In a Gallup poll released last month, I learned that 47% of Americans consider themselves pro-life, 45% pro-choice. As William McGurn wrote in the Wall Street Journal (“Gallup’s Pro-Life America: When Will the Media Reflect America on Abortion?“) this week, “Our strong moral qualms about abortion have not gone away.”
However, most Americans still want abortion to remain legal.
In writing about women and spirituality I’ve not squared off with the important issue of abortion. I’m friends with women who are pro-choice and pro-life. As in the gun rights issue, it is the caricatures in media coverage that distort the women behind the platforms. I’ve noticed how easily both of us fail to understand the robust arguments for the other side.
For instance it’s neither accurate or fair to believe that all pro-choice advocates are pro-woman and anti-baby, nor is it accurate to assume all pro-life advocates are pro-baby and anti-woman. In this post I want to see what we can learn from each other without the mud-slinging.
Our recent book, Coffee Shop Conversations: Making the Most of Spiritual Small Talk, begins with the Rules of Loving Discourse. I’d like to practice these with you as we discuss abortion. Let’s see if we can get into the other side’s shoes, listen to valid arguments and concerns all the while discovering what we actually believe about life, womanhood, family, sex and death.
The Grey Area
It seems only fair to begin by admitting there are areas where the decision to terminate a fetus’ life is not black and white, where the mother and the baby’s life are in danger.
Our local paper syndicated Nicholas Kristof’s coverage in the New York Times of Sister Margaret McBride’s recent excommunication, a senior administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. The charge: McBride’s assent to the termination of an 11-week old fetus carried by a 27-year-old mother. This mother of four suffered from pulmonary hypertension that created a high enough probability that the strain of a continuing pregnancy would likely kill her and her baby. The balance of mother and child’s life hung suspended at this Catholic hospital, needing permission from someone like Sister Margaret. To refuse to act would have likely destroyed both mother and child.
The Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, ruled that “the mother’s life cannot be preferred over the child’s,” and excommunicated McBride. Read the full story at NPR.
Often my pro-life friends are quick to assume that if abortion were made illegal, the world would be a better place.
But, consider for a moment what would follow. What laws would pro-life advocates want enforced? What specific policy would we implement against doctors who perform abortions when they are illegal? Would we charge them with first degree murder? What crime should a woman be charged with for seeking an abortion?
If women are victims of abortion, how can we penalize them? Doesn’t this assault a woman’s volition, her autonomy, her maturity? Should penalties for women be increased if they seek more than one abortion? For mothers who seek abortions, do we incarcerate them and remove them from their families to prevent further abortions? Do we penalize then with a fine? with community service?
Are we truly ready to call all women who seek abortions murderers? And what about the systems, the ethics committees, the counselors and family members, the boyfriends and husbands who play a part in these abortions? Should they also be charged with murder? If abortion becomes illegal do we call McBride an accomplice to a murder?
For more questions and a rigorous development of the “then what?” see Dan’s Hole in the Wall: Getting Political for a Moment“)
Listening to Pro-Choice
I recently came across a blog where Hugo Schwyzer, professor, Episcopal youth minister, husband and father explains that his experience of watching his second daughter born only confirmed him more resolutely into the pro-choice camp (read at “Pregnant Woman, Personhood and Some Paternal Reflections“).
Confused and interested I read on. He notices that once a woman becomes pregnant people’s perception of her value splits into two categories.
Two, her value as a life-giving agent to sustain, carry, feed, shelter this growing life inside. A perfect way to illustrate this duality is how commonly people feel free to touch a pregnant woman’s belly. I experienced this as well. People I knew only casually slid their hands all around my abdomen, without seeming to realize this was my skin, my nerves they touched. They weren’t really touching Finn, they were touching me.
Schwyzer notes that a growing life inside a woman, for all its excitement and beauty, does not trump a woman’s subject-hood. In other words, the life of the baby should not erase the woman’s life. He writes,
” To see my daughter born was one of the great experiences of my life. But I never lost sight of the reality that my wife was more than a vessel to carry this new and splendid creature. My wife’s rights didn’t diminish with conception and with each passing week of gestation. I knew a longed-for and desperately wanted new life grew inside of her, but the emphasis was always as much on “inside of her” as on the “new life.” And I assure you that my wonder at the miracle of life is matched, and even surpassed, by the wonder at what a woman’s body can do if that woman chooses to make it happen.”
In thinking about this I both agree and disagree. I agree that a woman’s personhood is intact, even while pregnant. However, I think Schwyzer has overblown the choice woman have.
You cannot be pregnant without becoming a vessel. The fact that a woman’s life (food, energy, etc) serves her fetus is not a choice. You cannot bear a child and also refuse to become a vessel. Pregnancy means our body will serve this child’s growing needs, you cannot be pregnant without performing this service. And, in my case, gain lots of extra weight, feel sore, require frequent bathroom visits and feel achy while you try to do normal activities. Pregnancy can feel like an invasion. To call this a choice is in my mind mistaken.
A better verb is not choosing, but entering or enduring or accepting. I would not call the pregnancy a choice as much as something that happens to women after sex… and there’s no way for a woman to exit the pregnancy without having something else happen to her, be it a miscarriage or an abortion.
As much as I dislike the picture of woman as passive, accepting pregnancy does not have the texture of other intentional decisions I’ve made in my life. Waiting and watching my body change wasn’t the same as choosing what major I wanted, who to marry, what flowers to plant, when or how to have sex.
Pregnancy feels more like something is happening to me, like a ride I stepped on, a plane I boarded. Pregnancy felt like something was being acted within me. And to accept this vessel-becoming experience, to become a tabernacle of new life involved my investment and daily sacrifice (read more about my pregnancy experience “New Body“).
Perhaps what Schwyzer means is that woman’s choice to accept pregnancy should not obliterate their personhood in the process. I agree, however, I found pregnancy could enhance the personal dignity of my womanhood.
Schwyzer’s main point is that since pregnancy and delivery (whether vaginally or caesarean) hurts, forcing a woman to go through this painful (and he admits, worthy) process is horrific. He writes, “We [he and his wife] both shudder, more than ever now, at the thought of compelling a woman to go through this process against her will.“
He believes the woman must choose this pain and that the child must be wanted.
He writes about abortion doctor’s work as ministry. He talks about abortions as a time for doctors to trust that women know what is best for their own bodies and the lives of their children.
I read that and think, wait, I believe in women, too. And I trust women. Are some feminists hearing pro-lifers as people who do not trust women?
Challenge to Pro-Choice Advocates
Speaking as a woman who has endured labor without any pain medication I will agree with Schwyzer. Yes, it does hurt.
The litany of sacrifices on the part of the mother (birthing hurts, pregnancy is inconvenient, sleep-deprivation is unpleasant and disorienting and push-me-to-tears frustrating, the stitches after my second degree tear throb for days, the physical deprivation of no sex for weeks and weeks pushing me to wonder more than once, “Why, oh WHY didn’t God split up biological baby-care duties a bit more evenly? I mean he could at least have given men breasts so my poor ol’ body could heal with decent night’s rests instead of healing on 3 hours here and there snatched in between feedings?!!!”) is not to be minimized.
No way, Jose.
The fact that children are painful remains a point most pro-life advocates fail to really park on. The movie Juno, does a good job of showing part of the pain. I felt my insides quiver with participatory suffering when I watched Juno weep after she had given birth, her boyfriend crawling into bed next to her, his muddy running cleats on the hospital bed (an apt metaphor for the messiness of relationships, sex and children).
However, pro-choice advocates forget that as God created sex, one aspect (others being recreation and unity) is the potential for children. I don’t think you can divorce sex from children, not without damaging both parties.
Perhaps pro-choice advocates feel the intensity of the pain and the amount of time pregnancy requires warrants the state remaining mum on the subject and letting a woman choose.
The law enforces painful things everyday, like the draft for military service, a requirement that isn’t anything as natural as the sex-baby connection. The state enforces taxes (a painful process to say the least) for your entire life without an opt-out. I’m not saying having a baby is the same as being drafted or paying taxes, but it does serve to prove that the state frequently requires it’s citizens to undergo pain (and in the case of the draft, to face death) without asking permission. Maybe we don’t like that the state has this power, we might even petition against it or think it unfair. But we certainly allow it this right, as our government.
So I don’t think the charge that pregnancy and birth (and child-rearing) is painful holds.
I have an inkling that woman would more easily undergo nine months of painful “invasion” of a fetus if pregnancy’s responsibilities ended there. It’s the life of a person for years and years after the birth that has our adrenalin pumping with fearful anticipation. Will I be able to handle a child?
When I compare the glorious portability and minimal responsibility of carrying Finn as a fetus compared with caring for him as a baby, the pregnancy part was a breeze.
During pregnancy I slept long and well. I easily coordinated elaborate outfits with accessories and make-up. I worked out or spend hours reading and writing without leaking milk. Then I had a baby.
It’s not merely the pregnancy that women must count as a cost, it’s the life after the birth.
I believe more women would refuse an abortion if they could serve nine months and be done with it. It’s not the pain of the nine months; it is the idea of a life to be responsible for, to be guilty about, to wonder as to the painful, happy, fruitful or fruitless future of your offspring.
Cleaning the Slate?
Perhaps the single most provocative offering of abortion is a promise that abortion can help you wipe the slate clean. This is an offer too tempting to refuse when you are faced with life as you know it ending (how will you raise a teenager in this world?) or facing the idea that through the “out” of adoption someone else will raise your teenager in this world (To better understand a woman’s feelings before terminating her pregnancy read an example at “Choosing Not to Keep the Baby” note the comments – most striking to me is how no friends rallied behind this young women to help her raise her unplanned child – this a problem I’ve heard of time and again with the friends I know who have walked into abortion clinics by themselves… it is at root a problem with all of us – How many of you have helped an unwed mother raise an unwanted child? – understanding how we all play a part in abortion deserves another post).
But back to the idea that pain should not be demanded out of women unless they choose it, I don’t see the precedent in any other area. Avoiding our own pain has never been an adequate reason to extinguish another life. As the Dread Pirate Roberts of The Princess Bride says, “Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.”
We know the laws of nature require pain if we choose to disregard them. If we choose to run a race, we will face the pain of conditioning. If we choose to love we face the pain of vulnerability, rejection, fragility and death. If we choose to make love when we’re not ready in some (even small) capacity to become a vessel for a child, then we face the pain of dashed plans, the inconvenience and pain of either a baby or an abortion.
Abortion and Sin
Living east of Eden, sin is it’s own punishment.
So we must ask yourselves, is abortion sin? Let’s simply define sin as missing the mark or twisting the good.
If abortion is sin, I’m less concerned with making abortion illegal.
It seems most likely, from my limited experience with two pregnancies, that women know they are taking away life or a form of life when they terminate their pregnancies. I’m not saying they admit it, though some do (see Naomi Wolf’s “Our Bodies, Our Souls“)
My concern is that pro-choice advocates remain intent upon driving a wedge between procreation and sex. I don’t think this is appropriately human, nor that God created our bodies and souls to permanently cleave sex away from procreation.
It seems to me that the difference between terminating an eleven week old fetus and terminating a thirty week old fetus is significant and worth thinking about. I’ve heard pro-life advocates say there is no difference in value.
I do not intend to minimize the grief of losing a child at any age (read my own grief over the loss of our six week old fetus here). However, I have an intuitive sense after losing a six week old fetus and facing the possibility of losing a week old baby (read here) that you feel like you’re losing more with a week old baby.
Now here is where pro-choice advocates need to tread carefully. Does the intuition that a baby at one week is more valuable than a fetus at 6 weeks find valid justification? I mean do my intuitions match reality, do they find justification in Scripture, in natural law, in God’s law? Are there reasons to think of one as more valuable than another? Is if fair to fault a smaller, less developed form of human life as less valuable than a bigger, more developed form? Is it merely because a baby looks more like a baby as it gets older that I feel the loss greater?
Now, here’s the strange conundrum, the dependency of a one week old baby feels greater, more invasive, more sobering and commanding than the dependency of a five week old fetus. But we protect the life of a baby once it’s outside the womb, no matter how inconvenient, painful, difficult that life might be to mother, to father, to society.
Thoughts? Concerns? Ideas?