The other day, I posted a quick jab of a comment about the recent South Dakota legislation making it illegal for abortions to be performed in cases in which the mother’s life wasn’t in danger. I was angry because the thinking behind such a decision seems hypocritical and a little dim. The tradeoff in many cases is the physical, emotional, and mental health of a functioning and victimized woman for an unwanted potential life devoid of anything approaching the actual worth of the woman. To cry that it’s immoral to abort a fetus on the grounds that life is precious, even when saving that fetus contributes to the spoilage of another person’s life, just doesn’t compute. So I was mad, and I posted a quick bit about girls whose dads rape them and cause them to get pregnant.
That sort of blather isn’t really very useful, though. It’s just a vent for concerns and sympathies that even a couple of days later I can’t pretend to express eloquently. So to follow up, I’d like to point you to something that is useful. It also happens to be one of the scariest things I can remember ever having read.
A blogger named Molly has written the first in a series of tutorials on how to perform abortions. It can be done relatively inexpensively at home, and she explains how. Apparently, in the ’60s and ’70s, an organization called Jane provided abortions to the Chicago area, and it is in response to a likely need for a similar organization in South Dakota and probably elsewhere (including my state) in the coming years that Molly writes her tutorial.
When I first got the link to the blog, I thought it was going to be something satirical, an over-the-top description of what the world would be like for many women if abortions were outlawed. And at times it does read rather like such a story. But she’s in earnest. She’s providing a mostly detached and clinical, but straightforward, description of the procedure as performed in a non-medical environment. I’m picturing now a world in which poor women go to their friends’ houses to have kitchen-table abortions performed, and as surreal as that vision is to me, I can’t help thinking that for some, it’s not too far off. Here are some of the things that scare me about the tutorial:
There’s no way you can see into the uterus. From here on out — this is the scary part — you will have to operate on feel alone. Don’t feel too afraid. Each element in the uterus feels different from the others, and as long as you are careful and understand exactly what the procedure involves at each step, it will not be too difficult.
Save the material until the end of the procedure on a piece of plastic, so that you can be sure the entire fetus has been removed.
Scraping softly could leave tissue behind, and if there’s anything you don’t want, it’s that.
When you feel the curettage and removal is complete, make sure you examine the fetal material you have already extracted. If you’re missing anything obvious — for instance, a head — make sure to find and remove it.
Imagine for a moment that you have a daughter or a niece or a sister who’s been raped but who for whatever reason doesn’t have the means to get a medical abortion. Maybe she’s too poor to leave work for a week to travel out of state and get an abortion. Or maybe your niece’s parents are fundamentalist Christians who would force her to endure the pain and shame of bearing her rapist’s child even at the cost of her own well-being. And imagine further that, poor or controlled as she is, she’s resourceful after all and finds someone who will perform a kitchen-table abortion for her. And so there she lies, nervous and stripped of a family support network, the pressure cooker (to sterilize instruments) ticking behind her, with a friend or, worse, an anonymous home abortionist (perhaps a profiteer) scraping out her uterus like a Halloween pumpkin. Is the feeling of moral superiority for having prevented doctors from being able to perform abortions with expertise and under sterile conditions really worth all that?
I know it’s tempting, when you strongly belive something that has pretty black and white ramifications (life and death, no less) to base your conclusions on black and white premises. It’s very tempting to think that if the means of legally getting abortions is cut off, abortions will not be performed. But people often don’t operate according to such principles in real life. If people need abortions, they will get them, one way or another. More women will become ill or die from infections (thanks to fetal matter left behind during amateur procedures, for example) than currently do, and the babies will be dead as well. (Some who cite the sanctity of life to buttress their argument will chuckle that these women got what they had coming. Did I mention hypocrisy?) Since there’ll be no oversight, abortions will be performed late term. Maybe some crass home abortionists will even find a way to make a profit from the fetal tissue. Moreover, maybe they’ll actively seek clients and will provide bad (not to mention unqualified) advice to women who might otherwise choose a different option. It’s an ugly prospect to consider, but it’s how some percentage of the world population works, and crying that they shouldn’t doesn’t change the fact that they will.
Accordingly, I think we’d do better to make sure that those who need abortions can get them safely, lest we lose two lives instead of just the one for any given abortion. An appreciation for the sanctity of life really demands that we try to guarantee as much. There’s more to sanctity, I think, than an appreciation of simple existence. To force a life where none is wanted is to demean that particular life rather than to revere life in general. Forcing such a life is like eating food simply because it’s on your plate rather than because you need it to nourish your body. It is a sort of gluttony, a form of greed, and the worst, most misplaced, sort of moral masturbation.
Desperate women in South Dakota now have what appears to be a workable, if frightening, set of instructions for terminating unwanted pregnancies. I’m not generally a squeamish person, but thinking about these home-grown procedures and all the things that can go wrong — a tiny arm left in the uterus by a first-time scraper, for example — all the things that can go much more wrong in such a setting than in a clean environment with a practised professional — makes my gorge rise a little. It’s terrifying.
In a not-at-all quaint, nostalgic, roaring-20s sort of way, I can’t help thinking of the home abortion clinic as a sort of modern-day speakeasy. Say the password, slip the bouncer a little cash, and make your way in to the seedy if necessary back alley. What a grim picture. Have we forgotten how Prohibition turned out?
It’s very much in opposition to that grim picture that Molly writes, and she’s rendering a valuable service, if an unsavory one. How much more palatable is her scenario than one in which a coathanger is used to perform an abortion and in which antibiotics aren’t even a consideration? And how much less so than the alternative currently (if, alas, fleetingly) available in most states? It breaks my heart that there may be a need for such a document, but I’m glad somebody’s been pragmatic enough to write it.