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There’s a myth embedded in a new status quo on Parliament Hill around women’s issues and it’s this: that women support the right to choose and the right to choose supports women. Yet this opinion, that of the woman who supports access to abortion, is no more important and no more compelling than the opinion of the woman who does not. We should discard neither viewpoint. Today, because the idea that “abortion is a woman’s right” goes unchallenged in so many corners, we never get to understand why this is so.
Is abortion a woman’s right? Or does it detract from women’s rights?
In rough terms, for those who call themselves pro-choice, it comes down to autonomy. The bodily autonomy of a mother, the woman, supersedes the rights of the fetal person. For those who call themselves pro-life, autonomy is one – and only one – aspect of life, and it’s not the defining one. For human beings, relationship is easily more important, more defining, and more real than autonomy. Abortion is, in many ways, evidence of relationship gone terribly awry.
For women like myself, rather than viewing choice through an autonomy lens, I prefer to consider abortion through the lens of the good, the true and the beautiful.
Off Parliament Hill, a poll Cardus and the Angus Reid Forum conducted for International Women’s Day 2016 showed that almost six in 10 Canadian women believe it is possible to be pro-life and a feminist. Five in 10 men said the same. Polls regularly show that more women than men are pro-life. As well, they show more women than men are open to regulating aspects of abortion. Two in 10 Canadians don’t understand what the legal reality of abortion in Canada today is.
I’d like to present some reasons why being pro-life favours women’s rights through the lens of the good, the true and the beautiful.
1. Abortion access has nothing to do with women’s equality.
Those of us who are against abortion understand that abortion attempts to equalize men and women in a manner that is both impossible and undesirable. As a society, we treasure racial differences. We treasure national differences. And so we should treasure male-female differences. There’s no way to undo pregnancy. It marks you, leaves an impact, regardless of how a pregnancy ends.
Rachel MacNair, a pro-life peace psychologist in the United States, calls abortion the “epidemic battering” of women, because “[s]urgery done on a healthy body is mutilation, and such surgery done without adequately informed consent is a battery.”
Women almost never hear about possible negative ramifications of abortion, so informed consent is almost always missing. The fact that men cannot get pregnant, and that women can, falls into the category of diversity to treasure, not inequality to overcome.
2. Abortion harms women’s health.
There’s plenty of evidence for this. The documentary Hush, written by a pro-choice woman, goes through aspects of women’s health after abortion, including the hotly contested abortion-breast cancer link. There’s also the book Complications, published by The deVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research, that likewise looks at the science of abortion and women’s health. Bottom line? Pregnancy is not a disease. It is not a pathology. Abortion provision is not health care, because pregnancy is not a disease.
3. The presence of abortion as a choice harms even women who would not choose it.
Access to abortion and the birth control pill have significantly altered the way we view women, women’s bodies and the nature of pregnancy. A 2009 First Things article called Her Choice, Her Problem draws together this thought cohesively. The author, Richard Stith, a law professor with a PhD from Yale, writes: “Sex no longer causes birth. Given the availability of elective abortion, sexual intercourse can only cause choice. It is choice that causes birth.”
That holds true for every single woman across the country, irrespective of whether or not she would make the choice. Thus, every woman falls subject to a choice regime. Stith writes this: “The presence in the sexual marketplace of women willing to have an abortion reduces an individual woman’s bargaining power. As a result, in order not to lose her guy, she may be pressured into doing precisely what she doesn’t want to do: have unprotected sex, then an unwanted pregnancy, then the abortion she had all along been trying to avoid. Even though her abortion in this case is not literally forced, it would be, in an important sense, imposed on her. And, far from alleviating her overall situation, it would merely return her to the same sexual pressures, made worse by a new assurance to her boyfriend that she is willing to take care of a pregnancy.”
Use of the term “sexual marketplace” is important, too. Abortion is not about abortion, per se. It’s about our sexual ethics and what we believe about sex. The marketplace is altered by the presence of both the Pill and abortion in important ways. No one disagrees with this, though we will disagree about whether the changes are positive or negative.
Support for the idea that the changes are negative comes from all corners, however. Stith quotes radical feminist Catherine MacKinnon when she says: “Abortion facilitates women’s heterosexual availability…the Playboy Foundation has supported abortion rights from day one.” She adds that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roev. Wade decision makes the “right to privacy (look) like an injury got up as a gift,” because “virtually every ounce of control that women won (from legalized abortion) has gone directly into the hands of men.”
4. Abortion frees men of responsibility.
Men learn via abortion that sex is consequence free. When I ask guys what they think about abortion, one of the more common responses I get is, “I could never tell a woman what to do.” These words toll the death knell for their child in the mind and heart of the woman. The words show the man is obviously disinterested in a shared life together, i.e., in raising a son or daughter. Men almost never think in terms of their own son or daughter because they’ve been told again and again not to. But that’s precisely what the fetus is— his child —and the man is a father. Men need to be taught, and to take time, to grow close to their children. Abortion removes this possibility, and the possibility of rising to the occasion of taking responsibility even if a man wants to. Indeed, abortion, pushed so fully into the realm of woman’s choice tells the world that men and fathers are irrelevant.
In some ways, in the Western world, this is increasingly true. When we have former U.S. President Barack Obama making the call for men to be fathers, we know there is consensus on the lack of fathers in some communities. This cannot be a social good.
The Planned Parenthood ad of the ‘80s that said “when she gets pregnant, so do you, ” was a far more appropriate approach to men and women experiencing unplanned pregnancy — and shows how far we’ve come into the realm of ideological extremes.
Marilyn Kopp of Feminists for Life writes: “Abortion, which is often the assumed solution to unexpected pregnancy in our culture, attempts to cure the sexual asymmetry: the biological fact that women get pregnant and men don't. It does this by putting the responsibility to care for — or dispense with — the life of a nascent, developing human being on women alone.”
5. Quick Question: Where is the evidence that abortion helps women advance?
The idea that abortion, or better put, access to abortion, increases women’s rights, or heightens our position in society always has been, and always will be, merely an opinion. We never ask how, practically speaking, this is true. Are women without children always more powerful? Margaret Thatcher might have said no. The question can never be answered scientifically. But the fact no one ever even asks or discusses it bothers me.
If we claim that autonomy is the highest value, that the ability to make choices, even bad choices, is what makes us human, then we should at least have some evidence this position helps us thrive. Instead, women are asked to accept this conception of women’s flourishing on blind faith.
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The women who won us the right to vote understood the need to support women such that they don’t need to take the life of their unborn child.
“The same women who fought for the right to vote also fought for the rights of the unborn to be born and for their mothers to be supported,” Marilyn Kopp writes.
Early feminists used strong language, speaking against abortion as “child murder.” Our feminist foremothers recognized abortion as a symptom of women's oppression, not a solution to it. Mattie Brinkerhoff, a first wave feminist fighting for suffrage wrote in 1869: "When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society. So, when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged."
Listen to Victoria Woodhull, a free love advocate and first female American presidential candidate, who said in 1875: "Men must no longer insult all womanhood by saying that freedom means the degradation of woman. Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth."
7. Abortion has removed millions of women from the globe.
Sex selection abortion has been documented across the globe in countries that make a preference for sons over daughters the norm. It’s a not-so-hidden secret, and one we struggle to combat. Sex selection abortion is the most extreme – most final – effect of discrimination against women. It does not matter that we all share the desire to end discrimination against women. We won’t see an end to the removal of women from the planet without an end to abortion. Mara Hvistendahl, who is pro-choice, writes in Unnatural Selection about how the UN in India understands it is a problem but refuses to even use the word abortion.
“After decades of fighting for a woman’s right to choose the outcome of her own pregnancy, it is difficult to turn around and point out that women are abusing that right, that choice has been perverted,” Hvistendahl writes.
8. Abortion takes the life of a unique, separate human being.
Embryology textbooks say life begins at conception, but women don’t need a textbook to tell them that obvious fact. Calling it a clump of cells doesn’t fly with women, either. Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, scared, alone or worried about it, we all know why we are scared. It’s because a child is developing, and it is this child that we are, so we think, not ready for. We don’t realize in that moment that we will never ultimately be perfectly prepared for having a child, let alone raising one, which those of us who are pro-life would never require.
There is something mystical about the origins of life, and there is likewise something uncontrollable about it. Pregnancy and children are not a choice. This is the wrong framework. They are no more choices than your born children are, than any person is. When in doubt, I utilize the SLED principles: Life’s value does not depend on Size, Level of development, Environment or Degree of Dependency (SLED).
Autonomy is a very limiting lens through which to view life. It’s a popular option these days, as the debate over assisted suicide proves. It’s popularity doesn’t make it any less limiting. When I think of life, I’d prefer to consider that there are principles beyond my own independence that matter. Who has helped me along the road? How would life look without the inputs of a series of relationships? Am I ever truly autonomous? These are just some of the questions women should ask about the abortion debate. These are questions we rarely hear in a status quo that prefers women not think about them at all.
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Convivium’s Rebecca Darwent talks to producer Mike Schouten about The Missing Project documentary, which fills in the blanks on the 50 years since Canada’s abortion law was overturned and then abandoned entirely.