The meaning of "pro-life"

A New Yorker piece on South Dakota shows that people on both sides are troubled by the no-exceptions abortion ban.

Published June 21, 2006 9:47PM (EDT)

One thing that's often missing from debates over abortion is the sense that those considering the procedure are real women making complex decisions. And one thing that's often missing from debates over South Dakota's abortion ban is the sense that those considering it -- and now, in particular, those who will vote on the statewide ballot this fall -- are real people making complex decisions.

Cynthia Gorney's article about South Dakota in the June 26 New Yorker fills in both gaps. Gorney's interviews and analysis show that the ban itself has prompted many citizens of that state, even those who call themselves "pro-life," to think harder than ever about what that position means -- and about the real women who'll be affected if an essentially exception-free ban were ever to become law.

Until the passing of the ban "called the question," Gorney writes, the "pro-life" label was "easy for people to use without specifying what they mean by it ... politicians [could] slap 'pro-life' onto campaign literature without having to work out the finer points of actual laws that might be enforced in their states." But the ban's notorious lack of exceptions for rape and incest has -- as certain antiabortion strategists had feared -- left some people wondering if they could stomach actually voting for such a thing.

Ted Hustead, a 55-year-old native South Dakotan who describes himself as Catholic, Republican and "pro-life," served Gormey blueberry pie and said, "If they had kept rape and incest abortions in this bill, it probably would have been a little -- well, palatable for a lot more people. I'm probably going to vote to repeal it ... I think my personal beliefs would not necessarily make good law."

A Rapid City high school senior named Kayla Czmowski, also "pro-life," said, "I'm going, what if something happened to one of my best friends, or to me? ... This is not some abstract candidate. It's your sister, or your daughter. It's your mom."

Among all the people she spoke with, Gorney notes, "it was the rape and incest provision that appeared to be troubling them most -- as though something about this image in particular, the pregnant rape victim being told that she must carry the baby to term, was compelling them to think not about 'abortion for convenience' or 'abortion for birth control,' but instead, about abortion and emotional anguish in the context of real women they know."

And, Gorney says, that's where the moral dilemma gets political -- or at least where the ban, and the pending referendum, have forced "pro-life" to clash with real life. If you're 100 percent "pro-life," under no circumstances can you advocate or accept the notion of ending the life of an "unborn child." Which is tenable in principle, but less so in practice. Taking that position can push your would-be supporters into the "enemy camp," where it is acceptable to weigh the experience of the woman against the potential of the child.

I do have a couple of quibbles with some minor Gorney moments. She seems to gloss over the ban's bizarre loophole permitting the use, during a small window, of emergency contraception -- the same emergency contraception that hardcore abortion opponents also consider to be abortion. And in an otherwise thoughtful Q&A on the New Yorker's Web site, I feel that she gives the matter of "partial-birth abortion" -- a term that to my mind should never, ever appear outside of quotation marks -- way more gravitas than it deserves. (Of course later-term abortion, like any abortion, has a moral dimension, but not in the cruel, cynically contrived and deliberately misleading terms the conjurers of the debate have used to define it.)

Otherwise, I'd say this one's a worth-going-to-the-newsstand read, and not just for the salient parts I've cited. Gorney also offers an interesting anatomy of the South Dakota ban, plus a pre-Roe legislative history of abortion -- and, overall, a reassuring sense that, on many levels, real people are part of this debate.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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