Abortion as Birth Control

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Few topics engender more heated discussion than that of abortion. It seems fair to say that much of this rancor stems from strong religious and moral prohibitions to the practice of intentionally terminating viable pregnancies. Some concern might also be expressed from a strictly pragmatic point of view that abortion is a costly (in terms of fetal wastage) practice. Here we will focus on non-therapeutic abortion which is meant to limit the number of births, rather than those abortions that occur spontaneously, that is, miscarriages, and those resulting from surgical procedures that are medically indicated when the health and well-being of mother and/or fetus are compromised by a continued pregnancy.

It already has been mentioned that hunting-foraging groups had practiced abortion, along with infanticide, in order to control both the timing and number of children being born. Too many children in a short period of time could be a liability. On the other hand, children born into a subsistence agricultural setting could be deemed an asset rather than a burden. Additional children might well improve household economy. While subsistence livelihoods are still prevalent throughout the world today, the controversial nature of abortion as a population control measure centers on particular countries, perhaps exemplified by the United States and China.

Abortion in the United States is legal and may be used as part of family planning. In this application it appears that parents mostly carry out their decision to terminate a pregnancy at the personal or family level, often dealing with "unwanted" pregnancies. Anti-abortion groups have marshaled forces to thwart the practice of abortion, and have made attempts to overthrow the Roe v. Wade decision. One highly visible group, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, denounces abortion as an act of genocide through its display of highly graphic posters. This action is countered by Pro-Choice advocates, and organizations such as Planned Parenthood maintain that safe, readily available abortions should be contained within a broad framework of family planning. Not surprisingly, there is little likelihood that the abortion controversy in the United States will be resolved in the near future.

The situation in China offers a different perspective on the abortion controversy. China instituted a national population policy in the 1970s that employed abortion within its highly coercive family planning program that established birth quotas. In the 1980s, both incentives (in the form of wage and pension increases, medical and educational benefits, etc.) as well as disincentives (such as salary cuts and loss of benefits) were imposed on Chinese couples (Livi-Bacci, 2001). China's population policy has been viewed as an attack on basic human rights as well as a targeted assault on women's rights, since forced abortions often selected female fetuses (Hartmann, 1994). More recently the one-child policy has been relaxed somewhat, and the coercive program is being phased out as China has been able to realize some of its demographic goals by sharply reducing fertility (Livi-Bacci, 2001).

Another controversy concerning abortion has arisen in its use to selectively abort female fetuses in favor of son-preference (Hartmann, 1995). This practice has been documented in India and other developing countries (Miller, 1987; Segal, 2001), where initially amniocentesis and now ultrasound are done to ascertain sex. Selective abortion combined with neglect have resulted in a low female to male sex ratio among children in India (Segal, 2001).

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    Does anthropology shop support abortion?
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