Last week I hosted Isabel Montoya-Minisee’s essay about how she considered terminating an unplanned pregnancy–and even visited Planned Parenthood for information–and how that experience transformed the way that she related to women who face hard choices about pregnancy and abortion in their lives. She realized that instead of preaching against abortion, her time would have been better spent helping women in difficult situations bear their burdens.
Like Isabel, at a personal level I am decidedly pro-life. I have an unplanned kid as proof of that position. Finding out that I was pregnant again, while still nursing a ten-month old and on the tenure-track in a full-time university position (and without the benefit of grandparents nearby) completely freaked me out, even as a married woman with a stable income. It took me about three months to chill the &^#@ out. It took me even longer to get over the guilt of not being happy about the pregnancy in those first weeks. That’s part of the reason that Isabel’s story, with its intense feelings of shame, affected me deeply.
Of course, despite his unexpectedly quick arrival, I wouldn’t trade my second son for anything. However, the circumstances of his arrival did push me, a Christian feminist sitting the pro-life/pro-choice fence, over into the “pro-choice” camp. If I experienced so much stress over an unplanned pregnancy in my relatively privileged position, how much more difficult is a similar situation for a woman who has trouble feeding the children she already has? Or for a teenager who made a bad choice about sex?
And then there are other situations that are more troubling: what about the woman who is raped or abused, or the one who wanted the baby but then learned that it has a defect that is incompatible with life? All of those women have stories, like mine and like Isabel’s, that deserve to be heard on their own terms, and all of those women deserve to have a say in how their story plays out. It is not for politicians or preachers (or me, or you) to make or to be responsible for their choices, or to heap shame and condemnation on top of the burdens that they already have to bear.
So, while personally I am pro-life, politically I am pro-choice. But really, it is much more complicated than that.
My pro-life/choice stance is made up of a bunch of other “pros” that deconstruct the hard boundary that some people draw between these two positions. Ironically, many pro-lifers hold stances that actually lead to a higher rate of abortions, such as an insistence on abstinence-only sex education or a resistance to easy access to birth control or other programs that support women and children. If we are serious about preventing abortions and the unfortunate situations that lead to them, we have to do better than that.
That is why in order to be “pro-life” in multiple and meaningful ways, I’m also . . .
– Pro-Sex Education: There were things I did not know about my body and fertility until I was thirty years old and reading up on how to maximize my chances of having an academic-calendar friendly pregnancy. That is unacceptable. Studies have shown the positive effects of comprehensive sex education (not abstinence-only education) both in terms of teenagers delaying sex and using contraception. Smarter sex choices = fewer unwanted pregnancies = fewer abortions = A win for the pro-life camp.
– Pro-Contraception: And more than that, I’m pro-cheap and easy access to it, because access to reliable contraception radically reduces abortion rates. This is a no brainer, right? As many other critics of the pro-life movement have noted, putting barriers in the way of access to contraceptives shows that some pro-lifers are really more concerned with policing the bedroom activities of other people than they are with preventing abortions.
– Pro-Empowerment of Victimized Women (and Pro-Prevention of Intimate Partner Violence and Rape): I strongly feel that women who are raped or abused should not be further disempowered and violated by being forced to carry a pregnancy to term against their wishes. Women who want to end a pregnancy are seven times more likely to be abuse victims than other women, and denying them access to abortion can hinder their ability to escape further abuse. On the flip-side of this topic, to be pro-life and pro-women, we need to be advocating for better prevention programs for rape and domestic violence–and not just avoidance-advice for women, but programs that teach boys and men to respect women from the get-go.
– Pro-Economic Empowerment of Women (and other disadvantaged groups): – 69% of women who have abortions are economically disadvantaged, with around 40% living below the poverty line. In one study, three-quarters of women having abortions gave financial reasons including the need to work to care for children or other dependents. For these women, going through with a pregnancy can mean slipping deeper into poverty. If we want to decrease abortion rates, we need to support increased educational opportunities, better wages, and a social safety net that ensures that parents can feed their kids. So that part of my stance is also . . .
– Pro-Children: As in, taking care of the children who have already been born (over 15 million of whom live in food-insecure households here in the US). A complete pro-life stance must take into account the lives and well-being of children who have already been born, not just those in the womb. In addition, a true pro-life stance must be . . .
– Pro-Women’s Lives: The lives of women are no less valuable than the lives of the babies that they carry. This is probably the central reason that I cannot support the political pro-life movement. It devalues women at the expense of babies, or worse yet, fertilized eggs. Pro-life advocates may disagree, but the thrust of pro-life political machinations is clear: the lives of adult women are more disposable than the life of a fetus or even a fertilized egg. Consider that for some women, becoming pregnant is medically dangerous, yet some pro-life groups seek to limit access to contraception. Consider that for some women, pregnancy complications can become life-threatening and require the termination of a pregnancy, yet in multiple states, pro-life politicians have put forth legislation that if passed, would allow medical staff to refuse care for a woman in that situation. Any true pro-life stance should value the life of mother, unborn child, and existing child at least equally. Sometimes hard choices have to be made, and sometimes there are tragic, no-win situations. I believe we need to leave those choices to the families and doctors who are directly involved with them.
– Pro-Choice(s): To sum up several of the “pros” above, I support empowering women and men to make and implement good choices about sex and contraception. I support the availability of safe and legal abortion because sometimes it is the best, or only choice. I choose to not force my ideological views on women in difficult situations and to trust them to make and be responsible for their choices. I am not pro-abortion, but I know that making abortion illegal or highly restricted is not the answer.
In fact, making abortion illegal does not lead to lower abortion rates. It simply makes abortion less safe and puts more women at risk. What lowers abortion rates is education, availability of contraception, and social and economic empowerment. If the pro-life movement is serious about reducing abortion rates, it needs to stop over-simplifying the issue and get down to addressing the underlying problems. It needs to stop vilifying the people involved–patients and providers–and work to alleviate the conditions that back women into corners where there is, as Isabel wrote, no easy way out.
And finally, my last “Pro.” I am . . .
– Pro-Love and Grace, Rather than Shame and Condemnation: When women do find themselves in positions where they need (or require) an abortion, we need to be willing to hear their stories, withhold judgment, and support them in the best way that we can. That may mean helping them see–like Miss Julia did for Isabel–that there is a way forward without terminating a pregnancy. But it may mean something very different: supporting a victimized woman as she leaves an abusive relationship or recovers from rape; mourning a baby that was wanted, but that could not survive or have any quality of life; helping a mother who is struggling to care for her existing children, or helping a woman forgive herself for making mistakes or hard decisions so that she can move on with her life.
As I mentioned above, Isabel’s story resonated with me in part because of the shame and condemnation that she felt. An online friend of mine, John Berry, read what Isabel had to say and commented, “It is staggering the burdens we put on people when we should be helping them during the difficult times in life.” Both Isabel and John are onto something: Instead of heaping shame and condemnation on women, we should be helping them to bear the burdens that are already on their shoulders.
And we can start simply by listening.
Here are some places to begin:
“Congressman Tim Ryan Changes Position on Abortion after Talking to Women”
John Shore: “From a Christian Woman who Chose Abortion”
Shauna Armitage: “Abortion: A Choice I Never Knew I’d Have to Make”
“Stories about Abortion”
“Women who had Abortions after Twenty Weeks Explain Why They’re Necessary”
Lynn Beisner: “I Wish My Mother Had Aborted Me”
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