Choice Joyce: April 2006

Choice Joyce

Essays from a pro-choice feminist liberal skeptic infidel activist (and animal lover)

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Let no fetus defeat us!

(trust women)

By Joyce Arthur

In today's abortion debate, the fetus looms large – larger than life one might say, given the giant posters of phony aborted fetuses the anti-abortion movement likes to parade around with.

There's been increasing demands lately for the American pro-choice movement to "face the fetus," to admit things like abortion kills a human being – or if not an actual human being, then at least something valuable and worthy of sober contemplation. We're supposed to worry that abortion rights may have gone too far, concede that abortion is bad, agree there are too many abortions, and work to reduce them. Towards that end, the anti-choice contingent wants to restrict both abortion and contraception by law to force women to have babies, while some pro-choice people would just prefer to put all women on birth control. Yes, we apparently have only two moral choices when it comes to this most urgent priority of saving babies – produce them fully-fledged, or make sure they never reach the single-cell stage to begin with. It's everyone's job now. Oh, except for women of childbearing age, who are just the passive receptacles for our baby and non-baby programs alike.

Being a woman myself, but not a passive receptacle, I've got a better idea. Let's just butt out of the whole thing. And trust pregnant women to decide what to do. Women have been having sex, getting pregnant, delivering babies, and yes, having abortions since the origin of the species. So I think we know what we're doing. We know what our needs and wants are, we understand our situations like no-one else can, and we care about our families and our futures. We can figure out by ourselves what's best for any particular pregnancy. When we want outside advice, we'll ask for it. Frankly, any unwanted interference with our decision insults our intelligence, our moral wisdom, and our very humanity.

Oh, but what about the fetus? Shouldn't everyone care about what happens to it? Well...NO, actually. And there are two good reasons for that:

A. Fetuses are not that important.
B. Fetuses are none of our business.

If that shocks and offends you, it's probably because you subscribe to one or more irrational and insupportable beliefs, which I'll get to in a moment.

First, let me emphasize that the crucial exception to both of these reasons is the pregnant woman. She has full authority and rights to consider her own personal fetus to be the most important and valuable thing in the world. Or not. She can judge it however she likes, and then decide whether it should live or die. It's her call and hers alone. Of course, if she's happily pregnant and wants to share her joy, it's incumbent on her friends and family to celebrate her fetus, too. But that's about it. If you think that a particular fetus deserves to be born regardless of the pregnant woman's view, then your opinion is based on irrational and insupportable reasons.

You might protest that, in a collective sense, fetuses should be “our business” if they are destined to be born, since we want them to enjoy happy, healthy, and productive lives once they arrive. But their health and welfare is best assured indirectly, by helping pregnant women access pre-natal care and resources. A pregnant woman wants a good outcome for her baby far more than anybody else, so all we have to do is give her the means to make it happen. Also, it’s well-documented that women, families, communities, and entire countries benefit in myriad ways when women have the power to decide if and when to have children, and how many they can adequately care for. These benefits can’t be fully realized without access to abortion, which makes abortion a moral positive that outweighs any supposed right-to-life of a fetus.

You might bristle at my claim that fetuses are "not that important." But remember that the vast majority of abortions are done when the fetus is really just a miniscule cluster of cells, or a mostly unformed entity about the size and shape of a cashew, maybe a Brazil nut. Regardless of its potential to become a human being, there is simply no physical comparison between an early fetus and a born baby. The latter also has rights and a legally-recognized existence, unlike a fetus. And there is certainly no comparison between an early fetus and a grown woman. A pregnant woman has sentience, rights, an established life, and a large web of connections to people who need and love her. The fetus does not. On those grounds, fetuses are simply not as important to us, socially speaking, compared to born babies or grown women. At least they shouldn't be.

But many people think fetuses are enough of a priority to allow interference with a woman's reproductive autonomy – some even believe that saving a fetus overrides a woman's own right-to-life. I see four possible reasons for such a stance, all equally irrational and insupportable.

1. Egocentrism - People identify personally with the fetus - after all, we were all embryos once. "That aborted fetus could have been me!" This view personifies the fetus, empathizing with its plight as if the fetus were part of one's own identity and personality, or at least anthropomorphizing it into a sentient being just like ourselves. Abortion symbolizes the possible non-existence of one's own self, a deeply frightening and intolerable prospect to many people. Rank-and-file anti-abortion people who seem to truly care about fetuses fall into this category, but many in the pro-choice "muddled middle" probably do too.

2. Soul-saving - Most anti-abortion people are deeply religious, and they may worry about the fate of the fetus' soul. If a fetus is aborted, it will never have a chance to be saved and go to heaven, unlike adult women who've had ample chance to convert to Jesus. Therefore, it's crucial that fetuses be born so they have a chance to be saved, while women's needs and circumstances hardly matter.

3. Fear of freedom - The anti-abortion mindset tends to adhere to the "strict father" authoritarian model. People's beliefs and behavior must be molded and controlled, especially since human nature is basically "sinful," as many people believe. They're convinced people need God to be good, or at least plenty of laws and rules. If left to their own devices, and given too much freedom, people will descend into irresponsibility, debauchery, and downright evil. Traditional roles for men and women also play an essential role in keeping everyone on the straight and narrow. When men are breadwinners and family heads, and women are faithful wives and mothers, the world becomes a safe and secure place. Rebels, such as women who have abortions, must be contained and punished because they upset the world order, make God mad, and risk his vengeance. Most right-wing leaders and activists are under the sway of Reason #3.

4. Fear of women - This reason encompasses sexist attitudes in general, but when it comes to abortion, it's rooted in the belief that women's primary, ennobling role is to bear and raise children. If a woman doesn't want that, there must be something wrong with her. Fear of women also means disapproving of and trying to control women's sexuality when it's freely expressed outside the context of marriage and procreation, or at least without the benefit of "true love" with that special person. Finally, fear of women includes fear of women's power and freedom in general. Educated, successful, independent, assertive women are still a scary threat to an awful lot of men, at least on some level. Keeping women busy with a brood of children removes much of that threat.

Anyone who subscribes to one or more of these irrational and insupportable beliefs, even unconsciously, will have at least some doubts about abortion rights. And the public face of those doubts usually centres on the fetus. Those who hold to Reasons 3 or 4 generally use the fetus as a cover, since people in our modern democratic society don't like to admit they're afraid of freedom or women, even to themselves.

Unfortunately, barely 20% of the population, perhaps considerably less, can actually rise above these irrational beliefs enough to completely trust women to make their own reproductive decisions. And when I say completely, I mean 100% pro-choice: Trusting women to abort for any reason they see fit (or no apparent reason at all). Having compassion for women's circumstances and tough life-and-death decisions. Understanding that women are far from perfect, but loving them anyway. Respecting women's right to have and enjoy sex whenever they want, with whomever they want, as often as they want. Accepting that women should never be morally judged for getting accidentally pregnant, because it's intrinsic to their biology to get pregnant when they have sex. Appreciating the sheer challenge of trying to avoid pregnancy over most of a lifetime of sexual activity. Knowing that birth control doesn't always work, or women can't always use it, or they can’t afford it or even access it. Sympathizing with women if they forget to use birth control or don’t want to use it, since contraception has many negative side effects, not the least of which is putting a damper on sexual pleasure.

Speaking of the inconvenience of birth control, it’s odd that men are not judged harshly for avoiding condoms and vasectomies, yet women are labelled “irresponsible” if they don’t want the bother, risks, and side-effects of birth control. The burden for contraception falls largely on women, but that’s all the more reason for us to be very forgiving when women accidentally get pregnant. Don’t get me wrong – artificial birth control is one of the greatest inventions of humanity, on a par with agriculture and creating fire. But advocating that all women use contraception overlooks the obvious — why not require men to pull more weight too? Why is it always women's behavior — more pointedly, their sexual behavior – that must be modified? Oh, right...Reason #4. Sadly, paternalism resides even in the hearts of many progressives.

Please, let's stop worrying about fetuses and entrust that job to each pregnant woman. She will take good care of her fetus because she's the one most capable of ensuring its best interests. That may mean aborting it if she's not ready or willing to take care of a baby. Once we truly trust and respect women, once we see them as full and equal human beings on a par with men, we will intuitively understand that the best way to protect fetuses and babies is by guaranteeing women's lives, health, rights, and equality. A pregnant woman is the only fetal advocate we need.

The heart of the abortion issue is inside the heart of a woman. Trust women. Let no fetus defeat us!