U.S. conservatives want Europe's abortion restrictions, but they oppose the generous systems and legal exceptions that support women's health.
Earlier this month, Texas lawmakers witnessed and participated in passionate debates about one of the nation's most sweeping pieces of anti-choice legislation. That legislation, known as SB1, was initially delayed by Wendy Davis's now-famous filibuster and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry last week during a second special legislative session. It bans abortions after 20 weeks, places cumbersome restrictions on abortion clinics and physicians, and threatens to close all but five of the state’s 42 abortion clinics. Throughout the many days of hearings anti-choice activists relied on religious, scientific, and political evidence to argue that the new Texas law is just and sensible.
Many of those arguments are tenuous at best, but it is the continued reference to European abortion laws that most represent a convenient cherry-picking of facts to support the rollback of women’s rights. Many European countries do indeed regulate abortion with gestational limits, but what SB1 supporters conveniently ignore is that those laws are entrenched in progressive public health systems that provide quality, affordable (sometimes free) health care to all individuals and prioritize the sexual and reproductive health of their citizens. Most SB1 advocates would scoff at the very programs and policies that are credited with Europe’s low unintended pregnancy and abortion rates.
Members of the media have also seized on European policies to argue that Texas lawmakers are acting in the best interest of women. Soon after the passage of SB1, Bill O’Reilly argued that “most countries in the world have a 20-week threshold,” and Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, wrote, “It’s not just that Wendy Davis is out of step in Texas; she would be out of step in Belgium and France, where abortion is banned after 12 weeks.”
It’s hard to imagine any other scenario in which O’Reilly and Lowry, and most conservative politicians and activists, would hold up European social policies as a beacon for U.S. policy. After all, the cornerstones of Europe’s women’s health programs are the very programs that conservatives have long threatened would destroy the moral fabric of American society. One cannot compare the abortion policies of Europe and the United States without looking at the broader social policies that shape women’s health.
Both Belgium and France have mandatory sexuality education beginning in elementary school (in France parents are prohibited from removing their children from the program). France passed a bill earlier this year that allows women to be fully reimbursed for the cost of their abortion and guarantees girls ages 15 to 18 free birth control. Emergency contraception in both countries is easily accessible over the counter, and in Belgium the cost of the drug is reimbursed for young people and those with a prescription. Both countries limit abortion to the first trimester but also make exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and fetal impairment, to preserve woman’s physical or mental health, and for social or economic reasons. None of these exceptions are included in the new Texas law, and I’d guess it would be a cold day in hell before the likes of O’Reilly and Lowry advocate for more expansive health policies or for including such exceptions in abortion laws.
But it would be wise if they did. This availability of preventative care contributes to the overall health and wellness of women in Europe and enables them to make free and fully informed decisions about their bodies over the course of their lifetimes. The demonization and lack of progressive sexual health policies in Texas, and in the United States more broadly, drives high rates of unintended pregnancy, teen pregnancy, maternal mortality, sexually transmitted infections, and abortion.
Unfortunately, Texas couldn’t be further from France or Belgium when it comes to the care it provides to women and families before, during, and after delivery, as I’ve written about before. The Texas teen birth rate is nearly nine times higher than that of France and nearly 10 times higher than that of Belgium. Nearly 90 percent of all teens in France and Belgium reported using birth control at their last sexual intercourse, compared with only 53 percent in Texas. The infant mortality rate in Texas is twice that of Belgium and France. The poverty rate among women in Texas is a third higher than that of women in Belgium and France, and the poverty rate among Texas children is 1.5 times higher. Less than 60 percent of Texas women receive prenatal care, while quality care before, during, and after pregnancy is available to nearly all women throughout Europe.
None of those hard facts were compelling enough to amend – let alone negate – the new law. It seems impossible these days to find a common ground between anti- and pro-choice individuals, but if conservatives wanted to have a conversation about enacting European-style sexual and reproductive health policies in the United States, that just might be something that could bring everyone to the same table. The more likely scenario is that once conservatives have plucked out the facts that help advance their anti-choice cause, they will promptly return to tarring and feathering Europe’s socialized health system.
Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She researches and writes about access to reproductive health care in the United States and globally. She is on Twitter at @dreaflynn.
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