Monday, January 22, 2007

Blog for Choice Day: sketches for a manifesto

(Note: this is not anyone I know; I just like the photo.)

I am pro-choice and proud of it. I think that the legal recognition of abortion rights in Roe v. Wade was one of the most important advances in human freedom in our country's history. I have never tried to come up with a comprehensive list of my reasons for believing this, however, so Blog for Choice Day gives me a good excuse to make an effort.

Too many pro-choice arguments are negative: they aim to disprove arguments against abortion, or to show that these arguments should not persuade us to make abortion illegal. Too few embrace abortion rights as a positive good in itself. To some extent, this is due to political expediency: many Americans have some ethical qualms about abortion, even if they think it should be legal, and might be made uncomfortable by arguments that celebrate the right in itself. While this attitude makes sense in some contexts--I think parents should have the right to raise their children to be Republicans, for instance, but I can't say I'd be comfortable celebrating that right--I don't think the right to abortion is one of them.

Legal access to abortion is a positive good, not merely a regrettable outgrowth of women's privacy and autonomy, as Democratic politicians and pundits often seem to suggest it is. Here are a few of my reasons for believing this:

--Abortion saves lives. Given that those opposed to abortion claim to be "pro-life", there's a fair amount of irony to this, but it's indisputably true. Not only in the sense that legalizing abortion takes abortion out of the back alleys and therefore prevents the deaths that would result from botched amateur procedures, but in other ways. Pregnancy and (especially) childbirth can be extremely dangerous in some circumstances; allowing women to opt out of them when they choose can save their lives. Aborting pregnancies that would produce unwanted and unsupportable children, or that would make the parents incapable of supporting themselves, can also save lives. Aborting pregnancies can save lives by preventing women from getting beaten to death by jealous spouses or boyfriends (or, for that matter, girlfriends). There are many circumstances in which abortion can save lives that cannot be covered by a "health" exemption in an abortion ban.

--Abortion improves quality of life for all. The more choice we have over the size of our families, the timing of births, and, of course, whether to have children at all, the better our lives will be--and the better it will be for everyone around us. Unwanted and unsupportable children are a problem for all of us: a terrible burden for the parents, an awful position for the child in question, a drain on social services, even an indirect drain on the economy (parents with children they can't support aren't exactly ideal employees). Moreover, in our overpopulated world, surely any voluntary measure that keeps population growth down should be encouraged. Anti-abortion forces have recently developed--or at least made more explicit--the argument that abortion is a threat to American society because declining birth rates will turn America into a nation of immigrants, which will make us lose our identity (read: whiteness). This deeply offensive argument does not deserve to be taken seriously, but my semi-serious response would be: Why isn't this a good thing? Surely the last thing this world needs is more white Americans--and I say this as a white American.

--Abortion humanizes sexuality. This is the tricky one. Many of those opposed to abortion oppose it for exactly this reason: it decouples sex from its "natural" function; it allows women to be fully human, sexual beings without sacrificing their autonomy and becoming baby-making machines; it removes (some of) the "moral hazard" of sex. For most conservative foes of abortion, these are bugs, but for me they are features. The idea that we ought to be restricted to having "natural" sex and enduring its "natural" consequences is silly in lieu of some reason to believe that we ought to be "natural" more generally. Abortion is a medical procedure, and as such, it is certainly in some sense unnatural, but no more so than, say, appendectomy. I assume most abortion foes are not Christian Scientists, so they have to think that there's some difference here. What is the difference, though, apart from religious ideas about sexuality, and the bizarre if widespread fetishization of the fetus? (ideas we ought to dismiss out of hand as irrelevant to policymaking.)

If women must live in constant fear of becoming hostages to their anatomy, they cannot live fully human, autonomous lives. Living an autonomous life requires that one's fate be one's own to the extent possible, and not a mechanical result of biology and coercion. By allowing us to treat pregnancy and motherhood as a freely chosen act and a freely chosen association, it elevates us all: not only women, but men as well, since it allows men the privilege of relating to women as equals. This is non-negotiable, and ought to be obvious. I think that it is in fact obvious even to most abortion foes, and that much opposition to abortion in fact springs from discomfort at the thought of women being fully human. (Someone might object that this would suggest that no women were fully human until the 20th century. I would point out that birth control and abortion have in fact been available for most if not all of human history. Legal recognition of these practices is crucial, however, for reasons that also should be obvious.)

Access to abortion, by removing the "moral hazard" from sex by decoupling sex from reproduction, allows our expression of romantic/sexual love to be more pure: less attached to material concerns, less attached to social production and economics, more of an expression of personal feeling. Surely this way of looking at it will outrage many, but I do think we ought to celebrate this fact. The right to an abortion frees (straight) sexuality from having one biologically-determined meaning, allowing it to become a means of (inter-)personal expression and discovery. To those abortion foes who say that we could have all the social benefits of abortion simply by embracing abstinence, I say: don't be absurd. Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of human experience. Even if we could cut ourselves off from it to achieve social benefits, which I don't believe we ever really could, we would be giving up something very basic about ourselves.

In closing:

Many pro-choicers insist that they aren't "pro-abortion"--that they wish people didn't have abortions because abortions were unnecessary, but sadly they are necessary, and thus should be kept legal. (Cf. Clinton's slogan: "safe, legal and rare.") I have always found this attitude a little odd. Surely, it would be nice if abortion weren't necessary because contraception was so effective and available that there were no unwanted pregnancies and pre-natal health was so advanced that there was never any need to abort to save a woman's life, etc. But this is so far from being true that I don't really see how it's relevant to anything. It would be nice if appendectomies were never necessary, since they're unpleasant and a bit dangerous, but does this mean that we should be only reluctantly pro-appendectomy? Surely not. I understand that Democratic politicians have to walk a fine line with their terminology, and may have some reason to avoid claiming to be pro-abortion, but I am not a Democratic politician and I am not talking strategy--I'm talking about my own beliefs.

Legal access to abortion is absolutely necessary for women's health and the cause of human freedom more generally. Hence, I am pro-abortion, and I make no apologies for putting it exactly that way.


Elizabeth said...

followed your link from pandagon- excellent post.

ellis said...


Anonymous said...

ABORTION KILLS BABYS!!! The baby (by eight weeks AT LEAST after conception) has brain waves, finger prints, can do flips, can feel pain, and has a heart beat!!!!!!!!! Ask any hospital, I learned this by extensive reasearch(by asking doctors), I even looked at pictures of what an abortion looks like, so many tiny feet, hands, and heads, poor babys. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

i live in a small northern town in british columbia, canada. we have four billboards in town advertising a anti-choice message, one of which is across the street from our local hospital. tomorrow night my friends and i will be going to the local sushi spot to celebrating the roe vs. wade decision by eating flying roe maki rolls, and we will be planning some pro-women action and education. thanks for your post, laura.s from smithers, B.C.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on surviving Roe v. Wade!! Aren't you glad that your mother didn't decide that you as a fetus mattered little more than an inflamed appendix. How can you so callously compare appendectomies to abortions? Unconscionable.