Is abortion the murder of an innocent child, or the exercise of a woman’s right to control her own body? Or maybe we’re focusing on the wrong question.
Abortion is a “wedge issue” that divides Americans into a “pro-life” side that believes a fetus is a person with rights, and “pro-choice” side that believes fetus is a clump of cells which is morally insignificant when weighed against the right to bodily autonomy. Having two sides shout at each other obscures other serious obstacles to reproductive rights in the US—obstacles that both sides of the abortion debate should agree about.
The pro-life side believes that abortion is deeply wrong, so a principled pro-lifer should make it their mission to prevent abortion. An effective way to do this is to prevent unplanned pregnancy. (If you’re concerned that focusing on prevention rather than punishment treats abortion with insufficient moral seriousness, consider the Scottish police force that has found success with a preventative approach to violent crime.)
The pro-choice side, which emphasizes the threat that unplanned pregnancy can pose to bodily autonomy, shares this interest in preventing it.
A natural next step, then, is making sure that Americans have access to contraceptives like condoms, hormonal birth control, and IUDs. According to researchers at the Guttmacher Institute, declining teen pregnancy rates between 2007 and 2014 are entirely due to increased use of contraception; another Guttmacher study found that abortion rates also declined in this period. We must protect the Affordable Care Act’s mandate requiring health insurance to cover contraception, and we must support publicly funded health centers that provide contraceptives to the uninsured.
Another important step toward preventing abortion is making sure that Americans know how to avoid pregnancy, by making sure middle school and high school students get accurate information about sex. As of 2018, sex education is mandatory in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and only 13 states require sex education to be medically accurate. A 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that many students are not taught how to access valid and reliable information about pregnancy and STI prevention. (Across states, the median percentage of districts that teach this information to middle schoolers is 63.2%, while the median percentage of districts that teach it to high schoolers is 89.6%.) In most states, only a minority of school districts teach all 11 of the sexual health topics recommended by the CDC, and this is true for both middle schoolers and high schoolers. There is considerable room for improvement.
Finally both sides of the abortion debate should make it a priority to make sure that parents can afford to house, feed, and care for their children. It’s obvious why the pro-life side should want this: if women (or trans men, or nonbinary people) are to continue with their pregnancies instead of seeking abortions, it must be possible for them to raise the children they give birth to. The pro-choice side should want it too; a choice about whether to have children is only a meaningful exercise of freedom if neither option is unduly burdensome.
Resolving problems with access to contraception, sex ed, and support for parents and children won’t entirely solve the abortion debate: even with ideal use, contraceptives can fail, and even in a world with better support for parents, not everyone will be ready to face the medical, social, and personal costs of carrying a pregnancy to term.
But focusing exclusively on abortion distracts Americans from many other things we should all be fighting for.