Saturday, June 09, 2007

Framing Abortion: Pro-Life vs. Anti-Choice...

I strongly suspect that this comes as no shock to most of you, but I'm very much pro-choice. I've never made a secret of this. Whenever the subject comes up, I'm more than willing to share my thoughts. One of the things that always annoys me is the blatant inconsistency of the so-called "pro-life" crowd. The logical gap between claiming that abortion is murder, but making exceptions for rape and incest is a source of bother to me.

First, terminology: Each side of the debate, obviously, wants to frame the debate in a way that helps their side. That's totally understandable. One side wants to be called "pro-life." While I take it as obvious why this might be, it can't hurt to examine, anyway. By calling themselves "pro-life" they get to select the focus of the debate. The pro-choice side want to focus on the rights of a woman to control her body. In general, most people don't have a problem with the idea that we should have control of our body, so they call themselves "pro-life" because it shifts the focus from the rights of the woman to the alleged rights of the fetus. It's, in large part, an appeal to emotion- the fetus is incapable of defending itself, and is an "innocent" life. So, they frame themselves as the defenders of these helpless little babies. A new tactic of theirs is to call the other side "anti-life." More on that in a second.

I, on the other hand, think of myself as "pro-choice." Again, it should be obvious why, but I think that certain aspects get missed. Pro-choicers are not pro-choicers just because they think that women should have the option to abort, although that's the hot topic. Pro-choicers think that women should have the ability to make choices about all aspects of their reproductive health. Abortion is one choice, but choices about contraception, adoption, etc are all important as well. If a woman wants to have a child, she should be able to make that choice, and shouldn't be shamed or derided for it. She should have all of the tools necessary to make that choice.

The opposition wants to frame this as "anti-life," though. The implication is that supporting a woman's right to choose abortion must, necessarily mean that you endorse killing babies. This is a ridiculous and offensive position to take. Being pro-choice is about supporting whatever choice the woman thinks is best. This is why pro-choicers are accurately thought of as pro-choice, and not anti-life. I've never met someone who thought that all women should be forced to have abortions, which would be the stance of someone who was pro-abortion or anti-life.

Some pro-choicers (myself included, in many instances) have taken to thinking of the other side as anti-choice, or pro-forced-pregnancy. I think that this is both an appeal to emotion, and a fairly accurate assesment of the opposition's stance. The pro-life side, by and large, seem to care a lot less about the life of the fetus, and a lot more about the choices that the pregnant woman made that got her there. The opposition mostly support policies that force women to give birth, or oppose women's ability to make choices- both the choice to get an abortion, as well as the choice to have sex. They may not think that sex should be illegal, but they certainly condemn and criticize women who have sex out of wedlock. The idea seems to be that women who have and enjoy sex "should have known better" and that being forced to have a child is a consequence that will make them be more responsible in the future.

Their opposition to choice doesn't stop there, though. The anti-choice crowd tend to be the same ones that oppose ready access to birth control and accurate sex education. The opposition to a woman having the right to choose begins when they're still girls, with the opposition to safe, accurate information about sex and sexual health. As women get older and consider having sex, it moves into an opposition to women having easy access to birth control. Once a woman is having sex, it takes the form of refusing access to Plan B and other emergency contraception. Once a woman is pregnant, it rolls over into opposition to programs that would provide a pregnant women with ready access to prenatal care, and ends up with a complete and vocal criticism of abortion and attempts to ban and block access to the procedure. And after woman have given birth, where are the pro-life crowd? Are they out trying to help programs that give aid to women in poverty and women who can't afford health care for their children? Go ahead and guess.

Now, I completely understand why they'd bristle about being called anti-choice or pro-forced-pregnancy. When using terminology like that, you're starting from a pretty tough place. It's a lot harder to convince people that your position is the right one when your position is that women should be punished for having sex. It's hard to sway an audience when your position is "We support forcing people to endure a major life change against their will." It's a lot easier if you're saying "but what about the innocent baby?!" Innocent babies aren't a tough sell- even people who dislike children are hard pressed to think that it's good to kill them.

The problem is that the pro-life stance seems to be logically inconsistent. The most vocal pro-lifers positions, upon close inspection, become clearly intellectually dishonest, which helps make it very obvious that their concern isn't so much the life of the fetus as it is moralizing and punishing women who are "foolish enough to get knocked up."

The rape and incest exceptions are key here. The average pro-lifer seems to say "Abortion is wrong and should be outlawed. Except for in cases of rape and maybe incest. In those cases, we should allow it." I think that most people think that abortion should be allowed if the woman's life is threatened (although not everyone thinks so). On the surface, it seems hard to argue against that, right? I mean, nobody wants to force a woman to give birth to her rapist's child, right?

There's a major problem with claiming to be pro-life, but willing to make exceptions for rape, though. The idea of the pro-life side seems to be that the fetus is an innocent in the whole thing, and should have the same right to life that all of us have. The fetus can't choose to be conceived or not, and it's wrong to kill it... because it's innocent and helpless. That would be a pro-life stance. The fetus is alive. It's wrong to kill it. End of story.

The rape exception throws a wrench into the whole thing, though. The fetus is no less innocent for having been the product of rape or incest. The fetus still had no say in the conception, and still can't speak or defend itself. If your problem is with the idea of killing a fetus, it doesn't make sense to make exceptions for something like rape, since the fetus is no less innocent and no less helpless, etc, for the circumstances of the conception.

The only reason that one might make an exception for rape and remain logically consistent is because you're judging abortion in regards to the woman, and not the fetus. Specifically: you're concerned about her actions. In that case, rape exceptions make perfect sense, since it wasn't any direct action on the part of the woman that led to the conception. That the fetus is an innocent is irrelevent, because the woman didn't have a choice.

Following through, we realize that the reason abortion is wrong isn't because of the status of the fetus, again, but because of the actions of the woman. The pro-life stance is anti-choice, because their objection is to the actions of the woman. It's about controlling the actions of women and controlling sexual identity.
A woman who gets pregnant because she made a choice to have sex is somehow "less than" a woman who is pregnant because of the actions of an other. She shouldn't be allowed to make the choice to have an abortion, because she needs to accept the consequences of sex. In other words, she needs to be taught a lesson. You'll see many anti-choicers using language like that: "She needs to accept the consequences of her actions" or "If she didn't want to get knocked up, she shouldn't have had sex."

In fact, a careful look at most major pro-life arguments shows how quickly the debate takes that tone. Lip-service is paid to the whole "but the innocent baby!" line, but the argument almost always breaks down into a criticisms of the woman and her actions. It's almost always more about her being sexually active and needing to learn her lesson than it is about the life of the fetus.

There are a few people who really are pro-life, I think. There are a lot of people who are anti-choice because they haven't done a lot of personal searching on the issue. For a lot of them, it's a religious issue, or it's something that they've been indoctrinated in, and they're repeating the sound-bites. I've only seen a few people who are logically consistant pro-lifers.

I find it a lot easier to respect pro-lifers like that, even though their position is even more offensive than the average pro-lifer's. I can respect it because those are the people who really believe that abortion is murder. I completely disagree with them, but at least they're being intellectually honest in the debate- they believe that the fetus has a right to life- if you kill one, you're murdering it, and that's wrong. They're not just moralizing to women about sex, they're trying to save lives.

I still think they're wrong, though.

I wrote a lot of this some time ago, but I want to take a moment here to discuss something that really has been bothering me. On one of the sites I go to on a regular basis, a commenter has taken to making blatantly offensive comparisons between abortion and, say, rape or assault.

So why not let men date rape women? I mean, if a guy can't have any other options for sex, why can't he get a girl a little drunk and make her do something she'll regret? After all, he has a right to experience life as a sexual being. Are anti-rapists "forcing abstinence" on unwilling men?
We don't allow robbery of grocery stores because we are against "forced starvation," we don't allow embezzlement because we are against "forced poverty," we don't allow rape because we are against "forced celibacy," and we shouldn't allow abortion because we are against "forced birth."


I don't think that men should be able to get out of parenthood by kicking their girlfriends in the stomach, even though that would accomplish the unalienable right to decide how and when to become a parent.

These kinds of tactics only further illustrate the intellectual dishonesty of some anti-choicers. Intentionally conflating a woman's right to control her own body with a rapist's forcing himself on another person shows a marked lack of concern for the rights of women. Further, it shows an intentional disregard for the pain and suffering of victims of assault, and a disdain for women who do get abortions. The differences between wanting to control your body's integrity and wanting to force yourself on another person sexually should be obvious to anyone who is being remotely honest and sincere in their beliefs.


NewsCat said...

I'm always supportive of new blogs. It's effort to keep it going and feedback is important.

So interestingly enough, sometimes I find the anti-abortion side can be more consistant than certain types of so-called pro-choice people. There are certain anti-abortion (let's call them that rather than pro-life) who are at least consistant about the idea "NO ABORTIONS FOR ANYONE."

Whereas I have seen a lot of so-called 'pro-choice" or "pro-life" people who waver on when and who can have an abortion. Basically, some pro-choice/pro-life people are for conditional abortions...only rape victims, say. Or only women-who-we-think-aren't-sluts.

These are the people who say they are uncomfortable with the fact a woman might have 3 abortions in a lifetime. Or the pro-life people who are willing to let really sympathic cases have abortions, but not everyone.

In an odd way, I won't say I admire the most hard-line "No abortions for anyone" crowd, but at least they have a consistant attitude towards women instead of one that is based on the individual circumstances of the person seeking an abortion.

Anonymous said...

I love your "slut shaming" tag. That's great.

And I knew whose notes those are :)

ShelbyWoo said...

Whereas I have seen a lot of so-called 'pro-choice" or "pro-life" people who waver on when and who can have an abortion. Basically, some pro-choice/pro-life people are for conditional abortions...only rape victims, say. Or only women-who-we-think-aren't-sluts.

Those kinds of people are NOT pro-choice, even if they call themselves that. They chose to limit options, that firmly makes them anti-choice.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Yes to your entire post! I would also point out that what these people are basically arguing for are special rights for fetuses. No class of postnatal human beings gets to leech off other people's bodies against their will. But the anti-choicers think that fetuses have the right to do so. Pretty rich coming from a group that has, shall we say, a very strong overlap with the group of people who consider gay people's desire to obtain the same protection for their families as straight people have to be looking for "special rights."

Anonymous said...

You know, I used to think the pro-life movement really was about life, until I read that many pro-life groups were opposing the HPV vaccine. That's when I realised that the movement really was about sexual morality and punishing women for having sex. Nobody who opposes a vaccine that can save thousands of lives per year has the right to call themselves "pro-life".

That being said, although you're right about a lot of supposed pro-lifers, I can understand the rape and incest exemption if a person's position is that the mental and physical health of a woman is more important than the fetus. In that case, it makes sense to make an exception if forcing a woman to carry the baby of her rapist would be damaging to her mental health.

Rex Libris said...

That being said, although you're right about a lot of supposed pro-lifers, I can understand the rape and incest exemption if a person's position is that the mental and physical health of a woman is more important than the fetus.

But, if they really think that the mental and physical health of the woman trumps the fetus, then how can the justify ever forcing a woman to carry the pregnancy? It seems like ever being forced to carry an unwanted child would cause some kind of emotional strain, and it certainly carries physical risk.

Anonymous said...

goodness, MRB. all i want to do after reading this is say what i said to the sad individual carrying the gigantic aborted fetus picture on the corner of michigan ave... (for a laugh, of course) but i can only imagine the controversy it would spark, lol.

Agkyra said...

Thanks for this interesting essay. Just a few comments on the question of terminology. The two sides in the abortion debate are concerned about two different things: the pro-life side is concerned about protecting the lives of the unborn, the pro-choice side is concerned about maintaining women's legal right to choose abortion. The debate centers around both life and choice, not one to the exclusion of the other. Consequently, it's most charitable, in my view, to refer to each side using the label it prefers. Especially since both "pro" terms succinctly relate the key issue from that side's point-of-view.

Another reason: the "pro" terms are so common that they've practically become technical terms and lost any kind of euphemistic connotation or propagandizing influence. In fact, if a person is really concerned about the issues, it is probably wisest to use the "pro" terms because they're uncontroversial and everyone immediately knows who is being referred to. And that's the point, isn't it, to be clear about who we're referring to. We could call one side "The Floors" and the other "The Ceilings" and it wouldn't matter--the names contribute nothing substantive to the debate. When we start talking about the other side as "anti" this or that, that's a great way to inflame the participants and sidetrack the discussion into bickering and name calling. I'm not accusing you of that, since this is really a thoughtful essay about the issue of terminology itself.

On the issue of rape and incest, you're right that it's an inconsistency in some pro-lifers' position. I'm pro-life and do not support legal abortion in cases of rape or incest for exactly the reasons you gave. It's also my impression that most pro-lifers don't support those exceptions. Moreover, I believe the ones that do, do so for reasons of political expediency, to make the pro-life position more palatable to some people in the middle. So, I don't think you've stumbled onto the Achilles heel of the pro-life position here.

One last thing. Even for pro-lifers who do support a rape and incest exception, I don't think it's fair of you to throw that in their face as a way to say, "See, you really don't care about the life of the unborn, you care about controlling the woman's moral freedom." If people are logically inconsistent, the most you can say is that they're logically inconsistent. You can point that out and see how they respond. What you cannot logically do is use the inconsistency to infer what they really believe. How do I know that? First, it's possible for people to believe things that are logically inconsistent without realizing it. Second, consider this: if you have two logically inconsistent propositions held by the same person, how can you judge which of the two the person really believes? In your argument, you're claiming that the person really supports the rape and incest exception, and so the pro-life position is a ruse. But how do you know that the opposite isn't the case? In fact, I believe the opposite is the case, except I wouldn't classify the exception as a ruse but, as I said above, a political expedient.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I refuse to use the "pro-life" term for those who oppose abortions anymore; it's their framing, and frankly, it's a lie. Most abortion foes don't support actions that would seriously diminish abortions (low-cost or free birth control and birth control education for all women); moreover, they've shown time and again that the health and life of the woman is not their major concern. I think "anti-reproductive rights" groups might be the right name for them.