Pro-life, pro-choice: an honest conversation, part 1

Continuing our focus on dialogue and crossing barriers, in this series of posts three of us (Jessica, Lauren, and Sarah) will be tackling some big issues: abortion, women’s rights, and pro-choice/pro-life movements. Plus feminism, and possibly marches and strikes and protests and hats. Totally manageable, right?

Jessica: I’d like to start by saying that I think the fact that abortion is such a polarizing and politicized issue really does a disservice to women, broadly speaking. In my more skeptical moments I wonder if either political party is really interested in shifting the status quo. While they do sometimes try to change the parameters of legal abortion access from time to time, if the issue ever completely went away, both parties would stand to lose a substantial block of voters, or at least an easy way of energizing their bases. But I think that we -- as women in general, and women of faith living in America right now -- have a lot to lose if we allow political allegiances to determine the lines of the debate. “Pro-life” should mean much more than “voting for Republican candidates who have promised to put more legal limits on abortion.” I can’t speak for the pro-choice perspective, directly, but I’d guess you’d also see problems with the idea that supporting the Democratic party platform is synonymous with supporting women’s rights. Yes?

Lauren: Yes. I don’t think abortion access is quite the single issue for left voters that it is for many on the right, but I do think there’s a tendency among Democratic voters to embrace the platforms of pro-choice candidates as “good for women’s rights” even if many of those candidates’ other stances are incredibly bad for women. It gets at a problem with “pro-choice” rhetoric, which often presents “choice” as if it were totally individual -- detached from the systems that determine what choices are safe and accessible for different communities. “Pro-choice” fails to account for the other factors that impact a woman’s ability to determine her reproductive future. It’s not just the legality of certain individual choices, but also the affordability of health care, the availability of clean water, the protection of the community from individual and state violence, etc. It’s largely been women of color who have argued persuasively that “pro-choice” is too narrow, both in terms of its political demands and the women it serves. Legalizing abortion would most immediately help women who can afford abortions, and women who live in communities that already provide them with safe, free ways to family plan and raise families (i.e. upper-income women). In the same way that the narrowing of LGBTQ issues to legalizing marriage eclipsed a lot of other (more structural) demands, the exclusive focus on legalizing abortion has pushed aside broader reproductive platforms.

Sarah: I find that critique really compelling. There seems to have been a subtle shift in the underlying logic of the pro-choice Left today. And to me, the more recent pro-choice discourse is much more troubling than the “safe, legal, and rare” discourse it has supplanted. Not that I think many pro-choice activists want women to have more abortions, but, as Lauren mentioned, there does seem to be an unquestioned assumption that the more opportunities there are for abortions, the better things are for women. I worry that this kind of simplistic logic lends itself to extremes because it is easy to enforce (as an ideological orthodoxy of a party or movement) and easy to extend indefinitely.

One of the reasons this debate is so difficult is because it is hard to measure freedom and even harder to measure happiness or flourishing. The pro-life movement sometimes makes the mistake of suggesting something like “the more births, the better,” while pro-choice rhetoric can imply that the fewer restrictions there are on abortion, the freer women are. It seems possible to me, as someone from the pro-life camp, that a significant increase in the number of births could be an indication that women feel safer, happier, freer . . . but it could also mean the opposite. I could pose the inverse of this question to the pro-choice camp: Is a higher abortion rate an indication of the increased freedom, equality, and happiness of women, or would that be indicated by a lower abortion rate? It’s impossible for either side to quantify success according to this kind of logic.

Jessica: I think there has been some growth within the pro-life movement lately that has pushed for a broader conceptualization of the term. Here’s some examples, from op-eds published in both secular and Christian media, as well as essays from bloggers. Beyond rhetoric, organizations like Obria and GetYourCare are trying to match Planned Parenthood’s services, minus the abortion, while groups like New Wave Feminists, Feminists for Life, and Democrats for Life are also helping diversify the conversation.

That being said...there’s still a lot of room for improvement, especially when it comes to voting. It’s really easy for pro-lifers to vilify people who hold pro-choice positions (babykillers!!!) and I think that frequently gets in the way of forward progress. There was a brilliant idea (I thought) for a bill that would ensure both paid maternity leave and ban abortions after 20 weeks -- the US is really, really exceptional in both cases (only 7 countries allow abortions after 20 weeks and only 1 other country doesn’t legally mandate paid maternity leave) -- but it didn’t go anywhere.

Sarah: I’m glad you brought up that proposal, Jessica, as I too had great hopes for an idea like that. What I like about it is that disrupts the false dichotomy between the rights of women and the rights of the unborn. That is, by the way, my biggest complaint about the pro-life and pro-choice terminology: it frames the debate as a conflict between women and fetuses. As a result, it obscures the ways in which the pro-life movement has neglected children as well as the unborn, as well as the ways in which the pro-choice movement has neglected women. If we want to move beyond the unproductive stalemate in which the words “pro-life” and “pro-choice” have come to function as empty political shibboleths, we have to think about ways to disrupt this false dichotomy, through our words and actions.

Lauren: I would definitely agree that the “pro-choice” rhetoric has neglected the needs of a lot of women, in particular women living in marginalized, impoverished, or targeted communities, who need a lot more than legalization of abortion to be able to raise families (or not) in the way they would like to. I’m much more persuaded by the platform of “reproductive justice” offered by women of color. Reproductive justice takes the focus off of individual decisions and places it on the systemic changes necessary to give all women (not just wealthier women) the ability to determine how/if to raise families.

Actually, many of the goals of reproductive justice are goals that I imagine the three of us would share, and this may be one possibility for breaking out of the stalemate you describe, Sarah. For example, I’m thinking a lot right now about the refugee crisis and reproductive/family justice. I’ve read so many stories about the trauma children are experiencing from war, displacement, deportation, and separated families. Children in Syria are attempting suicide. Refugee children in Sweden are falling unconscious after hearing their family is being deported. And the U.S. missile strikes against Syria now threaten to create more trauma, death, and displacement in areas whose refugees we are trying to ban from seeking asylum. I find myself continually thinking: this is an issue of reproductive justice, and no one who believes life is sacred could fail to be convicted by these stories.

Jessica: Yeah, I think this is an area where pro-lifers really have to examine their own motivations. If we’re going to say that the sanctity of life is more important than any other political issue, than it has to be prioritized over, say, a commitment to laissez-faire capitalism, or a protectionist/isolationist stance in terms of global politics, or opposition to a welfare state. I don’t have the data to back this up, but I have the sense that pro-lifers are very dedicated to adoption, and that is commendable. But I think as a movement, we need to be pushed to extend our sympathies towards groups that we have, historically, easily been able to distance ourselves from -- women and children living in poverty, especially those of a different race, creed, or nationality. In those cases, pro-lifers often blame the system or individual choices for their circumstances, but don’t work as hard to change those structures as they do to ban abortion.

Sarah: On that note, I think there is also a critique to be made to the pro-life movement’s celebration of adoption. A few years ago, a friend of mine pointed out the way that the pro-life movement is in large part predicated on the belief that adoption is an unqualified good, when in reality it can be incredibly difficult if not painful for everyone involved. His point was that the pro-life movement needs to acknowledge the profound sense of pain and loss that surrounds adoption. In addition, I think the pro-life movement has relied on adoption as a kind of fall-back option to the detriment of other pro-life, feminist causes that would aid birth mothers in raising their children. It is part of what has allowed some members of the pro-life movement to ignore some of the other issues that Jessica just mentioned.  To be clear, I also think adoption is commendable, and I admire the courage and sacrifice of people who adopt as well as the people who put their children up for adoption. But I do think that there are problems with the way that the pro-life movement offers adoption as the panacea for the abortion problem. I would like to see a more robust approach that advocates a wider range of “solutions” to the problem.