UChicago’s Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity hosted a panel discussing the fate of abortion and its history in the United States on Tuesday. The panelists, University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey Stone and Mary Kate Knorr, Executive Director of Illinois Right to Life, represented different sides of the abortion debate.
The discussion focused on state efforts to restrict abortion, the future of Roe v. Wade, and the efficacy of alternatives to abortion, and came on the heels of a contentious set of protests over Class of 2019 Representative Brett Barbin’s proposal to prevent Student Life fees from funding abortions through the Emergency Fund.
The panelists began by discussing changes in attitude and practice toward abortion prior to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision which granted women the right to an abortion. Stone referred to the history of abortion practices in the West prior to the 21st century, which Knorr disputed on the basis of possible inaccuracy.
“Historically, abortion was legal throughout all of Western history,” said Stone. “Abortion was legal at least prior to quickening, which is the halfway point of pregnancy, about four and a half months. That was the case at the time the Constitution was adopted. That was the case throughout the United States and the first half of the 19th century, and that only began to change in the latter part of the 19th century with the social purity movement.”
He added that this movement forced women to resort to dangerous abortion practices. “About half the abortions [prior to Roe v. Wade] were done by women themselves with knitting needles and crochet hooks and were extremely dangerous, often causing serious injury and sometimes death,” Stone said.
After the Social Purity movement took hold, Stone said, there was a culture of secrecy around abortion that prevented the spread of awareness.
“This world was largely unknown, because people couldn’t speak about their abortions,” Stone said. However, he added that the ensuing feminist movement of the 1960s encouraged social change by allowing women to more openly discuss abortion.
Knorr questioned the reliability of the historical evidence.
“A lot of the numbers and stories that they used during that time were, if not exaggerated, entirely fabricated. You can look that up for yourself,” she said.
Knorr, who is passionate about women’s health, also added that state and federal governments have failed to oversee proper surgical and sanitation practices in abortion clinics in recent years.
“In terms of the way that clinics in Illinois are licensed or inspected, they’re basically not. There isn’t a single Planned Parenthood in Illinois that’s ever been inspected by the Department of Public Health,” Knorr said.
In 2012, NBC reported that Illinois Health Inspectors had visited the nine clinics in the state that were licensed to perform first-trimester abortions in response to allegations of improper sanitation practices like the ones Knorr mentioned.
She also referred to the Illinois Reproductive Health Act, which had been passed that day by the Illinois House. The bill would repeal the Illinois Abortion Law of 1975, which includes provisions that required spousal consent, criminal penalties for physicians performing abortions, and certain restrictions on abortion facilities. The bill also established that “a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus does not have independent rights” and the “fundamental right” of a pregnant woman to an abortion.
Knorr made a connection between the safety conditions of “do-it-yourself” abortions and those performed in contemporary clinics, implying that supervision procedures and regulation have changed little.
“The conditions or stories of what back-alley abortions were are very similar to what the conditions are today. Doctors don’t have to be present, and checks don’t have to be done on sanitary measures,” Knorr said.
In the 2012 article, NBC reported that some of the clinics inspected had not had an inspection for 15 years prior.
The panelists then discussed the controversiality of Roe v. Wade after its ruling and changes in public opinion in recent years, in which abortions have become a more hotly-contested issue.
“Roe itself was actually not a very controversial decision,” Stone said. “When the decision was handed down, almost two-thirds of the American people supported it. There was almost no controversy about it in the media, even in Southern states.”
However, Knorr responded that the media portrayed perspectives on abortion in the United States in a biased way, focusing more on the pro-choice camp than the pro-life.
“The pro-life movement is extremely active here in Chicago. We had a protest that shut down the [state] capital in March, but not a single Chicago newspaper reported on that…. You don’t hear about these things. There is a media bias—it is real, and it exists. To say that [Roe v. Wade] wasn’t controversial just isn’t true,” Knorr said.
Knorr attributed recent changes in public attitude towards abortion to advances in imaging technology. “We know that if [women] see their baby on ultrasound and hear their heartbeat, 90% of those women ultimately choose to follow through with the pregnancy,” she said.
She also stated that scientific advancements such as in-vitro fertilization have allowed the identification of when life begins and ought to be used as a point of reference. “They’re trying to, A, fertilize the woman’s egg and, B, implant it in the woman’s womb. From that point it’s considered a life,” Knorr said.
“A one-celled organism—that is a fetus.… If the parents are human, it is a human fetus, so it’s life,” Knorr said.
The discussion moved onto the likelihood of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, given the recent appointments of conservative Supreme Court justices and several states’ pushes to restrict abortion practices, such as Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia.
Stone characterized the Court’s present composition as strongly opposed to the decision in Roe.
“With the current makeup of the Supreme Court, there are clearly five justices, for the first time, who would not have voted for Roe v. Wade. And I would say, with almost certainty, there are five justices on the Supreme Court who are appalled by the decision of Roe v. Wade…. They are somewhat fanatical about this,” said Stone.
He added that the Supreme Court would likely rule on cases that would severely restrict abortion over the next several years. “I would guess that within three or four years, they will completely overrule Roe v. Wade,” said Stone. This week, the New York Times reported that the Court sidestepped a case, Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, that could have warranted the overturning of Roe.
Given current trends, Stone said that, eventually, abortion would be nearly, if not completely, prohibited in more conservative states, while other states would keep abortion practices legal. He asserted that the overruling of Roe v. Wade would have the largest impact on poor women and women of color.
“They will not be able to afford to go to those states where abortion is legal. Moreover, some of the states that are anti-abortion have already indicated that they will go so far as to make it illegal to leave the state to go somewhere else to get a legal abortion,” Stone said.
Stone stated that a way to resolve such an issue would be making contraception more readily available to women, but that conservative states were not willing to do so.
“They’ve created this absurd situation where they claim they want to prohibit abortions, but they will not provide the most sensible way for women to avoid abortions in the first place, which is to have contraception readily available through healthcare,” Stone said.
Knorr disagreed with Stone’s assertion that contraception would be an adequate alternative to abortion. “Planned Parenthood gives contraception away for free, but 49% of women who go in for abortion were on some form of contraception when they got pregnant,” said Knorr. This comes from a 2009 paper from Washington University in St. Louis, whose definition of contraception included condoms, birth control pills, IUDs, withdrawal, rhythm method for natural family planning, and others.
Knorr implied that abstinence was a better alternative than contraception, prompting a heated response from Stone.
“Alyssa Milano made a really great point a couple days ago, when she tweeted that people should take their bodily autonomy back by just not having sex,” Knorr said.
“That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?” Stone responded. “Let’s get everybody to live according to Catholic rules.”
Knorr added that organizations such as Planned Parenthood would not be necessary if contraception were an effective alternative and that certain contraceptive practices were harmful to women’s health.
Though she admitted that the foster-care system in the United States was not perfect, Knorr stated that adoption was still a preferable option to abortion.
“Foster care—the system is broken. It is a sad, sad place, but that doesn’t mean that those people are worth any less or that they shouldn’t have a chance because they ended up in foster care,” Knorr said.