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  • Rethinking the Mantra that Abortion Should be “Safe, Legal, and Rare”
  • Tracy A. Weitz (bio)

Abortion is the most contested social issue of our time.1 Recent events, including the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Kansas, and the fight over health care reform, demonstrate the intense polarization of the ongoing debate over abortion.2 This article examines how the desire to find an end to the abortion wars led to the widespread adoption of the rhetorical mantra that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” By tracing the history and consequences of this paradoxical position, this paper provides insight into the intractability of the abortion conflict in the United States. The paper begins with a review of the transition from libratory to consolatory language regarding the role of abortion in society. I then argue that women’s health and well-being are harmed when desires to resolve the social conflict over abortion are prioritized over women’s need for abortion. Additionally, the adoption of the mantra that abortion should be rare increases the stigma associated with abortion. I demonstrate how focusing on making abortion rare reduces access to care and sets up unrealistic goals related to the number of abortions that should occur in the United States.

Analysis of fertility patterns in the United States find that before ending her reproductive years, one in three women will have an abortion.3 Perhaps the most powerful argument there is for the legality and morality of abortion is its commonness. An alternative approach to that of wanting abortion to be rare would recognize the importance of abortion access for women and the meaning of abortion for women’s equality. This new approach does not shy away from the difficult conversations about abortion but rather accepts abortion as a highly contentious issue in modern society and one for which there is no simple solution.

From Libratory to Conciliatory Language Regarding the Role of Abortion in Society

Within the feminist movement, the Roe v. Wade decision [410 U.S. 113, 1973] recognizing the constitutional right to abortion was greeted with libratory language about women’s freedom and right to bodily autonomy. Not [End Page 161] only was abortion necessary to save women’s lives, the argument forwarded by physician advocates for legal abortion, it was central to women’s place in society. Abortion was articulated as a way for women to shape the destiny and course of their lives and the right to abortion became synonymous with notions of modern feminism. “Abortion on demand” and “abortion without apology” were two slogans adopted by radical feminists to express an unqualified support for both the right to abortion and the use of abortion.4

The 1970’s were also a time of growing strength of the anti-abortion movement. Single issue politics expanded through the formation of political action committees (PACs) with the sole purpose of electing candidates who were opposed to abortion rights. Efforts culminated in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as a “pro-life” president who would use the executive branch to forward an anti-abortion agenda.5

In the 1980s, the nature of the fight over abortion shifted dramatically from a struggle to change the legal status of abortion to a larger culture war over the social meaning of abortion. As articulated by abortion rights opponents, the goal was to change the hearts and minds of the American public and make abortion a non-normative practice that is unworthy of societal approval. The strategies were multidimensional and included humanizing the fetus through the widespread distribution of fetal images and exposing the “truth” about abortion by disseminating graphic images of the abortion procedure.6

Abortion clinics and their patients became the direct target of large-scale anti-abortion demonstrations at which anti-abortion activists blockaded clinics in order to prevent women from obtaining abortions. The most famous of these were the Siege on Atlanta, GA during the 1988 Democratic National Convention and the Summer of Mercy in Wichita, KS in 1991. In Kansas, thousands of pro-life protesters converged on the city over a forty-two-day period and more than 2,500 protesters were arrested.7 While many...


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pp. 161-172
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