Making an honest, unflinching, centrist case for reproductive choice

Still from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” MGM Television, Hulu.

One reader loves to respond to my columns by email, regardless of the topic under discussion, by calling me genocidal because I support a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions. This remains a live public issue because we are potentially one Supreme Court seat away from seeing Roe v. Wade overturned, which has been a top priority of the religious right since 1973. Therefore let me spell out my position as clearly as I can. It may provide some of you with arguments you can use.

Biologically, a fetus is a human life. It is not part of the woman’s own body. It is within the woman’s body, but is another life. The question regarding abortion rights is a legal one, not a biological one. Legal personhood has always begun at birth, and it should stay that way.

As a matter of public policy, the choice of whether to continue a pregnancy must reside with the woman. For the government to impose its choice over hers is coercion, and only creates more problems. Some feminists insist that there is no moral question involved. I disagree. There is a grave moral question involved, but it is for the woman to face, not anyone else. It is no one else’s business, and especially not that of the government, to interfere.
Religion is often used as a justification for coercion. That is inappropriate and unacceptable in a democracy where people of many faiths and of no faith must coexist. Your faith dictates are not mine. If you want to adopt a child, there are many children in need of loving homes. That does not entitle you to impose your wishes on a woman using the power of the government. This is not the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. Such a world would be a horror all its own. Those who seek to criminalize abortion would push us down that path. No. Just no. If you seek to avoid the loss of life, then do not go there. Because the loss of life that fight would entail would be terrible.

So-called pro-lifers tend to be glib and ignore the implications of what they are advocating. I, on the other hand, am quite clear about what I am advocating. An abortion is a dreadful thing; but coercing women into bearing children against their will is worse. Those who dislike abortions should help to minimize them by supporting the use of contraception as a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies. The Catholic Church, however, opposes contraception. Its authoritarian mindset is deeply obnoxious and counterproductive. This is religious bullying, and I am as firmly and stoutly opposed to it as anyone is opposed to abortion.

I and millions of others will fight tooth and nail against the use of pregnancy as a pretext for coercing women. Do not underestimate our resolve on that. This would not even be a close fight except for antidemocratic factors like the structure of the U.S. Senate, gerrymandering, and vote suppression. Those are tools for a minority to impose its will on the majority. (Not that the majority should be able to impose its will on the minority in what of its essence is and must remain a private matter.) This coerciveness is now concealed behind the label of religious freedom, just as religious dogma is dressed up in pseudoscientific drag as Natural Law. It won’t wash.

The impulse to coerce others is deep-seated and persistent. But so is the desire for liberty. Thus we fight on.

Update 1: I am well aware that some on my side of this issue will strongly dispute some of what I say. There is a tendency toward groupthink, which I think is terribly counterproductive. Left-wing dogma is just as obnoxious as right-wing dogma. Winning the fight for reproductive choice does not require ignoring biology or denying people’s moral concerns. It is a matter of getting to the bottom line, which is about what should be public policy. Removing coercion means that the woman who is pregnant must decide. If we want to win, we must focus on that essential point and not get sidetracked. Using social pressure to silence people’s moral concerns will only drive those concerns underground. They will resurface at the voting booth. We must be prepared to make our case, as I have tried to do. We must persuade. Should we have to? No. This fight has gone on long enough. But it still faces us.

Update 2: A friend replies, “Thank you for this, but I cannot reconcile your opinion that there is a grave moral question involved with all else you say. I had an abortion when I was 19. I considered the decision a practical one. To hear someone say morality was involved is guilt provoking and backtracks even if one vehemently supports the right to choose.”

I answer: I knew this was a sensitive point. But it is monstrous to insist that there is no moral question where the ending of a human life is involved. I am well aware that in saying this I am violating feminist dogma. But that dogma gets in the way of our cause. Our point, if we truly want to persuade and not just hector people unproductively, should be not that there is no moral question, but that the moral question cannot properly determine public policy. We have hurt ourselves on this point. The decades-long insistence that moral considerations must be banished alienates people that we need to persuade. And it is not intellectually honest. It helps give people in the middle the impression that our only response is “Shut up, shut up,” when in fact we have a compelling case to make without ignoring either the biology or the moral consideration. Nor is it honest to equate any and all moral considerations with religion. I have no religion, but my moral faculties are fully intact. Hillary Clinton got it right when she said abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. I am pro-choice, not pro-abortion. The question is who decides. And the answer can only be the woman. All else is secondary.

My friend follows up: “I think that’s the same as someone saying I will defend your right to be LBGT to the death but I am not pro-gay for moral reasons.”

I answer: Which is fine with me. What do I care what someone thinks of me? I want equal protection of the law, not strangers’ approval. An anti-abortionist, by the way, would argue that being gay does not take a life. This is true, even if it makes a lot of women see red. It is a real difference between the two issues. But I have made the case to show it can be made without setting aside biology or morality. The pro-choice side is stronger politically for being able to make this case.

My friend further states: “I think characterizing it as a kill but one that rests with the woman and us get that right is not helpful either. In any event, I will not support the emotional life long damage it does to a woman to think if it as a kill. You can afford your way of thinking as a man from an intellectual and scientific point of view. Please remember the emotional perspective of the woman when you speak of it. But I will agree, let’s take morality out of it and we can end our discussion as well.”

I answer: How is it not a kill? I understand the emotions involved, but it remains observably the case that this decades-long insistence that a human life is not involved is an eye-stretching lie. The fact that its being a kill makes you uncomfortable does not change the biology. It is not a murder because legal personhood begins at birth, and should remain so. Again, the legal and biological questions are separate. Politics is not therapy. We need to confront this if we are to win over those who are skeptical.

My friend states: “I think to be supportive as a man, be pro-choice. I think the rest of the discussion as well as the politics of it should be led by women. I am not saying me; but those in the front lines. Just as black lead black, gay lead gay, etc.”

I answer: I have had my life threatened for defending women’s choice. I am a proven ally and offer my thoughts as the spirit moves me during the course of my own study, observation, and reflection. One cannot deal effectively with matters of race, gender, and religion by hesitantly sticking a toe in the water. I dove in long ago, have been rather effective, and do not seek permission to keep swimming. I am discussing a current issue as is my vocation. [I note that some have been very happy with my remarks, including my own sister. One cannot please everyone. But I think it illustrates the problem we have in discussing this issue for my friend in her above comments essentially to say shut up. Her attitude is shared by a great many. I must respectfully decline.]

Update 3: Another friend asks, “What rights does the father have?”

I answer: Regarding the decision to continue the pregnancy, none. Any discussion on whether a child is wanted should occur before a pregnancy. If a child is not wanted, contraception and abstinence are options. Also divorce, if it comes to that. 35 years ago a dear friend, whom I also was in love with, told me that he broke up with the woman to whom he was engaged because he very much wanted children and she did not. I don’t know how you can entertain thoughts of marriage without discussing that. I joked with my friend that if he weren’t going to have children, he might as well marry me. He laughed. Alas for me, there was that other question of desire. He moved away years ago, and his auburn hair has turned to white, but he is still beautiful and my feelings for him are the same. He is a solid friend. He eventually married a woman who did want children. It was an all-important consideration. It amazes me still how it can often go undiscussed prior to a marriage.

One more thing: “reproductive choice” is not a euphemism. The legal, political question stands regardless of how one would react to what happens in the operating room. The question before us is who decides, not how she decides.



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