Roe decision includes right to life, liberty

Published 9:34 am Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Column: My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Should the government force a pregnant woman to increase her chance of maternal death?

In the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the justices effectively answered, “No.” The decision’s constitutional basis is the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, which states that the government shall not “deprive a person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” A woman has the right to live.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

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Even after 40 years’ worth of medical advances, a woman’s risk of dying as the result of pregnancy and childbirth is about 13 times higher than it is of having an early-term abortion. Only at viability, often considered 24 weeks gestation, can states put significant restrictions on abortion, except when it directly threatens the life or health of the mother.

Women who are carrying intended pregnancies (or trying to get pregnant) are willing to bear most of the risks to their life and health, but that doesn’t mean all women should. The Roe decision is solid for that reason alone.

Women usually seek abortions for other reasons, though, and these are related to a person’s right to liberty. Hardly anything impacts women’s lives more than the number and timing of any children they have. By the time they reach age 45, about 30 percent of American women will have had at least one abortion. Biological and economic realities are the main factors behind these decisions, and they must be addressed to reduce abortions.

In terms of biology, males deliver an average of 280 million sperm in one ejaculate, and it only takes one intrepid specimen to fertilize a healthy egg. About half of pregnancies are unintended, and about 40 percent of these end in abortion. Thus, access to effective contraception is critical to reducing abortions.

Once a pregnancy is established, here are three economic figures to consider: $10,000, $150,000, and $550.

Even if a woman has insurance, pre-natal care and birth can now cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for a healthy delivery. Without insurance, bills easily exceed $10,000 and often climb much higher.

At the same time as these expenses kick in, mothers are sidelined from paid work for at least a period of weeks, often months and sometimes years. We give birth to large-brained, helpless infants who need constant physical and emotional support as they develop.

By the time a child reaches 18, the USDA estimates they will cost the average low-income single parent more than $150,000, not including help with post-secondary education. Families with greater income spend much more.

These myriad costs can understandably overwhelm pregnant women who lack a stable, family-sustaining income and may already have other children. In contrast, an abortion in the first trimester costs about $550.

Legislatures in states such as North Dakota, Wisconsin and Texas have recently moved to weaken Roe, without improving women’s access to contraception or helping women shoulder the burden of continuing an unintended pregnancy until birth and beyond. These lawmaking bodies’ actions are pro-birth, not pro-life. They punish fertile girls and women, married or not, for having sex without always wanting it tied to procreation.

The “be fruitful and multiply” injunction may have made sense in Biblical times, but this antiquated pro-birth notion would trigger ecological and humanitarian catastrophes if too many people followed it anymore. Everyone should have access to contraception.

Even if people use contraception correctly, though, it sometimes fails. To reduce abortions in these situations, we must make childbearing more economically feasible.

Nevertheless, some people will still want abortions, and making legal abortions harder to obtain doesn’t diminish the drive to end an unwanted pregnancy. It just makes it more likely that girls and women will turn elsewhere for help.

We know from pre-Roe times that girls and women sought abortions despite serious risks. (Anybody with access to a long, sharp-pointed object can perform a rudimentary abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Hence, the coat hanger symbol.) Many girls and women experienced quid pro quo sexual assault, hemorrhaging, massive infections, infertility and even death. Many of them were already mothers.

These horrors are what the justices intended to end with the Roe decision. The tragedies have faded from our collective memories, but people were shocked once again by the Dr. Kermit Gosnell trial in Philadelphia. The case is a 21st century reminder of what happens when poor women are desperate and out of other options after being denied access to safe, early abortions.

The risks of having even a legal abortion go up the longer one has to wait to get one. About a third of women seeking abortions say they would have had the procedure earlier, but it took them extra time to raise the money or arrange travel. When a woman encounters this, often as the result of legislation intended to erode abortion rights, it is an infringement on her right to live.

To me, though, it mainly boils down to this: if the government denies a woman control over her fertility before viability, it denies her control over her life. This is an infringement on her constitutionally guaranteed right to liberty.


Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.