“Community” is central to Friends’ faith and practice, and of course, it is central to all of humanity. Life starts with a community of two – the mother and her infant. A baby’s community grows as she grows. Eventually it may include her father, other siblings, and many others.
All of us live in a global community that extends far beyond the people we meet. It includes the people who grow our food, who fix our sewers, and who develop vaccines to protect us. It also includes our food, the mosquitoes that drive us crazy, and the lions on the Serengeti.
Typically, discussions about abortion focus on either the fetus or the woman. Obviously, both parts of this dyad are most important in considering the future of a pregnancy. However, abortion has effects that are much more widespread.
I learned early on that not all pregnancies are planned and not all children are wanted. When I was eleven, our family was traveling in Venezuela. We were walking together along a path when a barefoot young woman approached us, held out a beautiful baby, and asked, “Wanna buy baby?” My mother had to work hard to explain this situation to me.
Mainstream media discussions about abortion often focus on inflammatory questions that are impossible to answer, such as: When does human life begin? Does a fetus have a soul? How does one compare the value and rights of a pregnant woman with the value and rights of a fetus?
As an experiential religion, the Quaker faith values observation over speculation, evidence over theory. I can testify that my own experience as an obstetrician is filled with ample evidence to convince me that abortion is a necessary option in a healthy human community. Of course, my own experience is limited.
Fortunately, although much of the public discourse about abortion is filled with speculation about the psychological damage that abortions cause to the women who receive them – and consequently, to their families and communities – some large, well-designed studies have examined those speculations and found them to be false.
When Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, he asked his Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop, an evangelical Christian, to report on ways that abortions harm women. Eventually, Dr. Koop reported that he could find little evidence of such harm. In the ensuing decades, the evidence has only increased that the real harm to women requesting abortions comes from withholding abortions. Furthermore, that harm extends past the woman to include the child who is born unwanted and to any possible siblings.
Two such studies are especially noteworthy. The first is reported in the 2020 book, The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having – or Being Denied – an Abortion. This longitudinal study compared two groups of women – ones who were denied abortions because their pregnancies were slightly beyond the limit (slightly too far advanced) and women who received abortions when their pregnancies were just under the limit (nearly too far advanced). The researchers spent three years recruiting about a thousand women from thirty abortion facilities throughout the USA, and then interviewing each woman by phone every six months for five years. At its conclusion, the study reported, “The main finding of The Turnaway Study is that receiving an abortion does not harm the health and wellbeing of women, but in fact, being denied an abortion results in worse financial, health, and family outcomes. . . . Women who receive a wanted abortion are more financially stable, set more ambitious goals, raise children under more stable conditions, and are more likely to have a wanted child later.”
The other major study I want to mention was reported in a book and a series of papers, including the article, “Born Unwanted, 35 Years Later: The Prague Study,” Reproductive Health Matters, Vol. 14, May 2006. As the abstract of this article explains, the study “followed the development and mental well-being of 220 children (now adults) born in 1961–63 in Prague to women twice denied abortion for the same unwanted pregnancy. The children were individually pair-matched at about age nine with 220 children born from accepted pregnancies when no abortion had been requested.” The findings consistently showed disadvantages of being an unwanted child, compared to children who were desired. As they grew up, the unwanted children showed poorer socialization, they did less well in school and had more problems with friendships. “Unwantedness” seemed to lead to social maladaptation and more run-ins with the police. As they aged, these unwanted children expressed less satisfaction with their lives and with their jobs. They tended to stay single, or if they married, they were more likely to divorce. These unwanted children needed more psychiatric care than the controls.
Both of these studies illustrate interactions between abortion and community. A child in the Prague study who was born to a mother who wanted to abort that pregnancy didn’t fit into his community as well as the child who was desired. The same was true of the Turnaway women who requested an abortion, but had to carry the pregnancy to term.
Community is a two-way street. Every person makes contributions and every person requires resources. In the case of human population, sometimes the best contribution that humans can make to life on Earth is to use restraint. A family with one child is much more earth-friendly than a family with more children. Supporting people who choose to not bear children is especially important today, since that choice is still generally disparaged by society. And, since accidents do happen, it is essential to provide comfort and assistance to people who choose to abort or relinquish unintended pregnancies.
As a global community, we are facing serious problems unique to this era. We all know about global climate change, and we should all know about the loss of global biodiversity. Species are now going extinct at a much faster rate than has been normal throughout the history of life on our planet. Moreover, within the species that have so far avoided extinction, the numbers of individuals are decreasing rapidly. Unsustainable numbers of people appear to be causing both the rapid extinction of species and the decreasing numbers of nonhuman creatures.
Some argue that excess consumption is the real problem, not the size of our human population; that we in the rich global north consume too much. Yes, it would be great if we could persuade people to consume less. The ecological footprint of an average citizen of the USA or Canada is about eight times the size of the global footprint of a citizen of Kenya. If we all lived like Kenyans, the world would be a better place, but that is a dream that is highly unlikely to come true. Trying to decrease consumption is the work of Sisyphus.
On the other hand, most people do want to limit their fertility. It is estimated that 98% of sexually active women in the USA have used contraception at some time in their lives, and as many as 40% of them will have one or more abortions during their lifetimes. Sadly, almost half of all pregnancies in the USA are unintended.
Global figures are similar: A quarter of all women will experience one or more abortions, and 40% of pregnancies worldwide are unintended. More than 200 million women lack access to effective contraception.
We live in an imperfect world. Problem pregnancies are caused by failures: failure of a man to respect a woman; failure to use contraception; failure of a contraceptive method even when it is used; failure of a fetus to develop normally. Abortion may be the best choice that a woman can make to deal with any of these failures. I believe that the best person to make a decision about abortion is the woman herself.
Our Friends community should make room for both prochoice and antiabortion Quakers. For years, I spent many hours of Meeting for Worship trying to discern my beliefs about abortion. However, it was one teen woman who made me realize the importance of abortion to individuals. At first this teen was quiet, but after her abortion, she sat up and said: “Thank you doctor; you gave me back my future.” ~~~
Richard Grossman recently retired from the practice of obstetrics and gynecology in Durango, CO. He continues to work on several population-centered projects. To learn about these, see: www.population-matters.org. He is a member of Durango Monthly Meeting (IMYM).
Subscribe or renew now to read all articles online.