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Reproductive Rights and Abortion Research Paper
Reproductive issues and technologies have changed the American family. Women and couples now have a range of choices that allow them to delay or avoid procreation, end unwanted pregnancies, or achieve a much-desired pregnancy in otherwise hopeless situations. Both the technologies involved and the very concept of reproductive rights are relatively recent concepts, and so before discussing them it is necessary to define them.
Planned Parenthood defines “reproductive freedom” as “the fundamental right of every individual to decide freely and responsibly when and whether to have a child.” This includes the right to privacy, the right to education and the information needed to make an empowered decision, and the right to nondiscriminatory access to health care services.
Contraceptives, or methods and devices to prevent pregnancy or conception, have been used in one form or another since the time of the ancient Egyptians, who used crocodile dung as a spermicide. Ancient practices were not limited to humans, as stones were inserted into the uterus of female camels to prevent them from conceiving during long desert treks—an antecedent of modern intrauterine devices (IUDs) used by women throughout the world. Other past practices include drinking lead or mercury in China, wearing amulets in medieval England, and drinking herbal potions in a variety of cultures.
Cave paintings from more than 10,000 years ago depict men wearing sheaths on their penises, though it is unknown whether they were wearing them for ceremonial purposes or as an early form of the condom. The origin of the word “condom” is much debated, but historians do know that they were used for contraceptive purposes by the seventeenth century. Early condoms were made of animal intestines or fabric. The rubber condom came into being by the mid-nineteenth century, and remained the most commonly prescribed form of birth control through the mid-twentieth century.
Spermicides, like condoms, have changed over the centuries. Once made of honey, dung, vinegar, or oils, modern spermicides are available in a range of forms, from creams to suppositories. A spermicide is frequently used in combination with a condom or vaginal sponge.
Diaphragms or cervical caps, which prevent conception by blocking the entry of sperm through the cervix into the uterus, have also been in use for many centuries. Asian women used half of a lemon, and women on Easter Island used seaweed to form a protective cover. Rubber diaphragms, which were developed in the nineteenth century, overtook the condom in twentieth-century America as the most popular form of birth control until the arrival of the birth-control pill.
Although many early cultures practiced oral contraception, in the form of herbal concoctions, by the Middle Ages fear of being labeled a witch all but ended it among women in the Western world. Interest in oral contraceptives was revived in the mid-twentieth century, as family research in the 1940s and 1950s sought more convenient methods of birth control. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America focused its efforts on finding a better method of birth control, and soon Dr. John Rock, a Catholic gynecologist, was conducting trials for his new pill. In 1960 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved use of the birth-control pill, which contained large doses of hormones, by prescription only. The pill sparked a sexual revolution, freeing millions of women to separate sexual intercourse from reproduction. Birth-control pills today use much lower levels of hormones than early forms, offering continued effectiveness and greater safety.
By the early 1970s, some doctors were prescribing the pill in large doses as a form of emergency postcoital contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancy. In 1998 the FDA approved the first emergency contraceptive kit, offering women an over-the-counter method of preventing fertilization.
The development of the Pill inspired further research into hormonal methods of contraception. In 1992 the FDA approved Depo-Provera, a long-term progesterone-based contraceptive that is injected into the woman every 3 months. Progesterone also became available in the form of pellets inserted under the skin, for slow release into the woman’s bloodstream. Known as Norplant, this system was approved for use in the United States in 1990, although women in many other nations had already been using it for some time.
Norplant soon became a subject of controversy, however, as American women began to complain of side effects and painful scarring resulting from removal of the rods by untrained medical staff. Although many of the complaints have been dismissed, Norplant’s reputation remains sullied by the problems. Adding to its negative image were stories about contraceptive abuses. It was learned, for example, that Norplant had been tested on many Third World women without adequate disclosure of the potential dangers. Furthermore, courts in the United States began approving compulsory implantation for women convicted of child abuse, raising a number of human rights questions. Recent developments in Norplant technology include replacement of the earlier five-rod system with a two-rod system and a biodegradable implant.
The only permanent forms of contraception yet known are the vasectomy for men and tubal ligation for women. The vasectomy procedure, first performed on a prison inmate, dates to 1899. Tubal ligation, dating to the 1880s in the United States, was the last method to gain social acceptance but is now the most popular form of birth control in the nation.
Certainly the most contentious issue in the realm of reproductive rights over the past 30 years has been abortion. Simply defined, abortion is the termination of a pregnancy owing to or resulting in the death of the fetus. The term includes spontaneous abortion, otherwise known as a miscarriage, but the controversial issue is induced abortion, that is, the deliberate termination of a pregnancy.
Methods of abortion become increasingly complex as the pregnancy progresses. One of the earliest procedures is the early uterine extraction (4–7 weeks into the pregnancy), which involved emptying the uterus of its contents with a surgical syringe. Vacuum aspiration, performed during the first trimester of pregnancy, uses a hollow tube instead of a syringe but operates on the same principle. During the second trimester, dilation and evacuation (D&E) is commonly performed. After an ultrasound examination, a hollow tube is inserted into the uterus, and combining scraping with the use of forceps, the fetal tissue is removed from the uterus.
When necessary, labor is induced during the second or third trimester, using injected fluids to cause contractions. Very occasionally, a hysterotomy is performed, a procedure in which the abdomen is cut open and the fetus removed. This is usually done only in cases of medical necessity.
Abortion can also be induced by a pill. Mifepristone, or RU-486, was approved for use by the FDA in the summer of 2000. Mifepristone blocks the production of progesterone, causing the uterus to shed its lining, thus dislodging the implanted embryo. A second drug, misoprostol, is then administered to bring about the equivalent of a menstrual period. The combination of the two drugs has proven to be 95 percent effective in ending pregnancy during the first 7 weeks.
Just as science and technology are used to prevent or terminate a pregnancy, they can also be used to assist in creating one. As the number of couples seeking treatment for infertility increases, technological solutions have become more available, although often at a high economic and emotional cost.
During the twentieth century, sperm motility (mobility) has dropped significantly. This decrease is thought to be the result of a number of factors, but largely a response to the rise in pollution and toxins in the environment. At the same time, the number of women reporting fertility problems has increased. Again, this may result from a number of factors. Some claim that the prevalence of infertility has not actually increased, but more couples are seeking treatment now that more options are available. Others claim that couples are turning more quickly to fertility treatments, after only 6 months or a year. Fertility also decreases with age, increasing the need for technological intervention as women delay childbearing into their thirties or forties.
Approximately one-third of all infertility cases are male-related, one-third female-related, and one-third of uncertain cause or origin. However, the overwhelming majority of treatments are carried out on the woman, even when the male is infertile. Furthermore, it should be noted that medical interventions only promote but do not guarantee conception. They offer no cure for the root problem. Success rates for all treatments are notoriously difficult to ascertain, since clinics offer different determinations of pregnancy, ranging from successful live birth to an indication of chemical pregnancy (which may not develop into an actual fetus).
An estimated 40 percent of female infertility problems are caused by ovulatory dysfunction, or failure to ovulate regularly. Ovulation may be induced by hormone treatment. Clomiphene citrate may be taken orally to induce ovulation. Gonadotropins (human hormonal agents) may also be injected to hyperstimulate the ovaries to release more eggs, thus increasing the chances that one will be fertilized.
Intrauterine insemination (IUI, also known as artificial insemination) may be the first course of action after fertility drugs for many women. A semen specimen is collected from the male partner and washed in the laboratory to ensure a high concentration of sperm. It is then inserted into the uterus via a catheter. Success rates vary according to the age of the woman, quality of egg and sperm, duration of infertility, and presence of scar tissue.
Should IUI fail to result in pregnancy, couples often turn to in vitro fertilization (IVF). Once again, the woman’s ovaries are stimulated by medication. When the follicles mature, several eggs are retrieved and fertilized in a laboratory, with either her partner’s sperm or that of a donor. A few days later, the embryos are placed in her uterus, in the hope that one or more will implant and result in a pregnancy. Others may be frozen for use at a later date. Rates of success vary greatly according to the clinic and other factors, such as the woman’s age and cause of infertility. A 1999 report from the Centers for Disease Control cited a 32 percent success rate (measured by the number of live births) in women under the age of 35.
A number of variations of IVF exist, and the type used depends largely on the woman’s diagnosis and the case specialist. Zygote intrafallopian transfer (ZIFT) follows the same basic procedures as IVF, except that the transfer takes place during the earlier zygote stage, and the zygotes are placed in the fallopian tubes rather than the uterus. Gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) allows fertilization to take place naturally in the woman’s body, instead of in a petri dish; the eggs and sperm are both placed directly in the fallopian tubes. Other variations include tubal embryo transfer (TET) and assisted hatching.
In cases of male infertility, recent developments in microsurgery are offering alternatives to adoption or a sperm donor. These treatments are all used in conjunction with the woman’s use of fertility drugs and egg retrieval. Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) involves the collection of just one sperm, which is inserted directly into the cytoplasm of the egg to increase the chance of fertilization. Testicular sperm extraction (TESE) removes sperm from the testes as an alternative to a vasectomy reversal. In cases where sperm is completely absent from the ejaculate, microscopic epididymal sperm aspiration (MESA) may still provide an opportunity for biological fatherhood.
The final alternative treatment is the use of a donor. Sperm or eggs from donors may be used, and both are now readily available, though the price is often high in the case of egg donors. Donor sperm may be used to inseminate the female partner or to inseminate a donor egg, which is then placed in the uterus of the female partner or a surrogate.
History of Reproductive Rights
Prior to the twentieth century, reproductive rights was an unknown concept in American society. Folk practices had been relied on for centuries, as traditional knowledge of contraception, abortion, and childbirth practices were passed down through generations of women. In many premodern societies, infanticide may have been a socially acceptable method of controlling family size. Later, abortions were practiced through a variety of methods, including herbal potions. With the New England witch hunts of the seventeenth century and replacement of feminine folk practices by masculine science, much of this knowledge was lost forever.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, abortion before quickening (about the fourth or fifth month) was acceptable in both England and America. Then laws prohibiting the practice began to appear in the majority of states. At the same time, more and more wealthier women were moving from home births to childbirth in a hospital. No longer a natural procedure, aided by the community midwife, the birth of a child had become a medical procedure, requiring the expertise of a doctor. Slowly, the woman’s own knowledge was being pushed aside in favor of medical knowledge. The American Medical Association (AMA) joined the legal system and religion in their antiabortion stance. In 1873, the Comstock Law banned all materials of an obscene nature, including any books or items related to contraception.
With the changes in legal, religious, and medical attitudes came great scientific development, particularly in the area of artificial insemination. In 1884, Dr. William Pancoast inseminated a Quaker woman with semen from one of his medical students. Only later, when the resulting child began to resemble his biological father, did Pancoast tell the woman’s husband what he had done. The husband requested only that his wife never know the truth.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also saw huge numbers of immigrants pouring into America, many of them poor and illiterate, in stark contrast with earlier generations of wealthy white landowners. One response to concerns about this trend was an increasing interest in eugenics, the attempt to improve society through selective breeding. To many who believed in eugenics, poverty was a sign of inferiority, and, in their misunderstanding of Darwin’s notion of “survival of the fittest,” they pushed for laws allowing for the compulsory sterilization of those deemed unfit to breed. Among the unfit, they included the mentally ill, criminals, the physically handicapped, and nonwhites.
Eugenics also found support among early women’s rights advocates who sought to free women from the unwanted tyranny and suffering of pregnancy and childbirth. In the early twentieth century, Margaret Sanger coined the term “birth control” and established the American Birth Control League in 1921. Anarchist Emma Goldman distributed a pamphlet entitled “Why and How the Poor Should Not Have Many Children.” There was a fine line between helping women and deciding who should bear children—between reproductive rights and eugenics.
Over the next few decades policies regarding reproduction were contradictory. In 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and those deemed unfit in Buck v. Bell, and the practice continued in many states. Yet at the same time, women and couples had no access to abortion or contraceptives.
The great change came about in the 1960s. During the previous decade, biologist Gregory Pincus and medical professional John Rock searched for an ideal contraceptive. The result of their efforts, the first oral contraceptive pill, Enovid-10, was first marketed in America in 1960. So began the sexual revolution. Women eagerly embraced this new, apparently safe and effective form of birth control, which freed them from the worry of unwanted pregnancy. Within a decade, some 10 million women were using the pill worldwide. Health risks soon were discovered, leading to the release of the mini-pill a decade later. Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the birth-control pill did not wane. In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a state statute banning the use of contraceptives by married couples or the dissemination of information or instructions about how to use them. With President Lyndon Johnson approving an annual budget of $20 million for family planning services, the revolution seemed to be well underway, at least for married women. Single women won the right to contraceptives following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which effectively marked the end of the Comstock Law.
The 1960s was a time of sexual revolution, not just regarding access to contraception, but also regarding changing attitudes about abortion. In 1967 the AMA reversed its previous antiabortion stance. In 1968 the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws was formed. Two years later, Hawaii, Alaska, and New York became the first states to repeal their abortion laws. Although the idea of legalized abortion seemed to be gaining widespread acceptance, by no means did everyone in America favor legal change. In 1971 two antiabortion groups were formed: Pro-lifers for Survival and Feminists for Life. The former was a group of environmentalists, the latter, as the name suggests, a group of feminists who felt women should not be made to choose abortion. Despite their efforts, in January 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade. Gone were the days of illegal back-alley abortions resulting in the deaths of many desperate women. Within a year, the National Right to Life Committee was formed, dedicated to outlawing abortion, and in 1977 the Hyde Amendment barred the use of federal funds for elective abortions.
Meanwhile, experimentation with fertility techniques was developing at a fast pace. Although the first IVF pregnancy (in 1973) resulted in early embryo death, the technique was soon perfected. The world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born in England in 1978, and 3 years later Elizabeth Carr became the first American IVF baby.
But advanced fertility techniques and abortions remained largely within the grasp of wealthier white women only. Forced sterilizations continued into the 1970s, primarily on Native Americans, African Americans, and women on welfare; these procedures were often paid for with federal funds. Sterilization rates among women of color increased through the 1980s; by 1987, 24 percent of all U.S. women of childbearing age had been sterilized.
The 1980s heralded an era of renewed conservatism, with the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Christian Right. Antiabortion forces gained momentum throughout the decade. The year 1984 saw the release of The Silent Scream, a video purporting to show the pain felt by a fetus during an abortion procedure. Although Planned Parenthood and new medical knowledge has since exposed a number of inaccuracies in the film, The Silent Scream remains a prominent and powerful vehicle of the antiabortion movement. A few years later, Operation Rescue began counseling women on the sidewalks outside abortion clinics. The focus of concern had shifted from the welfare of the woman to the welfare of the fetus and its “personhood.”
The movement against abortion took a more sinister and violent turn in the 1990s. In March 1993, Dr. David Gunn became the first abortion doctor to be killed for his practice, shot in front of his Pensacola, Florida, office. Anti-choice and pro-life extremists have resorted increasingly to violence in their attempts to put an end to a practice they see as murder. The violence has escalated in recent year, as more clinics and their staff have been victimized by vandalism, arson, bomb threats, physical assaults, and shootings. In 1994, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act to protect women’s right to a safe abortion and help curtail clinic violence.
The courts have also taken an increasingly antiabortion stance. In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), the Supreme Court upheld a state law barring abortions by public employees or in taxpayer-supported facilities, beginning an erosion of the protections established by Roe v. Wade. Although the Supreme Court invalidated a Nebraska law banning so-called partial-birth abortions (late-term abortions often using a variation of the D&E technique) in Stenberg v. Carhart (2000), several justices did so because of the law’s vagueness rather than out of a desire to keep abortion legal.
The 1990s also saw new forms of contraceptives on the market. Thirty years after the appearance of the birth control pill, the FDA granted approval of the Norplant system. Consisting of six small rods, Norplant was heralded as an effective and reversible form of birth control, allowing the woman to remove the rods when she chooses to stop using it. Despite its effectiveness, Norplant soon gained notoriety worldwide as reports emerged of painful side effects, staff untrained in rod removal, and allegations of unethical testing on Third World women, often without their consent. By 1996, some 200 class-action suits had been filed against Norplant manufacturer Wyeth- Ayerst. The courts have dismissed many of the lawsuits, but in 1999 the company paid $50 million in damages to more than 36,000 women in out-of-court settlements. The controversial drug is no longer available in Great Britain and other countries.
Another new form of contraception, Depo-Provera, is delivered by injection every 3 months. Like Norplant, Depo has been dogged by controversy, specifically problems with side effects and claims of unethical testing in Third World countries. Although it seems to have fared somewhat better than Norplant, only a small percentage of American women use it.
Terms of the Abortion Debate
No issue in contemporary American life stirs more passion on both sides than the abortion debate. There are several reasons for this. First, abortion is a common practice in contemporary American society. While the numbers have declined since the early 1990s, there are still nearly a million reported in the United States each year. Moreover, abortion is a life and death issue, as far as both the fetus and the pregnant woman are concerned. Abortion touches on the most profound religious and political beliefs Americans hold dear, specifically, the sanctity of life and the right to privacy or, more precisely, a woman’s right to control her own body. Finally, abortion is often viewed as an either-or question, with no middle ground or room for compromise.
For those who oppose abortion—usually referring to themselves as “pro-life”—the act of aborting a fetus is the moral equivalent of murder. And a society that permits abortion on such a large scale is a society engaged in mass murder. Life, they say, begins at conception. Thus, the fetus is a human being and should have all of the legal protections afforded a protected class of humans, in the same way that defenseless infants and children are protected. A minority of anti-abortionists take this logic to its extreme, arguing that even incest and rape are no excuse for abortion, since one wrong does not justify another. Nor is it considered acceptable to abort a fetus that prenatal tests show will be born severely handicapped or even unlikely to survive. Some opponents go so far as to argue that even protecting the life of the mother does not justify abortion. At the same time, strong anti-abortion advocates oppose the so-called “morning after” birth-control pill, which causes the blastocyst (the small cluster of cells produced immediately after a female egg is impregnated by a male sperm) to be flushed from the body. Because life begins at conception, it is argued, the blastocyst is a human being and worthy of society’s protection. (Many scientists and pro-abortion activists argue that the fertilized ovum takes several days to implant itself in the uterus and is therefore not a viable life when the morning-after pill takes effect.)
The majority of Americans who oppose abortion, polls show, are more willing to make distinctions. Most say that the health of the mother, or the risks to her health during the course of childbirth, takes precedence over that of the fetus. Some also argue that in cases of rape or incest a woman should have the right to abort her fetus. While some people opposed to abortion reach this view on philosophical grounds, most come to it through their religion. Not surprisingly, most persons strongly opposed to abortion come from devout Catholic or Evangelical Christian backgrounds.
Those in favor of abortion rights—who often refer to themselves as “pro-choice”—also hold mixed views. The strongest advocates argue that a woman should always have the right to choose an abortion. They argue that minors should not have to notify their parents before getting an abortion; that poor women are entitled to government support for abortions (just as they are for all other necessary medical procedures), and that late-term abortions (that is, after the first trimester) should be permitted in almost all cases, especially if the mother’s health or well-being is in any way threatened. Like anti-abortion groups, however, the vast majority of Americans who support abortion rights feel uneasy at the practice. They wish there were no need for abortions, but as long as women get pregnant and do not want to have the child, safe and legal abortion should be available to them. While there are many practicing Christians and members of other religions who support a woman’s right to an abortion, most pro-abortion advocates tend to be more secular in orientation and less likely to attend religious services regularly.
Those who support abortion usually ground their belief in two arguments. First, they say that making abortion illegal will no more make the practice go away than the outlawing of narcotics has stopped Americans from taking illegal drugs. Instead, as was the case before Roe v. Wade, women—especially those too poor to go overseas to obtain a legal abortion—will turn to what are called “back-alley” abortion doctors, receiving inadequate and even life-threatening procedures. Some women, they argue, will even try to induce abortions on their own—also the case before Roe. Saving the lives of fetuses by banning abortion, they say, will lead to the deaths of countless women. The second argument concerns rights. A woman’s body, they argue, is her own. As long as the fetus is not viable outside the womb—usually some time late in the second trimester—it is still part of her body and therefore hers to do with as she wishes. This, essentially, is what the Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade, citing a woman’s right to choose an abortion as a privacy issue. (Those opposed to abortion say that the Constitution guarantees no such right to privacy and that Roe therefore is unconstitutional.)
Late-term abortions, or what the anti-abortion movement calls “partial-birth abortions,” are a different matter legally speaking. In November 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a measure passed by Congress prohibiting the procedure. Partial-birth abortion, technically known as intact dilation and extraction, involves the removal of the fetus after the twenty-first week of pregnancy. Used almost exclusively in cases where the mother’s health would be severely impaired by continuing her pregnancy, the procedure was rarely preformed. Indeed, a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that just 0.17 percent of abortions performed in the year 2000 (or roughly 2,200 out of 1.3 million) were late-term. Despite a strenuous appeal from the pro-abortion rights lobby, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in the case of Gonzalez v. Carhart (2007).
Meanwhile, though public opinion polls were mixed about whether late-term abortions should be permitted or not, they consistently showed that a majority of Americans, while disliking the idea of abortion and wanting to see the number of abortions continue to decline, nevertheless believe that the practice should remain legal. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll in July 2005, 51 percent of Americans considered themselves “pro-choice” and 42 percent “pro-life.” A Pew Research Center poll conducted that same month asked Americans if they wanted Roe to be overturned; 29 percent said “yes,” and fully 65 percent said “no.” This sentiment was reflected in the political firestorm lit in South Dakota in March 2006, when Governor Mike Rounds signed a bill banning all abortions other than those to save the life of the mother. Intended as a test of Roe v. Wade, the legislation instead was overturned in a state referendum the following November. Although generally conservative on most social issues, South Dakota voters felt that the law, which made no exception in cases of incest and rape, was draconian.
The Future of Reproductive Rights
The twentieth century brought far-reaching changes in the field of reproductive rights—from legalized abortion and a wider range of contraceptive choices to more options for infertile couples. What lies ahead in the twenty-first century?
In the last months of the Clinton administration, the FDA approved RU-486 for medical abortions. Women now have the choice of abortion by surgery or by taking a series of pills. Yet, as the Roe v. Wade reached its thirtieth anniversary, abortion rights in the United States remained under threat. Pro-life forces in government and the public at large are no less committed to the antiabortion cause and seek to curtail, restrict, and circumscribe the practice of abortion in any way possible.
At the same time, women face an even wider selection of contraceptive options, including a skin patch, an implant ring, and variations of the Norplant rod system. Couples, meanwhile, also have more options in fertility treatment, including a range of high-tech medical procedures or surrogates to carry the fetus. Such treatments remain highly prohibitive because of cost, and are used overwhelmingly by white couples even though infertility rates are higher among women of color. Technologies do offer gay, lesbian, disabled, and other nontraditional couples or single women the opportunity to become parents, yet many doctors and hospitals continue to restrict treatments to married couples. Thanks to fertility technologies, the very nature of the American family is changing, as definitions of motherhood and fatherhood take on multiple new meanings. One can now be a biological mother, a social mother, a genetic mother, a surrogate mother, and more. With this complexity comes a confusing array of legal battles as courts struggle to define parenthood and assign custody while facing new ethical debates.
Perhaps the most fundamental social and ethical debate emerged in early 2003, with claims that the first cloned human had been born; claims of a second birth came just a few weeks later. Regardless of whether, or in what sense, the reports were true, it was not too early for people and government institutions to initiate a new level of discourse regarding the morality, societal effects, and best ways to manage the rapidly accelerating technological developments in the field of human reproduction.
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