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Abortion: Is There a Middle Ground?

November 16, 2011

Pro-life groups in the United States tend to promote one goal: making abortion illegal. While they have failed thus far to overturn Roe v. Wade or to ban abortion outright in smaller jurisdictions, the pro-life movement has succeeded in cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood and has made it more difficult to obtain a legal abortion. They ignore the fact that whether abortion is legal or illegal does not, evidently, affect the number of abortions performed. Their aim thus appears not to be reducing the number of abortions overall, but rather affording themselves a place to live where abortion is absolutely banned, regardless of how many fetuses are actually destroyed.  This position seems remarkably selfish and is hardly an effective method for fighting for the rights of the “unborn”. Pro-lifers would prefer abortion to be pushed into the black market and become devastatingly dangerous for women who seek it; perhaps as a way to punish women.

The largely religious basis for the pro-life movement deeply impedes their potentially noble agenda of actually reducing the number of abortions that take place in the United States. Because of their dated and perversely restrictive view of human sexuality, religious pro-lifers cannot avail themselves of modern and ethical strategies for preventing unwanted pregnancy, which is precisely how they could reduce abortion rates. The most basic is, of course, contraception. Conservatives were not always against contraception and in fact embraced it as a way to reduce abortion. As the culture wars have been resurrected in the extreme, however, the pro-life position has come to include a blinding anti-contraception, abstinence-only (and let’s not forget, distinctly homophobic) mentality.

Taking seriously the pointlessness of outlawing abortion in order to reduce it, the pro-life and pro-choice movements could conceivably join forces to pursue the goal of reducing abortion overall, but it is the warring attitudes toward sexuality in general that obstruct any possibility of negotiation, much less an actual agreement to work together. Pro-choice advocates tend to favor contraception as a way to prevent abortion, but defining life as beginning at conception as some pro-lifers do and claiming full personhood for embryos renders such cooperation virtually impossible.

To begin any kind of reconciliation with their opponents, pro-choicers could start by confronting the first “choice” involved in an abortion: the choice to risk pregnancy. Sex doesn’t just “happen”. The pro-choice position would benefit from overtly acknowledging abortion as an absolute last resort to avoid having an unwanted child, not as a “right” of women to be championed and defended at all costs. They could emphasize the choice to have sex as one to be made in relative maturity, and the decision should always assume a method of birth control, first and foremost. Rape accounts for a mere .3% of all abortions, with risks to maternal health accounting for only 1%. That leaves more than 98% of all abortions as “elective”, undergone by women who chose to have sex with their partners (and would not have risked their lives if they had gone through with the pregnancy).

These statistics understandably anger those who consider abortion to be murder, regardless of whether their pro-life position is ultimately religious, because the pregnancy was avoidable in the first place. It is, however, the method – abstinence only — by which so many pro-lifers wish that the pregnancy were avoided that is unrealistic and, at a time when people are getting married later and later in life, ridiculous.

The official Catholic mandate to only have sex when one is open to pregnancy is particularly intrusive since it even applies to married couples, though to be fair, many Catholics have come to accept birth control in marriage as morally acceptable.

Still, many pro-choice arguments almost seem to suggest that women become pregnant asexually. Phrases like “the unexpected” are thrown around so often that the pro-choice position skirts around the decision to risk getting pregnant and champions a woman’s right to decide whether to stay pregnant. Especially in the case of partial birth abortion (assuming it is not performed merely to save the mother’s life), there’s often a streak of blatant disregard for the “unborn” in pro-choice arguments. Can we really say to a child who survived its mother’s attempt to abort him that he had no right to live? That his birth was essentially the failure of his mother to exercise her rights?

Though the cases of them are rare, abortion survivors literally embody the potential life that pro-lifers intend to protect. Perhaps this is why Amanda Marcotte’s argument against the “what if I was never born” argument rings incoherent and pointedly selfish. The pro-life position centers around a fertilized egg or an implanted embryo – that is where they believe life begins, period; it has nothing to do with “babies” who are not born because the parents chose not to have sex, because they never existed in the first place. We don’t hear any pro-lifers marching against the recession in the name of the unborn, even though some 200,000 fewer births took place in 2010 as a result of couples deciding not to have children because they could not afford them.

The case of abortion survivors, however, brings us back to another weakness of the pro-life position: they want every fertilized egg to become a child, regardless of whether that child is wanted, and regardless of whether that child will enter a safe and loving family. It is often said that conservatives care about the quality of human life up until it exits the womb; after that, you’re on your own. If pro-lifers could begin to complement their pro-life stance with an earnest desire to make a good life for each child who is born, their position would not seem so rabid and limited.

For the pro-life position to be ethical, it must also champion aid to women who are struggling with the decision of whether to stay pregnant, and more importantly, it must also favor making birth control widely available and affordable. To quote Nick Kristoff, “Contraceptives no more cause sex than umbrellas cause rain”. More broadly, pro-lifers would strengthen their position in the public sphere if they would separate it from their religion. Believing that life begins at conception is not an inherently religious position, and it needn’t be promoted as such. In order to promote a secular pro-life agenda, however, pro-lifers would need to disentangle their concern for the unborn from their obsession with telling other people how to have sex.

Contraception is a powerful tool for couples who are getting to know each other but have not committed to marriage, as well as for individuals who are exploring their own sexuality with opposite-sex partners, but religious pro-lifers cannot accept sex outside marriage and the intent to procreate. Loving gay couples are viable parents for many, many would-be aborted children, but religious pro-lifers refuse to accept them as a potential ally and a point in their pro-life arguments. Unless pro-lifers can shed their positions on sex of their religious biases, at least in the public sphere, they will always be putting their opinions about sexuality before the lives of those they claim to want to save.


Jackie Colvin is a freelance writer living in Chicago.



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