The most commonly stated cases for either side of the pro-life/pro-choice debate do nothing to counter the most commonly stated cases for their counter arguments. That an unborn child has rights worthy of protection by the law does nothing to address the notion that pregnancy is a women’s health issue that should be given the same privacy other health issues receive. Or that unplanned and/or unsupported pregnancies levy an entirely unequal and unfair burden on women.
In broad terms, most of us believe the idea of separating one’s agency over themselves from the agency over their body to be a violation of personal dignity. And so, it’s logical to believe the same with respect to a woman’s pregnancy. Concurrently, many rational people also believe that there is some consideration to be made for the dignity of life before birth. There are uncontroversial laws on the books and social norms that support that idea outside of the domain of women’s reproductive rights.
Health issues are private. Women are disproportionately impacted by pregnancy. We value life before birth.
One can believe all, none or some combination of these underlying arguments to be true. And so where one falls in their opinion isn’t about a logical conclusion where one is right and the other is wrong. At its core, a pro-choice/pro-life perspective is based in what one values most. Or in many cases, what they value least.
If I state that I am pro-life because I believe an unborn child has rights, then I might be labeled a misogynist. If I declare that I am pro-choice because I recognize the dignity of women’s agency over their bodies, I might be accused of not valuing human life. Neither criticism is directly related to my stated reason for my belief. Neither claim, on its own, necessarily holds merit. And so the debate continues beyond the original issue, pulling in broader and broader causal topics for belief until it dead ends into a political debate about social constructs of either moral relativism or patriarchy. Gone is the hope of answering the questions at hand.
How do we ensure women’s health and privacy and agency over their bodies? How do account for the disproportionate impact pregnancy has on women? How do we account for the dignity of human life before birth? Is it possible to serve all three?
Though there are unique aspects of the debate that we might think would lead it to break cleanly along gender lines, somewhat incredibly, it doesn’t. According to a Pew Research Poll in 2018, 48% of women are pro-choice compared to 47% of men. 47% of women are pro-life compared to 49% of men. Within those subsets, younger people trend pro-choice. Older people trend pro-life in a near identical pattern to other conservative/liberal political debate topics.
Few political issues are more evenly divided among the American population. It’s clear that, for many people, myself included, their personal feelings run not only close to the dividing line, but the line cuts right through them. They are, themselves, conflicted. For an issue that incorporates gender, religion and sex, internal conflict generates silence. Within that silence, lies broad access for whatever power structures that are presently in place to drive outcomes that don’t represent the will or the interests of the people. And so, there is value to insisting on a discussion. And value to seeking one that can be more easily and openly had. Perhaps we can find it with a different question.
What’s the right law?
For that question, there’s not much conflict in my mind. With a truly divided and diverse group dealing with the type of issue that women’s reproductive rights is, the right law is one that enables the compromise of limited choice. The 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision does that. It’s grounded in conservative interpretation of the 9th Amendment and supported by the 14th Amendment notion of equal protection of all persons under the law. It accounts for the notion of human life before birth by establishing a limit to protections for late term abortions. In short, the ruling provides limited Constitutional protection for a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. And it avoids the unrealistic prohibition of things difficult or impossible to prohibit.
Whether I agree with the actions the law enables personally is less important than the fact that it is the right law. It represents reasonable compromise within the constructs of a contested debate. And it errs on the side of personal choice.
The legislation passed by the 85% male Alabama state legislature and signed by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey yesterday does not. It is a direct challenge to current law that prohibits abortions, criminalizes not only anyone who performs them but anyone who receives them and makes no considerations for cases of rape or incest. It is a direct challenge to Roe v Wade. It pays no consideration at all to the other side of the discussion and therefore represents too narrow a perspective to govern a diverse population. And in doing so, alienates and even persecutes disadvantaged groups in a way that can and will easily be interpreted as intentional.
It’s the wrong law. Moreover, it’s the wrong law to the extent that it feels cruel.
One can passionately voice support for the right law, without forcing themselves to believe personally in the specific action it allows others to voluntarily take. One can passionately oppose the wrong law in the same spirit.
Now might be the time to start.