Christopher Smart: The intended outcome of the abortion fight

The debate on abortion continues to divide us here in Utah and across the country, exactly as intended.

After the 1973 landmark 7-2 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which said unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional, there was relatively little political debate on women’s reproductive rights, let alone a movement.

Today, of course, there is a decades-long campaign to end abortion, but it takes place in a historic vacuum, ignoring the long struggle for the most basic elements of family planning.

Times have changed. In 1969, President Richard Nixon told Congress, “No American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition.” The following year, he signed into law Title X — the Family Planning Program.

But in 1979, Republican operatives and strategists huddled to conceive “wedge issues” that would favor the GOP and splinter the Democratic Party.

Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich recruited televangelist Jerry Falwell into a coalition designed to bring together economic and social conservatives around a “pro-family” agenda, according to historian Jill Lapore.

It would target abortion, gay rights, the E.R.A. and sex education, sowing the seeds of mass agitation and the “Culture Wars.”

On the abortion front, it led to picketing with protestors decrying “baby killers” at clinics and even the homes of providers. It also resulted in hundreds of burglaries at clinics and more than a dozen murders of clinicians and their clients.

But in the halls of Congress or the sidewalks of Salt Lake City, discussions, debates and sermons lack historical perspective on contraception, infant mortality, maternal child-bearing deaths and 100 years of developments that eventually led to reproductive freedom for women.

In 1915, maternal mortality in the United States was 607.9 deaths per 100,000 live births. By 2007, it had declined to 12.7. It climbed to 17.4 by 2018.

It wasn’t until 1916 that Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic for poor women, contending that women have a right to have sex without fear of death in childbirth. She was arrested and jailed for three months.

On appeal, the court ruled that it could be permissible for a doctor to talk to a patient about contraception. But until 1936, it was illegal to disseminate information on birth control. All the while, women were getting pregnant every year and dying from “back-alley” abortions.

Sanger’s clinics eventually became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 2019, the non-profit health centers served 2.5 million people, but only 3 percent pursued abortions, according to the organization. Most clients sought birth control or STD tests.

In their zeal to stop abortion, conservative activists are waging war against Planned Parenthood. Since 2011, some 300 state laws have been passed to restrict access to abortions. One result is the closing of Planned Parenthood clinics: 32 in 2017; 40 in 2018; and 36 in 2019. Some 400 Planned Parenthood clinics remain open nationwide.

Not coincidentally, STDs are on the rise.

Last week, Republican lawmakers in Utah moved to ban most abortions on the condition that Roe v. Wade were to be set aside. The proposal would make performing an abortion a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

When vocal proponents of banning abortion, such as Utah state Sen. Dan McCay and his wife, Riverton Councilwoman Tawnee McCay, publicly cry out to stop killing babies, they ignore women, present and past, who were denied reproductive health care and died as a result.

Even Catholic-dominated Ireland has legalized abortion.

Beyond that, pro-lifers seem unaware of their role in the systematic agitation that brought the GOP to power in order to achieve another agenda, which has led to income inequality next only to the 1890s.

These folks believe life begins at conception and in a free society that ought not be a problem. But what’s troubling is that those people, who are oblivious to the long struggle for women’s reproductive rights, would force their beliefs on all women, denying them agency over their own bodies.

That’s not freedom.

Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart is a freelance journalist who lives in Salt Lake City.