Abortion Exceptions and Medical Marijuana: An Uneasy Parallel

Thanks to Wikimedia user Rizome for this Creative Commons image.

I was struck by a sense of unease when I saw the news that a Senate committee is backing legislation that would allow VA (Veterans Affairs) doctors to recommend medical marijuana for their patients. I’m in favor of legalizing medical marijuana for a host of reasons (harm reduction primary among them), but this seemed weird to me, and I finally put a finger on why.

According to the Washington Post article I linked to above: “While medical marijuana is legal in the District and 23 states, the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, like heroin and LSD. That means it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

However, enough doctors prescribe it (or want to prescribe it but can’t, in the case of VA doctors or doctors in states where it’s not yet legal) that it clearly does have a medical use. And the fact that the VA is hoping for permission to prescribe it to soldiers, to help with trauma-related issues, shows that a test case of legalizing it on one federally-approved level has made an appeal that this category of people really would benefit from this treatment.

What does this remind me of? Abortion exceptions.

According to the Hyde Amendment, federal Medicaid funding cannot go to abortion, “except in the extremely narrow and dire circumstances when continuing the pregnancy will endanger the life of the woman, or when the pregnancy results from rape or incest” (Planned Parenthood Action). On a state level, too, there are many cases in which public funding is limited except in cases of rape, incest, or the woman’s life endangered (Guttmacher Institute).

The hypocrisy of allowing abortions for cases of rape and incest but not in other cases is staggering. As Amanda Marcotte argues, “Abortion is medical treatment. It goes against basic medical ethics to require a patient to argue their moral worth before they are permitted access to health care they require.”

Further, she laments the “inescapable” rhetoric of the pity-motivated abortion: “If you trot out your sob story to convince people you deserved your abortion, you end up implying, even if accidentally, that some women don’t deserve theirs. When both pro- and anti-choice people are forever debating what is and isn’t an acceptable reason to have an abortion, it shouldn’t be surprising that the people in the middle think that’s what this debate is about.”

That’s what I have a problem with. Do rape and incest survivors deserve abortions, if they want them? Absolutely. But then so does every other woman who wants one, no matter the reason.

Further, as pointed out in this Atlantic post, the logistics of enforcing bans except for rape survivors would be horrendous, and potentially re-traumatizing for the survivor: “A woman will probably have to definitively prove she was raped, and verify that she isn’t just lying to cheat the system. And in that case, sexual assaults may be ranked against each other, as the bureaucrat in charge of dispensing legal abortions determines which women’s claims are more valid than others. Perhaps the rapes that appear to have been violent violations of virginal girls will be seen as more tragic, somehow more ‘legitimate,’ while other women may be less likely to be approved for their abortion rights if they were raped at a party where they were drinking alcohol and wearing a skirt.”

This is where I see the parallels between medical marijuana access and abortion access: there’s a cultural narrative saying that these are “bad” things, and you have to really be in a “bad” situation to deserve access to them. Veterans have surely suffered bunches and deserve top of the line medical treatment… but then don’t other American citizens also deserve top of the line medical treatment? Rape survivors have had their bodily autonomy invaded, and deserve to establish what happens to their body next… but aren’t we all deserving of bodily autonomy?

The other point I’d like to make is that both cases are an example of the opposite of harm reduction, which is a philosophy I agree with and would like to see implemented in more policies. Saying “but X population deserves special access to this thing that could improve their lives, based on how they’ve suffered so far” is ignoring the harm lack of access does to other populations. It makes special categories of people more deserving of treatment than others. Harm reduction, on the other hand, advocates for policies and methods that do not judge, do not use moralizing rhetoric, and instead provide help and access to all populations.

What I think would help is removing marijuana from the Schedule I list, as obviously it does have medical benefits, in order to avoid this hypocritical dance of weighing who deserves access to it. Similarly, abortion needs to be safe, legal, and affordable, and it needs to be treated like any other medical procedure.

The parallel I’ve drawn here isn’t perfect, obviously, and I’m still curious to see if the VA medical marijuana bill goes through. But I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this!

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