The right to have an abortion is increasingly under attack. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent death means that abortion will become one of the leading issues in the U.S. general election in November.
Yet, as Diana Greene Foster points out, the abortion debate rarely looks at why people decide to get abortions or what difference it makes in their lives if they’re able to. She cites some interesting statistics. One is that about a quarter of women in the U.S. get an abortion sometime in their life. Another is that a majority of women getting abortions already have children; one common reason for getting an abortion is lacking the resources to raise another child.
Foster initiated and helped organize the Turnaway Study, which tracked the lives of nearly 1,000 women; half had late-term abortions, a quarter were denied abortions because they were too far along in their pregnancies and a quarter had abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy, but the focus was on women who wanted abortions after the first trimester. The study excluded women who were seeking abortions because of medical conditions or severe genetic fetal problems.
In choosing two similar groups of women — one that got abortions just before the cut-off in their states and the other that was denied abortions because they were too late — Foster was able to look at how the availability of an abortion changed women’s lives: How that affected their health, their careers, their finances, their relationships and their children.
Late-term abortions cost thousands of dollars, and the restrictions enacted in many states have lowered the cut-off point for having an abortion while reducing the number of clinics that will do these abortions. Late-term abortions are also rare — less than 10 percent of the abortions performed in the U.S.
Why did the women in the study wait so long? The answer often involves two main factors. Many of the women didn’t realize they were pregnant, often due to physical factors like “spotting” (which resembles a period), irregular periods before they were pregnant or not having morning sickness.
The other factor was economic. The majority of women getting late-term abortions in the U.S. subsist on low incomes, and finding affordable resources to get an abortion can take extra time. Women must sometimes travel hours to the nearest clinic (sometimes twice, if that’s a state requirement).
The study, as Foster points out, shows that women looking for abortions after the first trimester are not sitting around trying to decide; they may spend time thinking about it, but that period is measured in “days, not weeks.”
What happens to women (and the children they may already have) when they receive or are denied an abortion? The study dispels the myth that women who get abortions are in danger of a lifetime of regret and depression. On the contrary, most of the women in the study who had abortions rarely thought about the procedure afterward except when the interviewers called to ask how they were doing, and the immediate effect after the abortion was a feeling of relief. In the long term, women who were denied abortions and women who got abortions didn’t differ in their mental health.
On the other hand, women who had abortions were better able to take care of their existing and subsequent children, did better economically and in their careers and had better physical health than women who were forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Foster notes that the risk of health effects from giving birth is much higher than the risk from an abortion. Women who had abortions also ended up in better relationships than women who carried their child to term. In either case, they usually didn’t stay with the men who’d gotten them pregnant. Many of the women who had abortions later chose to have a child. Foster concludes that when someone decides to have an abortion, they are, in general, making good decisions about their ability to bear and raise another child.
One weakness of the analysis is that it doesn’t emphasize how restrictions on abortion disproportionately affect poor women and women of color — i.e., that access to abortion isn’t just about women’s choice, but also about class and racial oppression. Women who have resources can more easily get an abortion in the first trimester; they can travel to other states if they need to; they’re more likely to have information about birth control and access to contraceptives in the first place; they’re also more likely to have health insurance.
The Turnaway Study isn’t likely to convince anyone who simply believes abortion is morally wrong, though some of the women in the study held that belief until they needed an abortion. It is important for refuting the myths about who gets abortions, why they get abortions and whether they suffer from getting abortions. It’s well written, with chapters about results interspersed with interviews from some of the women in the study, which gives more sense of the reality of abortion and why it happens.
Full disclosure: As a teenager, book reviewer Mike Wold traveled across the country with his partner to help her get an abortion, just before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
Read more of the Oct. 7-13, 2020 issue.