Can we reclaim the moral high ground in the debate about abortion as a part of thoughtful, wise loving and living? We won’t know until we try. Most Americans think of childbearing as a deeply personal or even sacred decision. So do most reproductive rights advocates. That is why we don’t think anybody’s boss or any institution should have a say in it. But for almost three decades, those of us who hold this view have failed to create a resonant conversation about why, sometimes, it is morally or spiritually imperative that a woman can stop a pregnancy that is underway.
My friend Patricia offers a single reason for her passionate defense of reproductive care that includes abortion: Every baby should have its toes kissed. If life is precious and helping our children to flourish is one of the most precious obligations we take on in life, then being able to stop an ill-conceived gestation is a sacred gift. Whether or not we are religious, deciding whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy is a process steeped in spiritual values: responsibility, stewardship, love, honesty, compassion, freedom, balance, discernment. But how often do we hear words like these coming from pro-choice advocates?
Our inability to talk in morally resonant terms about abortion has clouded the broader conversation about mindful childbearing. The cost in recent decades has been devastating. In developing countries millions of real women and children have died because abortion-obsessed American Christians banned family planning conversations as a part of HIV prevention efforts. Those lost lives reveal the callous immorality of the anti-choice movement.
Back home, here in the U.S., our inability to claim the moral high ground about abortion has brought us one of the most regressive culture shifts of a generation. We are, incredibly, faced with “personhood rights” for fertilized eggs, pregnancies that begin legally before we even have sex, politicians with “Rape Tourette’s,” and a stunningly antagonistic debate about contraceptive technologies that could make as many as ninety percent of unintended pregnancies along with consequent suffering and abortions simply obsolete.
The voices that are strongest on reproductive rights often falter when it comes to the cultural dialogue. At least part of this absence is because so many of the pro-choice movement’s leaders and funders are secular and civic in their orientation, awkwardly uncomfortable with the moral and spiritual dimension of the conversation, or, for that matter, even with words like moral and spiritual. From language that seems moderately wise–Who decides?–we fall back on “safe, legal and rare” (a questionable effort to please everyone) or even the legal jargon of the “right to privacy.”
The other side talks about murdering teeny, weeny babies and then mind-melds images of ultrasounds and Gerber babies with faded photos of late term abortions. And we come back by talking about privacy?? Is that like the right to commit murder in the privacy of your own home or doctor’s office? Even apart from the dubious moral equivalence, let’s be real: In the age of Facebook and Twitter, is there a female under twenty-five in who gives a rat’s patooey about privacy, let alone thinks of it as a core value?
The right to privacy may work in court. But it is a proxy for much deeper values at play. Privacy simply carves out space for individual men and women to wrestle with those values. In the court of public opinion, it is the underlying values that carry the conversation.
Far too often those who care most about the lives of women and children and the fabric of life on this planet limit themselves to legal and policy fights. Fifty years ago, reproductive rights activists took the abortion fight to the courts and won, and they have kept that focus ever since. But the legal fight has drawn energy away from the broader conversation. And the emphasis on “privacy” has meant that even the most powerful stories that best illustrate our sacred values are too often kept quiet.
Legal codes and cultural sensibilities are never independent of each other. Abortion rights were secured legally because of a culture shift that was aided by anguished stories and statements by compassion-driven Christian theologians during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The brutal deaths of American women every year, at a peak of thousands in the 1930’s, was, beyond question or doubt, a profound immorality that many Americans were desperate to stop. Protestant leaders across the theological spectrum took a moral stand in support of legal abortion. In contrast to the Vatican, they had long agreed that thoughtful decision-making about whether to bring a child into the world serves compassion and wellbeing—the very heart of humanity’s shared moral core.
At this point it should be clear that the tide has turned. Opponents, having lost in court, instead took their fight to conservative churches, where they have been refining their appeals for forty years. The last few years have seen a systematic erosion of legal rights driven by a culture shift that had been building long before. It has also seen a complete reversal of the once-stalwart moral support for reproductive rights among American Protestants, which in the 1950s was seen as a moral good by almost every denomination from the most liberal to the most conservative. Unless this shift is challenged and stopped, there is every reason to fear that abortion will once again become inaccessible for most women in the U.S.
Can pro-choice advocates reclaim the moral and spiritual high ground? Yes. But to do so will require a challenge to the status quo on two fronts. Rather than ignoring the right’s moral claims, we must confront their arguments. We must also express our pro-choice position in clear, resonant moral and spiritual terms. In other words, in combination, we must show why ours is the more moral, more spiritual position.
This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Most “pro-life” positions aren’t really pro-life; they are no-choice. They are designed to protect traditional gender roles and patriarchal institutions and, specifically, institutional religion. The Catholic Bishops and Southern Baptist Convention—both leaders in the charge against reproductive rights– represent traditions in which male “headship” and control of female fertility have long been tools of competition for money and power. They use moral language to advance goals that have little to do with the wellbeing of women or children or the sacred web of life that sustains us all.
The arguments they make to attain these ends are powerful emotionally but not rationally. They appeal to antiquated and brittle conceptions of God. They appeal to the crumbling illusion of biblical and ecclesiastical perfection—and the crumbling authority of authority itself. They corrupt the civil rights tradition and turn religious freedom on its head. They play games with our protective instinct and cheapen what it means to be a person. They lie.
That adds up to a lot of vulnerability in what should be the stronghold of the priesthood: their claim to speak for what is good and right.
Republican Strategist Karl Rove will go down in history for his strategy of attacking enemies on their perceived strength — for example, by attacking John Kerry on his war record. In the recent election, we saw this strategy in play on both sides. Obama proved to be less vulnerable than his opponents hoped on his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act. But by the time the election was over, Romney’s strongest credential, his background in business, was seen by many as parasitic “vulture capitalism.” If we want Americans to understand and distance from the moral emptiness of the “pro-life” movement, we will have to challenge the patriarchs in on their home turf, in their position as moral guides.
Here, for openers, are a few ways we might change the conversation:
1. Talk about the whole moral continuum. A moral continuum ranges from actions that are forbidden, to those that are allowed, to those that are obligatory. When it comes to abortion, we talk only about one half of this continuum—Is it forbidden or is it allowed?—when, in actuality, a women faced with an ill-conceived pregnancy often experiences herself at the other end of the continuum, wrestling with a set of competing duties or obligations. What is my responsibility to my other children? To society? To my partner?To myself? (To cite a personal example, my husband and I chose an abortion under circumstances where it would have felt like a violation of our core values to do otherwise.) The current conversation doesn’t reflect the real quandaries women face, one in which moral imperatives can and do compete with other moral imperatives. Nor does it reflect the wide range of spiritual values and god concepts that enter into the decision making process.
No-choice advocates say: Abortion is immoral. God hates abortion.
We can say: For me, bringing a child into the world under bad circumstances is immoral. It violates my moral and spiritual values. / Whose god decides?
2. Challenge the personhood/fetus-as-baby concept both philosophically and visually. The history of humanity’s evolving ethical consciousness has focused on the question of who counts as a person, and if the arc bends toward justice it is because it is an arc of inclusion. Non-land-owning men, slaves, women, poor workers, children—our ancestors have fought and won personhood rights for each of these, and abortion foes are smart to invoke this tradition. But their ploy involves a sleight of hand. The civil rights tradition is built on what a “person” can think and feel. By contrast, the anti-choice move is about DNA, and it seeks to trigger visual instincts that make us feel protective toward anything that looks remotely like a baby, even a stuffed animal. In reality, the tissue removed during most abortions is minute, a gestational sac the size of a dime or quarter, which is surprising to people who have been exposed to anti-abortion propaganda. It strikes almost no-one as being the substance of “personhood.”
They say: Abortion is murder. Abortion kills little babies.
We can say: A person can think and feel. My cat can feel hungry or hurt or curious or content; an embryo cannot. / Thanks to better and better pregnancy tests, over 60 percent of abortions now occur before 9 weeks of gestation. Want to see what they actually look like?
3. Admit that the qualities of personhood begin to emerge during gestation. Pregnancy is no longer the black box it was at the time of Roe v. Wade. Ultrasound and photography have made fetal development visible, and research is beginning to offer a glimpse into the developing nervous system, with the potential to answer an important question: What, if anything, is a fetus capable of experiencing at different stages of development? Although this isn’t the only question in the ethics of abortion, it undeniably relevant. How we treat other living beings has long been guided by our knowledge of what they can experience and want. By implication, ethics change over the course of pregnancy. A fertilized egg may not be a person except by religious definitions, but by broad human agreement a healthy newborn is, and in between is a continuum of becoming. Most Americans understand this argument morally and emotionally. The Roe trimester framework also codified it legally. Ethical credibility requires that we acknowledge and address the ethical complexities at stake.
They say: A fetus is a baby. A baby is a living soul from the moment of conception.
We can say: In nature, most fertilized eggs never become babies. A fetus isbecoming a baby, grows into a baby, is a potential person, or is becoming a person.
4. Pin blame for high abortion rates where it belongs – on those who oppose contraception—and call out the immorality of their position because it causes expense and suffering. Unintended pregnancy is the main cause of abortion. Right now half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. For unmarried women under 30, that’s almost 70%. A third of those pregnancies end in abortion. The reality is that abortion is an expensive invasive medical procedure. For the price of one abortion, we can provide a woman with the best contraceptive protection available, something that will be over 99% effective for up to twelve years. If every woman had information and access to state-of-the-art long acting contraceptives, half of abortions could go away before Barack Obama gets out of office.
They say: Liberals are to blame for abortion. Planned Parenthood is an abortion mill.
We can say: Obstructing contraceptive knowledge and access causes abortion and unwanted babies. That’s what’s immoral. We have the technology to prevent almost all of the suffering and expense caused by unintended pregnancy, but many women don’t have access to that information or technology because of the twisted moral priorities of religious and cultural conservatives. Barack Obama and Planned Parenthood have done more to prevent abortions in America than all of the choice opponents combined. The no-choice position is anti-life. It kills women. It puts faith over life.
5. Acknowledge and address the powerful mixed feelings surrounding abortion. The most common emotional reaction to abortion is relief. That said, women react physically and emotionally in a variety of ways to terminating a pregnancy. Sometimes, even those who are clear that they have made the best decision feel a surprising intensity of loss. Women should be given the support they need to process whatever their experience may be. We also need to understand that some abortion opponents actively induce guilt and trauma in women who have had abortions.
They Say: Abortion is psychologically scarring. Women end up haunted by guilt and permanently traumatized after having an abortion.
We can say: No one should do something that violates her own values. Violating your values is wounding; that is why each woman should be supported in following her own moral, spiritual and life values when making decisions about pregnancy.
6. OWN religious freedom. Religious freedom is for individuals, not institutions. If the women and men who work for religious institutions all perceived the will of God in the same way, their employers wouldn’t be trying to control them by controlling their benefits package. Religious institutions have always tried to override the spiritual freedom of individuals, and they use the arm of the law as a lever whenever they can, and that is what they are doing now.
They say: Employers shouldn’t be forced to provide contraceptive or abortion coverage.
We Can Say: The freedom to choose how your employees spend their hard earned benefits and the freedom to choose whether to have a child are two very different things. No institution—and nobody’s boss–should have a say in one of the most personal and sacred decisions we can make: whether to have child. That is why all women, regardless of who they work for, should have access to the full range of contraceptives and reproductive care.
7. Talk about children and parenting, not just women. Responsible and loving parents do what they can to give their kids a good life. We take our kids to doctors, get them the best schooling we can afford, love them up, and pour years of our lives into helping them acquire the skills that will let them be happy, kind, generous, hard-working adults. But parenting starts before we even try to get pregnant. We consider our own education and finances and whether we have the kind of partnership or social support that would help a child to thrive. We may quit smoking or drinking to be as healthy as possible during pregnancy. More often than not, the decision to stop a given pregnancy is a part of this much bigger process of mindful, responsible parenting.
They say: Abortion is selfish. Women just want to have sex without consequences.
We can say: A loving mother makes hard decisions to bring her kids the best life possible. A responsible woman takes care of herself. A caring father wants the best life possible for his children. Wise parents know their limits.
8. Embrace abortion as a sacred gift or blessing. For years we have talked as if abortion were a lesser evil, rather than a remarkable gift. In reality, no medical procedure is pleasant and yet the option to have the treatments and surgeries we need is an unmitigated good. The term “safe, legal and rare” confuses things because it implies that what should be rare is the treatment rather than the problem, unintended pregnancy. An abortion should be exactly as safe, legal and rare as a surgery to remove swollen tonsils or an infected appendix. If we think about abortion like we think about other medical services, then the attitude is one not of shame or ambivalence but of gratitude.
They say: Abortion is bad. An abortion is regrettable.
We can say: An ill-conceived pregnancy is bad. An unintended pregnancy is regrettable. An abortion when needed is a blessing. It is a gift, a grace, a mercy, a cause for gratitude, a new lease on life. Being able to choose when and whether to bring a child into the world enables us and our children to flourish.
9. Honor doctors who provide abortion services as we honor other healers. The human body fends off most infections and cancers, but not all. It spontaneously heals most broken bones and closes many wounds but not all. Similarly, it spontaneously aborts most problem pregnancies, but not all. Nature tends to abort pregnancies where there are problems with cell division or fetal development, where there is little chance for a fetus to become a healthy, thriving person. Through medical or surgical abortion, as through every other medical procedure, doctors and healers extend the work of nature—of God, if you will—to promote health and wellbeing. By ending pregnancies that don’t have a good chance to turn into thriving children and adults, they are—literally or metaphorically–doing God’s work.
They say: Abortionists are murderers.
We can say: God (or Nature) aborts most fertilized eggs. Abortion doctors are compassionate healers who devote their lives to helping women and men ensure that they have strong, well-planned, wanted families. Their work is as sacred as any in the field of medicine.
10. Honor women who decide to terminate pregnancies just as we honor motherhood. Sometimes the decision to end a problem pregnancy is clear and simple. Other times not. Either way, a woman often has to fight off a sense of shame and blame that she has internalized from religious and social conservatives — too often, including other women. She may feel bad even when her own values are clear and the decision has been thoughtful. How often do we affirm and honor the wisdom of women who make difficult childbearing choices (abortion, adoption, waiting) so as to best manage their lives and their parenting?
Most women chose an abortion so that they can later choose a well-timed pregnancy; or so they can take good care of the kids they have, ensuring those kids have the best possible chance in life. Sometimes a woman ends a pregnancy because she is choosing to put her life energy elsewhere. Even then, she is accepting that to embrace life fully she must choose among the kinds of good available to her and take responsibility for avoiding harm. She may or may not put it in these terms, but those are moral and spiritual questions, the kind that religion has long sought to guide. That is why many religious traditions support a woman or couple in weighing their own deepest values when it comes to reproductive decisions.
As individual stories show, the decision to end a pregnancy may be based in humility, responsibility, nurturing, prudence, forethought, vision, aspiration, stewardship, love, courage. . . . or some combination of these qualities. Mere tolerance fails to affirm the many strengths that go into reproductive decisions including the decision to end a pregnancy. These are virtues worthy of honor.
They say: An abortion is shameful. An abortion should be kept secret. An abortion needs to be forgiven by God.
We can say: Choosing abortion can be wise and brave. It can be loving and generous. It can be responsible and self-sacrificing.
In the end the real morality of our position lies in the right of babies to be truly loved and wanted and in the right of parents to bring babies into this world when they’re fully ready to welcome them with open arms. As my friend Patricia said, every baby should have its toes kissed. Her simple message speaks volumes. Parents who get to plan and choose are more likely to eagerly await that toe kissing. They are more likely to have the emotional energy that makes those little toes irresistible even after sleepless nights and days of work. They are more likely to have a supporting community that can kiss toes when they are busy. They are more likely to have what it takes when a baby turns into a kid, and toe kissing turns into play dates and homework and I-think-we-need-to-talk. And they are more likely to still be kissing when they have to stand on their own toes to plant a peck on the cheek of a kid who’s on the way out the door with the car keys.
Toe kissing is a small, spontaneous celebration of love and life, the same values that are at the heart of our spiritual traditions. They are the values that no-choice, anti-abortion leaders claim to represent, but represent so poorly. We would do well to say so.
Thank you to Brian Arbogast and Sara Robinson for their input on early drafts of this article.
As a social commentator, Tarico writes and speaks on issues ranging from religious fundamentalism to gender roles, to reproductive rights and technologies. A primary focus is on improving access to top tier contraceptive technologies. To that end, she serves on the board of Advocates for Youth, a D.C. based nonprofit with wide-ranging programs related to reproductive health and justice. Tarico co-chairs of Washington Women for Choice, serves on the Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest Board of Advocates, and is a Senior Writing Fellow at Sightline Institute, a think tank focused on sustainable prosperity. Her articles appear at sites including the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Salon, AlterNet, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and at her blog, AwayPoint.