For Women, and for Choice

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Photo Credit: Luke Phillips

Better Angels Dispatch, by Brianna Johnson

Editor’s note: In the wake of various public controversies over the question of abortion, Better Angels’s media team is publishing a pair of pro-life and pro-choice pieces on abortion. This is the pro-choice piece. Neither piece represents the official views of Better Angels as an organization; they are meant, rather, to demonstrate civil and depolarizing, yet passionate and well-argued, discourse on issues of extreme importance to our country. -LNP

I was originally convinced to become pro-choice by third trimester abortions. Not the “just changed my mind the day before delivery” abortions that some seem to believe are made legal by the recent New York and Virginia laws, but the rare, heart-wrenching abortions that only happen because something has gone very, very wrong – if the fetus would be unable to survive outside the womb, or if the mother’s life or health would be at risk.

After those laws were passed, my Facebook feed began to fill with posts from mothers in support of the laws, who had once made the harrowing choice to end their pregnancies. Story after story told how these women were faced with impossible situations: give birth to her son, but risk her cancer spreading. See her daughter come into the world, but watch her die within hours because she didn’t develop a brain in-utero. As I read their stories, it occurred to me that the decision to end a pregnancy that was wanted, even planned for, but which is going to end in a baby’s immediate, painful death, is so difficult, sensitive, and personal to one’s moral beliefs and traditions that any governmental mandate is ultimately inhumane.

But while half of my social media feeds supported the NY and VA laws, the other half stood in stark opposition. Because although I live in liberal California, I grew up in Dallas, Texas, shuffling from church services to bible studies to worship band practices at one of the largest, most conservative evangelical megachurches in the country. The place where I learned right and wrong taught me that abortion was murder, and that Roe v. Wade was state-sanctioned genocide. When a high school teacher shared his pro-choice views in class, I argued against him, wielding Psalm 139:13 and Jeremiah 1:5 to prove that life really did start at conception. I internalized the pro-life arguments, seeing the beauty in a cause that prizes life – no matter how small – above all else.

So when the recent wave of anti-abortion laws passed in Alabama, Missouri, and seven other states, I felt that I had a good understanding of both the pro-life and pro-choice arguments. All of the laws restrict abortion after 18 weeks, well before the generally accepted point of viability at 24 weeks, but some go much further – if enacted, Alabama’s new law would ban all abortions. Six others would make them illegal after six to eight weeks, before most women know they’re pregnant.

For a few, including the Alabama law, the only exception is if the mother’s life is at risk; there is no exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Significantly, it appears that the laws were not passed because lawmakers actually think that they’ll be implemented, but rather, as State Representative Terri Collins, the sponsor of the Alabama ban, said, “to get the courts to revisit this issue of, is the baby in the womb a person?”

It’s a fair question, and one that pro-choicers like to conveniently skip over. On the other hand, pro-lifers tend to wholly ignore what pro-choicers keep demanding, over and over again: Should women have complete autonomy over their own bodies? That both parties continue to ask these questions—of where personhood begins and where autonomy ends—without pausing to adequately respond to the other side, is why the abortion debate has come to a standstill in the United States. Arguing past each other has driven us to our individual corners, yelling that we aren’t being heard so loudly that we drown out the other side.

To begin with, I want to address the question that pro-choicers care most about: Should women have complete autonomy over their own bodies during pregnancy?

In most contexts, Americans believe that people should have the ability to control their bodies. The body is an individual’s domain, and nothing should be able to forcibly invade that. For instance, even if a woman is the only person in the world who can save someone else through a simple, non-invasive procedure like blood donation, she cannot be legally mandated to do so. We value this liberty, even at the expense of a life. But we don’t protect that right for women as soon as they become pregnant. Pro-choicers argue that this is a way of controlling women and how they use their bodies, particularly to limit their sexuality.

Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sums up the argument nicely in this tweet:

“Abortion bans aren’t just about controlling women’s bodies. They’re about controlling women’s sexuality. Owning women. From limiting birth control to banning comprehensive sex ed, US religious fundamentalists are working hard to outlaw sex that falls outside their theology.”

For a long time, as one of those religious fundamentalists, I thought this argument was baloney, purely an effort to label all conservatives as sexist. Legislating that a pregnancy must be carried to term and delivered, even if it irreparably impacts the woman’s body, as a punishment for sex seems ridiculous. Who would do that?

But in looking into the issue further, I don’t see how AOC is wrong. In the 1996 declaration, “The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern,” 39 prominent opponents of abortion wrote:

“The abortion license is inextricably bound up with the mores of the sexual revolution. Promotion of the pro-life cause also requires us to support and work with those who are seeking to reestablish the moral linkage between sexual expression and marriage, and between marriage and procreation. We believe that a renewal of American democracy as a virtuous society requires us to honor and promote the ethic of self-command and mutual responsibility, and to resist the siren song of the false ethic of unbridled self-expression.”

On this issue, I am fundamentally pro-choice. To the extent that abortion legislation is about controlling women’s sexuality by raising the stakes if they get pregnant, it contradicts the freedom, privacy, and individual dignity that make up such an important part of American liberty.

This is also where many pro-choicers see the abortion issue as inherently sexist; men were responsible for the pregnancy, too, but neither the law nor society holds them responsible for abortions. Women are forced to carry out the duties of a mother, but the laws don’t demand that men start performing the duties of a father, such as child support, starting at conception.

This preoccupation with women’s sexuality is not merely a sideshow to the pro-life argument. It’s central. We could drastically reduce abortions, if we did not cater to with overtly traditionalist concerns like “reestablishing the linkage between sexual expression and marriage, and between marriage and procreation.”

There are ways to minimize the number of abortions that accept the modern revolution in sexual norms– sex education, better birth control, and more access to birth control. But many pro-life politicians and public figures aren’t in favor of these more effective policies, even though they would easily find agreement across the aisle. That suggests a deeper divide in values concerning sexuality; it seems to me that pro-lifers sometimes view abortion legislation as a means of control, to prevent women from having sex freely and fearlessly.

But there’s another, stronger pro-life argument: where does personhood begin?

In response to AOC’s tweet, someone named @pauldavidhudson tweeted “It’s actually about science and admitting that a fetus is a human being not a blob of cells and it has rights too. The mother has full control of her body before she gets pregnant. Once pregnant she’s the caretaker of another person.”

I see this as the primary pro-life argument, but wish the pro-choice response would sufficiently address it.

The science on where life begins is pretty clear – life begins at fertilization. (High school me wasn’t entirely wrong, after all.) It’s a small life, of course, at first a single cell embryo. But it’s life all the same, and one that has the potential to grow into a person, a human being that deserves rights, protection, and care. I know that many–if not all–pro-lifers would say that personhood is indistinguishable from life, and that an embryo doesn’t merely have the “potential” to grow into a person, but is a person itself. And people have the right not to be killed.

This is where pro-lifers and I diverge. I personally agree that we should grant personhood to fetuses before–not at—birth, and that once personhood is established, abortions shouldn’t be legal without good reason. I consider the reasons in the New York and Virginia laws to be good, or at least so situational that the mother, father, and doctor will be the ones best able to make a decision. But before personhood is established, before the mother is carrying a full person with all the accompanying rights, I think that she should have control over what happens within her own body. To put it bluntly, I think that autonomy takes precedence over life, from conception until personhood.

But it’s tricky to decide when personhood should be granted. It’s been debated for a long time, so please make sure to read the pieces (such as this one) written by people much smarter than me. For me, the truest (and I’m sure, most frustrating for the reader) answer is simply that I’m not sure. But since my wavering is unhelpful when trying to determine what should be legal, I’ll say that personhood, and the rights that accompany it, come long after life is just a single cell, around the 24-week mark when a baby is viable outside the womb. Convenient, since that’s what Roe v. Wade decided, too. It’s a judgment call, but I think the justices made the right one.

My own uncertainty about the origin of personhood is why I think pro-choicers are responding inadequately and disrespectfully to the pro-life movement. What a “person” is, and what differentiates it from other types of life, are also difficult, sensitive questions deeply personal to one’s moral beliefs and traditions, and to say they can be simply decided is wrong. To act as though people should remove religion from how they answer that question is naïve. And we should recognize that though others may come up with answers that we disagree with, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they believe as they do solely in order to oppress women.

Instead, we should meet them where they are. I’ve seen pro-choice people write “We shouldn’t be bringing unwanted kids into the world.” “It’s heartless to force another kid into poverty.” We pro-choicers should realize that for pro-lifers, those are ridiculous, insulting things to say, akin to claiming that poor or unwanted kids’ lives are worthless. I know we don’t believe that, and since it denigrates the argument anyways, it’s time to stop saying it.

Pro-lifers, on the other hand, should work to make progress on, and have their representatives be attentive to, every other issue that impacts motherhood and childhood: Maternal mortality. Paid family leave. Foster care. Adoption. Day care. Sex education. Birth control. Child support. Welfare. Health care.  The list goes on and on.

Life and liberty are two of our foremost inalienable rights, but abortion demands that we find balance between them. The loudest voices in our national conversation certainly don’t make it seem possible, but luckily, most Americans already understand that compromise is needed.

According to a new NPR/Marist poll, 86% of Americans support allowing abortion at any time if it is necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.  63% support allowing abortion at any time in cases of rape or incest. 53% support allowing abortion at any time if there is no viability outside the womb. 37% support allowing abortions until the point of viability, around 24 weeks. 71% oppose prison time or fines for doctors who perform abortions. Americans are already finding answers beyond our divisive politics.

I don’t know for certain what our national abortion policy should be. In fact, I lean much more toward allowing states to make policy based on their own need. But I believe that the better answer will lie between life and liberty, and recognize that a compromise is needed on otherwise uncompromisable values. And the best answer will be the result of a more intellectually honest, rigorous debate of value systems and policy solutions that empower women, support mothers, and provide for all children.

Brianna Johnson is a writer and researcher living in Los Angeles.

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