Why Is America So Obsessed With Abortion?

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You have probably already heard a lot about the new Senate health care bill which, in addition to proposing massive cuts to Medicaid, promises to defund Planned Parenthood for one year due to the fact that they provide abortion services. You have probably read some of the endless media coverage of the proposed defunding: the New York Times declared that the issue is "bringing a decades-old debate over abortion to something of a climax, pitting powerful abortion rights groups, women’s organizations and medical associations against the wealthy religious organizations and anti-abortion groups that most Republicans lean on." You may have called your senator about the bill. Perhaps you took to social media to post about why we need to support Planned Parenthood and abortion rights (and got in an argument with someone you went to high school with in the comments).

But, for a brief moment, let's zoom out. Though constant (and sometimes violent) conflict over abortion rights is the norm in the US, it's actually completely different from how the conversation around reproductive rights plays out in most other countries in North America and Europe. The "abortion wars" are a unique American cultural institution. Which begs the question: why?

Across North America and Europe, abortion is not just widely legally available — it also often attracts substantially less public comment of any kind. This isn't to say that abortion law in these countries is always more liberal than the US: Northern Ireland continues to ban abortion except under threats to the mother's life or permanent risk to her health, as per a 1861 law; Poland's proposed abortion bans drew massive protests last year, and women can be prosecuted for having abortions under many circumstances in Mexico.

But by and large, the abortion debate plays out differently in these countries. No European countries have made major moves to defund abortion providers. British doctors have just asked for abortion to be totally decriminalized, and France's National Assembly recently voted to penalize anti-abortion websites that pose as neutral sources but actually "exert psychological or moral pressure” on women to keep the pregnancy. Denmark is so pro-choice that information about how to get an abortion is found on the official website of the city of Copenhagen, and even hyper-conservative Italy — where abortion is legal in the first trimester but up to 70 percent of doctors refuse to perform one — is gradually legalizing medication abortion (aka "the abortion pill") to give women more options.

And despite the fact that some Western countries have more restrictive abortion laws than the US, violence against abortion providers and attacks at abortion clinics is almost unheard of in other places.

So why is abortion such a hot-button issue in the US? The answer seems to be embedded in America's unique cultural and historic baggage.  

Why Does America Have More Anti-Abortion Violence Than Any Other Nation?

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Attacks on abortion clinics and doctors who provided abortion services began in the years following 1973's Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that gave US women the legal right to abortion. After Roe, we saw the first US abortion clinic arson in 1976 and the first US abortion clinic bombing in 1978. Anti-abortion violence rose sharply in the US in the 1980s and '90s, according to historians, as anti-abortion extremists used acid, arson, threats, picketing and other means to try and cause physical harm to abortion providers or cause clinic shut-downs.

While abortion clinic bombings have dropped significantly since the 1990s — likely due in part to high vigilance about the possibility of domestic terrorism of any kind following 9/11 — abortion clinics are still the site of threats and violence, like 2015's mass shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood that left three dead.

Though other countries, including Canada and Australia, have been the site of some anti-abortion violence and murders, their numbers pale in comparison with the US, where there have been 11 murders committed by anti-abortion extremists since 1993, and more than 300 other violent attacks on abortion clinics or providers since the '70s. So why is all this happening in the US?

How Racism Shaped The US Abortion Debate

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It should be noted that in America, white women have historically had very different experiences with reproductive rights than women of color. While white women's reproductive lives were viewed as something to be regulated by laws or church decrees, women of color often had their reproductive lives controlled directly by the people involved in their oppression — for example, black female slaves who became pregnant were refused abortions by slave owner. Similarly, women of color have often had to fight for their right to become pregnant when they wish, in the face of state programs that forced them into unwanted sterilization and other road blocks to reproductive freedom.

And according to many historians, racist concerns about white supremacy fed much of the US's early anti-abortion culture.

It might surprise you to know that, in the early part of America's history, abortion for white women was largely seen as a private matter between a woman and her church, rather than something the law must deal with. A history of American abortion laws points out that the colonies initially adopted the abortion rules from their home country — for example, in Portuguese colonies, abortion was illegal, while in English colonies abortions were legal for white women if performed prior to "quickening" (the point where the woman can feel the fetus begin to move). Professor Leslie Reagan, in her history of American abortion, has pointed out that the first laws against abortion were actually attempts to control poisoning, because herbal abortifacients which were commonly available and widely advertised in the 1800s were totally unregulated and often dangerous to the women who took them.

In the 19th century, many white American antiabortion activists thought the problem with abortion was less about violating laws or committing a Christian "sin," and more about trying to maintain high birth rates for white Americans.

Historians Nicola Beisel and Tamara Kay have argued that the real hysteria over abortion in American history was about "Anglo-Saxon control of the state and dominance of society." They write:

In other words, white women were viewed as the ones most likely to be having abortions — and to racist anti-abortion activists, that made white dominance of American society vulnerable. The white fear of "becoming a race minority" in comparison to the children of slaves and immigrants of non-white background was massive in white American culture in the 19th century, and fears about abortion fed straight into it. It was part of a landscape of anti-miscegenation laws and other legal restrictions designed to make sure that white Americans retained privilege and non-white people had less political and social power. Racist fixations on white birth rates appeared in Europe as well, but in America, it was particularly vicious: it's why Theodore Roosevelt famously declared that women of "good stock" who didn't have kids were "race criminals." Horatio R. Storer asked in 1868 whether the West would be filled with "aliens," and declared, "This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation."  

US Ideas About Sexuality Also Shaped Our Abortion Debate

According to many historians, US attitudes about sexuality (which often intertwined with racist thought) also played a huge role in the development of our abortion culture.

Gilda Sedgh, a principal research scientist with the Guttmacher Institute, told Foreign Policy that the difference between US and European attitudes towards abortion is tied to Europe's “social acceptance of premarital sexual activity and contraceptive use.” And historian Anna M. Peterson argues that some of the difference stems from how white abortion-seeking women themselves were treated. By the late 1800s, "people in both Europe and the U.S.," she writes, "had long expressed sympathy for women who had abortions and many believed abortions helped unfortunate women in difficult situations. American anti-abortionists instead put forth an image of women who procured abortions as frivolous and promiscuous." She quotes the American Medical Association's J. Milton Duff, who declared abortion in 1893 to be "a pernicious crime against God and society." (It should be noted again, of course, that these attitudes of sympathy or concern were aimed almost exclusively at white women; women of color often found themselves subjected to eugenics-based efforts to control their reproduction).

White physicians were the big instigators behind the anti-abortion push in America in this period, but in the UK, people generally thought of abortion-seeking women differently. They characterized women who had them as "desperate and destitute," victims of socioeconomic conditions instead of moral failings. (Other countries also saw it differently: Russia thought the rise of abortions in the 1890s was a product of capitalist excess, and the fight for birth control in France in the early 20th century was led by anarchists. Context, when it comes to abortion, has always mattered a lot.)  

The Difference Between American & European Feminism Also Played A Role

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Anna Peterson also argues, as do other historians, that the culture of American abortion arguments can be traced to the differences between feminist thought in the US and Europe.

American pro-choice feminism talked about women's rights to control their own bodies — though, as Leslie Reagan has noted, a lot of early American feminists weren't pro-abortion at all, or only accepted that the procedure might occur when women were abandoned by men or were "loose."

By contrast, European feminist thinking framed the abortion debate in terms of "public health and humanitarianism," arguing that legal abortion was necessary for every woman to have the best chance at health. Take, for example, the way in which people talked about abortion in Weimar Germany, from 1918 to the 1940s. "Abortion," writes Weimar historian Cornelia Usborne, "would become superfluous in a society where inequality was abolished." This is not to say that European, British, Australian, and other feminist activists working for abortion rights didn't have a fight on their hands. Most countries have had their own internal squabbles about abortion's legality and criminalization; but its unique status in American culture may also have been partially created by the moral framing of America's attitudes.

The Religious Right's Power In American History Changes The Narrative

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The other big factor in the American abortion wars, according to historians, is Roe v Wade itself, and the kind of opposition it inspired. It was a big victory that created huge legal obstacles for anti-abortion activists, and so created a new kind of antiabortion movement. Professor Jennifer Holland, a gender and sexuality historian, has written:

As evangelical Christians became involved, the anti-abortion movement attained more political power and reach. Amanda Marcotte noted in Slate in 2013 that the religious right's influence on the abortion debate in America was what really distinguished it, in the late 20th and early 21st century, from European abortion discussions. America's very strong Christian right, with its focus on "family values," has shaped American discourse with its use of political capital and resources. But it's not the only factor.

When we look at the American abortion wars, what we're really watching is the impact of several centuries of US history, including issues as diverse as the legacy of slavery and the development of American feminism, as well as issues like America's high rates of violent gun-related crimes.

Which may make it make more sense — but doesn't make it look, from an outside perspective, any less unreasonable.