Women and Children First

Nick Kristof wrote last weekend about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ new policy statement on “toxic stress” as a precursor to all sorts of physical and psychological ailments. When infants and young children are subjected to stressors, including abuse and neglect, and when they don’t receive adequate parental love as an antidote to that stress, they are more likely to grow up sick, poor, and involved in crime.

My first thought upon reading this (other than that it makes complete sense) was that the way to ensure that babies are free from toxic stress is to make sure their moms are free from toxic stress—that their moms are healthy and happy. I mean no offense to fathers, who are utterly capable of lavishing care and attention on their children. But babies’ welfare is so physically intertwined with mothers’ welfare—women incubate, birth, nurse, and frequently provide the bulk of physical care for infants and toddlers—that making sure that Mom’s needs are met will go a long way toward ensuring that she can provide all that her baby needs, from lavish affection to healthy food and a home in which respectful, nonviolent relationships are the norm. Kristof hints at this connection when he mentions the success of a program that sends nurses to the homes of young mothers, helping them to quit smoking, eat well, and provide the kind of nurturing attention their children crave.

I thought of Kristof’s column when I read this provocative blog post by writer Sarah Moon titled I’m Pro-Life. I’m Pro-Choice. I’m Pro-Woman. Moon does a good job, in relatively few words, outlining the gray areas of both pro-choice and pro-life positions. Moon’s overall point is that women’s welfare is intimately tied to the circumstances influencing abortion; rape and economic vulnerability and abusive relationships lead some women to feel that they truly don’t have any “choice” other than abortion. Moon concludes:

No matter your stance on the abortion issue, we all need to strive toward making the world a better place for women. I believe that, if both sides would put aside their picket signs and politics, and work together to free and empower women, I believe we’d see the abortion rates drop.

Kristof and Moon both point to a simple but vital truth: Take care of women, and you’ll also be taking care of their children. This idea is also evident in developing countries, where groups like Kiva have found that making even modest resources available to women (microloans and such) can lead to significant improvements in poor communities.

In another related article, Sojourners reported on a survey indicating that Sarah Moon’s identification of herself as both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” is not just semantic wizardry. In fact, this survey found that a majority of Americans believe both that abortion should be legal, and that it is morally wrong. One of the researchers notes that, “The binary ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ labels don’t reflect this complexity.” My observation? Few moral quandaries of substance can easily be divided into black and white. And when we insist on seeing complex issues in black and white anyway, we fail to engage in moral discourse that is meaningful. We fail to have conversations that actually lead to consensus or greater understanding, and instead fall back on lobbing sound bites and slogans toward the “other side.”

I think that abortion is a moral tragedy. I also think it should be legal. (I and my friend and colleague Karen Swallow Prior held an open online dialogue about our respective positions on abortion on Amy Julia Becker’s Thin Places blog back in November. Here’s Karen’s first post and my first post in the series, which continued with several follow-up posts later in the month.) Apparently, I’m not alone in holding these two views simultaneously.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Miriam

    I totally agree that if both sides of the abortion debate worked together they could lower the rate of abortion. However, from what I’ve seen the “pro-life” side of the debate really has no interest in lowering the abortion rate. They only seem interested in eliminating it entirely by making it illegal. (The fact that this won’t *stop* abortion at all, just make it dangerous, doesn’t seem to matter.)

    Over and over again what I see is a movement of people bent on imposing their moral view of the world on others, especially in regard to sex. If the “pro-life” movement was in any way interested in lowering the abortion rate, why don’t they push for improved access to comprehensive sex education, better access to birth control, reformed adoption laws and improved and supported services to young girls and women from disadvantaged backgrounds so they have opportunities? In fact, they tend to be the very same people who work *against* many of the things that would lower the abortion rate. Make no mistake, for many on the “pro-life” side, it’s about controlling women’s bodies and lives to fit their moral world view, it has little to do with “saving babies.”

    I know that there are many reasonable people like you Ellen, people who hold this view of abortion being a moral tragedy and that it should also be legal. But from where I sit, I don’t hear that very often in the debate, what I hear about these days are all the Personhood amendments, I hear from potential GOP presidential candidates that life starts at conception and that there is no reason *ever* for abortion, no exceptions for rape, incest or health of the mother. (We even have a GOP candidate who argues that states should have the right to make birth control illegal!) I think that the mainstream rhetoric of the “pro-life” movement has gotten more and more extreme and more and more unwilling to be reasonable. How do we engage with that sort of stance? I don’t think the pro-choice side of the debate is to blame at all for the shift.


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