Tag Archives: abortion

A Response to Conservatives Re: Abortion

Yesterday’s post on the Wendy Davis filibuster has generated some interesting discussion on Facebook (on my sister’s wall, actually, not mine). Some conservative friends have passionately voiced their opinion that abortion is right up there with slavery in terms of historical evils, and I just thought I’d put my answer out there for those who can’t see it.

X (and others like X), I do hope that you actually read my post, which was intended to lay out for my primarily left-leaning readership precisely the concerns that inform your passionate stance. It is not a stance that I share because like many pro-choice folks, I believe that keeping abortion safe, legal, and accessible is as much a matter of life and death as you believe restricting it is. If you would like more detail as to why, consult the testimony that was read before the Texas Senate the other day. Restricting access to abortion does in some cases cause women to lose their lives. Getting an abortion is quite often a choice between two appalling options. 

There are many on the pro-choice left, however, who regard the pro-life position as primarily motivated by misogyny, which is a generalization that also vexes me. They are as unwilling to compromise on this as your are and in some cases believe you are evil. Given that some conservative legislatures wish to head in a direction where I could be prosecuted for having a simple miscarriage, it’s not hard to see how the rhetoric gets there.

But if those are the terms upon which this debate is going to move forward, that seems like a problem. I’m interested instead in having this discussion on the basis of sound medical science and with a full understanding of the circumstances that make abortions necessary, not on sweeping moral pronouncements that leave no room for the messy, often heartbreaking complexities of real life.

On the Wendy Davis Filibuster

I have a very vivid memory of the morning after Ann Richards was elected Governor of Texas. I heard the announcement on the radio and immediately burst into tears. I was seven years old, and at the time, my mother was pregnant with my third and youngest sister, Emily. I had been told at church and at my Christian school that Ann Richards was pro-choice, and having heard scary stories about the one-child policy in China, I had arrived at the weird conclusion that Ann Richards was going to force my mother to abort my sister.  A couple of years later, I would write a letter to President Bill Clinton about the evils of abortion and the urgent necessity of making it illegal under any and all circumstances. I enclosed a macabre poem about a graveyard of unborn babies and all of the amazing things they could have done with their lives.

As someone who promptly succumbed to the liberalizing influence of college, this is a part of my history that I’m frankly a little embarrassed about and that makes me uncomfortably ambivalent whenever the topic of abortion comes up in SJ circles. On the one hand, I ardently believe that abortion should be legal, safe, and accessible, and I am appalled by the intellectually dishonest rhetoric that comes out of the pro-life camp. And a big part of me would like to simply disavow my seven year old self as a product of a very conservative upbringing in a conservative community in which there was little room for nuance on this issue (among others). On the other hand, I have trouble with the lack of nuance that runs the other way. Certainly, in many ways, misogyny at the bottom of it all, but of course that’s not how most pro-lifers see it. For me and for many people I grew up with, it wasn’t about controlling women, it was about protecting babies.

Discussions of abortion in my conservative community didn’t always revolve around immorality and the destruction of the traditional home. It was also wrapped up in rather well-intentioned (though sometimes hypocritical) concerns about the specter of eugenics, about disability rights, about the ethical horrors of ridding society of the “unwanted.” Frank Schaeffer, in his memoir about growing up as a conservative evangelical crusader, describes his turn toward militant pro-life activism as inspired by the birth of his child and what he saw as a growing callousness and alarming violence of Western culture in the twentieth century.

In other words, if there is an empathy gap between pro-life and pro-choice, it’s an empathy gap produced by the fact that pro-choice people empathize with the woman and pro-life people empathize with the unborn child. And both believe that in doing so, they are righteous. At bottom, I think we tend to direct our empathy in the easiest direction, and it’s hard not to empathize with babies. In a misogynistic culture, it’s easy to find reasons not to empathize with women who don’t want to have babies. During my teenage years, I was anti-abortion because I simply could not imagine a set of circumstances that would lead me to get one, and therefore it was fairly easy to imagine that anyone who would was somehow monstrous. I could not think outside the boundaries of my own experience and the fairly simple moral boundaries that my privilege enabled.

In order to have my mind changed, I had to encounter the stories of women who had, for various reasons, not just wanted but urgently required abortions to understand that the decision to get one is one of massive emotional and medical complexity in which something, inevitably, is going to be lost. I don’t believe that women who get abortions walk away with irreparable physical and emotional scars, but I do think that it’s an enormously delicate decision and that the best possible conditions for making that decision exist when there is minimal interference from outside, when we trust women to make it without subjecting them to further (sometimes literally physical) trauma or throwing up paternalistic roadblocks.   

And it’s for this reason that I am profoundly inspired by what Wendy Davis did last night, because the complicated stories of women who need abortions have so little visibility in a debate that takes place in depressingly abstract terms. I believe that stories can help change minds, but in this case, there just simply aren’t enough of them out there. And given the polarization of this issue, it’s easy to understand why. The right wants to minimize cognitive dissonance by labeling women who seek abortions as selfish and evil, so who wants to lay out the agonizing emotional calculus of their decision for that kind of demonization? Likewise, I think it’s difficult to acknowledge that abortion is a nuanced issue because the right has done a fairly successful job of using that to argue that therefore women need to be protected from themselves.

Visibility is power, and women who feel passionately about this issue have to fight to be visible in a media culture that remains problematically uncomfortable about discussing it on more than a surface level. Wendy Davis—not a perfect politician by any means—did a pretty remarkable thing with the help of other by demanding that kind of visibility. I just hope the finer points of argument are appreciated along with the sweeping drama of the filibuster’s final moments.

So yeah. More of this, please.

(Note: I have disappeared into an archive in Boston and therefore have been out of touch with the news. When I went to bed, the filibuster drama hadn’t yet peaked, so when I saw this morning that Facebook and Tumblr had gone all Red Wedding overnight, it took me a while to catch up. This is also my excuse for why blogging will remain somewhat light over the next couple of weeks.) 

On Definitions: HR 3

A Pro-Life poster depicting a baby with the word "Punishment" underneath it When I was seven years old, my notoriously conservative state elected a Democratic, pro-choice governor.  The child of conservative evangelical parents in a conservative evangelical community, I recall bursting into tears when I heard on the radio that this candidate had won the election.  When my parents asked why, I said that I was afraid she was going to force my mother to abort the baby sister my mother was carrying at the time.  That was basically my understanding of the abortion debate:  Democrats wanted to kill babies.  A few years later, I would write a letter to President Bill Clinton along with a (painful to recall) poem about how babies were people and therefore didn’t deserve to die because adults made mistakes, etc.

Yes, I was a child who had internalized the values and prejudices of the adults surrounding me, but it wasn’t until midway through college that I finally turned around on the abortion issue as well as gay marriage, abstinence only education and a host of other socially conservative positions.  That was also the point when I decided–three months before the 2004 election–to do the unthinkable:  vote for John Kerry.  I was terrified that my parents would find out.

I am not proud of the positions I held when I was younger, and it makes me cringe with shame to remember some of the things I said about rape victims, gay and lesbian people, trans people, single mothers, and unemployed people back when I still thought Dr. Laura was a reasonable human being.  I often feel distinctly under-qualified to comment on social justice issues due to the fact that I am still learning.  I find it is helpful, however, to remember that person whenever I find myself wishing that certain conservatives might be consigned to some god-forsaken portion of Hell for coming up with shit like HR 3.

HR 3, the bill that would restrict the federal “funding” of abortion to draconian new levels, preventing even rape victims from using Medicaid to pay for abortions unless they can prove that their rape was “forcible” (whatever that means), is a human rights fiasco.  Yet I am reminded that once upon a time, I thought abortion was a human rights fiasco for one simple reason:  it killed babies.  From my perspective at the time, it had nothing to do with the desire to curtail the rights of women or run roughshod on the rights of rape survivors or participate in slut shaming.  It was just that the plights of even unborn babies seemed immediately, palpably, even if only symbolically “real” to me at the time, whereas the plights of the women for whom pregnancy meant economic, social, psychological, and even physical death were not.  Babies were visible.  Rape survivors were not.  I was incapable of imagining circumstances in which abortion might be the lesser of two evils because those circumstances were so far beyond my experience and the experiences of anyone  I knew.

That’s privilege for you:  the ability to walk blithely through life without having to bear witness to the sheer extent of human suffering that exists in the world and the ability to allow the limits of your own experience to define the options available to everyone else.  Because here’s the thing, as a conservative religious person, I was only capable of articulating the freedoms of others according to the terms in which I understood my own freedoms.  I was not allowed to have sex before or outside of marriage, and I fully expected to be punished if I did.  For me, the fact that I was struggling to “remain pure” with my boyfriend was not (at least initially) a story about how my values had become untenable and needed to be reconsidered.  It was a story about how I was a sinner who had to overcome this particular struggle.  And in order to rationalize the pains I was going to, those standards had to be universal, otherwise what was the fucking point? Because I could not imagine circumstances in which it would be ok for me to get an abortion, therefore it was not ok for anyone to get an abortion.

This is why I so frequently vacillate between hope and despair when it comes to convincing people like the ones who support this bill that they are so deeply, unimaginably, and inhumanly wrong.  When she talks about the stases of argument in rhetoric class, a professor of mine frequently uses the abortion debate to demonstrate just how difficult it is to overcome disagreements that occur at the level of definitions, of what things actually are.  For pro-lifers, abortion is murder.  For pro-choicers, abortion is health care.  It is difficult to imagine a rhetoric that would be able to overcome that monumental difference.  It is difficult to imagine methods of mass persuasion that might make those who think they are saving the lives of babies realize that the lives of millions of women are at stake as well.

There were two essential factors in my “conversion.”  First, I finally realized that the whole abstinence thing just wasn’t going to work out for me.  Once I had removed the limits on my own expression of sexuality, it became easier to imagine a broader range of options for other people.  The second thing that happened was that a member of my family came out of the closet, and the humanity of a group I had previously been taught to fear therefore became immediately relevant and sympathetic to me.  Other factors were at work:  attending a feminist and politically liberal college, spending a summer internship in a notoriously liberal major city, a crisis of faith that made me question the whole foundation of my morality, etc.  But the biggest factor was that the invisible became visible to me.  Suddenly, I was capable of sympathizing with, respecting, and validating the experiences and choices of people who were vastly different from me.

And I have seen other members of my once very conservative family turn around on these same issues for very similar reasons.  People we grew up with and love and respect turned out to be gay, and we found we still loved and respected them.  People who once seemed righteous in our eyes now appear to be hate-filled human nightmares.  Marriages we once thought were invulnerable turned out to be living horrors.  The invisible became visible.

The anti-choice right has been very successful in convincing their followers that unborn babies represent an invisible class of people whose rights must be recognized, a class of people that pro-choice advocates wish to exterminate.  As I said, aside from the deeply personal transformations, the re-evaluations of possibilities and moral priorities that I underwent, it is difficult to imagine a rhetoric that would change their minds.  That is why I fervently hope that the organized left is able to make the plights of people who would effectively be consigned to the darkness by HR 3 visible.

Also, go check out Tiger Beatdown’s Twitter campaign, #DearJohn.

(Image found at What’s Wrong with the World)