Social Justice and Access to Abortion

Decades after Roe v. Wade, state and federal courts and legislatures continue to address the abortion issue, and government agencies have adopted numerous regulations that affect access and funding for abortion. The practical effect of much of this activity has been the erosion of abortion rights.

Women seeking abortions currently face difficulties that are not encountered in any other area of medical care. The consolidation of the healthcare industry has reduced the number of hospitals that perform abortion, and the majority of abortions in the early twenty-first century take place in free-standing clinics that are often besieged by anti-abortion protesters who block entry to clinics and harass patients. Abortion clinics have been bombed, and doctors who provide abortion murdered. This use or threat of violence by anti-abortion extremists has had a profound effect on access to safe abortion by contributing to a decline in the number of doctors willing to perform abortion. A 1997 study shows that the percentage of obstetrics-gynecology providers willing to perform abortions dropped from 42 to 33 percent between 1983 and 1995 (Washington Post, 1998). A 1998 study published by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League showed that 86 percent of U.S. counties—with nearly one-third of the female American population—had no abortion provider (Michelman).

In such an atmosphere, concerns about equality and social justice arise because limited access to abortion disproportionately affects poor women (Schulman). The deeply divisive moral controversy over abortion has engendered a secondary political conflict over who should pay for abortions. Federal restrictions limit Medicaid funding for abortions to those necessary to preserve a woman's life, or for pregnancies that result from rape and incest. At the same time, state and federal welfare reform initiatives have resulted in many women and children losing welfare benefits, putting a further strain on the ability of the poorest women to procure abortions that are available to financially betteroff women, and compounding the economic injustice of a healthcare system already rife with inequalities. When access to safe abortion depends on the ability to pay, the right to abortion exists in principle, but not practice.

Equally problematic from the standpoint of justice are government policies that deny financial assistance to family-planning clinics that provide information to clients about abortion. The global gag rule imposed on international family planning groups—which sometimes provide the only healthcare available to poor women and their children in developing countries—prohibits those organizations from receiving funds from the U.S. government if they discuss abortion. It is incompatible with principles of justice and equality to deny women access to information about the option and availability of abortions if it means they will be denied healthcare services that are available to women who are wealthier or better educated.

Medical abortion, or the use of the abortion drug RU-486, also known as Mifeprex, was once viewed as a solution to the problem of limited or inconvenient access to surgical abortion, but it has not proven to be an option for most women in the United States. The drug has been widely used in Europe, and was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2000 despite considerable protest by anti-abortion forces. But recent surveys show that only 6 percent of obstetrician-gynecologists and 1 percent of family doctors provide RU-486 to their patients. There are a number of reasons: RU-486 is expensive, it requires three visits to a doctor—which is particularly difficult for women who must travel substantial distances to see a provider—and it must also be administered early in pregnancy. FDA regulations also require that doctors who administer RU-486 be able to perform surgical abortion, or be affiliated with a hospital that can, which limits the number of doctors who can prescribe the drug (Washington Post, 2002).

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