Following one of the closest and most contentious elections in recent memory, pundits across the country identified "moral values" as the social fault line dividing America. Two and half months later, as President Bush begins his second term and as we celebrate the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade - the landmark Supreme Court decision recognizing abortion as largely a private matter - we would do well to revisit the question of abortion and more broadly of women's reproductive health care and ask, "Whose moral values?" For just as reproductive health care is much broader than abortion, the assaults on reproductive rights reach far and wide and play no part in a moral nation.
What is moral, for example, about spending millions of taxpayer dollars on programs that deny teens who become sexually active the information they need to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection? Since 1997, Congress has allocated well over half a billion dollars for sex education programs that exclusively focus on abstinence and censor information that can help young people make responsible and healthy decisions. In 2003, New Jersey received at least $2,709,000 in federal funding for “abstinence only until marriage” programs. Despite the fact that Newark has one of the highest rates for teen births and sexually transmitted diseases, the Newark Public Schools accepted a four-year grant providing $775,000 per year to teach “abstinence only.” While there is no conclusive evidence that these programs work, there is evidence that they deter sexually active teens from using appropriate protection. How is it moral to deny teens information that can help prevent pregnancy and save lives?
What is moral about denying a rape victim assistance to prevent a pregnancy resulting from an assault? A recent study published by the American Civil Liberties Union shows that in 8 out of 11 states, less than 40 percent of emergency-care facilities regularly provide emergency contraception (EC) on-site to rape survivors. EC is the form of birth control which when taken within days of unprotected intercourse reduces the risk of pregnancy by as much as 89 percent. Fortunately, the New Jersey State Legislature has recently taken steps to protect sexual assault victims by passing S1668, a bill that requires hospitals and satellite emergency departments to provide written and oral information about EC to sexual assault victims receiving emergency care at their facilities, and requires the provision of emergency contraceptives upon request of the sexual assault victim. If emergency facilities across the country offered EC, up to 22,000 pregnancies that result each year from rape could be prevented. Yet, in releasing the first-ever national protocol for treating sexual assault victims, President Bush's Justice Department excluded any mention of EC. Whose moral values are served by denying rape victims the option of preventing pregnancy?
What is moral about denying a pregnant woman coverage for an abortion her doctor says she needs to protect her health? Medicaid, the federally funded health services program for the poor, does exactly that. While providing coverage for a range of medically necessary services, the government limits abortion coverage to cases where a woman's pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or if her life is in jeopardy. It will not pay for an abortion if a woman's health is threatened. What is moral about forcing a poor woman to choose between paying for an abortion she needs to preserve her health and paying for food, shelter, and other basic necessities for her family?
Indeed, what is moral about forcing a woman to continue a pregnancy when she is unable to care for a child? When she doesn't feel ready to become a parent? When she wants to finish high school? The underlying question in all of the above scenarios is: What is moral about the government interfering in one of the most private decisions a person can make - whether or not to have children? Most Americans believe that abortion should remain legal. Almost all of us can identify circumstances in which we believe abortion is a moral choice, and other circumstances in which it is not. When is abortion moral for you? That is the private question. The public question is: Who will draw the line?
-By Deborah Jacobs ACLU-NJ Executive Director