Who doesn’t love a good abortion story? Break out the popcorn, eh?
Okay, so personally I prefer a good romance. But “abortion rights” advocates are working to promote abortion stories as part of their ever-more-aggressive campaign to persuade the public that abortion is normal and fine and not the least bit offensive. A month ago Janet Harris got people talking with her Washington Post piece claiming that abortion isn’t necessarily a difficult decision. Alex Ronan made waves a few weeks ago by detailing the life of an abortion doula. And HuffPo recently got in on the party by celebrating the beat poetry of Leyla Josephine, a woman who got an abortion and declares she would die to protect her aborted daughter’s right to do the same. (Obviously, she will not have the opportunity to make good on that promise.)
Safe, legal, and rare is so 20 years ago. Now we’ve moved on to the in-your-face, “I wanted my baby dead and what do you have to say about it” phase.
Now, I understand why pro-abortion activism has taken this aggressive turn. “Abortion rights” advocates are frustrated with the way the argument has developed. I mean, sure, pregnant women can obtain legal abortions under almost any imaginable circumstances, but it’s just not respectable. Abortion-seeking women are subject to shame and social pressure and nasty things like that. It’s just not fair.
Pro-choice feminists understand that public opinion can have political implications. It’s harder to protect a legal “right” to something when the public regards its exercise (at least under most circumstances) as vicious and self-centered. Even that, though, is more of a secondary consideration. For most liberal feminists, it is simply unjust that a woman may bear a child she doesn’t want simply for the sake of preserving her respectability. Likewise, it’s unjust that she should be shamed for a legitimate exercise of individual autonomy.
Understanding the Justice-Based Argument for Abortion
Pro-lifers are sometimes confused by the enthusiasm with which liberals celebrate abortion. Even if you agree that abortion might sometimes be necessary, surely it’s still kind of a downer? Here on the pro-life side, the Planned Parenthood rallies and Roe v. Wade anniversary parties seem creepy and depraved. Hooray for voluntary barrenness! Death to fetuses!
We need to understand that abortion advocacy has never been focused on the real good of the individuals involved. It’s an issue of justice.
For no good reason that liberal feminists can see, women have been “singled out” by nature to be saddled with this significant burden: liability to pregnancy. As Planned Parenthood titan Margaret Sanger observed, pregnancy can be very burdensome to women, limiting their other activities and goals. Giving birth is painful and sometimes dangerous, and men don’t have to do these things, ever. How is that fair?
But the injustice goes beyond morning sickness and postpartum depression. Unjustly distributed procreative burdens have put women in a weaker negotiating position, socially speaking. They need security and support just to deal with the natural implications of their own biology. This may compel them to accept a social position that involves more drudgery and less freedom than a man can reasonably expect. Over the longer term, that reality can breed a sense of male entitlement, which itself further limits women’s opportunities.
Brace yourselves, liberal feminists. I am a pro-life, non-contracepting, right-wing-associating, conservative Catholic. But I share these concerns. I think men do sometimes take advantage of women’s biological burdens to assert themselves unjustly. We should be assiduous about ensuring that women are respected and offered opportunities for personal fulfillment.
But abortion isn’t the answer. Here are four responses I would make to those who think it is.
1) Have you actually read these abortion stories? They’re unbelievably sad.
Actually the abortion story isn’t really so new. I remember coming across this site several years ago, and browsing for an hour or so. That’s about all I could take. It was too heartbreaking.
Abusive boyfriends. Abusive parents. Torrents of bitterness and hurt and terror. Teenagers in court seeking approval to kill their unborn baby without having to tell their parents. Women addressing defensive speeches to a child they aborted ten years before, whose sex they never knew.
An abortion story has an intrinsic narrative problem. Here’s the thing: an abortion just can’t be a happy or inspiring event. The best you can shoot for is boring, portraying the abortion as an event no more noteworthy than a haircut or, at worst, an appendectomy. But if it’s emotionally significant at all, its importance is negative. If there were a convincing way to glamorize the killing of the unborn, Hollywood would have found it already.
But most abortion stories are not exactly boring. They’re just extremely, extremely sad. You start to appreciate that some women have lives so bleak that they just can’t think in a serious way about the ethical implications of abortion. Some are trapped in empty sexual relationships, and have nobody who cares enough to help them raise a child.
Liberal feminists, face the obvious. Your strategy to empower women isn’t working.
2) Isn’t it possible the unborn do deserve some sort of protection?
As a religious person with philosophical training, I occasionally get questions from self-styled “skeptics” who want me to confess doubts about God’s existence. “Is there at least a 1 percent chance that God doesn’t exist? Maybe 5 percent?”
Let’s apply this question to abortion. Suppose you just aren’t sure when a developing human being assumes the status of a unique and precious person. Is it okay just to kill it and move on? How much risk is it acceptable to take here?
Pro-abortion activists do sometimes bite the bullet and agree women should be entitled to kill their unborn children. This was the central point of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s influential 1971 paper, “A Defense of Abortion,” which articulates clearly an argument for why a woman’s “right to choose” should trump a child’s right to life. The short version is that, baby or not, it’s unjust for the woman to be conscripted into the child’s service against her will. Offering up her body as a gestational home is perhaps generous and sporting of her, but it would be going too far to suggest she is obligated.
A full response to Thompson is more than I can offer here, but this much I can say: abortion supporters won’t improve their public image with this style of argument. Thompson contends, in effect, that women have a right to be selfish, to put their own concerns above their offspring’s, and to deny succor to helpless children who will die without it. Even if the argument is sound, it’s clearly nothing to celebrate.
The object of the abortion story is (ostensibly) to move beyond this bare assertion of rights. Abortion supporters want us to accept that abortion can be a good, right, and reasonable choice, even for people who are not, for example, in the midst of life-threatening pregnancies. That sets the bar much higher, and requires us to delve into questions about the origins of life and personhood.
At what moment did you become you? It’s admittedly a bit mysterious, because it isn’t as though the lights of rational consciousness come on in a single blinding flash. A fetus or baby doesn’t just wake up one day and announce, “I think! I am!” The fact that nobody can really remember how it happened points to a gradual process, the early stages of which are presumably quite different from the experience of mature adult consciousness.
Given the moral gravity of taking a human life, I think “abortion rights” advocates should put themselves into a skeptical frame of mind and ask: Is there a 1 percent chance that abortion is murder? Maybe 5 percent? How serious a motive would a person need to justify taking that risk?
3) Let’s demand more for women.
I care a great deal about opening opportunities for women. Mostly that’s because I myself have been blessed with so many, and have known other women who were less fortunate. I hate the kind of chauvinism that seeks to limit women’s goals and activities exclusively to the domestic sphere. This can be a real problem, certainly in the world, but also sometimes in the United States.
I can even understand why abortion might seem like a fitting way of “leveling the playing field.” Chauvinism, in my experience, generally reflects a willingness to use women’s greater vulnerability as a kind of bargaining chip, enabling men to claim greater freedoms, opportunities, and privileges. Women are, literally, pregnable in a way that men are not. For that reason, they more obviously need the stability and permanence that marital fidelity provides. The chauvinist tries to use this to his advantage by suggesting that men must be offered particular privileges to justify the higher opportunity cost that they pay when entering into marriage. Women, by contrast, should simply be grateful to have a secure home in which to raise their offspring.
In my time living in the Islamic world, I met many men who were willing to make this argument quite explicitly. Here people are generally subtler, but it would be rash to conclude on that basis that chauvinistic reasoning is dead. It is offensive for many reasons, but perhaps its greatest mistake is to view female fertility as a handicap and a weakness. Regrettably, defenders of “reproductive rights” reinforce this same error when they try to achieve parity with men by closing their own wombs.
Why can’t we move the argument in the opposite direction? Let’s demand that childbearing be viewed as an honorable service, for which women should be respected and honored. Let’s strive to create opportunities for mothers to pursue excellence and personal fulfillment, both within the domestic sphere and without. Too many women nowadays feel they face a stark choice between maternity and personal fulfillment. Why should we settle for that? In a prosperous nation, with lifespans that would have amazed our ancestors, we should be able to make time for children without giving up on all other worthwhile pursuits.
4) Isn’t it better to be open to love?
This to me is the crux of the issue. Of course, hard cases do arise, in which we can all readily sympathize with a woman’s desire to end a pregnancy (even if we don’t finally agree this is the correct choice). But abortion stories rarely speak to the hard cases. They’re meant to move abortion into the mainstream, legitimizing it as a reasonable choice for ordinary women who prefer not to be pregnant for just about any personal reason. To the liberal feminist mind this seems liberating, because it promises to give women complete, unfettered control over their own bodies.
There’s a cost to that kind of “liberation.” If we embrace abortion as a part of normal life, we necessarily accept that it is completely all right to slam the door on love, that there’s nothing wrong with shrugging off meaningful human relationships. That life-giving service really isn’t especially important to womanhood.
Is there any chance this will actually make us happier? We live in a world replete with amazing opportunities, and pleasures of almost every imaginable kind. Of course, saying “no” to kids can increase the breadth and range of what we can do and experience. But can any memorable vacation, shiny possession, or ambitious professional goal really compensate for that incalculable loss of love and human connection? If it’s permissible to refuse natural obligations even to one’s own progeny, what sort of obligations are we likely to accept? I’m confident that an abortion-embracing society will be colder, lonelier, and far less happy than one in which love is embraced and life is celebrated.
In their way, abortions stories are revealing. I’ve yet to read one, though, that moved me to think, “I’d like to be that woman.” Let’s try to show young Americans there are better options out there, for them and for their children.