The Abortion Debate is Twisted
The labels are problematic and needlessly divisive.
For the longest time, I’ve had a very specific stance on the controversial topic of abortion — many would call it “Pro-Choice”. It hasn’t really been an issue I’ve had to discuss often during my adult life, but this has drastically changed in recent months. As the access to abortion has steadily occupied part of the news cycle because of certain aggressive government moves in the US and Poland, the conversation around the topic has creeped in both my personal discussions with family and friends, as well as my private thoughts.
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This frequent presence of the topic in my mind has made me look at the abortion issue from new angles and draw more nuanced conclusions. The most important one being this: The framing of the debate around abortions as “Pro-Life” vs “Pro-Choice” is deeply problematic.
“Pro-Life” or “Pro-Coercion”?
I’ll admit that the first and principal objection I’d had with these two labels, was that they are obviously skewed, favoring the conservative side of the debate from the get-go. I mean, think about it, what does “Pro-Life” mean? That you… support human life? Are there many sane humans who don’t? This label subtly implies that those who disagree are somehow “Anti-Life” or at least that they don’t care as much about “Life”. Which is patently ridiculous, even as a subtle claim. And when you put the labels side by side, what monster would think that “Choice” — a woman’s or anyone else’s — is more important than “Life” — the life of a poor, vulnerable unborn baby?
There is a great deal more to analyze here, like the hypocrisy of caring only for a baby to be brought to the world, but not giving a damn about how it survives afterwards. To me, “Pro-Coerced Births” feels more appropriate, albeit far less charming.
Yet the deeper problem here is not what each label represents or who they do or do not favor. It is the polarizing labeling itself and the perspective it focuses on. Because the issue is way more complex and nuanced than pro/against abortion. Let me explain.
Reframing the Abortion Question
The question of whether (and under which conditions) a pregnant woman who doesn’t want to have the baby should be provided an abortion is a sensitive and polarizing one. When it comes to policy, it is hard to set a clear and fair line that satisfies everyone. My view is that it doesn’t have to satisfy everyone, just the women it directly affects, but many feel compelled to speak for and defend the potential lives of unborn — and non-viable outside the womb — fetuses to prevent their “murder” in the hands of their future mothers and misguided healthcare personnel. This contrast of strong opinions produces an explosive stalemate, with burned abortion-clinics, attacked — or now possibly sued — staff and patients on one side and vilified “pro-lifers” on the other.
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This conflict favors no one, but those who want to keep their precious voters close by stoking hate and fear for “the other side”, the “baby-murderers” against the “oppressive, sexist bastards”. If we are to ever make any true and meaningful progress around such a difficult question, we need to find another framing to help us work together towards a common goal.
The way I see it, the most helpful perspective can come from focusing on the end-result of the “abortion issue”, the potential result that pushes women to seek an abortion in the first place: An unwanted birth. I don’t think anyone can argue in favor of unwanted births, with all the psychological, social, and bleak practical implications that stem from babies being born while not being wanted by their biological parents. Serious, possibly life-long implications both for the mothers and their babies.
Unwanted Births or Abortions?
In other words, if we shift perspective, this stops being an either/or issue. The question instead becomes how to minimize unwanted births and yes, this includes minimizing the number of abortions. In communities where both individual and collective well-being is prioritized, personal freedom balanced with common responsibilities, this is the bigger issue at hand. Because objectively, abortions are not good or desirable outcomes either, not by any stretch of the imagination, for any of the parties involved. And so, trying to minimize both unwanted births and abortions is a deeper and much more meaningful goal that most people can rally around.
In an ideal world, none of those two issues would even exist, but if you think that banning or seriously restricting abortions is a step towards that ideal, you are mistaken. Abortions will happen, whether the state allows and supports them or not. Making them hard or impossible to get legally, means that desperate women (possibly at the urge of their otherwise conservative parents) will seek them anyway. If you doubt that, look at what happens today in Africa.
Would you like for abortions to become like illegal drugs? Not regulated or monitored, without any safety checks, distributed mostly through an underground black market by criminal providers that aim only to maximize profit, even at the expense of human life?
Making illegal something that people are sometimes desperate for doesn’t really make it disappear, it just buries it under the surface. Not to mention all the deeply problematic unwanted births and the furious anger this would inevitably generate for women and activists around the world, as it already happens today.
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This issue doesn’t have to be such so deeply polarizing for the general public or so traumatizing for women. Not if we can look at the larger picture.
A bigger issue to tackle
How could we push to reduce both unwanted pregnancies and abortions? A good start would obviously be to reduce the frequency of unwanted pregnancies. This has two distinct parts, even though we typically only think of one of them. It doesn’t only demand preventing pregnancies that are not wanted, but also making more pregnancies wanted. Before we get to that though, let’s tackle the obvious part first.
Which is to see to that women who wouldn’t want to get pregnant, don’t (or as little as possible). We could focus on teen and young adult pregnancies, as those are the most likely to be unwanted. Think of the possible education, a future career and a whole life ahead that a teen would have to be put on hold, in order to take care of a new human being coming to the world and to (life-)support and help them through their first, most vulnerable years. It is also the age of unstable relationships and seriously immature, rebellious potential future parents. How do we approach this part of the problem? Education seems like the obvious answer, right?
Preventing unwanted pregnancies
Here comes the first possible disagreement, were some would like for nothing more than total sexual abstinence (preferably until marriage) to be taught to school age children. Yet, what do you expect teenagers to do, when you forbid them to do something that feels nice and fun? (much like what adults do when something they desperately want/need to do becomes illegal) They find a way to do it anyway. And without any proper knowledge of what’s safe or healthy, since you never bother to teach them anything else about sex. To this day, abstinence-only educational programs haven’t proven any substantial effect on the rate of STDs, teen-pregnancies, births, or abortions. A few published studies on this below.
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What do we do then? Sexual education! Not the textbook, lets-get-on-with-it, giggly type… But serious, comprehensive, and practical information on how sex and particularly safe sex works, as well as the interpersonal relations around it, for example the concept of consent. Teen girls shouldn’t have to get an STD or an unwanted pregnancy before realizing that condoms are a safe and reasonable option for contraception, or that it is completely okay to say no to sex, if the guy doesn’t want to wear a one. Teen (and adult) boys should know what it means to respect the autonomy of women and how to avoid inadvertently sexually assaulting someone at a party.
But knowing how to have safe sex, isn’t very effective if it is hard and/or costly to do so. The safe options need to be free and readily available if we want most young people to use them consistently. France has paved the way and hopefully more will soon follow: making contraception amongst young women (with all the tests and procedures it might entail) free of charge. I’d argue that condoms should also have the same treatment. Free and easily accessible contraception for everyone.
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Making pregnancies more attractive
Now it may sound a little absurd, but the other way of addressing the problem of unwanted births is making more women (and men supporting them) want to have babies. Not by forcing them of course, but by making the prospect of having a child a more attractive one. Countries like Sweden have come a long way in this aspect, providing generous benefits to (both!) parents and a fairly well-developed school and welfare system that make for a very good environment for children to grow into healthy adults. Read for example below about Sweden’s policy around parental leave, to understand how much more motivated Swedes can be to get pregnant and have babies, even from a relatively young age, while advancing in their careers, something very challenging even in many developed countries.
Sweden and Parental Leave
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If a future mother is not condemned to be left behind or even lose her career, not forced to radically change her life habits and out-of-pocket expenses to provide for a future child, even unplanned pregnancies have a much bigger chance to become wanted. Forcing mothers to have babies they do not really want, only to let them fend for themselves afterwards, is at best naive and shortsighted and at worst hypocritical. Reducing unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions, thus becomes one more reason to invest in universal parental support and better education and healthcare systems for children.
You see, instead of narrow-mindedly focusing on the pregnancy and birth as if they were isolated occurrences, as if the issue of supporting life begins at conception and ends at birth, approaching the issue more holistically and from different angles offers more meaningful solutions.
Fueling a persistent conflict within our societies, fighting to push the needle an inch at a time to either direction, gives little results with many unwanted consequences. A deeply divided society is damaging for everyone, in more ways than one.
We should instead focus on a united effort to bring forth a future with happier families, healthier children, and fewer abortions.
If you find this interesting, I have also written about the incredibly pour treatment of children in our modern world — yes, everywhere — an incredibly important subject, that (unlike the one above) seems to be mostly invisible.