The Moral Case For Abortion
When they donned the “pro-life” label in the 1970s, anti-abortion activists and politicians planted their flag in the moral high ground. After all, what could be more moral than protecting the sanctity of life?
Despite their singular focus on forcing any pregnant person to give birth without regard for what happens after the baby takes its first breath, and despite not offering any public advocacy for prenatal care or tackling our country’s horrific maternal mortality and child hunger rates, those opposed to abortion continue to claim that they are righteous.
It’s an incredible act of alchemy really; their rhetoric handily transforms anyone opposed to them into immoralists. (Linking pro-choice demands to morality has rarely been done on the left outside of typically sidelined reproductive justice groups and organizing efforts — like the highly intersectional 2013 Moral Monday protests.)
More than 40 years after the passage of the Hyde Amendment — which prohibits the federal budget from covering abortion care and remains the only medical procedure ever banned from Medicaid — it’s clear that the majority of Americans don’t believe in the rigid structure created by those opposed to abortion. A full 74% of voters — including 62% of Republicans — not only think abortion should be legal, but that “as long as abortion is legal, the amount of money a woman has or does not have should not prevent her from being able to have an abortion.”
With public opinion firmly on the side of bodily autonomy, perhaps it’s time for pro-choicers to snatch back the morality flag and fly it high themselves.
“[T]here is a moral case for abortion. More importantly, there is a moral case to empower a woman to decide whether to have an abortion on the basis of her own moral reasoning,” writes Ann Furedi, chief executive of the UK’s leading abortion provider British Pregnancy Advisory Service and author of a new book, The Moral Case for Abortion.
Furedi argues that empowering people with the right and ability to access abortion — whether or not they exercise that right during their lifetime — is a moral good all its own.
“When we prevent a woman from making her own moral choices about her pregnancy, we undermine her humanity by taking away that ability to exercise her agency,” she says.
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The most prominent abortion provider in the country agrees. Dr. Willie Parker, OB/Gyn and board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled simply, “Why I Provide Abortions.” He described his change of heart — having once seen abortion as “morally wrong.” The more patients who came to him for help, however, the harder it was to see denying them care as the moral position:
“I want for women what I want for myself: a life of dignity, health, self-determination and the opportunity to excel and contribute. We know that when women have access to abortion, contraception and medically accurate sex education, they thrive. We who provide abortions do so because our patients need us, and that’s what we are supposed to do: respond to our patients’ needs. It is the deepest level of love that you can have for another person, that you can have compassion for their suffering and you can act to relieve it. That, simply put, is why I provide abortion care.”
The public debate over abortion as it’s covered in the corporate media has little room for this narrative. Abortion polling is done to make it seem as though Americans are divided, that the battle for hearts and minds is up for grabs. News outlets — even on the “left” — and elected officials whose voting records are given high marks by reproductive rights groups perpetuate this by shying away from being bold and unapologetic in their support of abortion care. In January, for example, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) — the highest ranking democrat in the House as well as the former Speaker — told the nonpartisan politics/election coverage site Roll Call: “I don’t believe in abortion on demand.”
Furedi addresses this couched support (to put it nicely) for abortion in both the U.K. and the U.S. in her book, writing:
“Liberal thinking no longer tries to define what is ‘right’ by appealing to deontological [i.e. moral] principles. Instead it looks to find what is ‘acceptable,’ what is ‘reasonable,’ or what ‘works.’ In polite liberal circles, expressions of belief in values, and opinion about rightness and wrongness come across as rather old-fashioned and judgmental.”
Anyone who’s ever been on the wrong side of a Thanksgiving dinner debate has experienced this. Somehow, the conservative viewpoint is always given deference; the impetus to change hearts and minds is on the person speaking from a liberal perspective. Why? Because of the conservative claim on morality — a claim that has been largely conceded over the years by their opponents. Furedi posits that this has left the liberal viewpoint vulnerable:
“A further problem with the liberal estrangement from moral principles is that is has left the moral high ground free for occupation by a small, but loud, minority of those who are fundamentally against reproductive choice for reasons based on faith and doctrine. A moral case as it relates to abortion is assumed to be a case against it, not an argument, as made in these pages, that morally defends its choice.”
This concession of morality has allowed stigma to flourish around a procedure that has existed as long as pregnancy, has a less than 1% complication rate, and will be utilized by one-in-three people who experience pregnancy in their lifetimes.
Much of the work being done by reproductive justice groups is to — at least in part — reduce the stigma around abortion care. Those leading this work overtly challenge unfortunate and persistent tropes like “safe, legal, and rare” by proudly declaring abortion a public good. They’re here to take back that moral high ground once and for all.
“Abortion is absolutely a moral and public good in and of itself,” Pamela Merritt, co-director of the reproductive rights direct action group ReproAction, told The Establishment. “That’s why the current state of abortion access in America is a degrading, man-made humanitarian crisis.”
ReproAction has gone hard at liberal favorites like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and President Obama for being wishy-washy on abortion, often avoiding referencing it — even with euphemisms. Merritt and her co-founder Erin Matson are looking for champions and demanding even those “on our side” to be proactive. As Rebecca Traister so concisely wrote in her latest book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, women in the democratic party were told to put their needs aside for the good of the country for decades as anti-choice democrats were strategically run and elected. The result of the party priorities? Anti-abortion restrictions have been introduced and passed at a historic rate.
Merritt is here for a trend reversal:
“To deny . . . people who experience pregnancy access to abortion is to deny access to a needed and safe healthcare option. It’s ridiculous that so many people have the right to abortion in name only because of closed clinics, financial barriers, insulting hurdles, baseless religious exemptions, and terrorism against providers. ReproAction celebrates legal, accessible, and funded abortion as a great thing. We know women must be able to have sex and become parents on their own terms if they are ever to enjoy political, social, and economic equality.”
Steph Herold, co-director of The Sea Change Program, which is dedicated to the study and reduction of stigma surrounding abortion and other reproductive experiences, is also unapologetically celebratory about the role abortion plays in our lives.
“Abortion is more than a public good; it’s a five-minute procedure that often gives people control back over their lives,” Herold told The Establishment. “When people are able to choose their own futures and decide if and when they’re ready to start a family, that’s better for them and for society as a whole.”
Herold is frustrated at the way polling is often done on abortion; it assumes a binary that simply doesn’t exist. People’s views on abortion change with circumstances and questions from polling firms are sorely inadequate.
“Unfortunately, the majority of polling data we have about how the American public thinks about abortion is pretty flawed, because it turns out people have complex views about this issue,” she says. “For example, a standard Gallup question they’ve asked for decades is, ‘With respect to the abortion issue, do you consider yourself pro-choice or pro-life?’ What that question doesn’t tell you is how that person would treat a friend or family member who’s had an abortion or how they think an abortion experience should be.”
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Citing newer polling data with questions that respect the complexity with which people approach abortion, Herold was hopeful.
“Of the people they polled, most want abortion to be available in their communities,” she says. “They want people who have abortions to feel supported and be able to access abortion without burdens. To me, this signals that the way people label themselves related to abortion views doesn’t necessarily map on to how they feel interpersonally about abortion. We need to figure out how to help those folks see how they can help manifest that desire for compassionate abortion care in their communities into action.”
The question is, then: How do we do that? How do we get to a place where society allows the standard internal moral compass supporting legal, accessible abortion to become the presiding public narrative? How do we take the private conviction that — at the very least — it isn’t our legislature’s right to dictate the course of a pregnancy and make that conviction the publicly acknowledged starting place from which laws are written and discussions of health begin?
“At the same time as being a procedure that over 1 million women have every year, we all know that abortion is a social, cultural, and political experience too,” says Herold. “That’s where I think we have some work to do — in making abortion normal, social, and a connecting instead of a dividing issue.”
Merritt, like Furedi, spreads the blame for the stigma barrier around.
“We must acknowledge that abortion stigma has been nurtured by both opponents and advocates; people have received negative messages about abortion for decades,” she says. “So, when I talk to people about abortion, they often start out repeating those negative messages — even if they support access.”
One of the biggest myths that perpetuates stigma is “abortion regret.” It’s the foundation of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s “concern” for women who have abortions. As Supreme Court expert Dahlia Lithwick wrote at Slate last year, Kennedy helped to solidify this non-occurrence into both our legal system and broader culture:
“Those of us who were incensed at Kennedy’s paternalism in Gonzales v. Carhart, his last major abortion opinion, in 2007, took issue with his odd (and scientifically unsupported) fetish around ‘post abortion syndrome,’ and his insistence that ‘it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.’
This kind of language sent Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself into orbit in her dissent, scathingly noting that ‘the Court invokes an anti-abortion shibboleth for which it concededly has no reliable evidence: Women who have abortions come to regret their choices, and consequently suffer from severe depression and loss of esteem.’ Ginsburg went on to quote a 2006 study showing that ‘neither the weight of the scientific evidence to date nor the observable reality of 33 years of legal abortion in the United States comports with the idea that having an abortion is any more dangerous to a woman’s long-term mental health than delivering and parenting a child that she did not intend to have.’”
Still, the myth persists.
A 2013 study at the University of California, San Francisco found that “[w]omen who are denied an abortion feel more regret and less relief one week later than women who undergo the procedure” and a 2015 study from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) found that just having abortion available for those who can get pregnant increases positivity and the ability to make and achieve goals.
Study after study proves the emotional, fiscal, and cultural importance of abortion access, and yet far too many ascribe to Kennedy’s thinking: “Well, certainly some people regret their decision.” Sure, people regret decisions every day; this doesn’t mean we take away their right to make regrettable decisions. Even if “abortion regret” or “post-abortion syndrome” were real, it wouldn’t be legislators’ jobs or right to eliminate options. As Furedi writes, “policy makers and politicians need to accept that there is a moral component to abortion and not everything about it can, or should, be resolved by law or regulation.”
“The reality is that most people who have an abortion do not experience regret,” says Merritt. “I’m thrilled that people have started to share their stories and push back against stigma and I’m optimistic that the more we talk about the reality of abortion, who has abortions, and what their actual experiences are, the more people in America will see abortion as a moral good.”
Herold looks forward to a day where abortion is not just accepted, but understood as a beneficial part of society.
“Abortion is a fact of life — and I use the word ‘life’ deliberately,” she says. “People will always need abortions simply because people will always have sex. I’d like to think not so much that we’re stuck with abortion, but rather that we are in the awesome place of building a world where abortion is a visible to the public — where people who have abortions can choose to be open about that experience, where abortion is integrated into mainstream medicine, and where having an abortion fosters connection between people instead of driving them apart.”
To get there, even with the public behind abortion access individually, will take time and yet more work.
“ReproAction believes in the power of direct action, so we are excited to build on the momentum already present in the grassroots,” says Merritt. “We’re going to be doing some raucous work: holding those who stand in our way accountable, and organizing fellow rabble-rousers on the ground. Now is not the time to step back. Now is the time to march forward — and we’re ready.”
Herold is a believer in the one-on-one, person-to-person approach that empowers everyone to do their part to reduce stigma and thereby increase access to abortion.
“We all have a role to play in normalizing abortion. We can start at a place as familial and familiar as the dinner table and have genuine conversations with friends, family, colleagues, pastors, exploring how you think the experience of abortion should be in your community,” she says. “We can all evaluate where our community is at in terms of abortion access. If a friend said that they needed an abortion, would you know where to refer her for compassionate care? Would you know how to support her? Make sure you’re prepared, and then help others get there too.”
These conversations and visible showing of support like op-eds, flyers, buttons, and social media posts don’t just serve to further culture change; they also speak directly to people who might need support.
“We all know and love someone who’s had an abortion, whether we know it or not,” says Herold. “How are you going to make sure that person knows you are there for them? It really starts at that person-to-person level. Then you can build to something more: How can you show other people in your community that have had abortions that you support them? . . . There are so many ways to connect to this issue and we all have a responsibility to give people ways to plug in and take action.”
Here’s to Dr. Parker’s motivation becoming the norm for our culture:
“I found my sense of purpose and place by making the decision to provide abortions, and it is very much consistent with my core values, in regard to my spirituality and my humanity. That’s why I do this work.”
If politicians and the public could leave the doctoring to the doctors and the deciding to the pregnant person, we could be done with punishing policies like Hyde.
“We must give credit to and support the activism that resulted in the Democratic party officially opposing Hyde, and ReproAction is committed to adding our energy and voice to the call to repeal Hyde,” says Merritt. “The lack of government funding for abortion is shameful and has had devastating consequences for many women. Now is the time to push individual politicians to embrace their party’s opposition to Hyde and hold them accountable for doing the work to achieve repeal.”
Herold also credited grassroots activism for the historic stance of the Democratic party and its presidential candidate.
“The fact that the Democratic party platform now includes repealing the Hyde Amendment is a direct result of women of color and reproductive justice groups campaigning fiercely on this issue over the last decade and being unwilling to let the Democratic party — and, frankly, the pro-choice movement — throw people struggling to make ends meet under the bus,” says Herold.
“This change is also the direct result of the over 100 abortion funds across the country making visible the gap between the promise of Roe — abortion access for all — and the reality of abortion access in the US: abortion access only for the privileged.”
A right available only to the privileged is certainly not a moral position for a society. If the reproductive justice activists of today have their way, we’re moving toward a more consistent and equitable culture.