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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.

How Do We Win the Debate?

  1. Frame the debate in terms of our values: Responsibility, Empathy, Honesty. Once we do this, we can cut through the rhetoric and talk about the facts.

  2. Hold the Conservatives and pro-punishment supporters accountable for their actions:

    At any mention of the "wrongness" of abortion or the "value of life," we need to respond with, "If you are opposed to abortion, you must help us reduce the number of abortions and unintended pregnancies by supporting the measures that are most effective in doing so. Instead of reducing abortions and pregnancies, your policies increase them. This must end.”

    At any mention of the word "safety," we need to respond with, "If your concern is the safety of women, you must make sure that abortion remains safe and legal. When countries make abortion illegal, the number of women who die of pregnancy related causes increases substantially."

    We value the health and safety of women and children. We value empathy and assume the responsibility to reduce suffering. That's why we support policies that reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions. This support includes making abortions rare and keeping abortion safe and legal.

    We value responsibility. It is responsible for a woman to delay having children until she feels she can provide adequately for her children. Being a good parent is a priority. It is responsible to delay or space out pregnancies to maximize one's ability to be a good parent.

  3. Know the facts and have them handy:

    The facts are that in societies where the fertility rates are stable, as contraception use goes up, abortions go down [9-11]. Comprehensive sex education does not cause people to become sexually active at earlier ages or increase sexual activity rates [5]. There is strong evidence that several programs that address sexual and nonsexual antecedents of teen pregnancy delay the onset of sexual activity, increase the use of contraception in sexually active teens, and have been shown to reduce teen pregnancy [5]. At this time, there is no credible evidence that abstinence-until-marriage programs delay sex or reduce teen pregnancy [6]. Contraception and legal abortion are significantly safer than continuing a pregnancy [4].

    We value honesty in communication. We value understanding the reality of situations as a necessity to solve problems. That's why we use valid, credible, substantiated evidence and facts in our discussions. We value autonomy and honesty, which is why we feel that women need to make informed decisions about their health, their family, and their future based on facts. Because we care for children, we want to make sure the people who have the biggest impact on the health and happiness of children, namely parents, are equipped with the most up to date and accurate information.

  4. Reveal the tricks the punishment proponents use to defend their myths.

    There are very specific and deliberate tricks used by punishment proponents to distort the science in order to defend myths. Often these tricks include a tiny kernel of truth that is taken out of context while large amounts of compelling and valid evidence are ignored in order to give an impression opposite of truth. Recognize the statements they make that are based on myths, point them out, explain the trick they are using, and show the real data. Increasing the public's scientific literacy will go a long way in preventing people from being susceptible to this type of manipulation.

    We value honesty. Our facts are straightforward and based on the best available evidence. The facts we use are supported and accepted by the individuals and groups who understand how to evaluate research based on objective standards. We don't find it acceptable that the punishment approach supporters rely on tricks to distort the science. Misusing or ignoring the best available data is irresponsible, dangerous and immoral.

  5. Ask the real question: prevention or punishment? The abortion debate is not about who chooses or when life begins. These arguments rarely reach the other sides. The true abortion debate question comes down to the following:

    Would you rather reduce unintended pregnancies, reduce abortions, and reduce sexually transmitted diseases while protecting the health of women and men, or do you want to deliberately increase unintended pregnancies, increase abortions, increase sexually transmitted diseases and harm the health of women and men in order to punish them for having sex?

    That's the real debate. Every discussion on abortion needs to be about this question. Understanding the values, policies and goals of both sides will allow people to support the policies consistent with their goals. Prevention policies result in fewer pregnancies, fewer abortions, and fewer women dying. Punishment policies result in higher pregnancy rates, higher abortion rates, and more women dying. Those who take the side of increasing risk to accentuate punishments will have to defend their views. And that's an abortion debate worth having. It's the abortion debate. It's definitely an abortion debate we can win.

Dr. Lisa Littman is a board certified Obstetrician/Gynecologist from New Jersey. She works primarily in family planning.

Copyright © 2005 Lisa Littman, MD

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