Column: Sex and The Nation

The Supreme Court decision in 1973 to overturn Roe v. Wade that decriminalized abortion in America came as a shock to those Americans who had been in a coma for the past six years.  For those of us who remained awake and alert during some of those years, the death of the Roe v. Wade decision was as inevitable as global warming and the rise of sea levels. As a candidate for the presidency, the former president promised to install judges on the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade. That a candidate would actually fulfill a campaign promise was deemed unlikely, and many Americans who supported reproductive rights for women voted for the former president. That Congress would enable the appointment of Justices with decidedly anachronistic views of what the Constitution allowed seemed equally unlikely.  After all, more than two-thirds of Americans supported a woman’s right to choose abortion as a reproductive option and less than one-fifth insisted that abortion be outlawed even in cases of rape, incest, or risk to the pregnant woman’s life. Given these statistics, logic suggested that elected officials would place their own employment in jeopardy if they backed the appointment of Justices who opposed the 1973 Court ruling: so much for logic.

The United States has rejoined a shrinking community of nations that insist that abortion must be banned. The more than 50 year war on reproductive rights in America, fought by the same lobbyists and special interest groups that opposed desegregation, contraception, gay rights, and same sex marriage, will undoubtedly refocus on these prior lost battles. Pandora’s box is wide open, and those seeking to turn back the clock are circling overhead.

Justice Alito’s draft majority opinion emphasizes a longstanding tradition in the United States and in English law criminalizing abortion. Those same longstanding traditions also led to the Salem witch trials and the exclusion of women from the voting booth and the government until the twentieth century. Those laws so liberally referenced in the Court’s draft opinion were embraced at a time when women were treated as property if married and as dependents without any rights if unmarried.

As a physician, I marvel at the general public’s failure to recognize the underlying problem that has led to the abortion controversy. Women seeking abortions are merely trying avoid having more children or any children. Most women asked why they need or want to terminate a pregnancy indicate that they cannot afford to support a child or another child if they already have one or more.  A woman with two children and a median income is likely to be managing just above the poverty line. The addition of another child to her household will push her below the poverty line and deprive the children for which she is already caring of the resources they need to live independent of state support. If we want to eliminate the demand for pregnancy terminations, we need to start focusing on the actual source of those millions of unwanted pregnancies: the men.

Women have unwanted pregnancies primarily because their male sexual partners are under no obligation to adopt measures that would keep them from getting pregnant.  A man faces no punishment if he impregnates his wife, paramour, or mistress even if she has advised him that she does not want to get pregnant.  If he is not married to the recipient of his seed, he may face a lengthy battle for child support in this era of DNA paternity suits, but most women are not adequately litigious to endure this routinely painful process. Currently, it is the woman’s responsibility to somehow avoid pregnancy and if those measures fail and she finds that she is pregnant, the laws in much of the United States will now demand that she carry that fertilized egg until it is an embryo and a fetus and a child. It is hardly surprising that our primarily male legislators are very comfortable with this arrangement.  Looking back at the paternity records of these lawmakers reveals why they are so focused on the woman’s responsibilities when it comes to reproductive issues and not on their own contribution.

Simply look at the reproductive record of President John Tyler. (I know you do not remember him. He was Vice-president under William Henry Harrison of Tippecanoe Battle fame, with the memorable campaign slogan of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” He became our tenth president when Harrison died after giving the longest inauguration speech ever.) Tyler’s first wife had eight children by him, leaving her a virtual cripple by the time she was 49.  She died at 51, and the grieving widower remarried and had seven additional children by his second wife.  He was also a slave holder and reportedly had at least two children by women he enslaved. This testosterone driven politician was hardly an anomaly in his own time and would not warrant recognition for an outstanding achievement in our time. It is worth noting that if his (at least) fifteen children and the descendants thereof had followed his reproductive example for nine generations they would have accounted for more people (over thirty billion) than the current population of the planet.

Our planet is already bursting with Homo sapiens (people), and our lawmakers are still devising laws that necessarily expand the population. Intelligent beings would probably recommend measures to stop this planet-trashing growth. First of all, limit the number of children a man can sire.  After a man has fathered three children, the law could require that he have a vasectomy, a simple office procedure that takes about 15 minutes and requires nothing more than a local anesthetic and an appropriately trained surgeon. If he refuses, apply to him the laws currently on the books penalizing women who have abortions and abortion providers. Also tax him for the extra cost to the state for the resources consumed by his additional children. This is probably a better route to pursue than the current plan to penalize abortion providers and to imprison women for refusing to bear children they do not want or cannot afford to care for.

Since the 1960s, the Supreme Court has declared several laws justifying discriminatory practices as unconstitutional. The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade revealed that this new Supreme Court does not consider “established laws,” such as those decriminalizing homosexuality, birth control, interracial marriages, same sex marriages and other practices disdained by some of the American public, as settled issues. Many good people suffered bad consequences before the 1960s because their private activities were subject to judicial review and condemnation. Those good old days were not so good for many Americans. To avoid the resurgence of laws that deprive us of our Constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy, we need all three branches of the Federal Government to work on improving the lives of all of its citizens, whether they be men or women, and to stop trying to execute a u-turn that can only end up with our nation stuck in a ditch.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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