The furor over Rep. Todd Akin’s astonishingly irresponsible and oft-quoted remarks this week has once again thrown a complex moral, religious, legal and personal controversy in our country into stark relief, the question of abortion.
It seems to me that the burning question about abortion in the United States is not primarily about whether or not any given woman or teenage girl should or can have one, but about whether or not such actions should be lawful: the crux of the matter in this country is around the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade, which cleared the way for abortions to be performed legally in the United States. The language of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” is deliberately inflammatory. I’m not against language that inflames per se (perhaps this essay will demonstrate that), but I prefer to frame this not as an issue of life versus choice, but as an issue of legal access to abortion versus its legal abolition. It is an issue of maintaining the legal strictures in place as a result of Roe v. Wade (RvW), or intentionally altering the Constitution to remove those strictures. So may I suggest an experiment: instead of “pro-life,” I propose “anti-RvW,” and “pro-RvW” in place of “pro-choice.”
There are some positions that I disagree with and don’t understand. Same-sex marriage, for instance: intellectually, I suppose I can generally grasp the opposition to it, but deep in my heart, in the tenderest parts of my innards, I just don’t get it. Abortion is different. I disagree with the propositions and stances of the anti-RvW camp. But I get it. The intentional termination of a pregnancy through medical intervention is indeed a complex and difficult moral issue. Nevertheless, as a religious leader, a citizen-voter, and as a human being, I have to take a stand on what I think is right.
While I applaud the GOP for demanding that Rep. Akin drop his Senate bid, this occurred during the same week that Republicans approved party platform language that calls for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. I strongly disagree with this move, but I will openly and freely admit it contains a stroke of internally consistent logic. If one truly believes abortion is murder, then what difference does it make how conception took place? I always felt there was an inherent hypocrisy or cowardice in the political posture of abolishing all abortions “except in cases of rape or incest.” It seems as if those who strike this pose are acknowledging that there are circumstances in which a woman should have a right to choose — just exceedingly narrow ones. “Abortion is murder,” this seems to declare, “but if, say, you’re a thirteen-year-old girl and your father raped you — well, okay then, you can go ahead and get an abortion.” In other words, for a woman or girl to have the right to choose, she can only earn it by unimaginable suffering and humiliation. Why do political conservatives grouse endlessly about reducing the role of government in our lives while endorsing positions that are so aggressively intrusive into the lives of women and girls? If we are going to promote that kind of government meddling in our personal lives, perhaps it would be fairer for both males and females to share the burden. Perhaps what’s needed is a move for a Constitutional amendment to prohibit males from having sexual intercourse with females, unless 1) procreative intent on the part of both parties has been firmly established (and of course the government would need us to fill out government-approved forms and such to declare such intent) , or 2) the male is required to wear a condom or provide legally verifiable proof of his being 100% infertile. If such a law could be passed and enforced, that would diminish the number of abortions spectacularly. If the passing and enforcement of such laws would seem preposterously invasive, why is the imposition of laws that restrict women’s sexual activity considered acceptable?
The religious voices that are anti-RvW come from diverse traditions. What many of these traditions have in common, it seems to me, is an absence of female leadership. There are no female Roman Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals or popes. One person I know and love very much is a Pentecostal Christian and very much anti-RvW; there are no female pastors in this person’s church. I am not saying that religious institutions that bar women from professional leadership positions are not entitled to opinions on the issue of abortion, or any other issue, whether it pertains to women or not. I am saying that the absence of women in leadership roles in those religious communities is not irrelevant — especially if that absence is the result of a deliberate and tenaciously guarded policy.
The anti-RvW movement appears to be motivated by a dream of a world in which abortion disappears. But there is no reason to believe that abortion would disappear if the anti-RvW movement achieved its objectives. Women and girls had abortions before RvW; they just had to take far greater risks to their health and safety. I need not reprise the back-alley, coat-hanger refrains of the pro-RvW movement, but those assertions are correct. Some political and social conservatives claim that if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns; I wonder why more conservatives don’t also argue that if abortions are outlawed, only outlaws will perform them — outlaws regulated by no professional medical organization, licensed by no government, accountable to no one for their training, their competence, the fees they charge, the sanitary conditions (or lack thereof) they provide, or the survival rates of the women and teens upon whom they perform abortions. These are circumstances in which women and teenage girls are maimed and killed. We know this is true because this is what happened in the United States before 1973. It is not clear how a return to such conditions would promote the sanctity of human life.
I saw a bumper sticker recently that said something like:
Africans didn’t choose slavery
Jews didn’t choose the Holocaust
Babies don’t choose abortion
I couldn’t help but think: But that’s the whole point. Babies don’t choose abortion; they don’t choose anything at all. The pregnant woman or teenage girl is the one who has to make all the choices — not just about abortion, but about what to eat and whether or not to quit smoking or what kind of prenatal medical care she is going to receive. Many women and teenage girls have very limited choices around many of those things, but the point is, the above bumper sticker leaves pregnant women and teens entirely out of the equation. And any argument about abortion which leaves pregnant women and girls out of the equation is not only irrelevant and morally suspect, it’s dangerous.