I participated in an abortion debate held by the Michigan Political Union last Monday. Several times throughout the event, students raised concern about the impact of abortion bans on the poor. Legalizing abortion, they argued, not only spares children from suffering in dire poverty, but can also empower women to break through the poverty cycle.
The impoverished conditions, under which the majority of the world’s population lives, are truly appalling. However, I believe the suggestion that legalizing abortion should play a part in reducing poverty is gravely flawed for two reasons. First, it is inappropriate to solve societal problems by eliminating the people affected. We don’t fight malaria by killing those with malarial infections. Similarly, we shouldn’t fight poverty by aborting the poor. Secondly, there is no evidence that legalizing abortion helps women break through poverty. True women’s empowerment requires education, material resources and personal support — not abortion.
One reason given for legalizing abortion in underdeveloped countries is that abortion spares children from a life of poverty and suffering. Easing suffering is a commendable goal, and one that I share, but when the desire to prevent suffering leads us to eliminate those who will suffer, we commit a grave error.
Last summer, I visited Kenya and Uganda. There I saw village after village of malnourished children. I mention this because I want to make it clear that in no way do I wish to trivialize the suffering of billions of people. On the contrary, the severity and extent of the extreme poverty those children live in overwhelmed me. However, the fact that those children suffer does not make their lives valueless. The suffering they endure does not take away their worth as human beings. It is not up to us, the privileged, to say that children, who will be born into desperately poor circumstances, simply shouldn’t be born at all. Rather, we have an obligation as privileged residents of a privileged country, to share our blessings with those who have less.
Those on both sides of the abortion debate must do more to improve material conditions for the poor, both in the United States and abroad. How we choose to provide that support — through government aid, non-profit organizations or cultivating personal relationships — is another matter. The point is we can’t, in good conscience, fight poverty by killing those who will experience it.
Secondly, abortion advocates are misguided when they insist that legalizing abortion empowers women. Susan B. Anthony, leader of 19th century campaigns for women’s suffrage, writes: “When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society — so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged.”
Anthony recognized that women seeking abortion do not do so because they feel empowered. On the contrary, they are often motivated by a sense of desperation. There is tragic irony in the fact that while abortion rights advocates offer slogans of “choice,” it is often the case that women seek abortions because they feel they have no alternative. Furthermore, before we advocate for legal abortion overseas, we should examine whether abortion has improved conditions for the poor in our own country.
Nearly four decades after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the U.S., inequality is higher, not lower, than it was in 1973. Look at Detroit, which has 14 abortion clinics. Correlation is certainly not causation, yet it is safe to say that access to legal abortion has not kept Detroit women out of poverty. Legalizing abortion in Kenya will not make Kenyan women less poor. Abortion will not educate them or provide better hospitals or income. These are the areas where we should focus our efforts to empower women — education, maternal and child health care, financial opportunities such as microfinance, etc. Misplaced emphasis on legal abortion for impoverished women distracts from the lack of educational and material resources that drives them to seek abortion in the first place.
The reality is that women want to bring their children into a world where they can adequately care and provide for them. Efforts to empower women should target the lack of educational opportunities, material resources and personal support that lead women to feel that they cannot bring that child into the world — the reasons women seek abortion in the first place. Let’s work together in a genuine creative effort to find real, workable solutions to poverty, but not by aborting the children of the poor.
On Wednesday, Nov. 9 three women who chose abortion will be speaking about this experience and its effect on them to the campus community. It will be in the Henderson Room of the Michigan League at 7 p.m. with a question-and-answer period to follow the speakers. I would encourage anyone who is interested to attend.
Elise Aikman is an LSA senior.