Honesty About Abortion

One of the peculiarities about the debate on abortion is that one side, the “pro-choice” side is unwilling to talk about just what the debate is actually all about. They like to speak in terms of “right to choose” and “women’s health” while trying not to even consider the possibility that a human life may be ended by abortion. Mary Elizabeth Williams believes that the time has come to end such evasions. In her article at Salon.com, So what if abortion ends life, she argues that pro-choice advocates should affirm that abortion really does end a human life, and that is irrelevant.

Of all the diabolically clever moves the anti-choice lobby has ever pulled, surely one of the greatest has been its consistent co-opting of the word “life.” Life! Who wants to argue with that? Who wants be on the side of … not-life? That’s why the language of those who support abortion has for so long been carefully couched in other terms. While opponents of abortion eagerly describe themselves as “pro-life,” the rest of us have had to scramble around with not nearly as big-ticket words like “choice” and “reproductive freedom.” The “life” conversation is often too thorny to even broach. Yet I know that throughout my own pregnancies, I never wavered for a moment in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that’s what a fetus is: a human life. And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly pro-choice.

As Roe v. Wade enters its fifth decade, we find ourselves at one of the most schizo moments in our national relationship with reproductive choice. In the past year we’ve endured the highest number of abortion restrictions ever. Yet support for abortion rights is at an all-time high, with seven in 10 Americans in favor of letting Roe v. Wade stand, allowing for reproductive choice in all or “most” cases. That’s a stunning 10 percent increase from just a decade ago. And in the midst of this unique moment, Planned Parenthood has taken the bold step of reframing the vernacular – moving away from the easy and easily divisive words “life” and “choice.” Instead, as a new promotional film acknowledges, “It’s not a black and white issue.”

It’s a move whose time is long overdue. It’s important, because when we don’t look at the complexities of reproduction, we give far too much semantic power to those who’d try to control it. And we play into the sneaky, dirty tricks of the anti-choice lobby when we on the pro-choice side squirm so uncomfortably at the ways in which they’ve repeatedly appropriated the concept of “life.”

Notice that Ms. Williams cannot credit the pro-life side with any sort of honorable motive, such as wishing to preserve human life. They are diabolical anti-choice fanatics who play sneaky dirty tricks with words. She is not trying to reach some middle ground.

Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.

There is more about the evil tricks of the right wingers, such as showing ultrasounds to women considering having abortions to remind them that it is a tiny human being and perpetrating the sentimental fiction that abortion stops a beating heart. She concludes with this.

My belief that life begins at conception is mine to cling to. And if you believe that it begins at birth, or somewhere around the second trimester, or when the kid finally goes to college, that’s a conversation we can have, one that I hope would be respectful and empathetic and fearless. We can’t have it if those of us who believe that human life exists in utero are afraid we’re somehow going to flub it for the cause. In an Op-Ed on “Why I’m Pro-Choice” in the Michigan Daily this week, Emma Maniere stated, quite perfectly, that “Some argue that abortion takes lives, but I know that abortion saves lives, too.” She understands that it saves lives not just in the most medically literal way, but in the roads that women who have choice then get to go down, in the possibilities for them and for their families. And I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.

Such honesty is as refreshing as it is horrifying. The reason that most abortion advocates have not taken the step that Ms. Williams advises is that once you have accepted the premise that all lives are not equal and some are worth sacrificing for the comfort and convenience of others, you do indeed start to sound like a death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm trooper. If you start to do away with the idea that human life is somehow special and should be preserved, then it is not easy to determine where to stop. At least now, they argue, somewhat uncertainly, that the fetus is not yet a human being. What if the argument turns to, yes,it is human and so what?

Consider the rising cost of healthcare. For most people, the medical costs of the final year of life equal or exceed the costs of the entire rest of their life. If we could determine when that final year is and cut off any medical treatments, except to make them comfortable, we could save a lot of money. Maybe Obamacare would actually work if that was part of the health care reform. We could also refuse to treat people with chronic illnesses or children with handicaps.Whatever contribution these people might make is not likely to justify the costs of keeping them alive.

Most people would consider such proposals abhorrent. Why? Because these are human beings we are talking about and human beings have a right to life. Civilized people do not let the sick die. One of the reasons that, despite what Ms. Williams believes, more people are turning against abortion is that it is becoming increasingly obvious that a fetus is indeed human. Changing the terms of the debate from the fetus is not human to the fetus is human but it is acceptable to kill it if you want to is not a step forward for any kind of rights. It is a step backward to a more savage past.


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