The Truth About Abortion

Pro-life extremists imagine a country awash in abortions, but they are in fact much harder to procure than most people realize. Eric Alterman reveals the truth about abortions in America.

06.02.09 6:41 AM ET

The Obama M.O. is to speak conspicuously respectfully of one’s opponents in order to preserve the illusion of bipartisanship, or even, potentially, consensus, in the absence of the real thing. But there can be no illusions about the violent sliver of the antiabortion movement that helped cause the murder of Dr. George Tiller, an OB-GYN who performed late-term abortions, and that refuses to condemn the act. Whatever one thinks about the issue of abortion itself—and my own views are quite conflicted—we can at least agree that the people who agree to perform these fully lawful acts are entitled to be protected against acts of domestic terrorism that threaten their lives. So too the women who, for whatever reason, feel they have no choice but to avail themselves of these doctors’ services.

If one merely imbibes the media coverage of the issue, one tends to get the impression that America is awash in abortions. The truth is that in most places in the United States abortions are technically legal, but they are often nearly impossible to obtain. A mere 13 percent of counties in the nation now offer the service.

Medicaid funding has restricted abortions for low-income women for nearly 30 years, and 11 states now restrict abortion coverage in insurance plans for public employees.

The state of Mississippi, for instance, home to nearly 3 million people, has a single abortion clinic. Meanwhile, the state’s counseling provisions also require that patients be told that abortion may increase the risk of breast cancer, despite the fact that the National Cancer Institute, the British medical journal the Lancet, and faculty members of Harvard Medical School have found no such link. Mississippi is also one of only two states that require a minor to get the consent of both parents to have an abortion (though if the minor has been impregnated by her father, she needs only the consent of her mother). Not surprisingly, it boasts the highest teen birth rate in America, which continues to increase, including, particularly, girls under the age of 15.

Mississippi may appear to be an extreme example, but it is not unusual: As of the end of 2005, it came in at eighth place on the honor roll of states that “defend life,” according to the rankings of the pro-life organization Americans United for Life. Elsewhere in America, Medicaid funding has restricted abortions for low-income women for nearly 30 years, and 11 states now restrict abortion coverage in insurance plans for public employees. Forty-three states require parental consent or notice before a minor obtains an abortion. Thirty-one states demand that women receive “counseling” before an abortion, and 18 offer it only in a misleading and frequently inaccurate form designed to scare them into changing their minds. Six states insist that this “counseling” be provided in person, ensuring at least two visits to the clinic.

(The purposeful lying done under the name of “abstinence education” in American schools is no help, either. European young people are about as active sexually as Americans, but they are not lied to about contraception in school. Teenage American girls are seven times as likely as French girls to have an abortion, for instance.)

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft subpoenaed hospitals for their files on hundreds of women who had undergone abortions, apparently looking for a means to harass both the women who had undergone abortions and the doctors who performed them. He evinced little such interest in the organizations inciting antiabortion forces to violence.

The coldblooded murder of Tiller creates a headache for the Obama administration that it tried hard to avoid. Not only did the president himself offer a most conciliatory response to the inflammatory rhetoric on the issue that greeted him when speaking at Notre Dame, but when the Department of Homeland Security infuriated a bunch of right-wingers by issuing a report highlighting the possibility of terrorism emanating from domestic “groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single-issue, such as opposition to abortion,” it immediately scrubbed the offending document from its Web site.

And yet as we now all know, the threat was all too real. As Ann Friedman reported in The American Prospect, heartland abortion providers have been the targets of a sustained campaign of intimidation for decades now, with Tiller as their declared Public Enemy No. 1. Friedman notes that his clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, has been bombed, blockaded, and fired on, and that the doctor himself had been shot in both arms. In May, the clinic was vandalized. Tiller was also the subject of a campaign of potentially violent-inciting hatred by harassment by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, would frequently refer to him as ”Tiller the Baby Killer,” a man guilty of “Nazi stuff.”

After Dr. David Gunn was murdered in 1993, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which sought to protect clinics in these places from the various acts of arson and vandalism they routinely faced. But as Friedman reports, while the attacks were reduced, they were hardly eliminated. According to the National Abortion Federation, during the Bush years, 2,000 abortion providers reported “14 arsons, 78 death threats, 66 incidents of assault and battery, 117 anthrax threats, 128 bomb threats, 109 incidents of stalking, 541 acts of vandalism, one bombing, and one attempted murder.”

Attorney General Eric Holder has pledged the deployment of federal marshals “to offer protection to other appropriate people and facilities around the nation” and promised to take further steps to prevent future outrage. Obama is “shocked and outraged.” But unless we see some teeth added to FACE enforcement, then we may be facing the beginning of a spate of such violent acts, rather than its end. After all, as the folks in al Qaeda can tell you, terrorism may be morally reprehensible, but it does get results.

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue explains: “Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the Law of God. We must continue to expose them in our communities and peacefully protest them at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches.”

Meanwhile, one of the few remaining doctors in the U.S. who performs late-term abortions appeared on MSNBC on Sunday to offer his opinion: “The only difference between the Taliban and the people who kill doctors in the United States is 8,000 miles.”

Your move, Mr. President.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.