The Social Scientist's Perspective
THE SOCIAL SCIENTIST looking at the issues of abortion asks a number of questions:
What is the role of abortions--e.g., what do people use them for?
Social scientists are a diverse group, both in the disciplines they pursue--they are anthropologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, and social workers--and in the individual perspectives they bring to bear on these questions. The social scientists who attended the International Conference on Abortion reflected this diversity. Many of the questions which they faced were difficult and even elusive. What follows is a summary of their attempts to sort the facts, formulate the issues, and offer varying points of view from their perspectives.
In some degree, the question of what people use abortions for is answered by the statistics on how many abortions there may be, and who appears to seek them, that have been dted earlier. The social scientist looks at these figures and concludes that there are a great many Americans who have accepted abortion as a legitimate, if not legal, means of solving the problem of an unwanted pregnancy. When the social scientists say that abortion is accepted by a large segment of society as a "legitimate" solution, they are not talking about an external moral standard, but about what can be perceived, from be- havior, as a widespread judgment of what is a socially acceptable process.
Because of the great number of illegal abortions, it is diffi- cult to be very much more precise about who seeks abortions, and for what purposes. There are undoubtedly differences within the population about circu,nstances which might lead one to seek an abortion. For some women an illegitimate child, for example, is an object of love; for others, it is a symbol of embarrassment. The embarrassment may be self-imposed, or it may be imposed by society. In Sweden, for example, un- like the United States, the child of an unmarried woman is accepted into society, and the mother is given the title "Mrs." and receives a family allowance.
Social scientists therefore emphasize that abortion must be considered in terms of the other side of the problem-illegiti- mate children, broken families, adoption, poverty, and the like--as well as in terms of marriage, sex, and so on.
The fact of so many abortions being carried out despite their illegality, and the fact that the illegal abortions represent a rejection of our code of behavior as embodied in the law, force the question of what is the role of this law. Is there a symbolic, educative value which is not canceled out by what happens?
There can be a number of interpretations of the social function of abortion laws. These interpretations are not necessarily competitive; they could well be simultaneously true. The social scientists suggest that the abortion laws have these social functions:
--They express a responsibility ethic which lies very deep in the psychosocial structure of our society. They say, in effect, that individuals are and must be responsible for the consequences of their acts; that whether or not they are, they ought to be. Thus, we are much harder in our views of unmarried girls who seek abortions than on mothers with children who seek them.
--They are a way of holding up certain explicit ideals about sex relations, marriage, and children in our society, which are important even if they are not always adhered to. They are a way of protecting our ideal of the family structure. They uphold this ideal by their continued existence, even when they are neglected or flagrantly violated; if society could find alternative ways of upholding the ideal, or if it were willingly to surrender the ideal, then the status of the abortion laws would be more open to change.
--They serve to maintain a set of social relations between men and women. They are an expression of male superiority and female subjection, and a way of expressing and enforcing what we conventionally call a double standard. As one (male) participant put it. "These laws are in effect ways of harnessing women in some predictable fashion and I would say that every time we come up with modifications of laws, this is the argument you run into more than any other. Now, they don't say it that way, but that's clearly what the laws are about: that you provide a certain sense of irresponsibility to women by allowing contraception, by allowing abortions, and that this kind of irresponsibility we have indeed reserved for the male population." As another (male) participant put it: "Don't forget his [the American male's] whole self concept is built around this so far is not the most flexible part of humanity, so he is now seeing the modern woman as extremely aggressive both sexually and otherwise. This to my mind is part of the problem."
The problem with the last point, however, as the social scientists admit, is, that there are virtually no conclusive data about male and female attitudes toward abortion. In other words, it is not at all dear that if overnight the ratio of male to female legislators, judges, district attorneys, professors, newspaper and magazine editors, television commentators, and 'whoever else is important in shaping public opinion was re- versed the social attitude toward abortion would change Sharply. There is simply no way of knowing this now.
What happens, then, when there is a difference between the legal code of government and the working code of society? In other words, what we have is not simply a situation in vhich large numbers of people break the abortion laws, but a situation in which large numbers of people feel that this is be acceptable thing to do.
As to the effects on those who actually break the abortion laws, two different views were offered. One, offered by a 'pychologist, was that even those who break the law have feelings against abortion:
What is the role of the abortion laws?
What is the function of a legal code which, as in this case, is by and large quite different in what it delineates from what happens?
What are the effects of this difference?
What are likely to be the effects of changing the laws?
I think the majority of even married women who have abortions feel unpleasantly afterward, sometimes for a month, sometimes less, but I think the dominant reaction for a while is that one. The fact that there are so many abortions is less important. It's my personal opinion that we have to be concerned with the entire ethical fabric of what's happening to this society-drugs, sexual behavior, homosexuality. People need rules badly; what they want is a set of rules where at least they believe most people share that set of values.
Another view, offered by a social worker, rejects this:
I noticed that some sororities have now established a rotating fund for abortions for their sorority sisters, which is done more or less overtly. Now if this kind of thing is done overtly, then I find it difficult to believe that there is some superstructure of unhappiness and emotional distress necessarily connected with this. In other words, I would put it a different way and say that it is like the case of certain kinds of drug users, say, marijuana. A bit of the distress is that in order to use it you have to break the law. The distress is not about using marijuana or having an abortion, but about the fact that you have to be a criminal in order to do it.
One thing that can occur, indeed has occurred, in this situation is a de facto decision that, with few exceptions, we will not enforce the law. To some, this means that the abortion laws do more harm than good. In this view, the effect of having them but not enforcing them is an erosion of respect for the law, and an erosion of the kinds of attitudes toward life and responsibility that the abortion laws were meant to establish. To others, however, the laws' not being enforced does not undermine their usefulness. As one participant put it:
The abortion laws use the didactive power of the law to uphold this negative judgment upon abortion while still providing a means of grace, an outlet for people who are in embarrassing circumstances. So, it seems to me, that's the best way of interpreting why it is we have these laws but seldom enforce them on abortionists, never on their clients-- that this is a means of upholding a code that does not approve of abortion. Moreover, this is a way of establishing a whole system of life's meaning, a whole attitude toward the meaning of life and the purpose of God in giving life and so forth, so that this is a way that the people can testify to respect for life generally as a fundamental moral value, and still provide for the exceptional case by not enfordng the law stringently.
It is possible, then, to say that we have the law but don't enforce it as a way of accommodating divergent points of view.
There are other effects of this differential between what the laws say and what happens. As even the fragmentary statistics indicate, a woman is more likely to receive a medically competent and safe abortion--even a safe illegal one--if she has money than if she is poor. Even though the laws are largely unenforced, a public institution--e.g., a public hospital--is not inclined to break the law or even tempt the law's censure. A woman with funds to pay a private physician can inquire about until she finds one who will recommend or perform an abortion and private hospitals are more likely to permit abortions to be performed.
This has secondary effects. "One of the things that is so bad," said a participant involved in social welfare, "about making abortions illegal is that we cannot provide the services that ought to go with them. It is not just the medical and sanitary services; it is the social services, too. We could be giving a 'wide range of help to all of the people if we did not make abortion such a furtive business."
Another secondary effect was discussed by Whitney M. Young, Jr., Executive Director of the National Urban League, at a press conference:
I am very much concerned about the accessibility to disadvantaged groups of informati6n and medical care that is now available to people who have sufficient income. I think abortions are a fact of life and that they are engaged in substantially by people who can afford them. The poor people in this country have to submit to the care of midwives or crude devices that endanger their lives or render them oftentimes sterile. I am basically concerned that if abortions are a fact of life, if they are medically safe during a certain period, I believe that with consent up to that period where the fetus could not live if the mother died, then I think with the appropriate counseling they should be immediately available to all people. I do believe that the concept of reverence for life extends to the mother and other members of the family as well as to the unborn child.
But spokesmen for the poor are also concerned that abortion not become a mechanism of social control over the lives of the poor. In other words, they fear that at some point, there might be attempts to force abortions on welfare recipients.
I am a little suspicious [said Young] of the fact that states and sometimes individuals who have not distinguished themselves for their great social concern about my particular problem of civil rights are sometimes the first to advocate and to pass liberalized abortion laws, like North Carolina. I get a little suspicious when the first intervention, first concern as regards the Negro is around liberalizing sterilization laws and the abortion laws, but the real concern is less with the human being involved and there is much more concern about increased Aid to Dependent Children and welfare caseloads. So I do detect a trend in the country that bothers me a little bit. I want to be sure that these are not programs and laws and devices that are meant to limit the freedom of people, laws which are suppressive and coercive. These are my only reservations.
This sort of concern is one of the many reasons why people involved in social welfare feel that while the abortion laws should provide for equality of opportunity, it is important to remember the broader context of the problem, "the broad need," as one said, "for much more education around family life and family planning, much more of a commitment to equality of opportunity. That means that we are working to make it possible for every mother to feel that she has some freedom of choice, but that she is in a society in which, no matter what racial or class group she belongs to, she doesn't have to start with the assumption that this is an unwanted child."
When the working code and the law clash, as they do in the case of the abortion laws, the likely result, according to the social scientists, is a change in the law. The nation's experience with Prohibition is offered as an example. In any event, no reversal in the working code--e.g., no diminution of the view that abortion is a legitimate solution-is considered likely to take place. Moreover, medical developments are likely to hasten the obsolescence of the abortion laws, in effect if not in fact returning the question of whether or not an abortion is permissible to the realm of private decision. With development of the 'morning-after" pill, taken within a few hours after intercourse, the line between contraception and abortion becomes increasingly blurred. With the development of an abortifacient pill, to be taken later than the "morning-after" pill, the practice of abortion becomes far more difficult, perhaps impossible, to regulate. These pills are not yet in general use, but it is considered likely that they will be. (See Chapter 7, "The Physician's Perspective," for a discussion of these pills.) One of the major reasons abortions are subject to control now is that they involve a clinical operation.
What, then, are likely to be the effects of liberalizing the abortion laws--for whatever reason, and to whatever degree? Here there are two kinds of questions: What are the likely effects in terms of the number of women who seek, and actually undergo, abortions? What are the likely effects on our society--in terms of our attitudes and behavior? The truth is that it is impossible to offer any certain, even any probable, answers.
For one thing, cross-cultural comparisons are not very instructive. In none of the other countries where abortions are more permissible, for example, is there anywhere near as wide-spread use of contraceptive devices as there is in the United States. Therefore, the circumstances under which abortions are sought are substantially different than they are or would be in the United States. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume, or it is at least possible to assume, that a loosening of the abortion laws would result in a rise of the number of women who seek abortions.
The next question therefore is: what would be the effects on our society of more permissive abortion laws? A major concern is, of course, that this would diminish our reverence for life, our instinct for protecting the helpless, our concern that all forms of human life receive protection. But we simply cannot know whether this sort of thing will result. Again, cross-cultural comparisons are not very helpful. There is no evidence that in, say, Sweden, where abortions are more widely condoned and practiced, reverence for life is any less than it is in the United States. To take a more dramatic example, it could be pointed out that at one time the Eskimos practiced infanticide, but there are no indications that in other regards they did not respect life--that they were particularly warlike or particularly inclined toward killing in general.
It is not very feasible to answer this question from anything in the experience of our own society, either. If there is an answer, it may well lie in the meaning that society attaches to abortion: if it is defined as killing of a defenseless being, as many people believe it is, then it is possible that there might be negative effects; if it is said that up to a certain point--quickening, viability, or what have you--abortion does not represent taking of life, as many believe it does not, then there might not be any ill effects. In this context, it has been observed that under the current situation we do not, as a culture, in practice define a previable fetus as human life: we do not baptize each fetus (even all Catholics do not, despite the fact that Canon Law requires it), nor do we hold abortionists guilty of murder.
On the other hand, it also is not clear to what extent liberalization of the abortion laws will solve some of the stated problems with the present system. Perhaps, in fact, it will not make much difference for the poor, since they are always at the end of the line for services. It is also argued that, nevertheless, a structure of equality of opportunity is very important in itself, and that substantive inequality is easier to deal with in a framework of formal equality. It has been widely argued that the American Law Institute's compromise proposal will not do very much about reducing the practical inequalities, particularly where a woman would need the certification of a psychiatrist that an abortion is necessary for her mental health. It has also been suggested that the ALl proposal might not bring about a significant decrease in the number of illegal abortions.
Still another way to look at the possible effects of changes in the abortion laws is not in terms of their effects on society, but, simply, on women who want abortions. Should individuals be permitted to be self-determining in this matter, or should they not? Or is there, and this is the crux of the matter, some benefit to society in keeping the legal presumption against abortion that overrides the benefit to the prospective mother, for whatever reason she is seeking an abortion, of being able to make her own decision?
Because the prospectjve effects of different actions are indeterminable, we are left with making judgments which are characteristic political judgments about resolving conflicting values and conflicting interests within existing contexts. As Dr. Carl Kaysen put it, speaking, as he said, "as an individual social scientist with a concern for the problems of policy":
The answer to the question, "What is the appropriate action to take in the realm of legislation and political decisions?" is not necessarily given by the answer to the question, "What are the social consequences to be predicted from this change?" Nor is it given by answering the question, "What is the right thing to do in this situation in the moral sense?" In both our panel and in some of the interdisciplinary groups in which I participated, we recognized that men who agree on these questions may disagree on legislative and political recommendations, and men who disagree on legislative and political recommendations may agree on these questions,
Chapter 7-The Physician's Perspective