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A Roadmap to Defining and Winning the Real Abortion Debate: Prevention vs. Punishment

Lisa Littman suggests that the real abortion debate is about differing approaches to unintended pregnancy on the part of progressives and conservatives.

Define the Progressive and Conservative Values

George Lakoff, in Don't Think of an Elephant, describes two worldviews that inform people's perspectives of politics: the Nurturant Parent Model and the Strict Father Model. The Nurturant Parent Model, held by progressives, values Responsibility and Empathy. In this view, children are taught to be responsible decision makers through knowledge of the consequences of their actions. Children, with the active guidance of their parents and armed with honest answers, learn to make informed, responsible choices. Conservatives adhere to the Strict Father Model, valuing Obedience and Discipline. They believe that children need punishment to learn right from wrong. Understanding these two value systems illuminates differences in viewpoints of Progressives and Conservatives on the question of abortion.

Define the Prevention Policies

The Prevention Policies come from the Nurturant Parent Values of Empathy and Responsibility. The Nurturant Parent/Progressive views abortion as the result of an awful situation—a woman with an unintended pregnancy. Treating the woman as someone in need of empathy and taking responsibility to avoid this situation in the future leads Progressives to take a prevention approach and support policies such as: increasing funding and access to family-planning clinics, improving access to contraception and emergency contraception, supporting the use of sex-education and other programs that have been proven to be effective in lowering teen pregnancy, keeping abortion safe and legal.

Furthermore, Progressives also support social safety nets and community assets like prenatal care, health care, family leave, improved public schools, and aftercare programs which make it easier for women to raise their children in a healthy, supportive environment.

Define the Prevention Values

These prevention policies are consistent with Progressives' stated goals of decreasing unintended pregnancies, decreasing abortions, decreasing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, protecting the health of women, and promoting environments in which women can choose to raise their children [1-18]. These policies also match the values in the Nurturant Parent worldview: Empathy to recognize that no woman wants to be pregnant when she doesn't have the means to raise a child; Empathy to understand that a woman will risk her life to defend her ability to care for the children she already has and will risk her life to delay pregnancy until she is in a position to provide for her children; Responsibility to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place. Responsibility and Empathy motivate us to reduce human suffering.

On a personal level, we value that it is responsible to prevent pregnancies by using contraception. Woman use contraception to delay pregnancies until they are in position to provide for their children. Women use contraception to space their children to maximize the attention and resources that they can provide for each child.

Define the Punishment Policies

An alternative approach to abortion and unplanned pregnancies is favored by those adhering to the Strict Father or Conservative viewpoint. It includes cutting funding for family-planning clinics, decreasing access to contraception, withholding information about contraception and condoms, promoting unproven "abstinence-until-marriage" programs while opposing the programs that are effective in reducing teen pregnancy, and criminalizing abortion [5,6]. When the opportunity arose to safely eliminate the need for half of all the abortions that occur in this country by expanding the availability of emergency contraception [13,15,16], it was actively opposed by Conservative punishment proponents. This approach also includes opposing welfare, prenatal care, healthcare, family leave, aftercare and undermining public schools, essentially dismantling the programs intended to support women and families raising children.

To those with the Nurturant Parent view, this second approach makes absolutely no sense. Extensive worldwide research has studied the effects of these policies, and they consistently lead to negative consequences. Policies that increase barriers to contraceptive and condom use don't alter rates of sexual activity. However, individuals who are sexually active and do not use contraception or condoms have much higher rates of pregnancies, abortions, and STIs compared to those who use contraception and condoms [1-4,7,10-12,17,18]. Legal restrictions on abortion have very minimal impact on whether women will have abortions [10,11]. But, making abortion illegal makes it more likely that women will have illegal, unsafe abortions and subsequently more women will be injured and will die in the process [8,20,21]. Furthermore, undermining the social safety nets and community assets makes it harder for women to be able to continue pregnancies and raise children. Although the Conservative punishment proponents claim to be "anti-abortion", it appears as though the policies they support are specifically designed to increase the number of abortions and harmful effects for women and families.

Define the Punishment Values

To understand this seeming contradiction, it is helpful to take a closer look at the values underlying the Strict Father model. Their goal is not to decrease abortions, decrease unintended pregnancies, decrease sexually transmitted diseases, or protect the health and safety of women. The goal is to apply severe punishment to teach the lesson that any non-procreative sex is wrong. These measures make the punishment for having sex much more severe. If the punishment is less severe then women can "get away with" having sex. The increase in abortions, unintended pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections are considered justifiable and acceptable losses in teaching this lesson.

Revealing the Punishment Goals

The vast majority of Americans harbor discomfort concerning the act of abortion. It is unlikely, however, that most believe that all women should be made to suffer when faced with an unintended pregnancy. I believe that if one were to pose the question: "Are you willing to deliberately increase the number of abortions, unintended pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases in this country in order to teach people the lesson that sex is wrong?" most people would answer no. In fact, many people would find this tactic to be inhumane, cruel and unethical.


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