On February 10th, a student group at the University of Washington (UW), Students for Human Life, set-up an anti-choice display on campus. The display consisted of makeshift gravestones with the names of women attached, as well as a short paragraph explaining how each of these women died due to complications during abortion procedures. The intended message behind this display was to convince passersby that abortions were harmful to women's health. However, the display really amounted to an attack on women's bodies and their right to control their own reproductive health. First of all, if the argument is that medical procedures that could result in injury or death of the patient should be criminalized, then this logic should be drawn out to its fullest conclusion. If you accept this premise, then you would also agree that not only should abortions be banned, but so should open-heart surgery, brain surgery, kidney transplants, blood transfusions, chemotherapy and a host of other "risky" operations.
However, the instances of death are rare in these cases, and the benefits far outweigh the potential costs. Similarly with abortions. In fact, abortions are one of the safest surgical procedures for women in the U.S. today. According to the Guttmacher Institute, less than 0.5 percent of women obtaining abortions experience any complications, and the risk of death associated with abortion is about one-tenth of that associated with caring the pregnancy to term. The display at the UW campus merely exaggerates a handful of cases that unfortunately ended in death of the patient, while ignoring the millions of cases in which women received safe abortions. Secondly, the display ultimately amounts to an argument for increasing funding for abortions, not decreasing funds or eliminating abortions altogether. If doctors or nurses made errors during procedures or equipment proved faulty, then the solution isn't to ban them from ever performing the procedure again. Instead, the solution is to make sure doctors and nurses have the best possible training and equipment to ensure the procedures go without a hitch. Reducing funding for abortion services will only result in more fatal procedures like those depicted.
Of course, the anti-choice Students for Human Life will argue that if reducing funding will lead to more deaths of women, then abortions should be banned completely. However, this argument overlooks the fact that criminalizing a behavior doesn't prevent that behavior from ever happening again. Banning abortions does not mean women will no longer seek out this important medical service. Instead, they would be forced to either find shady underground abortion clinics or self-induce abortions, both of which are extremely unsafe practices. Banning abortions will not save women's lives. Instead, the death rate for women undergoing the procedure will skyrocket (coat hanger, anyone?). Case in point: the exact death toll during the period when abortion was illegal in the U.S. is unknown, but some conservative estimates are as high as 10,000 per year. Compare this to a study in New York City in which, after abortion was legalized in 1970, maternal mortality dropped by 45 percent.
Reproductive freedom is a foundation of women's liberation. Women can never have full equality if they cannot control their own bodies, and we cannot have a fundamentally democratic society if half the population is denied this essential freedom. If Students for Human Life were truly concerned about the well-being of women, they would be fighting for increasing funding for abortion services and pressuring their congressional representatives to pass and enforce legislation that further protects women's right to abortions. Instead, Students for Human Life is arguing that they are protecting women's lives by taking away control of their own bodies. This is both condescending and paternalistic, and amounts to an attack on a woman's liberty. No one is more qualified to make a choice concerning a woman's reproductive health than the woman herself. As late abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller, commonly said, "trust women."