Stop Talking about Abortion, Start Talking about Women’s Rights

The last few election cycles have not been terrific for women. There have been significant rollbacks for women’s rights and, as such, the national conversation is not where it should be. We’ve debated the definition of rape instead of talking about how to decrease the incidence of it. We’ve talked about maintaining government funding for Planned Parenthood (the status quo) rather than ways to increase healthcare services for women. Even the efficacy and availability of contraception (especially Title X, which helps low-income women pay for it and other preventative services) was questioned versus focusing on increasing reproductive health. Gosh, if we did that, perhaps we could do better than being 48th in the world in maternal mortality (right ahead of Iran). But on no topic has the conversation moved further backwards than on abortion. And that’s supremely important to consider because abortion is where this all starts. As I used to tell my students, the fight over abortion is just the warning shot across the bow. They’re saving the big guns for later.

So far, women have been losing this battle. Our gradual retreat started years ago when, for some inexplicable reason, women’s rights advocates Photo by slw606 - the national conversation about abortion to be framed by conservatives. And I have to hand it to whoever came up with the Pro-Life moniker because that was truly a stroke of genius. It was a masterful touch because it gave people a cause to get behind (only losers support murder) while obscuring the real rationale behind anti-abortion forces. While there are definitely individuals who are dedicated to supporting the life of the fetus, the anti-abortion movement itself is less focused on the fetus and more concerned with control over women’s fertility. When you control women’s fertility, you control women. If presented openly, such an idea would be an extremely unpopular, so they’ve had to conceal their true motives. But the anti-abortion foes haven’t really done a good job of it. If you care to look, the evidence is there.

Someone who truly believes in the sanctity of life would maintain that view across the board. Consequently, that person would be anti-death penalty and anti-war. Most anti-abortion groups support both. If life were important, then quality of that life would be something to work toward. Thus, groups who are concerned about mothers and children would support prenatal and postpartum services for mothers, parenting education and rehabilitation for addicted mothers, and social services that assist families in general and women and children in particular. For most anti-abortion groups, the exact opposite is true. States that have the most restrictive abortion laws also show the least support for social services. These states also tend not to have family friendly laws that improve the lives of families. In other words, their caring for the fetus seems to stop once s/he is born.

Respect for life should include everyone, most especially the mother. In our culture, mothers are the ones who do the vast majority of the childcare. As such, it is a matter of great significance as to who will take care of the child or children (if the mother has more than one) if the mother dies in childbirth or is in poor health. Yet that doesn’t seem to be such a concern for many anti-abortion advocates although they do grudgingly give a mother’s life (but not her health) a bit of lip service.

And then there are fathers. If all this concern was for the life of the child, shouldn’t fathers also be included in the restrictive nature of some of the laws? If the move toward jailing addicted mothers is to help the child, shouldn’t we also jail men who were on drugs when the child was conceived? That matters too but you rarely hear a peep about it. What about men who refuse to financially and physically support their children? There are lots of women and children living below the poverty level because of lack of support from former male partners but somehow this doesn’t seem to bother those who profess such reverence for life. That doesn’t make sense; it’s either a consistent worldview or it isn’t a worldview at all.

If this controversy were about life, then having an abortion to prevent the suffering of a child who would live only a short period of time or without any quality of life would be considered humane. Instead, many anti-abortion groups seem to want the fetus born at all costs, regardless of what kind of life s/he would have. And this fervent anti-abortion belief extends to medical interventions that have nothing to do with life at all. If this were just about life, then women with molar pregnancies (which are dead clumps of cells) and women carrying dead fetuses would be allowed to have abortions versus having to wait for their bodies to expel the cells or fetus without medical intervention because, in both situations, it’s just a procedure. Yet that is not what happened when abortion was illegal.

Part of the problem rests with how abortion became legal. The legal basis upon which Roe v. Wade – the ruling giving women the right to an abortion – was privacy, a legal right assumed but not directly stated in the Constitution. The ruling stated that state criminal abortion laws, “…violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state action the right to privacy, including a woman’s qualified right to terminate her pregnancy. Though the State cannot override that right, it has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a “compelling” point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.” The all male Supreme Court then went on to hold that during the first trimester, the abortion decision must be left to the medical judgment of the woman’s licensed physician. After the end of the first trimester, the State may regulate abortion in ways reasonably related to maternal health. After viability, the State may regulate and even prohibit abortion except when needed for the life or health of the mother.

You may notice that nowhere in this decision does the mother’s decisions take precedence. For the first trimester, the physician’s judgment is needed while following that stage, the State can do what it wants (and it has) with some caveats, qualifications that some of the recent candidates running for office sought to eliminate. For those not paying attention, several politicians have questioned the need to worry about the mother’s health, something so stark in its misogyny that it literally took my breath away. So, instead of codifying women’s rights to bodily integrity, in which no one else – not partners, parents, doctors and most especially not politicians – can tell us what to do with our bodies, women’s healthcare decisions are subject to debate and the whims of political shifts. As Judith Warner point out, the Roe v. Wade decision diluted the language from rights to choice so that abortion became, “…Private. Self-centered. Self-consciously apolitical…a pared down focus of women’s liberations from big social issues to body control.”

And it is that end result – focusing on body control instead of big social issues – which is exactly why we see politicians talking about what does and does not constitute rape, what a woman can and cannot do after being intimately violated. Because the larger societal conversation about abortion is not about life, it is about body control. It is not about the sanctity of a child, it is about women’s fertility. We do not have “debates” about men’s reproductive decisions or their health – those are incontrovertible rights they enjoy, ones they don’t have to fight for in court or at the ballot box. Only women’s reproductive decisions are up for discussion because they are labeled a “choice.” But they aren’t. If women cannot control when and how and by whom we become pregnant, then we’re only a short step away from going back to being property.

Adrienne Rich once called the female body “the terrain on which patriarchy is erected” and we need to acknowledge that this is exactly what we need to fight against. It all starts with abortion. We need to get beyond worrying about looking like selfish meanies who don’t want the inconvenience of children and instead focus on what truly is at stake: our freedom. We need to stop allowing anti-abortion advocates to structure the conversation and instead start labeling their views what they are: anti-freedom. We need to take our future back into our hands, roll back abortion restrictions, and then move on to larger social issues. And the time is now.

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