Anti-abortion and abortion-rights protesters outside a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, March 2012.
The president of an anti-abortion research group Monday offered what he calls an uncontroversial proposition for both sides of the abortion debate: Keep better track of how many women get abortions, at what stage in pregnancy, and by what method. But in abortion politics, nothing is uncontroversial.
Charles A. Donovan, president of the research arm of anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List, writes in a Monday Times op-ed that “wherever we stand on the issue, we ought to have access to high-quality, up-to-date information on how many women in each state are undergoing the procedure, by what method, at what stage of pregnancy and how many times.” He also calls for accounting of the woman’s age and whether her parents were notified.
As he notes, some such accounting does exist — some states report to the CDC, some have their own reporting efforts, and some providers report directly to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights research group. And abortion rights groups use abortion data for research and advocacy too — but for both historical and ideological reasons, they’re very unlikely to take Donovan’s proposal as any kind of olive branch.
In particular, abortion rights advocates reject a key element of Donovan’s premise: That the number of abortions is a concern per se, and that abortion should be rarer.
“The number of abortions needed are the number that women want,” abortion provider Dr. Curtis Boyd told BuzzFeed Shift last week.
Efforts to increase the amount or kind of abortion data states collect have come in for criticism in the past. In 2009, Oklahoma passed a law requiring any woman who gets an abortion to answer a battery of questions including her age, her marital status, and the county where the procedure was performed — the answers would then be posted on a public website. The website wouldn’t include names, but abortion-rights advocates were concerned that the information posted might be enough to identify some women — and several called the law an effort to scare women out of getting abortions.
Donovan’s not calling for the same level of specificity the Oklahoma law (eventually struck down by a state judge on narrow constitutional grounds) would require. But gathering demographic information on women seeking abortion, beyond what’s already reported, is likely to spook abortion-rights advocates concerned for women’s privacy — especially since abortion remains stigmatized and violence by extremists remains a concern.
There’s also a broader issue at play: Most calls for stricter abortion reporting have come from the anti-abortion side. Writing in Canada’s conservative National Post in 2012, Barbara Kay advocated a Canadian abortion registry as a way of studying a link between abortion and breast cancer. That alleged link is commonly cited by anti-abortion advocates, but the American Cancer Society says it’s unsupported by science. And a community blogger for the Washington Times recently called for a national abortion registry so that Americans could ensure their children weren’t influenced by people who had had abortions: “Would a neighbor or babysitter who has had an abortion try to teach children differently than their parents would wish?”
Most who advocate for abortion reporting probably don’t envision this purpose — even the Oklahoma law called for anonymity. But the reason it’s typically an anti-abortion position is that it assumes the total number of abortions is important and should be reduced. Writes Donovan, “Very few people would be sad to learn that the abortion rate in our country was going down. The least we can do is track those numbers in a reliable way.”
Many abortion-rights advocates would like to see abortion rates go down as a result of better access to contraception. But “abortion reduction” in general is not a non-partisan concept. To those who advocate for abortion rates, an attempt to reduce the number of abortions — unless it’s targeted at preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place through birth control or sex ed — can seem like an effort to limit women’s options.
Donovan writes that most Americans agree that abortion should be rare. Planned Parenthood alleges the opposite — they say that in their polling of women around the country, “rare” was actually an unpopular term. That group, too, hopes to appeal to those “in the middle” on abortion issues, by doing away with “pro-choice” and “pro-life” and focusing on abortion as a personal decision.
But when it comes to abortion, a true middle ground has so far been impossible to find. And stricter reporting requirements aren’t it.