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Defending the Right to Choose: An Argument That Shouldn’t Have to be Made

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
June 9, 2019

Roe v. Wade should have been the end to questions regarding a women’s right to reproductive freedom, yet even today the debates continue.

As of May 31, nine states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah) have signed laws that significantly restrict access to abortions. Most of these bills have yet to go into effect, and have been blocked by judges and/or challenged by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood. Despite the delays, the risk of them being implemented looms not only over the states in which they were signed, but also over those of us wondering if our state will be next.

These policies put women who are already vulnerable at even higher risk. For example, these policies typically include exceptions for instances when the mother’s life is at risk, yet this risk is generally defined as immediate rather than long-term. Dr. Tiffany Hailstorks, an OB-GYN in Georgia, described how some women have medical conditions such as heart problems or kidney disease that are exacerbated by pregnancy. She also described how, though this may not pose a large risk at the beginning of pregnancy, the risk can become much greater later on and the woman is forced into a more dangerous situation that could have been prevented.

In some states such as Georgia, an exception may only be made in instances of rape or incest if a police report is filed first. There are so many reasons why a survivor may not wish to go to the police, including feelings of shame, a fear of what may happen if a report is filed and a lack of information about options and processes. Having this provision in the law creates an unfair and impossible choice.

Some policies don’t even have exceptions for rape or incest.

In Alabama, doctors who perform an abortion could be convicted of a Class A felony and face time in prison.

In other countries where abortions have been banned, there have been increases in maternal mortality and in the number of children in orphanages or foster care, and a decrease in societal trust and healthy relationships.

All of this is horrifying and I find myself wondering what can we, as policymakers and public administrators, do to protect women?

It seems that the most common arguments used by those who identify as “pro-life” are focused on ethics, so that framework can also be used to build a counterargument. In previous PA Times columns I’ve discussed two of my favorite public administration books: Richard Box’s Making a difference: Progressive Values in Public Administration, and David Farmer’s Public Administration in Perspective: Theory and Practice Through Multiple Lenses. Both of these books can be used to consider the issue of abortion, as they offer ways to consider questions and make decisions from an ethical perspective.

Box focuses on progressive values, which promote equity and decrease marginalization (in contract to regressive values, which do the opposite). Progressive values, writes Box, are those that move society forward. However, to move society forward a policy would need to actually be effective.

The data shows that such policies don’t end abortions; they just make them less safe. The abortion rate in countries without a ban is 34 per 1,000 people, compared to 37 per 1,000 in those with a ban (this difference is not statistically significant). Rather than being progressive, these policies hold society back by decreasing safety, trust and wellbeing.

Farmer discusses public administration through an ethical lens, and asks us to consider what ought to be done as policy decisions are made. In this case, I think asking what ought to be done can start with asking who ought to be the one making the decision in the first place.

Deciding what medical procedures a person should have access to isn’t a decision for policymakers; it should be between the individual and their healthcare provider. Not legislators. Not governors. Not judges. The experts here are healthcare providers and those that seek their care, and they should be the ones making the decisions.

Both Farmer and Box ask policymakers to consider not only if policies are “best” and “right” for society, but also potential impacts. So, let’s consider. These policies:

  • Put those who are already vulnerable at higher risk.
  • Can exacerbate feelings of fear and shame.
  • Have been found to have lasting negative impacts.
  • Disregard the opinions of experts in the field.
  • Don’t even achieve their goal of ending abortion.

These policies are neither ethical nor progressive, and I see no way in which they could be considered “right” or “best.”

The abortion bills are sometimes referred to as heartbeat bills, as many forbid abortions once a fetal heartbeat has been detected. However, women have heartbeats too. We have thoughts. We have needs and goals and dreams and ideas and we are capable of making our own choices and our own decisions. I shouldn’t have to ask this, but please let us do so.


Author: Brittany Keegan, Ph.D. is the Research Coordinator and Land Use Education Director at the VCU Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy. Her research examines the role of nonprofits in serving those impacted by violence or conflict, gender-based violence prevention/intervention, and immigration policy. Email: [email protected]

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