With all of the Takedowns and Dr. Laura posts, it was hard to make my selections for Best of P-Mag not become the Best of Susan. But this post is one of my favorite things that she’s written. It’s a really well-done, thoughtful, and nuanced look at the ongoing debate between pro-life and pro-choice. This is where I always point people when I want to explain that abortion is not a black-and-white issue. — Liza
Yesterday marked the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. With the anniversary, there were protests and celebrations from both sides, and it has been a time for everybody to reflect on the meaning of reproductive rights. In the media, anti-abortion groups are often referred to as pro-life; we need to examine this label, and think about what it actually means. To be pro-life is to be in favor of life. Anybody who calls themselves pro-life cannot, in good faith, oppose legal abortion.
I have a confession to make. I am pro-life.
A few weeks ago, the philosophy class across the hall from my office held a series of in-class debates. I listened in, because it was interesting to see how 18-year-olds see the world, and to mentally re-phrase their arguments to reflect my own viewpoint. I am very opinionated (big shock, right?), and I love to get into verbal spars. I imagined taking part in the debates, and grinned when they would present some flawed aspect of this or that point. My daydream would continue as I imagined myself swooping in and slaying the argument dead.
One day, the argument was pro-life vs. pro-choice. I wasn’t even thinking as they argued, just reciting arguments that I knew from years of debates, when one of the boys trotted out the old “life begins at conception” argument.
And even though in my imagination I demolished his argument, something about it stuck with me. Like a pebble in my shoe, it was constantly there, in the back of my mind, bugging me.
And instead of arguing with the 18-year-old across the hall, I found myself arguing with myself. Driving to work, it was turning itself around in my mind. As I cooked dinner, it incubated. Singing my daughter to sleep, and thinking about abortion in the back of my mind.
And even though I don’t want it to be true, even though I want to believe that life doesn’t begin at conception, I can’t. Maybe it’s because I had an embryo and then a fetus inside of me, maybe it’s because an unknown 18-year-old was more convincing than anybody else in my life has been, but really, I think it’s just that my views have changed. Something has shifted.
I believe that life begins at conception.
And I am pro-choice. So where do I go from here?
To start, I have to admit to myself that I am pro-life. Truth be told, I have always been pro-life, as in “in favor of life.” I am disgusted by the death penalty. I hate to kill mosquitos, even as they conspire to kill me, or at least make my life itchy and miserable. I’ve spent time as a vegetarian because the thought of killing animals makes me squeamish. But therein lies the rub, right? I’m not vegetarian. I own bug spray. I kill bacteria, constantly, with antibacterial soap. Most of the time, it’s unprovoked: because it makes me feel comfortable, because I am hungry, because the consequences of letting such creatures live are worse than the squickiness of eliminating them.
People are not bugs, it is true, but fetuses aren’t people. At 15 weeks, a fetus just barely is developing bones. It has only been able to piss for two weeks. It maybe has a sex, but maybe not. It is the size of an orange. Take this fetus outside of a womb, and it dies immediately. It is life. But it is not more life than the pig that was slaughtered so that I could enjoy bacon, which sees, and feels, and rolls around in the mud soaking in the sunshine, and breathes and pees and loves being scratched between the ears.
Is all life the same? If so, we are all doomed, because we will succumb quickly to bacterial diseases and infections if we refuse to fight them off. On a more practical level, cockroaches and bedbugs are gross, and chicken is delicious.
Although there are people whose religious or ethical beliefs compel them to avoid killing any life, the vast majority of humanity lives according to the belief that it is morally acceptable to end certain types of life. Because of all this, we have to admit that all life is not the same. While I am pro-life, I do not believe that there is something super-duper special about a potential human form. At the point of most abortions, there is no consciousness, there is no soul, there is no movement or hair or digestive system.
The sticky point here is that there is potential for a human being. If you treat the fetus in a certain way, it can turn into a person. This is a beautiful thing – but it does not mean that the fetus is a person. A wisp of cloud is not a rainstorm.
Let’s assume for a minute that a potential human being is the same as a human being. In this case, we must outlaw masturbation – all those wasted potential babies. And any sort of kissing that doesn’t lead to unprotected sex, because if one person kisses another, there is the potential for sex to occur, which means that there is a potential conception, and a potential human being. Actually, we should probably outlaw men and women being in view of each other, because you know how looks can lead to kissing which can lead to sex which can lead to babies. Potential! And while we’re at it, we should outlaw everything, because frankly, I can easily make an argument that everything is potential procreation.
A fetus is further along in this hypothetical situation, but that does not change the fact that a fetus is a potential person. Not a person.
To recap: I am pro-life. I am in favor of life. I know, though, that it is impossible to treat all life as the same, to be in favor of all life, because to do so would mean that I would die of bacterial meningitis. I also know that every single day, we make choices that put certain types of life above others. A fetus, while pretty cool, is not more life than many of the animals that most of us eat daily. A potential human being is not the same as a human being.
And on the other side of the equation is abortion policy. Do you know what happens to the abortion rate when abortions are not safe and legal? Or, rather, what doesn’t happen? Abortion rates do not change. Take away the right to a safe and legal abortion, and the same number of abortions occur. But restrict access to safe and legal abortions, and more women die. Right now, worldwide, a woman dies every eight minutes because of complications from unsafe abortions.
I need to repeat this because it is really important. If abortion is legal, X number of fetuses are terminated. If abortion is illegal, X number of fetuses are terminated, and an additional Y number of women face serious health consequences or die because of unsafe abortions. Making abortion illegal increases death.
There are lots of people who hate abortion, people who would do anything to bring the abortion rate down. Making abortions illegal does not do that. What does?
Education (and not abstinence-only bullshit) and access to contraception. From the Alan Guttmacher Institute:
“Abortion levels are high in countries where the desire for small families is strong but contraceptive use is low or ineffective.”
In the Soviet Union, the line “u nas seksa nyet” (we don’t have sex) was the running joke that underscored a truth about Soviet Culture: in the Soviet Union, officially, there was no sex. It was an entire abstinence-only culture. And the average number of abortions per woman in Russia in the 1990s was 3.7, perhaps the highest in the world. Six out of ten pregnancies ended in abortion.On the other hand (again from the Guttmacher Institute):
“In sharp contrast, even in countries where abortion is legal and widely available, abortion rates are low if couples practice contraception effectively to limit or space births. In the Netherlands, for example, where abortion has been legal and widely accessible for many years, abortion and unintended pregnancy rates are low because of widespread contraceptive use.”
Clear education about and access to contraception reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies, which reduces the number of abortions.Making abortion illegal does not change the number of abortions, just makes them more dangerous, so the potential for more death arises. Providing education and access to contraception through companies such as Planned Parenthood decreases the number of abortions.
Anybody that wants to decrease the number of deaths is mandated to support programs such as Planned Parenthood. That is the only way to reduce abortions. Rallying for prohibition of abortions increases death. Taking money away from organizations such as Planned Parenthood that provide contraception and education increases death. Preaching abstinence-only increases death.
If a person describes themselves as pro-life in good faith, they have no choice but to vote in favor of legal, safe abortions, comprehensive sex education, and easy access to contraception. Otherwise, they cannot consider themselves to be pro-life.
I am pro-life. I am in favor of life. The only way to be pro-life is to be pro-choice.