Abortion Rights: Top Priority Issue

Edd Doerr

One of every three women in America will have an abortion in her lifetime. Since the Supreme Court in 1973 acknowledged—not invented—the right of women to have unwanted pregnancies terminated, there have been about fifty million abortions in our country. No one knows how many women wanted to end such pregnancies but lacked access or funds to exercise that right.

During the same four-decade time span, there have been about 1.4 billion (that’s billion with a b) abortions worldwide, far too many of them illegal and dangerous. Without those abortions, world population today would be a staggering nine billion. Further, the number of women worldwide who have died or suffered health problems from illegal and/or dangerous abortions or continued pregnancies is incalculable, not to mention all the children left without mothers. And none of the preceding touches on the huge numbers of abortions that took place before 1973.

Meanwhile, recent decades have seen the development of a solid consensus among scientists that anthropogenic climate change poses serious threats to civilization. Grossly inadequately discussed in the media are the concomitants of climate change: carbon dioxide and methane buildup in the atmosphere; nonrenewable resource depletion; renewable resource overuse; environmental degradation; toxic waste accumulation; soil erosion and nutrient loss; biodiversity shrinkage; deforestation; desertification; rising sea levels (note that 40 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas); and increasing sociopolitical instability and violence.

All this is linked to human overpopulation, which has tripled since the end of World War II to well over seven billion, our numbers expanding beyond the carrying capacity of our one and only planet. Much of this was foreseen in a 1975 U.S. government report, the National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200), endorsed by President Gerald Ford and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft but mysteriously “classified” and buried until not long before the 1994 United Nations (UN) population conference in Cairo. NSSM 200 recommended universal access to contraception and noted that population growth could not be reined in without the legalization of abortion.

Clearly, what we have here is a huge set of problems, about which far too little is being said or done. Not only are the media asleep at the switch, but the political world is too. Journalist and Free Inquiry Senior Editor James A. Haught noted recently that religious organization membership in the United States has been falling off while the percentage of unaffiliateds or “nones” has increased to about 20 percent of the U.S. population. Yet in the November 4, 2014, elections, the religious Right and their political accomplices scored big time, with exit polls showing that only 12 percent of the voters were nones. So where were they? Sleeping? The opponents of reproductive choice and the climate change deniers have moved into the driver’s seat. The new 2015–2016 Congress is all geared up to accelerate the wars on abortion rights and climate change.

Two important new books deal with these issues, in addition to the books by Paul Ehrlich and Michael Charles Tobias and Floris van den Berg discussed in my column in the last issue of this journal. The first is Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed America, by David A. Grimes, MD, with Linda G. Brandon (Daymark Publishing, 2014). The primary author is a noted physician and scholar with over four decades of experience studying, practicing, and teaching in this field, including leading the Abortion Surveillance Branch of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The book is encyclopedic in scope, with 985 endnotes of documentation. Divided into twenty-three topical chapters, it is easy to follow and a great read. Among many other things, Grimes shows that abortion is far safer for women than carrying a pregnancy to term and that the consensus of psychiatrists and psychologists is that psychological problems stemming from abortions are negligible—a fact that even Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan’s antichoice surgeon general, had to admit—and that giving up a baby for adoption is more traumatic for a woman than having an abortion. The book leaves no stone unturned.

Among Grimes’s conclusions: access to safe, legal abortion is essential for the health of women in America; opposition to abortion and contraception is a manifestation of patriarchalism and misogyny; spontaneous abortion is common and a healthy, necessary part of human reproduction; current attacks on safe, legal abortion are designed “to turn women to the back alley once again.”

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt (Picador, 2014) is equally encyclopedic yet does not duplicate the Grimes/Brandon book. Neither too technical nor too light, it explores in detail every possible reason why women’s fundamental right to complete freedom of reproductive choice and conscience should be honored by every level of government, demolishing every imaginable argument, religious or social, for weakening that right.

Pollitt shows that the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling was more centrist than liberal, yet has been steadily trimmed back on both the federal and state levels by conservative and Republican legislators, especially during the last four years, blindly following the wishes of antichoice, misogynist, theocratic activists. She warns that while Roe is theoretically intact, it could nonetheless become a quaint relic in a legal museum, thanks to the organization and fanaticism of the antichoicers and the inadequate drive and concern of the pro-choice center and Left. She offers concrete suggestions for public policy advances: adequate sexuality education for all teenagers; universal access to comprehensive reproductive health-care, contraception, and abortion; and serious efforts to alleviate the poverty that afflicts far too many in America, especially minorities, putting far too many women and girls in the position of needing to end unwanted pregnancies.

Then there is Dieter Ehrhardt’s new book, The Family Planning Fiasco: How the Vatican Subverted Family Planning in the Developing World (Würzburg: Copydruck Roth, 2014). Ehrhardt, a retired official of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and later of the UN Fund for Population Activities who has years of experience in the West Indies and Africa, brings his informed perspective to this issue. He praises Catholic theologian Hans Küng and Catholic officials such as Vatican demographer Rev. Arthur McCormack, who defied the Vatican on contraceptives, but he hits the Vatican hard for its obstinate opposition to progress in slowing population growth. He cites Carl Bernstein’s report that with regard to the 1984 UN Mexico City conference, “In response to concerns of the Vatican, the Reagan Administration agreed to alter its foreign aid program to comply with the church’s teaching on birth control.” Bernstein reported in Time magazine on February 24, 1992, that Reagan’s top advisers, such as then–Secretary of State Alexander Haig, “regarded the US-Vatican relationship as a holy alliance: the moral force of the Pope and the teachings of their church combined with the American notion of democracy.” It will be recalled that Reagan pushed Congress in 1984 to approve U.S. diplomatic recognition of the “Holy See,” the only religious organization in the world to enjoy that status. (On February 9, 1984, I testified at a congressional hearing against diplomatic recognition of the Holy See [Vatican] on behalf of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, Americans for Religious Liberty, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the American Ethical Union, and the American Humanist Association.)

Ehrhardt concurs with Ehrlich, Tobias,
Van den Berg, Mumford, and countless other experts that human overpopulation threatens the very existence of civilization. Important American and European leaders have long known this, but it is below the radar of the media, the politicians, and the general public.

This brings us to January 2015. As this column was taking shape, Pope Francis had just remarked publicly in Rome that Catholics need not “breed like rabbits” and that they should practice “responsible parenting.” Yet only a few days earlier in Manila, he strongly defended the Vatican’s 1968 Humanae Vitae condemnation of contraception, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in defiance of nearly all of his own advisers. Francis in effect delivered a slap in the face to the majority of Filipino Catholics who support their supreme court’s recent ruling upholding the reproductive health-care law that provides free contraceptives to women.

What now? Francis is expected to come up with a major statement on the environment by the summer. If he does not pull back from the Vatican’s medieval, patriarchalist, misogynist opposition to contraception, whatever he does say will be little more than noise in the wind.

Finally, let’s note that the authors I have discussed in this and my previous column do not mention the objections to abortion usually thrown up by the antichoicers—the religious rationale for their refusal to honor the religious freedom and rights of conscience of all women. Their usual stance is that fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses are persons. Yet the Bible they purport to lean on does not condemn abortion and does not support their notion of personhood at fertilization. Indeed, the Bible (Genesis 1:27 and 2:7) says that God created humans “in his own image” and that humans become persons with their first breath. However they define “God,” they are not referring to flesh and blood and DNA but to something else—what we would usually term consciousness and will. We know from biology that the cerebral cortex is not sufficiently developed to permit consciousness until sometime after twenty-eight to thirty-two weeks of gestation. About 90 percent of abortions are performed by thirteen weeks and over 99 percent by twenty weeks; the small number past “viability” at twenty-three to twenty-four weeks are only for serious medical reasons. Personhood is not a property of embryos and fetuses.

In the late 1980s, Americans for Religious Liberty generated an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in an abortion rights case making that very point. The brief was signed by twelve Nobel laureate biologists, including DNA codiscoverer Francis Crick, and 155 other distinguished biologists.


Edd Doerr is the president of Americans for Religious Liberty and a former president of the American Humanist Association. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry; with this issue, his new column, “Doerr’s Way,” debuts. Formerly called “Church-State Update,” the column has been renamed to reflect Doerr’s wide-ranging interests and expertise.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

As the world groans under the weight of human numbers, the defense of abortion rights matters more than ever.

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