrecy are unlikely to trouble someone who would deny a woman choice in continuing her pregnancy. And to me an abusive partner or unfit parent seems more likely to risk the health of a woman through online abortifacients than a woman herself.

Does the argument hold for adoption?

There have undoubtedly been cases of coerced adoption in Ireland. We have been criticised by International Social Services as recently as January of this year on the matter. Thousands of children born to victims of the Magdalene Laundries were adopted through coercion. This is unquestionably an act of violence against mothers and few defend coerced adoptions. Yet we do not hear of those who wish a blanket ban on adoption to prevent abuses. And yet the argument's premises seem in this instance stronger, as premise three now holds:
  1. To be pro choice is to support a woman's autonomy on reproductive choices
  2. To coerce someone towards adoption denies them a choice
  3. Prohibition of adoption is an effective deterrent against coerced adoptions
Ultimately this is an interesting and novel argument, but one I feel fails on close examination.


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