The Sexes: Abortion on Demand

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In fact, feminists-and male sympathizers-insist that the fetus belongs to the woman alone, and that her sovereignty over her body is absolute. Feminist Emily Moore notes that open abortion recognizes "the needs and desires of half the population-women." She complains, too, that "we have a celibate male religious hierarchy which is in the forefront of opposition to the full recognition of women as persons, and we have male-dominated legislatures and a male-dominated medical profession who are loath to relinquish their role as decision makers in this arena."

That male reluctance, Psychoanalyst Robert B. White suggests, stems from powerful unconscious and irrational motives: "Pregnancy symbolizes proof of male potency. If men grant women the right to dispose of that proof, we men feel terribly threatened lest women rob us of our masculinity."

-SOCIAL EFFECTS. Proponents of abortion argue that anti-abortion laws not only abridge women's rights but abridge them unequally. They cite Anatole France, who in 1894 wrote sardonically that "the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges." What his words meant then was that the rich could find beds; what they suggest now is that despite anti-abortion laws, rich women can always find doctors who, for a price, will end their unwanted pregnancies.

Anti-abortion laws are also socially harmful, say those who favor abortion, because they require the birth of unwanted offspring-"foredoomed children," Manhattan Psychoanalyst Natalie Shainess calls them. Indeed, a Swedish study of 120 wanted children and 120 others born to mothers who had been refused abortion suggests that Shainess could be right. By age 21, some 28% of the unwanted offspring had required psychiatric treatment as against 15% of the wanted children. Similar differences in delinquency rates, school failures and need for welfare aid led the researchers to conclude that "the unwanted children were worse off in every respect." Still, unwelcome pregnancies do not necessarily result in unwelcome infants: pregnant women often change their minds when their children are born, and "unwanted" babies are very much wanted by adoptive parents.

Some abortion opponents fear that liberal laws encourage an "abortion habit." Indeed, studies in Japan and the Soviet Union, where abortions are readily obtainable, suggest that some women do seek repeated operations. In the U.S., one preventive measure is already being tried on an experimental scale. At San Francisco General Hospital, a new kind of mental health professional called the "abortion counselor" meets with patients before, during and after their operations, in part to help women understand what emotional factors may have kept them from using adequate contraception.

-PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS. As for the psychological effect of abortion on women, not much is known. "While the literature is immense," says Psychologist Henry David of the Transnational Family Research Institute in Washington, D.C., there is "undue reliance on impressionistic case reports." The one certainty, he says, is that "there is no psychologically painless way to cope with an unwanted pregnancy."

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