To the Editor:

In his column “Both sides in abortion debate miss issue” (9/24), Christopher Ashley raises a complex question that innumerable theologians, ethicists and policy-makers have struggled to answer: when does life begin? While some people may agree with Ashley’s claim that life begins at “quickening,” this personal belief does not truly pertain to the issues at the core of the abortion debate. The right to an abortion stems from a woman’s right to protect her health and safety by determining how and when to bear children. Thus, America need not agree on the exact moment that life begins, but we must agree to provide basic health care for women.

In his discussion of the abortion rights movement, Ashley simplifies the abortion rights stance, interpreting it as the belief in a woman’s right to privacy. While the right to privacy does support a woman’s right to choose, the abortion rights movement is even more concerned with women’s health. The buttons mentioned in the article actually read, “Keep Abortion Safe and Legal,” for safety and legality are inextricably linked. Only by providing legal, accessible and affordable abortion services can we protect the safety of millions of women worldwide.

According to a 2003 study conducted by the World Health Organization, 20 million unsafe abortions are performed each year in countries where abortion is illegal or where abortion laws are impossibly restrictive. As a result, 80,000 women die each year from complications, while millions of others suffer physical injuries for which they cannot receive medical treatment. Restricting access to abortion does not stop women from seeking abortions; instead, restrictive laws only force women to take dangerous medical risks.

Some may not see supposedly minor legal restrictions on abortion as dangerous to women’s health. For example, Ashley proposes a deadline somewhere in the second trimester after which point abortion should be unacceptable. While I commend Ashley for recommending an exception for the life of the mother, I would like to point out that the results of an abortion can endanger a woman’s health even if they do not threaten her life. A fetus that develops severe genetic deformities can jeopardize a woman’s reproductive future or cause emotional trauma if it cannot survive outside the womb. A woman may survive such a difficult labor, but forcing her to carry the pregnancy to term can cause immeasurable damage to her overall health.

Perhaps Ashley is right in stating that “few Americans want to abort after” the experience of “quickening.” I would argue, however, that few women want to abort at any point in pregnancy. Deciding to have an abortion is undoubtedly among the most difficult decisions a woman could have to make. To suggest in any way that women take this decision lightly is both offensive and inaccurate. Restricting abortion implies that women are not responsible enough or compassionate enough to make this serious decision. I hope that, even if we as a society never agree on the exact moment that “life begins,” we can agree that woman are responsible, intelligent members of society who deserve the right to choose.

Maggie Doherty ’07

September 26, 2004

The writer is a co-coordinator for the Reproductive Rights Action-League at Yale.