Response to Sylvia Sullivan’s “pro-choice dangerous descent” (Feb. 16, 2020)
By Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH
February 24, 2020 (San Diego) – Sylvia Sullivan’s Reader’s Editorial makes a number of points that reflect more a rigid ideology rather than valid arguments on abortion, from claims of violence at clinics to medical, social and economic considerations regarding abortion. As I make clear below her editorial ignores some compelling reasons for pro-choice. However, what I haven’t seen in her editorial is that abortion should be considered a 1st Amendment issue given that almost all pro-lifers base their position on the Bible.
Sullivan documents cases where pro-life activists have been assaulted and verbally attacked. In such cases those carrying out the assaults should be legally prosecuted and held accountable. However, Sullivan ignores the overwhelming evidence, which is that pro-lifers are responsible for the majority of such incidences and that it is pro-lifers only who have carried out murder, attempted murder, vandalism, arson, and assaulting women at Planned Parenthood centers, many there for prenatal care, that is, to further their pregnancies (see, for instance, National Abortion Federation, 2018).
Sullivan writes: "Pro-choice activists cheering a plane banner that proclaimed late term abortionist, George Tiller, a 'national treasure!'”
According to a Wikipedia article on George Tiller: “Tiller treated patients who discovered late in pregnancy that their fetuses had severe or fatal birth defects. He also aborted healthy late-term fetuses in cases where two doctors certified that carrying the fetus to term would cause the woman ‘substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.’ Tiller was murdered while in a pew attending church services. (Wikipedia. George Tiller) So, does Sullivan think aborting a fetus with severe or fatal birth defects was wrong or preventing a pregnant woman from suffering s “substantial and irreversible impairment”? And does she condone murder?
While I tend to avoid anecdotes, I think one says it all. A woman was forced to carry to term a baby without a skull, called anencephaly, a fatal birth defect that affects only 1,206 pregnancies a year in the US.(Cassella, 2019). None of the aforementioned had any chance of survival. So, why, once detected, put a woman through this?
Only about 1% of abortions in the United States occur during the third trimester. While the reasons very, many are due to severe fetal abnormalities or risks to the mother (Brown, 2016; Kacere, 2014; monado, 2009).
And another relevant anecdote, Angela Carder. Angela Carder and her husband desperately wanted to bring a child into this world. Angela had been successfully treated for cancer during her early teens. Unfortunately, during pregnancy, another cancer attacked. Her doctors advised her they could save her life with another round of chemotherapy; but the fetus would have to be aborted. Angela refused. Her sole goal was to stay alive long enough to give birth. Someone at the hospital got wind of her condition, petitioned the court and the judge ordered a Caesarian. Hospital doctors refused saying a Caesarian would kill her. Doctors were brought in from the outside and a Caesarian was forceably performed on Angela. She died and the fetus was stillborn. I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding of law is that if someone kills another, even if they have but hours to live, that is murder. I don’t believe one can even force a person to donate blood, donate bone marrow, etc. So, a judge decided Angela was but an incubator and ordered her murder. Is this what pro-life is about? (ACLU, 1997; The New York Times, 1990; Wikipedia. Angela Carder). Do pro-lifers consider women mainly incubators? What about a woman who doctors want to perform a Caesarian because of high risk of infection who insists on a normal delivery (Gorney, 1988)?
If pro-lifers are consistent, then victims of incest or rape have to carry the fetus to term, a constant reminder of the crime committed against them. If one makes an exception then a problem arises, namely, that the fetus, according to them, is a human being with rights. In fact, the “policing” of pregnant women may have resulted in fewer seeking prenatal care (e.g. ACLU, 2020). So, is the fetus more important than the mother? (Thornton, 1991).
Planned Parenthood provides quality prenatal care, wellness care, including pap smears, etc. to women who lack health insurance and/or can’t afford the deductibles and copays. Yes, about half of Planned Parenthood centers carry out abortions; but abortion represents a small percentage of the care they give. Pro-choicers fighting to end government funds to Planned Parenthood are actually depriving far more pregnant women who want to have a child of the prenatal and postnatal care they need (Butler, 2019; Wikipedia. Planned Parenthood).
Sullivan writes: “They professed to want abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.” This is a far cry from today’s pro-choice movement as whole and their shocking turn to abortion at any time, for any reason, and at taxpayers’ expense. It has become a proud celebration of abortion as a good thing!”
First, advocating for a woman having control over her own body, including abortion, is a far cry from seeing abortion as “a good thing!” Can one find some people who do take such a position? Perhaps, but it is wrong and unfair to find a few extremes as representative of the vast majority of those pro-choice.
However, we don’t have choice in this nation. I lived in Sweden for almost 10 years where abortion is and has been legal. If, for instance, a university student becomes pregnant and decides to keep the child, she gets an array of support, including excellent free prenatal care, postnatal care, a monthly stipend (in U.S. we get tax deductions which benefit higher tax brackets more and those with little to no income not at all, in Sweden and many other nations, one receives a monthly child stipend, usually until the child becomes 18), if living in a single-room student flat, additional monthly stipend to move to a larger apartment and free quality day care. In fact, a friend of mine, a single woman back in the early 1970s had a child with celiac disease (gluten intolerance), somehow recognized in Sweden long before in the United States. In addition to her monthly child stipend she received an additional amount to pay for the costlier foods necessary.
While the Catholic Church does support universal health care (United States Catholic Conference, 1981) and other social supports (United States Catholic Bishops, 1986) , a large segment of Evangelical Christians against abortion support politicians involved in cutting funding to Medicaid, food stamps, etc., requiring poor women to take several buses to minimum wage jobs, women who can’t afford quality day care, so, often leaving the child under questionable care. So, pro-life in the United States often means deficient to no pre-natal care and post-natal care, poor nutrition, etc. Someone once said that the pro-life movement believes life ends at birth, not caring about health care to child and mother, decent housing, nutrition, and education. Wrong, to some extent they believe life ends at conception, not even in providing pre-natal care. Yes, there are a few small pro-life groups that supply room and board, prenatal care, and continue the room and board for a few months after birth to single mothers; but these are small groups and basically no follow-up.
As another example of the difference between so-called “pro-lifers” in the U.S. and those who really are pro-life, two friends in Sweden had a fourth child with Down Syndrome. From ultrasounds they knew what to expect and CHOSE to have the child. Down Syndrome children can reach low range of normal intelligence. They are often born with heart defects, hip dysplasia, etc. In Sweden they receive quality free care, including open-heart surgery. Five days per week the kids are picked up, taken to a special center where they receive the appropriate tailored education with the goal, when possible, of mainlining them into normal schools. And, once every three months, a trained government employee comes to the home at 5 pm Friday night and stays to 8 pm Sunday evening, respite care where the parents can go on holiday or just relax. I won’t go into the programs available when they reach adulthood.
When I returned from Sweden, receiving an NIH post-doctoral research fellowship in Houston, I met a couple who belonged to a group who promoted adopting special needs children. They adopted from a state agency a sweet little girl with Down Syndrome. The husband ran a small business and his health insurance premiums skyrocketed due to the almost certain need for complex surgeries. The Houston schools had no quality programs for special needs children. In 1986 the Federal government began funding such programs; but it took years before most school districts developed any. So, they had to pay for her private schooling. This was not a wealthy family. So, in Sweden, parents, knowing they will have a special needs child, often opt to have the child, knowing they will get the support they need. In the U.S. families are often on their own. Especially a family who intentionally adopts a special needs child should receive all the support we can give them; but doesn’t happen. So, a true choice doesn’t exist in this nation. We talk of family values; but bail out wealthy bankers and other corporations, etc. not families. We call compassion and caring for our fellow human beings socialism; but practice real socialism for the corporations.
Sullivan writes: “While mourning the deaths of over 61 million babies.”
While much of the abortion debate is about privacy and women’s rights, what is often missed is the elephant in the room, namely, the 1st Amendment. In 1803 President Jefferson sent a letter to the Danbury, CT, Baptist Church which contained the famous line: “There shall be a wall of separation between church and state.” What many Americans don’t realize is that prior to the 14th Amendment passed after the Civil War, the 1st Amendment only applied to the Federal government. Each state had its own official church, e.g., Connecticut, Episcopalian, Virginia, Anglican. Preachers from other denominations were often fined, imprisoned, run out of town on a rail and members often discriminated against, including not being eligible for government jobs. If one follows the pro-choice movement, almost all are seen praying to Jesus. Yet, many Christian denominations support the legality of abortion, which doesn’t mean they are promoting it. In Judaism, Reform and Conservative Jews mostly support choice; but among the Orthodox, usually not. One can argue till hell freezes over on whether the Bible allows or condemns abortion (e.g., Arthur, 2001; CBN News, 2018; Emerald, 20110; Lee, 2009; OpenBible, 2019; Rosner, 2019; The Christian Left, 2012). Part of the debate is when the fetus becomes “human”, partly determined when the soul enters the body (Wikipedia, 2019).
But, whether the Bible is for or against, by basing ones main argument on the Bible it is clearly a 1st Amendment issue. Especially given the very fact that various denominations are either pro-choice or pro-life, differing in their interpretation of the Bible. In addition, as mentioned above, we can’t even force someone to donate blood nor give a bone marrow transplant; yet, regardless of the circumstances, rape, incest, a severely damaged fetus, risk to mother’s life, and a nation that provides little to no medical and social support, some religious groups want to force their religion on others.
As for “at taxpayers’ expense,” I am against the Death Penalty (Harrison, 2019), but can’t withhold a portion of my taxes that support it. Quakers are pacifists, but can’t withhold a portion of taxes that support our military-industrial complex. Does Sullivan support our taxes paying for prenatal care, paying women forced to carry anencephalic fetus to term, forcing victims of rape and incest to relive such a terrible violation for nine months? We pay taxes as citizens of a nation. On some issues, such as the death penalty and military-industrial complex we can vote to change policy, but until it is changed, we have to pay taxes. I certainly didn’t support bailing out the criminal bankers who almost brought on a severe depression in 2008. However, when the issue is clearly 1st Amendment, different religious beliefs do NOT exempt us from taxes.
Sullivan mentions the “61 million babies” aborted. In a society that doesn’t guarantee quality pre-natal care, nor post-natal health care, nor decent housing and food and education, what would have become of the majority of these “babies”? I put “babies” in quotes because it is a religious classification whether the fetus is “human” or a potential human. In a society that is in tax revolt where already masses of infants suffer from poor housing, malnutrition, lack of decent medical care, and poorly funded schooling, what would have happened to many of the 61 million?
Personally, I’d love to see the number of abortions plummet. Making birth control easily available would help (Harrison, 2013). Giving single-women and families doing their best to provide for children they already have quality prenatal and postnatal care, decent housing, food, etc. would provide a true choice; but, in the end, it is up to the woman, based on her own conscience and situation, not having someone else’s religious beliefs forced on her.
As for Sullivan’s “For years those who defended a woman’s right to abort her baby were thought to be merely confused or misinformed,” this is an absurd claim at best, especially given the enormous literature, e.g., books, magazine articles, blogs, etc. for pro-choice, especially given that the pro-life movement often resorts to quoting the Bible, at least, their interpretation of it.
I should also add that many pro-lifers among Evangelicals support the death penalty, though, in all fairness, the Catholic Church’s position is against abortion and against the death penalty.
Sulllivan’s Reader’ Editorial basically reflects her own beliefs, not reality. She plays up violence against pro-lifers, ignoring the much more serious violence against pro-choice advocates. She ignores that only about 1% of abortions are third trimester and many are because of serious birth defects discovered in the fetus or risk to the pregnant women. Some abortions are because the woman realizes she will not have any social support. Sullivan doesn’t offer programs, e.g., quality health care, housing, and food stamps, etc. For her, being born is all that matters. And Sullivan makes claims that are ludicrous, e.g., that pro-choice really just wants abortions, not supporting a woman’s right to her own body, and that pro-choice don’t understand their position. What an absurd claim. When pro-life Evangelicals support quality health care for all (Harrison, 2008; 2018), decent housing, food, education, etc. and come out against the Death Penalty, I will have much more respect for them, though I will still see this as a woman’s right to her own body and a 1st Amendment issue.
Postscript: A Brief History of the Modern Pro-Life/Anti-Abortion Movement
Note. the following contains extensive quotes from one article (Balmer, 2014; however, I give additional supporting references: Eagan, 2018 and Halpern, 2018. I highly recommend reading the entire article. As the article clearly documents, Roe v Wade 1973 did NOT result in a mass movement of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Balmer (2014):
In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism. Today, evangelicals make up the backbone of the pro-life movement, but it hasn’t always been so. Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.
When the Roe decision was handed down, W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s former president and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas—also one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century—was pleased: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.
How does this make sense? In 1954 the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education. White flight began, often using state funds for private schools, including schools run by conservative Christians. Not until the 1970s did the federal government actively begin enforcing the law, e.g., clamping down on state funding of private segregated schools, removing IRS non-profit status, etc. Many have read of the “Southern Strategy” whereby the Republican Party, anathema to the South since the Civil War, used covert racism as part of its strategy to regain the South (e.g. Wikipedia. Southern Strategy).
Weyrich saw that he had the beginnings of a conservative political movement, which is why, several years into President Jimmy Carter’s term, he and other leaders of the nascent religious right blamed the Democratic president for the IRS actions against segregated schools—even though the policy was mandated by Nixon, and Bob Jones University had lost its tax exemption a year and a day before Carter was inaugurated as president. Falwell, Weyrich and others were undeterred by the niceties of facts. In their determination to elect a conservative, they would do anything to deny a Democrat, even a fellow evangelical like Carter, another term in the White House. But Falwell and Weyrich, having tapped into the ire of evangelical leaders, were also savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would be a challenge. It had worked to rally the leaders, but they needed a different issue if they wanted to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale. By the late 1970s, many Americans—not just Roman Catholics—were beginning to feel uneasy about the spike in legal abortions following the 1973 Roe decision.
So, yes, people were feeling uneasy about the increase in legal abortions, but the main underlying push was by racists needing a non-racial issue. The result is that today’s Evangelicals mainly support the Republican Party because of its “overt” stand against abortion, ignoring that the same Republican Party works to undermine any medical and social supports, supports that, according to my reading of the New Testament, are the foundations of Christianity, i.e., food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, caring for the sick (Matthew 25:31-40). And we are told not to be judgmental, compassion and caring for our fellow man should be a priority. Instead they look for excuses NOT to help others.
And I get sick and tired of labeling health care, welfare, etc. as socialism. Socialism is the government controlling the means of production, e.g., factories, farms, etc. We have public schools, not socialist schools, public universities, not socialist universities, police and fire departments, not called socialist, at least as far as I’m aware. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of many pro-lifers, I question their narrow perspective, ignoring the needs of children, and their ignoring that the Evangelical movement originated mainly from Baptists (Heyrman, 1997) who welcomed Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church and State.”
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