Questioning the Vocabulary of “Choice” as it applies to safe & legal abortion services:
Choosing to remain alive is not like the ordinary ‘choices’ we makes everyday, like deciding to change jobs, go fishing, or buy an expensive pair of high heels.
Using the words “choice” and “choose” when discussing an adult woman’s right to control her own reproductive biology is inadequate and politically problematic. It’s much too easy to confuse the idea of “choice” with the trivial and ethically-neutral decisions people make everyday, like getting a haircut or ordering take-out. However the need to terminate a pregnancy is never an ethically-neutral decision.
Being required to make extremely fateful decisions in your private life, such as whether or not you are healthy enough to sustain a pregnancy and financially able to responsibly raise a child at this point in time, is not an everyday choice.
What is critical in the words ‘having the right to choose’ is not ‘choice’ but “rights” — the basic human right of women who are alive to continue living that stands above & apart from their pregnancy. It is unethical, and I believe unconstitutional, to reduce the value of a woman’s life to her gender-based ability to function as a human incubator for nine months. Therefore, the vocabulary we use in relation to safe and legal abortion services must focus on the core issue of “rights” and not on the easily misunderstood, or easy to trivialize, idea of choice.
The biological state of pregnancy is a gender-related reality that includes an increased risk of medical and fertility-threatening complications, as well as unexpected death. This is true of spontaneous miscarriage, legal and illegal termination of pre-viable pregnancies, and childbirth after the stage of viability.
Pregnancy-related risk does not stop with the baby’s birth, but continues for 12 months postpartum, accounting for 51% of all maternal deaths in the US. A third of these new-mother deaths are suicides — statistical evidence of just how overwhelming are the hormones of pregnancy and childbirth and the responsibilities of motherhood. The majority of maternal deaths leave orphaned children behind.
However, a non-gendered and non-controversial legal principle has long existed that prohibits state and local governments from forcing parents or other persons to donate blood, provide an organ or other human tissue to someone who may otherwise die. Logically-speaking, this principle would also apply to untenable pregnancies in women unable to bear or raise a child at that point in their lives.
As a result, political conversations about these life & death decisions must focused on the rights of the mother-to-be to continue to live. This is not an ordinary ‘choice’, but a complex ethical imperative that includes a broad-spectrum of personal and private decisions, such as using contraceptives to prevent unplanned pregnancies and assessment of her ability to responsibly care for a baby at that point in time. Only she can answer these questions.
The ability to access safe & legal abortion services is a fundamental human right that co-exists with, and is not in conflict with, the US Constitution. While the Constitution does not specifically identify abortion as an enumerated right, that is also true of thousands of other aspect of life in our democratic republic. What the Constitution does do is require “due process” anytime the fundamental rights of life and liberty are at risk and that certainly encompases the many life-and-death decisions we all make everyday about our own bodies.
Terminating an untenable pregnancy is not a special “women-only” gender-related privilege, but an aspect of our constitutional right to life as it applies to all living and breathing human beings. This includes the right of childbearing women to continue being wives and mothers who love their kids and take care of their families. Criminalizing access to safe abortion puts the lives and well-being of these women and their families in great jeopardy, while doing absolutely positively nothing to protect the unborn fetus.
Every time a woman dies from a botched abortion, there are two deaths — hers & her unborn baby. Women who don’t bleed to death from a punctured uterus, or die slowly from infection, are often left infertile and childless. Of the women who seek abortions, 59% already have kids, so their death orphans their children and makes their husbands into widowers. That is not a “pro-life” outcome.
The human rights of children to be loved and raised in a stable home
Last but certainly not least is the human right of newborn babies & growing children to be cared for by a healthy mother who loves them and is physically, psychologically, economically, and dare I say spiritually, able to take on the responsibilities of raising a child for the next 18 yrs.
When a woman’s honest answer to pregnancy is “no”, or “not now”, the truly “pro-life” decision is to safely (ie. legally) terminate the pregnancy as early as possible. Forcing women to bear a child does society no good, often results in irreparable trauma, and is just not a ‘pro-life’ position.
The vocabulary we use to describe this ethically-laden and biologically critical life-and-death decision must be one not be easily confused with relatively-trivial choices of daily life. By definition, women are never ‘choosing’ to have an unplanned or untenable pregnancy. And making such a weighty ethical decision as terminating a pregnancy is never trivial.
The plain fact is that pregnancy is not a responsible ‘choice’ for women with life-threatening medical or psychological conditions. However they can, and should, choose to continue to live. This gives them a chance to have a baby at a later time, when they are physically or emotionally healthier, financially stable and able to responsibility welcome a new little person into the family.
The language for talking about the safe and legal termination of early (pre-viable) pregnancy must forever be rooted in rights — the human and constitutional right of pregnant women to continue to live and to love their families. That requires that we respect a pregnant woman’s right to make the decisions that are most appropriate for her and her family, under the specific circumstances she is currently facing, and as early in the pregnancy as possible.
That’s what it really means to be “pro-life”.