What's wrong with the new pro-lifers

The progressive anti-abortion movement still doesn't truly value the life and identity of the mother

Published July 20, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Each side in the abortion debate has its Achilles' heel. For advocates of choice it's the fetus; those opposed to abortion suffer from a cavalier attitude toward the woman who carries the fetus.

Amid proclamations that common ground has been reached on abortion, a new set of anti-abortion actors has claimed leadership of the movement. They are no longer ultra-fundamentalist Catholics and Evangelicals but anti-war, anti-capital punishment, pro-environment "pro-lifers." Single-issue anti-abortionists thought they diluted the message by claiming abortion and war were equal horrors and other progressives and Democrats thought they were, well, anti-abortionists. But some of them are also opposed to discrimination against women and call themselves feminists.

Before Obama they were voices crying in the wilderness. Now they have emerged as the face of a new and improved anti-abortion movement. And it is improved -- there are few in this crowd who rate abortion issue as the most important moral issue of our time, and they are not single-issue voters. If they were, they would not have supported Obama.

Now they are embedded in the Democratic party, much to the dismay of some. But the value of their inclusion cannot be underestimated because of the effect inclusion could have on their beliefs. For starters, this group has already decided that a political effort to make abortion illegal is hopeless, which helps the pro-choice cause. The possibility of rational public discourse about all the factors at play in women's decisions not to continue pregnancy and not to become mothers is exactly what we need. Taking legality off the table makes that more possible. We are, however, far from common ground between the new anti-abortionists and the pro-choice advocates.

These new anti-abortionists have set forth a new ethical frame for dealing with abortion. They say rather than prohibit abortion we should work to reduce women's use of abortion by making bearing and raising children or bearing children and placing them for adoption more possible. Since data on why women have abortions indicate a significant number of women say they choose abortion because they cannot afford to have a child, the benign anti-choicers think that better economic support for women and girls who are pregnant will result in more continued pregnancies and more women embracing motherhood. They also assert that if adoption policies were friendlier more women would place children for adoption rather than have abortions.

But facts have little place in their strategy, as the very measures they think would lower abortion rates in the U.S. are already in place in much of Europe and few women who face unintended pregnancies in those countries opt out of abortion. Something much deeper influences a woman's decision about what to do when she is pregnant and does not want to become a mother -- and the new anti-choicers don't seem to have a clue about what this might be.

These are good and decent people who, it seems, suffer from the same lack of understanding of women's nature and identity as do old-line anti-abortionists. No attempt is made to explore what it means to a woman to be pregnant or the essential way in which becoming a mother changes women's identities forever -- even if they place a child they bore in adoption.

While the new anti-abortionists do not use the same words as their older counterparts, they are thinking the same thoughts. Pregnancy is natural and normal. It lasts for nine months and then it is over. Motherhood is part of almost all women's life plans. Many thrive on it. It is safe and results in a wonderful thing -- a new person. It is not asking much of a woman who faces an unwanted, difficult or unintended pregnancy to shift the plan she had for this time in her life and continue the pregnancy. That's because the outcome -- the new person -- is obviously so much more valuable than whatever short-term loss or pain the woman might experience. A woman who does not accept this is lacking some core element of womanhood.

This inaccurate idea of what pregnancy is about is not just dominant among those opposed to abortion. It is pretty much the unthinking assumption in modern Western culture. It denies the reality that even in modern Western culture, in the high-tech U.S., every woman who agrees to be pregnant still risks dying if the pregnancy goes awry. But the new anti-abortionists want to use their rosy view of pregnancy as the frame for public policy, and that is where they become indistinguishable from the old anti-abortion movement. For both groups, women are passive participants in gestation. They are the Tupperware containers in which children grow. "Left alone," anti-abortionists say, "the fetus will develop and be born into the world." Left alone? The development of the fetus into a baby is not a mere matter of geography. It is governed by what philosopher Maggie Little of Georgetown University describes as the "actions and resources of an autonomous agent." That includes the woman's "blood, hormones, her energy, all resources that could be going to other of her bodily projects."

No new anti-abortionist talks about these physical realities or questions whether or not the woman has any right to object or consent to having her body used in this way. They seem to take for granted that fetal life always takes precedence over the body and identity claims of the woman. The woman's claim to moral agency is completely disregarded and the traditional anti-choice belief that the fetus' right to life trumps all other values is mindlessly asserted.

But the absence of a serious moral frame for women's role in pregnancy leaves unspoken more than the physical realities of gestation. In the anti-abortion movement there is a romantic thread about women and pregnancy that includes the notion of submission alongside of passivity. However difficult the pregnancy or the circumstances of a woman's life might be, the sign of a good woman is that she submits to the cosmic event. The alteration of her identity from self-identified autonomous person to pregnant woman and to mother are conditions she has no control over -- other than to say no to sex.


Four positions taken by the new anti-abortionists illuminate this flawed thinking.

Denying the "need" for abortion. Pro-choicers and the new anti-abortionists have argued over terminology. Pro-choicers believe we should work to reduce the need for abortion. The new anti-abortionists also want to reduce the number of abortions but say there is never a "need" for abortion. Again, you could only say this if you completely minimize or reject that women's actions and identity are significant moments of moral agency or of the woman's personhood. You would have to believe that women do not "need" to be themselves when pregnant. According to this mind-set, women do not need the freedom to ask and decide if being pregnant with a disabled fetus or bringing it into the world is contrary to their sense of their duties to a potential child, a family or themselves. Women who have serious or even mild health challenges do not need to decide if the burdens of a pregnancy are more than they are able to bear. Because anti-abortionists see pregnancy as a passive activity by women and part of their innate nature, these questions never spring to mind.

A lack of support for contraception. That same sense of pregnancy as no big deal influences the new anti-abortionists' unwillingness to embrace contraception, in spite of the fact that any rational attempt to reduce abortions would require rushing to provide contraception to women. If we really understood what it meant for women to consent to becoming mothers, we would want them to be able to meet their moral obligation to their own identity by avoiding becoming pregnant. Not a single Catholic anti-abortion group, including Pax Christi, Network, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good or Catholics United has had the courage to stand with women and support legislation that will provide women with better and more affordable access to contraception. Evangelicals who have embraced the new approach to abortion opposition have been somewhat more willing to support contraception, but only if they can add that they support it because it will reduce abortions, not because women have a right to prevent becoming pregnant when that is not part of their immediate or long-term identity.

Making sex sacred. This squeamishness around contraception is closely related to the conservative religious community's concept of sex as sacred. More modern religious thinkers as well as secular philosophers look at sacredness not in the context of individual acts of sexual intercourse, but more broadly at the sacredness of procreation. For anti-abortionists, if women were not invisible, a concept of the sacredness of creation would include understanding that one of the most sacred decisions a woman makes is whether it is appropriate for her to participate in procreation, in bringing a child into the world. If we believe that the act of creating new life is sacred, then we want men and women to have the tools necessary to fulfill the obligation to create life responsibly and not create it when they cannot -- or choose not to -- bring it to fruition. Moreover, we would respect women's insights after they became pregnant and honor their obligation to decide if using their life resources to bring a child into the world is the best thing to do. In conditions of poverty, famine, disease, war, unemployment, lack of parenting skills, it is good for women to be able to say, "This is not the time to create a new person."

Redefining adoption. The new anti-abortionists -- and a number of pro-choice advocates -- say a woman who does not choose to be a mother to a new person can continue the pregnancy and place the child for adoption. This seems to me to be a highly gendered position. I would note that most of the leaders of the new anti-abortion movement are men. They include evangelical thinkers and pastors like Joel Hunter, David Gushee and Jim Wallis and Catholics like Chris Korzen and Douglas Kmiec. There is much to respect in the work of these men and much I disagree with. I do not suggest that any of them are anti-woman. However, they all have a biological relationship to pregnancy that is dramatically different from that of women. Men are always in the position of receiving a child as an act of generosity by a woman. How often have you heard the phrase "she gave him three beautiful children," or from a woman in a second marriage, "I want to give a child to my new husband."

These are not trivial gender observations. If one takes gestation seriously, one must question the wisdom of asking women to alter their identity for not just nine months but forever in order to give a child to someone else. A woman who has had a baby is a mother, even if she places the child for adoption. For many, giving up a child becomes an unhappy part of their lifelong identity.

Historically, adoption had as its purpose finding parents for needy children. And in an age when abortion was illegal and contraception less available and safe, the need for parents was great. We need to think carefully about whether the concept of adoption should change. Is it now a process of finding children for needy parents? And, if we accept that pregnancy and child-bearing are serious and identity-altering events in a woman's life, do we want to encourage this option of creating a needy child over other options; to define it as the most generous choice a woman can make? Might it not be more generous of us as a society to work harder to make it possible for women to keep their children if they so wish?

The challenge to the new anti-abortionists is whether or not women's perspectives on the meaning of pregnancy and motherhood will be considered in their project, or whether their ethical frame will remain focused on the fetus. While they set about reducing the number of abortions -- again, not the "need" for abortion -- will the women whose lives they are affecting ever be seen as moral agents? How many of these women's decisions will the new anti-abortionists be able to say "yes" to? So far it seems that it is far more than abortion that is a stumbling block to common ground.


By Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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