We Are About to Learn This Answer the Hard Way
As they told us they would, the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe vs. Wade and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. While it shouldn’t have come as a shock, it certainly still felt dark, but I don’t think we are prepared for how dark it’s about to get. In some states, trigger laws immediately went into effect. In many, there are no exceptions for rape or incest. Suddenly, the landscape became much murkier. The stories began to roll in:
- A 10-year-old girl raped by her father.
- A 12-year-old girl raped by her father.
- A teenager with an ectopic pregnancy that died waiting for care because the doctors weren’t sure about liability.
- Methotrexate denied to Rheumatoid Arthritis patients that have used it for years because they could get pregnant.
These stories will continue. They will pile up, and we cannot get numb to them. It’s a stark reminder: abortion is, in fact, healthcare. In sociology, we have a baseline perspective called Symbolic Interactionism. It is our “smallest” theory, meaning that it examines fewer structural elements and really digs into our day-to-day interactions with each other. It posits that we, as humans, give everything meaning. Without defining normal, there is no abnormal. We have to say what things mean, and we redefine them all the time. Abortion is a great example of this.
Any social science teacher will tell you that talking about abortion is tough in the classroom; the word itself is a trigger in so many ways, and it often leads to arguing or, worse, silence. It is fraught with meaning that is different for everyone. Abortion is a perfect example of Symbolic Interactionism because it may have meant something different historically than it does today.
The word seems to go back as far as the 7th century; even then, there were drugs to halt a pregnancy. When you go back to the 1500s, the word seems to invoke a pregnancy that simply didn’t come to term. For a very long time, the word had a more neutral connotation, and abortion was legal in the United States until 1880 (interestingly, outlawing it seemed to coincide with a large number of women entering medical school; it was as if the competition was considered a bad thing). Only into the 19th and 20th centuries did the word abortion come to mean something “bad”.
And, so, here we are today. A word fraught with so many meanings. At the end of the day, however, abortion is simply this, according to Brittanica: “the expulsion of a fetus from the uterus before it has reached the stage of viability (in human beings, usually about the 20th week of gestation). An abortion may occur spontaneously, in which case it is also called a miscarriage, or it may be brought on purposefully, in which case it is often called an induced abortion”.
Read that again: an abortion may occur spontaneously.
We don’t often equate miscarriage with abortion, but it meets the textbook definition. It is almost impossible to tell whether an abortion is induced or spontaneous. That is why, medically, the term is used for both. Socially, however, we don’t use the term abortion for miscarriage because we view them as radically different; that is Symbolic Interactionism at work.
Another area where we see this is ectopic pregnancy. Despite ignorant statements that say otherwise, there is no situation where an ectopic pregnancy can produce a live, breathing baby. Ever. It’s medically impossible. If not addressed, it only results in death. Perhaps, one day, a medical miracle will make it possible, but it is beyond the realm of science right now. It is possible for an ectopic pregnancy to end on its own (spontaneous abortion), but, more often, medical intervention is necessary. In most cases, surgery is required to “remove the pregnancy” before it becomes dangerous.
Read that again.
Remove the pregnancy.
The method might be slightly different (and, frankly, more invasive), but it’s still abortion (as defined by Britannica).
This is absolutely healthcare, and it’s hard to see where the law goes from here. In legal terms, abortion is often considered the intentional termination of a pregnancy, but this is where words and their meanings get confused and obfuscated. This is why the word is fraught. The wording of our laws is confusing and vague, and it opens a door to more people dying as doctors try to figure out what their liability is. That should worry us all.