This Date in UCSF History: Keep abortions safe and legal

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Originally published in Synapse on May 24, 1981. Abortion is under attack, again, in what may prove to be the most heated debate in Congress this year. At issue this session is the Hyde-Helms Bill.

The measure would permit states to outlaw abortion without passage of a constitutional amendment. The bill proposes that, “human life shall be deemed to exist from conception.”

On April 23, Congress held hearings on the controversial bill. During opening statements it was explained, “If life does commence at conception, then the unborn person is protected under the Constitution.” If passed, this bill would make the taking of life by abortion a crime the equivalent of first-degree murder.

By all newspaper accounts, the hearing was a stacked deck against abortion.

Pro-choice groups were not even invited to testify. Instead, five expert witnesses outlined the abortion question in terms of genetics, rather than law or politics. They were instructed never to use the word abortion, but to focus on, “when life begins.”

Synapse believes the hearings were one-sided and unfair. As for the Hyde-Helms bill, it is an unconstitutional attempt to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court abortion decision.

Congress does not have the authority to supersede the Court’s decision by enacting a law.

Furthermore, we must take a closer look at the forces of the New Right now pushing to eliminate abortion.

This movement is also committed to limiting social service, health care and public education, while increasing defense spending, which could lead to a deadly nuclear encounter.

It is backed by an administration that appointed Dr. Everett Koop, Assistant Director of Health and Human Services, who once moderated a pro-life film prior to his appointment; and Marjorie Mecklenburg, former president of the American Citizens Concerned for Life and now director of the HHS Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs.

It is naive and shortsighted of Congress to believe abortions will be eliminated by enacting a law. Indeed, it is ironic that Congress is pushing for the fetus’ right to life, while ignoring the rights of all women and their spouses to choose if and when they will bear children. If passed, this bill will not stop abortion.

Rather it will force women to seek illegal, back-alley abortions. If Congress wants to talk about abortion as murder, perhaps it should look at statistics, rather than listen to religious diatribes or biological theories.

In 1968, The President’s Crime Commission reported that more than one million women received illegal abortions yearly. Of those women, 350,000 suffered severe complications annually, and more than 5,000 women died each year during those procedures.

The Commission said, “Illegal abortion is the leading cause of maternal death in the United States.”

Congress must take a hard look at these figures before crying out that the innocent are being murdered. Is the fetus’ claim to life greater than the women’s?

At what point does the government have a right to interfere with fertilization?

The current attempt to make abortion illegal is a step backward in the fight for women’s rights and reproductive freedom.

The right to choose when to bear and raise children is meaningless without access to safe and effective birth control, safe and affordable abortion, and quality maternal, pre- and postnatal care, and childcare.

If the Washington hearings clarify anything, it is that determining when life begins is not a matter of scientific opinion, but a matter of belief, falling in the realm of personal opinion and religion.

With this in mind, the Hyde-Helms bill seems a blatant violation of our founding fathers’ principle to separate church and state. It is clearly an abrogation of a woman’s right to arrive at such personal decisions on her own.

Synapse urges you to write your legislator denouncing the Helms-Hyde Bill (Sl5B, HR 900), discuss this with friends and family, and become involved in making sure that illegal abortion remains a part of our past.