On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court will hear a case hailed as the most important abortion case in a generation. It addresses a restrictive law that was passed in Texas in 2013 that led to the closure of more than half the state’s abortion clinics. Famously, State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered against the law passing for 11 long hours – but failed, and it went through anyway.
This week the Supreme Court is considering whether the law’s requirements place an “undue burden” on women that would prevent them from reasonably accessing abortion.
What’s perhaps most alarming about this case is that a Supreme Court Judge involved has been loudly voicing his “concern” for the mental health of women who have abortions. He seems to imply that by banning abortion, we can protect women from depression.
Supreme Court judge Justice Anthony M Kennedy, who is one of the most powerful men in the US, stuck his oar in during a speech in 2007, saying: “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained. Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow.”
No reliable data to measure the phenomenon. Isn’t that strange?
For a Supreme Court judge – the same man in whose hands the fate of 40 abortion clinics in Texas lies this week – it seems a little wacky to speculate on something, and to turn that speculation into a law which would have a profound impact on millions of women. Even wackier when you find out that a simple Google search could have put him right.
The American Psychological Association stated as early as 1989 that a legal abortion “does not pose a psychological hazard for most women”.
The John Hopkins University also found in 2008 that long-term mental health problems – sadness, guilt, regret and depression – occur “in only a minority of women” who have had an abortion.
Meanwhile, the Guttmacher Institute discovered in 2011 that “negative feelings are no worse after an abortion than after carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term”, and rather it is the stigma of having an abortion that can have negative mental health consequences rather than the procedure itself.
But if Republicans can’t convince women that they will feel racked with guilt for evermore after having an abortion, the lack of access to healthcare facilities should be able to do the job.
Abortion clinics in the US as a whole are already struggling with increasing amounts of debt as they work to operate under new, stricter standards that make them more like surgical centers rather than family planning clinics. Bloomberg data show that 162 clinics have shut down in the US since 2011, with just 21 opening in the same period.
Now let’s imagine that some women have no option but to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Surely they are just as likely, if not more likely, to suffer mental health problems? That seems to carry much less of a logical leap than assuming that a woman who wants an abortion and then is able to access an abortion clinic will end up “severely depressed”.
Justice Kennedy and his cohort do not have the ability to regulate depression, just as they can’t regulate good and bad parenting.
Ultimately, it’s irrelevant what harm a woman experiences, either if she has an abortion and faces guilt or carries the pregnancy to term and struggles with the mental effects of childbirth and parenthood, such as postnatal depression. Postnatal depression is, after all, the most common complication of a pregnancy. Abortion doesn’t raise the rate of mental health problems – but having babies does.
It’s also irrelevant whether you, the reader, agree with someone terminating their pregnancy.
The point is that women have a choice in the first place – and, as this court case shows, it’s a choice we can never take for granted.
This article first appeared on ‘Independent’ on 2 March 2016.