The need for an honest, 21st century debate about abortion *UPDATE*
I dreamed last night about the first ultrasound I had when I was pregnant with my daughter. I was sixteen weeks pregnant, and had been throwing up non-stop for 15 1/2 of those sixteen weeks. I was not happy. I resented the parasite within me. And then I saw the sonogram image and discovered that the parasite had a little round head, two arms and two legs, and an incredible spinal cord that looked like the most exquisite string of pearls. That image did not instantly reconcile me to the next 26 weeks of non-stop vomiting, but it made me aware that “the fetus” is not simply an aggregation of cells, or a thing indistinguishable from a dog or a chicken fetus. It’s a baby.
By the time I had my second child, I knew, without question, that every “fetus” is a nascent human being. I finally recognized on an emotional level that the zygote created on the first day is the same life as the baby you hold in your arms on the last. It is also the same as the toddler that lisps “I wuv you,” and the pre-teen who says “Y0u’re the best mommy ever.” They all start there, right inside each mother.
You’d think, of course, that this realization should have been obvious to me, and should have long predated the birth of two children. But I grew up in the feminist abortion oriented culture, and that culture shies away assiduously from focusing on the life within the woman and focuses, instead, only on the woman herself. There’s a great deal of logic to that focus. During my lifetime alone, there was little to focus on other than the woman. Doctors doing autopsies and medical students studying anatomy might have had a sense of fetal development but, really, no one else did. We weren’t peeking in the womb just a few decades back. Premature babies died as often as not, so our cultural sense of their viability was limited. Heck, in the old days, huge numbers of full-term babies died as often as not. In the pre-modern era, up to 50% of all children died before their 5th birthday — and that’s just counting live births.
And so what we saw in the old days of the abortion debate was the woman. And in a pre-birth control, high morality era (and yes, I mean morality, not mortality), the unmarried, or even the married, woman’s lot wasn’t an easy one when it came to pregnancies. First off, married or not, short of abstinence, there were only the most limited ways to stop pregnancy. The married woman whose husband (reasonably) didn’t want celibacy, could expect a lifetime of pregnancies until her early death, often as the end of a torturous labor, when she’d be laid in her grave alongside probably half of the children she had borne. For the unmarried lady in a high morality era, rape, or simply the romantic impulse of the moment, could lead to horrific social ostracism, to which was then added all the risks of childbirth. In short, for many women, pregnancy was a truly rotten deal, and abortions, legal or illegal, safe or unsafe, seemed like a very reasonable option.
How the world has changed! Nowadays, condoms are everywhere, whether in the vending machine at the nightclub bathroom, at Walgreen’s, or even at your local Safeway grocery. Women also have available to them the ubiquitous Pill, IUDs, diaphragms, contraceptive sponges, and contraceptive gels. All of these forms of birth control can fail even if used properly, but the main result of pregnancy in America is probably the decision, conscious or not, not to use any birth control at all. Some decide not to use contraceptives because they want to get pregnant, and some decide not to use them because, whether for the man or the woman involved, they’re uncomfortable, inconvenient, or embarrassing. Still, compared to the old days, sex that is free of the risk of pregnancy is normative, not impossible.
The world has also changed in that the stigma of pregnancy outside of wedlock has vanished. Whether the young woman intends to keep the baby or to put it up for adoption, no one would judge her for getting pregnant. Indeed, so totally has our culture changed, I had to explain to my son why I thought it was a good idea that his Mommy and Daddy got married before having children. To him, it was six of one, half dozen of the other. (Incidentally, I explained it by telling him that a stable married relationship was the best thing for the child, and you wanted to make sure you had that relationship in place before the child came along. As a child himself, he could appreciate that reasoning.) With Angelina Jolie, a most admired young woman, going around adopting and giving birth to multiple children, either alone or with a partner to whom she is not married, you know your culture has crossed a line to a time and place in which marriage and pregnancy bear no relationship to each other.
Finally, the world has changed in that both maternal and infant mortality in America are but a small — beyond small, minute — fraction of what they once were. When a woman dies in childbirth, or has a stroke, it’s so rare it makes the news section of the paper. In the old days, it was just another obituary and a tombstone. I don’t need to describe to you the rarity of infant deaths. We know they still happen, but they too are rare events, and often result from terrible birth defects that are beyond the reach even of modern medicine.
In our modern era, therefore, many of the forces that once drove abortion are gone. You’re infinitely less likely to get pregnant than you once were (unless you want to). If you’re married and get pregnant, you’re much less likely to die than ever before. If you’re unmarried and get pregnant, not only are you less likely to die than in the past, you’re also going to get baby showers, not social ostracism. If you keep your baby, you know that, even though it’s a tough row to hoe, you’ll be supported. If you give it up for adoption, you know that there are nice middle-class families who are desperate to give your baby a good home and tons of love.
Why then, in our modern era, should we still have abortion? That’s the question we ought to be asking, especially as the Democrats are currently demanding the Americans directly fund abortions for those women who choose to have them.
Certainly, I think most of us would agree that abortion is a good, even a necessary, thing if the mother’s life is in danger. That the mother’s life is in danger with much less frequency than once was the case doesn’t change the moral force of protecting the existing life over the nascent life.
There’s room for debate over abortion for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest. Some could say that the fetus is innocent of the violence and betrayal visited on the woman, and therefore shouldn’t be destroyed. Others would say that rape and incest are such heinous moral crimes that it is equally immoral to force the woman to carry the result of that evil in her body. To be honest, both arguments make sense to me. I think the majority of Americans side with the former line of thinking, and I can certainly live with the legal outcome of accepting that argument.
And then there’s the last argument to justify abortion, the “convenience argument,” although no pro-choice person would ever describe it in those terms. This is an argument that once sat very well with me, but that now makes me very unhappy. It is a purely modern argument, once that exists in an era where few women fear accidental pregnancies, death or social stigma.
The “convenience argument” says it’s just not fair that both the man and the woman get to make whoopee, but that it’s the woman whose life is put on hold for nine months or, depending on her decision, for 18 years or more. It’s not fair that she has to throw up for months, go through labor, stop her education, give up her career, lose her figure, and just stop having fun, while the man, if he chooses not to marry her, gets to go on with his life as before. Even if they marry and the man takes on economic responsibility for the child, his figure, his career, and his free time can be remarkably untouched by precisely the same event that irrevocably changes a woman’s life. To which I would say now (although I wouldn’t have said it 20 years ago), life is tough. The child didn’t ask to be conceived but, now that it is, you owe it an obligation, whether it’s a nine month obligation through to adoption or a lifetime commitment.
Interestingly, one of the things you’ll notice about pro-choice advocacy (usually in movies) is that it roots its emotional arguments in the past, when women couldn’t stop pregnancies, when they died far too easily, and when an out-of-wedlock pregnancy was the end of the world. Think back, for example, to 2004, when the movie Vera Drake opened to immense critical approval, was nominated for three Oscars, and won a whole slew of other awards. The movie tells the story of the saintlike Vera Drake, a loving wife and mother in the 1950s, who also provides pathetically poor, distressed women with abortions. The women getting abortions are all desperately in need of them — a mother of seven children, a rape victim, an isolated immigrant, a wife who had an affair while her husband was in Korea, etc. The movie also shows a rich girl getting away with a medical abortion, so as to emphasize the Marxist theory that the rich get richer and the poor get children. The dramatic tension in the movie comes about because Vera Drake is arrested and prosecuted for this then-illegal act.
Vera Drake is blatantly pro-choice, but also blatantly dishonest as an instrument in today’s debate. Both the troubles faced by the poor women and the advantages offered to the rich are no longer issues in today’s abortion debate.
Another movie that cheated when it came to the abortion issue was HBO’s 1996 movie, If These Walls Could Talk, which follows three abortion events affecting the residents of a single house, over a period of decades:
The 1952 segment deals with Claire Donnelly (Demi Moore), a widowed nurse living in suburban Chicago, who becomes pregnant by her brother-in-law and decides to undergo abortion in order not to hurt her late husband’s family. However, abortion at the time is strictly illegal. Donnelly eventually finds another nurse (CCH Pounder) who provides her the name of a woman who can find her someone who will perform the abortion. After a clandestine procedure she finally manages to abort but dies shortly afterwards due to hemorrhage.
The 1974 segment deals with Barbara Barrows (Sissy Spacek), a struggling and aging mother with four children and a policeman husband who works the night shift, who discovers she must welcome another addition to the family, despite having recently gone back to college. She considers abortion with the support of her teenage daughter (Hedy Burress) but ultimately chooses to keep the child.
The 1996 segment deals with Christine Cullen (Anne Heche), a college student who got pregnant by a married professor, decides on an abortion when he breaks up with her and only offers her money. She is operated on by Dr. Beth Thompson (Cher). However, the abortion takes place during a violent protest, and an abortion protester (Matthew Lillard) walks in on the operation and shoots Dr. Thompson.
If These Walls Could Talk is quite a carefully thought-out movie, making sure to keep sympathy in places that still resonate today: the woman who is incestuously raped, a situation that we sympathize with now, dies because abortion is not legal; the woman who keeps getting pregnant, a situation we find less sympathetic in a birth control era, chooses life; and the least sympathetic woman, the one who has the convenience abortion, is trumped by the even more evil murderous pro-Lifer.
It’s also a dishonest movie. Nowadays, as I said, few quarrel with the legality or morality of an incest or rape abortion; birth control should help keep women from repeat pregnancies (although I do know a woman who claims that she and all four of her siblings were each born clutching Mom’s diaphragm); and the fact that there are loony-toons out there doesn’t lessen the dubiously moral choice of abortion for convenience.
Outside of the movie industry, if you go to the NOW website, that organization still has a page devoted to women who suffered abortions in the past, at a time when women daily had to face down endless pregnancies, childbirth mortality, and extreme social stigma. As I have tried to prove, though, those emotional arguments do not provide a good rationale for unlimited abortion in 21st Century America, especially at the taxpayers’ expense.
A much more intellectually honest movie view of abortion was Juno, a sleeper hit in 2007 about a teenage girl whose foolish moment of passion with a friend left her pregnant. That movie was honest about how the pregnancy happened (no birth control), honest about the absence of social stigma (lots of familial love and support), honest about the almost frightening ease with which even teenagers can obtain abortions, and honest about the desperate middle-class couples looking for a baby. It was also honest about the fact that, given all of these circumstances, it was entirely logical for the teenager to opt not to abort.
As for me, long time readers of this blog know that, even though intellectually and morally I’m no longer pro-choice, I’m still not entirely pro-life. I accept abortion to protect the mother’s life, and can agree to abortion in cases of rape or incest, even though that’s not fair to the innocent fetus. My problem is that, while I know that convenience abortions are morally wrong, I still get this emotional, lizard-brain feeling of a trapped rat in a cage when I imagine myself being a young woman who finds herself pregnant when she doesn’t want to be. For me, although motherhood has had many rewards, it’s also entailed many sacrifices. When I think of those sacrifices, and then apply them to, say, a 22 year old version of me, or when I imagine my daughter grown, and in the same situation, I still want to cry out “But that’s not fair.” When that happens, though, I squish my lizard-brain, tell myself “Life isn’t fair,” and try to focus on the fetus and not my feelings. I only hope that, if my daughter, before she’s married, ever does come to tell me she’s pregnant, I remember that deeper morality, and give her the right advice.
UPDATE: The Anchoress took my rather limited argument one step further, and examined the implications of using taxpayer money to fund everyone else’s potential abortion. It’s a superb bit of writing. Here are my thoughts, triggered by her thoughts.