Tuesday, November 19, 2002

The Conclusion of Life…at Conception

None of what I propose is going to bring about instantaneous change in abortion or our society’s attitudes towards it. What I hope to do is provide a thoughtful way to move beyond the pointless “Life begins at conception!” “No, it doesn’t!” “Yes, it does!” “No, it doesn’t!” conversations that make up much of the “dialogue” between sides. I also hope that changing this conversation may help undermine some of the softer political support for abortion, and make possible passage of laws that at a minimum limit it in ways that are not now feasible.

The single most important thing is to challenge anyone who says she “supports a woman’s right to choose.” Always, always, always insist on an object for that verb. “Choose what? I support a woman’s right to make choices, of course, but let’s be specific. The right to choose what?” In my experience (YMMV) many people who support this vague amorphous ideal of choice are extremely uncomfortable actually uttering the word abortion. The reason to call their attention to this is not to be mean, rude, or superior, but to call their own native revulsion to abortion to their attention.

Insisting on an object also has a secondary effect among some of separating “choice” from the agenda of equality. That is, by leaving the words “right to choose” to stand on their own, you allow all the vague notions of women’s rights that Steinem et al. have associated with abortion to be the unconscious image in a “pro-choice” speaker’s mind.

The next step is to ask why they favor a women’s right to choose abortion. Do not stop at “because I have a right to control what happens to my own body.” First, because if you linger here long you will soon be into the “Does, too!” “Does not!” squabble in an irreversible downward slide. Note your disagreement with that premise, but then allow it for a moment, if only the speaker will consent to describe reasons why it is important to a woman to control fertility in this particular way. This is where the discussion of “glass ceilings” and the like usually come in.

(One argument never, ever to use: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” Eve Tushnet wrote very compellingly on this some months ago; I will not reiterate her argument in detail, but suffice it to say, having a child is not a punishment for your sins, and this statement seems to imply that it is. That particular position is the anti-life position, not the pro-life one.)

The point, in the end, is first to get those who consider themselves “pro-choice” to acknowledge what particular choice they are pro, then to ask whether that particular position is in fact pro-woman or not, which is usually the implied agenda, particularly for the soft middle. (By this I mean, those who favor keeping abortion legal but who would support a great deal of restriction on it after the first trimester; when I look at polls in aggregate I find that this is probably a majority of pro-choice voters.)

There are additional arguments that can be brought in: abortion even in a hospital is not always safe, and it often has lasting health consequences for a woman that she may not know about when she leaves the doctor’s office. Such studies as there are (it is hard to get funding or reporting on a study that shows the adverse consequences of abortion, at least according to those who have tried) indicate significant increases in difficulty conceiving later, along with possibly increased risks of certain cancers. (These studies, as I say, should be treated gently; they do not have large samples with which to work, or to speak authoritatively so far as I have been able to learn.) The eugenicist roots of Planned Parenthood and its white supremacist founder Margaret Sanger may or may not be worth mentioning, depending on your opponent.

Finally, don’t get bogged down in the exceptions. In 2000, there were roughly 1.2 million abortions in the US. According to Planned Parenthood, approximately 14,000 abortions annually are performed after the pregnancy results from rape or incest. This works out to less than 1.2%. (Numbers that show abortions alleging to protect the life or health of the mother are harder to assess, as they are often lumped together and protecting the mother’s health is a somewhat subjective criteria.) If we ever get to a point where the only argument about abortion is in cases of rape and incest, we will have accomplished a tremendous good. Meanwhile, let’s deal with the overwhelming majority of abortions that are elective and in no way medically necessary.

I wish I had a panacea for this. I also wish I had more courage, to engage in this conversation more regularly with people I know. None of this will alter the opinions of the people who would quite happily choose an abortion for themselves and go right back to work that afternoon. But most people are not that morally numb, and these talking points are intended to help you move beyond the intractable question, and to encourage discussion of the actual value of abortion as a choice. If anyone out there has comments, additions, corrections or other things to add, please email me and I will try to take them into account in a future post.


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