Monday, January 22, 2007

On why I'm pro-choice

Okay, so today marks the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and a lot of feminist blogs are participating in a "Blog for Choice" day with posts explaining why they're pro-choice. But although I do consider myself pro-choice, this post wasn't inspired by them. It was actually inspired, if you can believe it, by something my priest said in church on Sunday about the sanctity of life.

Father X (as I'll call him, since he doesn't deserve to have his good name dragged into the perpetual moral decay of this blog) talked yesterday about how we, as Catholics, are expected to respect life - all life. Today, of course, the life of the unborn comes to mind, but "pro-life"ness tends to focus on that life at the expense of all others. Jesus didn't have a lot to say about abortion, but he had plenty to say about the homeless, the widowed, the unclean, prisoners, foreigners - basically, anyone who doesn't have someone to take care of them. Father talked about doing prison ministries, coming in with deacons and lay ministers and seeing the looks on the prisoners' faces as they realized that, contrary to their beliefs at the time, they hadn't been forgotten and disregarded because of their crimes. Jesus, after all, hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, people with disabilities that others presumed to be punishment for sins, basically everyone that everyone else had declared unworthy of contact. Jesus loved the innocents, the children, the devout and holy, but he also loved the filthy, the sinful, and the unloved.

Abortion is a bad thing. Pro-choicers are often reluctant to say that flat-out, because the automatic anti-choice response is, "Well, if it's bad, why don't you want to make it illegal?" and that's a door few people want to open. The short answer to that question is that there is a difference between something being bad and something being illegal, but that is another, lengthy and involved, post. But most pro-choicers do recognize that abortion is a bad thing - if someone is having an abortion, it means that either a) they're carrying a baby they wanted, but medical reasons are causing them to terminate the pregnancy, or b) something has happened to make them pregnant when they don't want to be. And that is a failure not of a woman, but of a society.

So one of the reasons that I'm pro-choice is that I think that preventing abortion starts long before a woman walks into Planned Parenthood. Abortion is a symptom; unwanted pregnancy is the disorder, and preventing that will prevent abortion. Abstinence-only education, for instance, keeps our teenagers ignorant about sex and contraception; at exactly the time their surging hormones are urging them to procreate, our kids hear nothing beyond just don't do it and are left to subsist on nothing more than their teenaged willpower. For those who do learn about birth control, lack of access to health care makes it difficult for some to acquire it, and those who can get a prescription often have to face down puritanical pharmacists unwilling to distribute birth control pills or emergency contraception. Giving women - young and old, married and unmarried - the wherewithal to not get pregnant practically eliminates the need for abortion at all.

What about teen sex? Most agree that it should be discouraged, and yet a society so bizarrely focused on the state of a young girl's hymen practically guarantees that she'll have issues in the future. A girl raised from childhood with the idea that her virginity is a precious and sacred gift to save for some as-yet-unmet future husband learns to put all of her personal value on that "purity," on sex. And that "purity" becomes a currency that can be traded away for affection, popularity, a false sense of self-esteem. When emphasis is put on the girl as a human being with value all her own, she can have the confidence to wait until the time is right, not because she's saving herself for some fabled groom, but because she doesn't need to rely on the attention of others for affirmation. Giving our teenagers the information they'll need to get through those difficult years of young adulthood, giving them the support they need to make decisions for the right reasons, and giving them the tools to deal with the choices they make are all key to preventing teen sex, teen pregnancy, and the teen abortion that might result.

What about pregnancies that haven't been prevented? It's a sad truth that in this rich nation of ours, having a baby takes more resources that many women have. It's also a sad truth that many anti-choicers are quick to jump in for the sake of the fetus and then just as quick to jump out when it turns into a baby. Today's pregnant woman being saved from the evils of abortion is tomorrow's single mother being reviled for being a dirty slut. More support for women with children - those willing to put them up for adoption, and those who choose to keep them - throughout gestation and after delivery would reduce the number of abortions performed because of the exorbitant physical, financial, and emotional costs of motherhood.

Preventing unwanted pregnancy, reducing teen sex, making it easier for women to carry pregnancies to term - all of those are ways that communities and the government could reduce the number of abortions. And that's a good thing, but not exclusively pro-choice. What makes me pro-choice is that I believe that, ultimately, a woman should have control over her own body. Blah, blah, blah, "It's a child, not a choice;" let me tell you a story.

I got the chance to witness the sanctity of life three years ago when a coworker became pregnant. I got to watch B go from flat-tummied to hugely swollen over the course of nine months. And one memorable day, she shouted to me to come into her office, grabbed my hand, and tucked it under her enormous belly. After several still and silent minutes, I felt a tiny flutter. The fetus had the hiccups.

Motherhood is an enormous responsibility. It has to be something a woman takes on voluntarily. Six months into her pregnancy, B's invisible zygote had turned into a fetus and was well on its way to becoming a tiny person. To tell a woman, fearful about her unwanted pregnancy, that she was twenty-four weeks away from feeling another being hiccup inside of her body could change her life - or make her more terrified than ever. To punish a woman for having sex by forcing her to carry and deliver a human being not only denies her the right to make decisions about her own life, but it turns the baby into a weapon, a method of punishment.

Respecting the sanctity of life means ensuring that every child brought into this world is wanted and loved. It means that no child is an accident, a burden, a penance, or a reparation for someone's sin. It means respecting a woman's right to know when a pregnancy would ruin her life. It means respecting a child's right to have a purpose for being, beyond a mere consequence for an action. And all of that means seeing women as partners in the process, not objects that need to have their decisions made for them.

No one wants abortions. Despite the protestations of the anti-choicers, pro-choicers don't hate babies, and we don't want to see more abortions. But just as a heart transplant is a sign of illness in the body, abortion is a sign of illness in society - and banning abortion won't heal that illness, any more than banning open-heart surgery will prevent heart disease. Truly respecting the sanctity of life means looking beyond the symptoms and addressing the causes for the illness. That is the only reliable way to prevent abortion, and that is a goal we all have in common.

We're often asked to consider what Jesus would do. Listening to Father X's homily yesterday, I'm fairly sure that the man who fed the homeless, healed lepers, ate with tax collectors, forgave prostitutes, and guaranteed a spot in heaven to the very thief crucified next to him would not be standing outside an abortion clinic, holding a picture of a bloody fetus and shouting obscenities at women as they passed. And I'm fairly sure he wouldn't be standing up in Congress, telling single mothers to work more hours so they could afford to raise their kids or composing horrific laundry-list snuff fantasies detailing the degredation a virginal girl would have to suffer to escape the punishment of a forced pregnancy. I daren't speak for the man, but I suspect he would show compassion and understanding and see in each woman not an example to be made with harsh, sweeping legislation, but a human life - a sacred life - worthy of empathy and human decency from a community entirely capable of delivering it.

(If you haven't been keeping up, that's us.)

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