From the time I was old enough to vote, I knew one thing for sure: I had to vote pro-life. Other factors could be taken into consideration – and as a burgeoning intellectual I took pride in giving at least a cursory glance to contextual matters, such as education and the environment – but in comparison to the abortion issue, everything else was really window dressing.
I’m not sure when I began overtly to question this principle. It might have been when I found myself in a crisis pregnancy and empathizing with other women who, in similar situations, lacked the resources and assistance I had. It might have been when I began to notice that the politicians I was told I had to support were pretty uninterested in defending life, when it came to issues other than abortion. Yes, Trump is the poster child for this, but he’s far from the first on the Republican ticket to make noises about respect for life while acting utterly indifferent to it.
Educating myself about the societal factors that contribute to abortion, through organizations like Feminists for Life, helped me to see the question of choice in a broader context. I started asking, why is there a demand for abortion? What could we do to decrease that demand? What would a truly pro-life society look like?
Or maybe it was just time. Over and over, we were made the same promises, and voted for the same politicians, and nothing they did seemed to have any effect on the abortion rate. After a while, if one is paying attention, it makes sense to be suspicious.
At one point, I filled out a questionnaire from FFL, that was intended to gauge how pro-life a college campus was. That was when I was still employed at Franciscan University, which you’d think would get a high score – but it did not. Pro-life activities? Check. Plenty of those. But FFL asked also about health plans for pregnant students, housing for pregnant students, on-site childcare, maternal leave for employees, reserved parking for pregnant women or parents of infants, nursing rooms, baby-changing tables – and on all of these counts, Franciscan scores abysmally low. One would be far better off being pregnant at an IKEA.
And yes, I began to take seriously concerns about trauma to women, coercion, bodily autonomy, and the complexity of factors surrounding what is rarely a simple issue of “choice.”
It’s about ten years now since I started approaching the abortion issue from a different angle, and what I want to ask, right now, is: why are people who claim to be pro-life so uninterested in doing what works?
Why are they so unwilling actually to defend lives?
Because the statistics are there. No matter what we may have believed, in all sincerity, 25 or 35 years ago – no matter how ideologically pure it seems to be – outlawing abortion simply does not seem to work. In Pakistan, for instance, abortion is illegal – and they have the highest abortion rates in the world. In contrast, abortion is legal – with restrictions – in Switzerland, and their rates are the lowest.
It would be foolish to say that making abortion legal is what reduces abortion rates. However, it seems to be the case that making abortion illegal also doesn’t reduce the abortion rates. There are many factors that do, but lack of access seems not to be especially significant. Some studies even suggest that lack of access at least correlates with conditions that drive the rates up.
When conversing with pro-choice feminists, one repeatedly hears the mantra that access to contraception, available health care, and financial security are the best ways to prevent abortions. And statistics show that they’re right.
Perhaps their reiteration of this is motivated more by concern for the well-being of women, who would in general prefer to avoid the trauma of abortion, than for the right to life of the unborn. But shouldn’t those who are concerned about the right to life of the unborn – as well as, one hopes, the well-being of women – take their statements seriously, given that they are backed up by statistics?If they won’t, why not?
Again: why are people so unwilling to do what it takes to defend life?
Several possibilities come to mind.
First, habit. If one is a long-time prolifer, one is accustomed to doing the same things: vote Republican, March for Life, support crisis pregnancy centers. It’s hard for some people to step outside of a beaten path, even for the sake of long-cherished values. This is especially the case when it keeps being reiterated by church and government leaders that we must keep on doing the same thing, over and over – and, trust us, this time it will work!
Second, speaking of those leaders, it’s clear that for many, at least in the political arena, keeping alive the outrage about legal abortion is a great way to demonize the opposition. Single issue voters appear willing to accept any number of atrocities, so long as their leaders reiterate “but abortion.” For these politicians, making abortion illegal would be profoundly inconvenient, because they’d lose a major bargaining chip.
Third, it’s less about right to life and more about policing women’s bodies. This would also explain the hostility towards sex ed, and the willingness to elect “prolife” officials with terrible records when it comes to respecting the sexual autonomy of women.
Last, a naive understanding of the relationship between law, morality, and outcomes. This is understandable. If we see a thing we know is wrong, we need to outlaw it, right? The idea of not having a law preventing it violates our sense of justice. I get this. And here might be the major difference between the average pro-choicer, who doesn’t like abortion, and many pro-lifers who not only don’t like it but view it as morally wrong in all cases. It is almost unbearable for the pro-lifer to accept the possibility that it might be more effective not to enact laws banning this thing they know to be ethically untenable.
Yet I know pro-choice feminists who also identify as “anti-abortion.”
For those of us who a) believe in the inviolability of a woman’s bodily autonomy and b) also believe in the dignity of life of the unborn, it seems obvious that we need to do what works.
It’s tempting, too, to turn on their heads the accusations that have been made against us – to accuse pro-life extremists of clearly loving abortion, of being indifferent to life, since they’re so adamant in their refusal to do what it takes to protect unborn lives. And yes, I do believe some of them legitimately do not care about babies, or women, or life itself. It’s more about “owning the libs” or winning a culture war. Just see their indifference to the lives of immigrant children, and you’ll see what I mean.
But for those Catholics who are genuinely motivated by a desire to protect life, and believe that ideally our laws should ally with this: let me direct you towards this quotation from Evangelium Vitae:
Here it must be noted that it is not enough to remove unjust laws. The underlying causes of attacks on life have to be eliminated, especially by ensuring proper support for families and motherhood. A family policy must be the basis and driving force of all social policies. For this reason there need to be set in place social and political initiatives capable of guaranteeing conditions of true freedom of choice in matters of parenthood. It is also necessary to rethink labour, urban, residential and social service policies so as to harmonize working schedules with time available for the family, so that it becomes effectively possible to take care of children and the elderly.
Whether your emphasis is on protection of women’s rights, on protection of the rights of the unborn, or protection of both, it it obvious that the best way to achieve these ends is by implementing robust and far-reaching social policies guaranteeing access to medical care, parental leave, sexual education, and economic justice.
If you refuse to do these things, proven to protect the unborn, why would I not conclude that you are indifferent to the value of human life?
image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_pregnant_woman%27s_silhouette_(Unsplash_OghefWjG96w).jpg