A cross stands in front of the White House as pro-life demonstrators gather on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
It takes a special kind of willful ignorance to oppose legal abortion these days. In fact, being disconnected from reality has become the most definitive characteristic of the anti-choice movement. Pregnancy from rape? The body can “shut that whole thing down.” Birth control? Just another kind of abortifacient. Then there are the made-up “post-abortion syndromes” and unsubstantiated links between abortion and breast cancer. But no kind of anti-choice rhetoric is more dangerous than the fantasy that making abortion illegal will not hurt women.
Like many other feminists, I spent a lot of time this past month sending out messages and petitions about Beatriz, a young mother in El Salvador who was fighting for a life-saving abortion. The 22-year-old has lupus, and the longer she remained pregnant, the greater became her chances of dying. (Making the decision even more clear-cut: her fetus had a severe birth defect that makes survival near-impossible.) Pro-choice groups across the globe condemned the rulings of the Salvadoran courts; more than 4,000 people have signed a petition asking Pope Francis to speak out on Beatriz’s behalf. After El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled that her death wasn’t imminent enough to warrant an abortion, Beatriz was finally granted a C-section—a riskier “solution” that meant delivering her doomed fetus.
In the period when Beatriz’s fate was still undecided, I wrote on Twitter: “This is what pro-life looks like.” A woman tweeted back: “In El Salvador that may b the case but this is America & if truly life or death not all pro lifers would agree!” What struck me in particular was this woman’s certainty that what she “agreed” with had anything to do with the way laws are enforced. It’s magical thinking at its worst—but par for the course when it comes to legislating women’s bodies.
Take the video of anti-choice protests that went viral in the political blogosphere several years ago. A man filmed himself asking protesters outside women’s health clinics whether they thought abortion should be illegal. Unsurprisingly, all said yes. But when he asked how much jail time women who had abortions should be punished with, the response was crickets. These activists—committed protesters—seemingly never realized that if abortion is made illegal, women who procure the procedure would become criminals. And no matter how much these protesters waxed compassionate about women being the pawns and victims of abortion providers, it doesn’t change the fact that women will go to prison if Roe is overturned.
This isn’t even the most dangerous thing that anti-choice organizations go out of their way not to acknowledge. The Pro-Life Action League, for example, insists that before Roe, “there were not many illegal abortions, or illegal abortions were relatively safe.” The truth? According to the Guttmacher Institute, abortion was listed as the cause of death for almost 2,700 women in 1930—18 percent of maternal deaths. In 1965, abortion accounted for 17 percent of deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth—and those were just the reported cases.