The current challenges facing abortion rights in the United States made Jodi Picoult’s novel A Spark of Light a timely read for me.
In the story an angry father who believes his daughter had an abortion at a women’s center goes on a shooting rampage there, killing staff members and patients and taking hostages. Will he kill more people?
Picoult introduces us to several women that have had abortions. Their stories remind us of pro-active things countries can do to reduce their abortion rates since history shows us that criminalization of the procedure has proven to be very ineffective.
One of Picoult’s characters is an insecure teenager named Beth. She comes from a very religious family and has her first sexual encounter with an attractive Ivy League college student who flatters her with his attentions on a one- time visit to her community. When asked why she didn’t use birth control Beth says she’d heard from a friend at church you couldn’t get pregnant the first time you had sex.
This kind of misinformation is a result of a lack of comprehensive sex education in schools, an education that should introduce high school students to many forms of birth control not just abstinence. As Picoult points out in a scene in her novel, ironically it is often the same religious groups that are anti-abortion who want to limit sex education in schools.
It is probably no coincidence that the Netherlands has the lowest abortion rate in the world. All secondary schools there have mandatory comprehensive health education programs that address sexuality and many forms of contraception. Teens in the Netherlands have wide access to confidential contraceptive services.
Joy, another character in Picoult’s novel is a struggling university student. She has several part time jobs. That means her employers don’t have to provide health care or maternity leave benefits. Joy finds herself pregnant despite the fact she was using birth control. She knows she can’t get a good job unless she finishes school. How will she study, support a child, and care for it properly? She can’t afford prenatal care or health care for her child once it is born. Her partner won’t help. Joy herself was a product of the foster care system and doesn’t wish that fate on her child. So she opts for an abortion.
Many studies prove countries with free health care, generous paid maternity leaves, subsidized post- secondary education, affordable daycare services and high minimum wage levels have lower abortion rates than countries that don’t offer those advantages. Apparently about 75% of American women who have abortions cite economic factors for their decision. They say they can’t afford a child because it will interfere with their work, studies, or their ability to care for the children they already have.
Ironically in the United States the Republican Party, supported by evangelical Christian groups that favor stricter anti-abortion laws, is also the party that wants to get rid of the subsidized health care system established by President Obama. They seem bent on reducing the number of government social services in their country even though it is those very services that would reduce abortion rates.
Jodi Picoult interviewed hundreds of of anti-abortion activists, pro-choice leaders and women who’d had abortions before writing her novel. She found them all very sincere and caring. She discovered whether people are pro-choice or pro-life they desire the same end result- fewer abortions. They just don’t agree on how to make that happen. Picoult hopes her book will open a dialogue that may allow the two sides to work together to meet their common goal.