Revisiting “Safe, Legal, And Rare”

The idea that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare” was articulated by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and President Obama recently used that same language again, saying: “I think Bill Clinton had the right formulation a couple of decades ago, which is abortion should be safe, legal, and rare…I think it’s something all of us should recognize is a difficult, oftentimes tragic situation that families are wrestling with.”

While I like his emphasis on letting families decide what’s right for them in that statement, I also think we should reevaluate the “safe, legal, and rare” language that has become common in the abortion debate.

This Feministe article discusses why abortion, like any other medical procedure, should indeed be safe, legal, and rare… but that we, its defenders, should drop the “rare” part of the sentence because it opens us to attacks from the opposition who are essentially saying, “well if you’re so in favor of it, why should it be rare?”

The author argues: “Outside of a few truly horrible types of people, few would argue that we need to outlaw balloon angioplasty because we’d all rather people not need it, because ouch and ew. Safe, legal, rare angioplasty is seldom up for debate. Until you talk about abortion. Turn the subject to abortion, and suddenly the only answer is to destroy these women in order to save them. You don’t hear a lot of arguments that angioplasty should only be available for patients with congenital defects, because everyone else ‘got themselves into that position and now has to deal with the consequences.’ (God has a plan.) Or that heart transplants should be outlawed because of the documented tendency for depression and anxiety in transplant recipients.”

These are excellent points: the medical procedures to treat any number of human conditions are not made illegal because they’re considered icky or gross, or because they’re adult-onset conditions that the patient, in theory, had some control over (such as eating healthier to avoid heart disease or diabetes). So, like any other procedure, “we should want abortion to be rare–not because there’s anything wrong with it as a procedure, or because it’s horrific or universally traumatizing, but because we’d generally rather not have to pay money and undergo minimally invasive medical procedures if we can avoid them.”

In light of these arguments, I’m seriously considering revising my stance on abortions to simply be that they should be “safe and legal.” Period. Not rare, not explicitly so. They should be as rare as any other medical procedure, which is to say, yeah, pretty rare if you’re living in an ideal world, but ultimately, it’s none of my business which medical procedures another individual needs. And instead of arguing over just *how* rare that means abortions should be, I’m going to work on building a world where women (and men) have more options and better education, so that the “safe, legal, (and rare)” platform can become part of our reality rather than part of our rhetoric.

About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.