What Research, and My Faith Says, About A Woman’s Right to Choose
Guest Column by Shawn Domgaard
There are so many perspectives on abortion right now, it can be difficult to navigate. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and my own church’s stance is generally politically ambivalent. My own perspective tends to take a more personal, nuanced approach, which, thankfully, my faith encourages us to take with prayer and study. I am also a health communication researcher working on a PhD at Washington State University.
Research allows me to take a less biased approach, and see what the data says instead. This has a stronger foundation for me in credible solutions rather than dogmatic ones. So, as a person of faith and a researcher, I want to explain why I support a woman’s right to choose for herself, and why, based on research, this stance is actually the best way to reduce abortions overall.
The first step to lower abortions is to prevent unintended pregnancies before they happen. Increased access to contraceptives from public resources leads to reduced abortions. Over 70% of unintended pregnancies are due to not using a contraceptive, which is usually the result of a lack of knowledge surrounding their use, social disapproval, or not understanding the chances of risk for not using one. Teaching a comprehensive sex education, not just abstinence-only, but thorough and anatomically correct education can reduce pregnancies by helping people understand the process of becoming pregnant, and therefore avoid it if desired.
If a woman in low economic standing does become pregnant unintentionally, they are far more likely to avoid abortion if they are supported through a strong welfare program with health insurance and food support, and even higher if their state has a pro-choice stance. This is troubling since a state like Vermont spends approximately three times as much on education, health care, and children support programs than my home state of Utah.
When a woman is denied access to an abortion, they are often forced to raise children in financially unstable conditions that can lead to poverty, and often navigate their situation as a single parent. If the mother has other children, this can also lead to increased health risks for them and the mother because of lack of access to proper nutrition and medical help (for more in-depth information about the economic, social, and cultural consequences of mothers being denied access to abortion, check out the decade-long research project called the Turnaway Study).
As we engage with people of faith, we may often feel that most people are against abortion, but the opposite is true, with the majority of Americans supporting their legalization, approximately 61% currently. Support increases when the pregnancy is the result of rape (69%) or if the mother’s life is at risk (73%); yet since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, South Carolina, and Texas have abortion laws that do not provide exceptions for these cases or incest.
More states are seeking to enact stricter abortion laws in the wake of this decision. These stricter laws lead to women seeking unsafe abortions, accounting for 14.5% of maternal deaths globally. There are several examples around the world where abortions increase in countries when laws become more stringent, which in turn impacts the increased death rate of mothers who seek to self-induce or go to poorly trained practitioners, suffering complications and death. Legal and safe access to abortions increases the quality and length of life of mothers who suffer complicated pregnancies and need access to those services.
As for the life of the fetus, 99% of abortions take place at less than 21 weeks (one week past halfway through full gestation), and the majority of those take place in the first trimester. Any narrative about fully formed babies being aborted for any kind of convenience is fully false, since most mothers at full development would be hoping for a healthy baby, and the 1% who can’t are devastated. This is not including the diversity of qualitative data surrounding women’s experiences as to why they get an abortion at any point in pregnancy. Their stories include a variety of nuance surrounding an impossible decision.
Now from a personal standpoint, beyond the data, as a father of two kids and a wife pregnant with our third, I don’t take my stance lightly. My wife and I have experienced three miscarriages with several complicated factors leading to each. Under many of the new laws being proposed, my wife could be arrested for having a miscarriage, and worse than that, she could have been denied medical care with the possibility of death, because doctors would be inhibited by the potential legality of their choices, and would not be able to assess her actual medical needs.
Pregnancy is complicated and risky, and we do not understand or know what each unique case entails. That is why, among the many reasons I’ve listed, and those I haven’t, women should be given the right to choose their health, and manage pregnancy the way that works best for them.
Faced with such predicaments, I see the only path forward to meet such complex circumstances is with equally adaptable nuance. A woman trapped by arbitrary restrictions surrounding her own health and forced to choose between legality, her own life, or waiting to see (which could also lead to death or other severe consequences), is thereby stripped of her personal agency, which is held as one of the holiest gifts from God in my faith. By returning to a mother her God-given agency, it allows her to navigate the progressively convoluted and unique circumstance of her own experience. From what I have read and seen, she will always choose the best path to protect the life of her children, herself, and their future.
Shawn Domgaard is a PhD student at Washington State University where he researches misinformation and health communication, with a general focus on media literacy. He is a husband, father, and active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking, reading, and spending time with his family and friends.