This week marked the start of “40 Days,” an anti-abortion protest that is held all over the United States at this time of year. Every day for about six weeks, patients, visitors and staff of Maine Family Planning in Augusta will pass a gauntlet of protesters at our front gates.
These protesters wave rosaries, sing hymns and pray loudly. They gather near the gates, trying to slow down the cars approaching our parking lot. They make no distinction between patients who are coming in for an annual exam, to pick up their birth control supplies, or to get life-saving breast and cervical health screenings. Worst of all, the protesters will display and carry signs spreading lies about abortions and the women who have them.
Are these protesters interested in knowing the facts surrounding abortion? I suspect not.
Based on what I’ve seen of their tactics in my 25-plus years doing family planning work, they don’t want to hear the truth. However, Bangor Daily News readers deserve better. They deserve to know the real story of abortion in our country and our state.
Most notably, abortion rates in the U.S. have dropped to the lowest level since 1973, the year the Supreme Court legalized abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, 2,360 women in Maine obtained abortions, or 9.9 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age. This is a decrease from 2008, when Maine’s abortion rate was 11.2 per thousand women, and is significantly lower than the national rate of 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women.
Protesters outside our gates like to say they are responsible for the decrease in abortions here in Maine. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the decline in abortions has coincided with a steep drop in overall pregnancy and birth rates. During the same period that saw a decrease in abortions, there has been a corresponding increase in women and couples using highly effective, long-acting reversible contraceptive methods, such as the IUD.
Providing access to effective birth control, not protesting at health center gates, is the best way to reduce the incidence of abortion.
The protesters would have us believe that only certain types of women have abortions. The truth is more complex. In 2008, 79 percent of women obtaining an abortion in Maine were in their 20s or older. Minors account for just 6.4 percent of the women obtaining abortions in Maine. Nationally, six in 10 women obtaining an abortion already have children at home.
The protesters believe in a simple version of women’s realities. They dismiss out of hand any woman’s decision to obtain an abortion.
At Maine Family Planning, our abortion care staff members hear the stories of our patients and the challenges they often face. We know the reasons a woman decides to obtain an abortion are often complex and always deeply personal.
Here’s what one of our patients wrote to us:
“I am a mother of three children whom I adore. I work three jobs (1 full-time and 2 part-time) to ensure their needs are met. Even still, I worry about their future. The bottom line is they have needs, as do parents and the family as a whole. I want to be the best possible mother I can; I want to enjoy my kids and not be stressed and overworked. As a mother, you know what you can handle.”
Every day, our patients remind us that women must be trusted when it comes to important decisions affecting their bodies, their lives and the lives of their families.
Whether one supports abortion access or not, we should be able to agree that couples need access to family planning services in order to reduce the need for abortion. And that women and couples who do choose to parent should have adequate support for successfully raising their children — things like quality, affordable day care, equal pay for women doing equal work, and access to health care coverage.
And I certainly hope we all can agree that no one should have to navigate a gauntlet of protesters who hold strong opinions but who know nothing about the women who come to Maine Family Planning for health care.
George A. Hill is president and CEO of Maine Family Planning.