[Washington Post, July 28, 1996]
I was pro-choice at one point in my life, but I came over to a pro-life position years ago. I’ve been there ever since. Perhaps because of my background, I think there’s a logic to the pro-choice position that deserves respect, even as we engage it critically. It is possible to disagree with somebody without calling them baby-killers, without believing that they are monsters or fiends. It is possible to disagree in an agreeable way.
The abortion argument is essentially an argument among women. It’s been a bitter and ugly debate, and I find that embarrassing. For me, that gives a special urgency to this conference.
To reach agreement in any kind of conflict, you need to be able to back up and see far enough into the distance to locate a point you can actually agree on. What the two sides have in common is this: Each of us would like to see a world where women no longer want abortions. I don’t believe that even among the most fervent pro-choice people there is anybody who rejoices over abortion. I think we both wish that there were better solutions that could make abortion unnecessary, or prevent pregnancies in the first place. We’d like to see the demand for the procedure reduced, by resolving women’s problems and alleviating the pressure for abortion. We can go along this road together as far as we can, and there will come a time when pro-choicers are satisfied, and pro-lifers want to keep going, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go together for now.
A few years ago, quite by accident, I discovered an important piece of common ground. Something I wrote in a conservative think-tank journal was picked up and quoted widely. I had written: “There is a tremendous sadness and loneliness in the cry ‘A woman’s right to choose.’ No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.”
What surprised me was where it appeared: I started getting clips in the mail from friends, showing the quote featured in pro-choice publications. I realized I had stumbled across one of those points of agreement: We all know that no one leaves the abortion clinic skipping. This made me think that there was common ground, that instead of marching against each other, maybe we could envision a world without abortion, a world we could reach by marching together.
The problem thus far, and I believe the pro-life movement has been especially complicit in this, is that we have focused only on abortion, and not on women’s needs. We in the pro-life movement have perpetuated a dichotomy where it’s the baby against the woman, and we’re on the baby’s side. You can look over 25 years of pro-life rhetoric and basically boil it down to three words: “It’s a baby.” We have our little-feet lapel pins, our “Abortion stops a beating heart” bumperstickers, and we’ve pounded on that message.
In the process we have contributed to what I think is a false concept—an unnatural and even bizarre concept—that women and their unborn children are mortal enemies. We have contributed to the idea that they’ve got to duke it out, it’s going to be a fight to the finish. Either the woman is going to lose control of her life, or the child is going to lose its life.
It occurred to me that there’s something wrong with this picture. When we presume this degree of conflict between women and their own children, we’re locating the conflict in the wrong place. Women and their own children are not naturally mortal enemies, and the problem is not located inside women’s bodies, it’s within society. Social expectations make unwanted pregnancy more likely to occur and harder for women to bear. Unwed mothers are supposed to have abortions, to save the rest of us from all the costs of bringing an “unwanted” child into the world.
There are three drawbacks to emphasizing “It’s a baby” as the sole message. One is that it contributes to the present deadlock in this debate. We say “It’s a baby,” and our friends on the pro-choice side say, “No, it’s her right,” and the arguments don’t even engage each other. It’s an endless, interminable argument that can go on for another 25 years if we don’t find a way to break through.
Second, the “It’s a baby” message alienates the woman distressed by a difficult pregnancy. There’s a pro-life message that I sometimes hear which makes me cringe: “Women only want abortions for convenience. They do this for frivolous reasons. She wants to fit into her prom dress. She wants to go on a cruise.” But this alienates the very person to whom we need to show compassion. If we’re going to begin finding ways to live without abortion, we need to understand her problems better.
Of course, there has been a wing of the pro-life movement that has been addressing itself to pregnant women’s needs for a long time, and that is the crisis pregnancy center movement. Centers like these have been giving women maternity clothes, shelter, medical care, job training and other help for 30 years. But you wouldn’t know that from the things the movement says. I once saw a breakdown of the money and time spent on various sorts of pro-life activities, and over half the movement’s energy was going into direct aid to pregnant women. Yet you don’t hear this in the rhetoric.
The third problem with this rhetoric is that it enables the people in the great mushy middle, the ones who are neither strongly pro-life or strongly pro-choice, to go on shrugging off the problem. While both sides know that women don’t actually want abortions in any positive sense, the middle is convinced they do. And that’s because both sides are telling it they do. Pro-lifers say, “She wants an abortion because she’s selfish”; pro-choicers say, “She wants an abortion because it will set her free.” No wonder the middle believes us; it’s one of the few things we appear to agree on.
But both sides know that abortion is usually a very unhappy choice. If women are lining up by the thousands every day to do something they do not want to do, it’s not liberation we’ve won. But our rhetoric in the pro-life movement, our insistence that “It’s a baby and she’s just selfish,” keeps the middle thinking that abortion really is what women want, so there’s no need for change and nothing to fix. I want to recognize my side’s complicity in contributing to this deadlock and confusion.
I can understand why my pro-life allies put the emphasis on “It’s a baby.” It’s a powerful and essential message. Visualizing the violence against the unborn was the conversion point for me and many others. But it cannot be the sole message. Polls on American attitudes toward abortion show that between 70 and 80 percent already agree that it’s a baby—especially since the advent of sonograms. So when we say, “It’s a baby,” we’re answering a question nobody’s asking anymore. I believe there is a question they are asking about abortion, and the question is, “How could we live without abortion?”
The abortion rate in this country is about a million and a half a year, a rate that has held fairly stable for about 15 years. Divide that figure by 365 and that equals about 4,100 abortions every day.
Now imagine for a moment that in the middle of the country there is a big abortion store, and outside it 4,100 women got in a long line, one behind the other—and that’s just today. It’s a sobering image. And the short-sighted pro-life response has been, “Put a padlock on the abortion store.” But that’s not going to solve the problem. You cannot reduce the demand by shutting off the supply. If 4,100 women were lining up every day to get breast implants, we’d be saying, “What’s causing this demand? What’s going on here?”
How can we solve the problems that contribute to the demand for abortion? If this were easy, we would have done it by now. It’s not easy. There are two obvious components: preventing the unwanted pregnancy in the first place, and assisting women who slip through the cracks and become pregnant anyway.
The obvious tool for pregnancy prevention is contraception, but the pro-life movement has been very reluctant to support the contraceptive option. I come from a religious tradition that permits some forms of contraception, so it’s not been a theological problem for me. So when I started considering this, I thought, “This is great! I’ll get a helicopter, fill it with condoms, get a snow shovel, and just fly over the country tossing ‘em out. We’ll close all of the abortion clinics tomorrow!”
But then I began to analyze it a little deeper. While I believe the pro-life movement needs to make a strong stand in favor of preventing these unplanned pregnancies, I became skeptical of the contraceptive solution. For example, there’s the recent study showing about two-thirds of births to teenage moms in California involved a dad who was an adult, and another one that found teen mothers had been forced into sex at a young age and that the men who molested them had an average age of 27. Closer to home, a friend of mine was brought to an abortion clinic by her older brother, who molested her when she was 12; they gave her a bag of condoms and told her to be more careful. You’re not going to solve problems like these by tossing a handful of condoms at it.
But leaving aside the question of sexual abuse, I think we need to look hard at the consequences of the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s. When I entered college in the early 1970s, the revolution was in full bloom. It seemed at the time a pretty care-free enterprise. Condoms, pills and diaphragms were readily available and abortion had just been legalized by the Supreme Court. But I gradually began to think that it was a con game being played on women. We were “expected to behave according to men’s notions of sexuality,” to use author Adrienne Rich’s phrase. Instead of gaining respect and security in our bodies, we were expected to be more physically available, more vulnerable than before, with little offered in return.
What women found out is that we have hearts in here along with all our other physical equipment, and you can’t put a condom on your heart. So in answering the question, “How do we live without abortion?”, I’d say we need to look at restoring respect and righting the balance of power in male-female sexual relationships.
What can we do to help women who get pregnant and would rather not be? For a book I was writing, I went around the country talking to women who have had an abortion and to women who provide care for pregnant women. I had presumed that most abortions are prompted by problems that are financial or practical in nature.
But to my surprise, I found something very different. What I heard most frequently in my interviews was that the reason for the abortion was not financial or practical. The core reason I heard was, “I had the abortion because someone I love told me to.” It was either the father of the child, or else her own mother, who was pressuring the woman to have the abortion.
Again and again, I learned that women had abortions because they felt abandoned, they felt isolated and afraid. As one woman said, “I felt like everyone would support me if I had the abortion, but if I had the baby I’d be alone.” When I asked, “Is there anything anyone could have done? What would you have needed in order to have had that child?” I heard the same answer over and over: “I needed a friend. I felt so alone. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. If only one person had stood by me, even a stranger, I would have had that baby.”
We also must stop thinking about abortion in terms of pregnancy. We harp on pregnancy and forget all about what comes next. Getting through the pregnancy isn’t nearly the dilemma that raising a child for 18 years is. In most families, marriage lightens the load, but for some people that isn’t the best solution. A neglected option is adoption, which can free the woman to resume her life, while giving the child a loving home.
The numbers on this, however, are shocking. Only 2 percent of unwed pregnant women choose to place their babies for adoptions. Among clients at crisis pregnancy centers, it’s 1 to 2 percent. Adoption is a difficult sell to make for a number of complex reasons, but the bottom line is that 80 to 90 percent of the clients who go through pregnancy care centers and have their babies end by setting up single-parent homes. This is very serious. Pregnancy care centers know this, but aren’t sure what to do about it. I’ve been strongly encouraging that there be more emphasis on presenting adoption to clients, and equipping center volunteers so they feel comfortable with the topic and enabled to discuss it. Adoption is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but it’s got to fit more than 1 or 2 percent. More women should try it on for size.
Let me finish with these thoughts. I want to encourage us to view the pregnant woman and child as a naturally-linked pair that we strive to keep together and support. Nature puts the mother and the child together; it doesn’t make them enemies, it doesn’t set one against the other in a battle to the death. If our rhetoric is tearing them apart, we’re the ones who are out of step. The pro-life movement should be answering the question “How can we live without abortion?” by keeping mother and child together, looking into pregnant women’s needs and examining how to meet them, and encouraging responsible sexual behavior that will prevent those pregnancies in the first place.