I was raised by an ardently pro-life mother, and her influence on me was significant. As a teenager I accompanied her to Respect Life meetings and prayer vigils at our church, held a sign stating “Abortion Kills Children” at the annual Life Chain (a street protest commemorating the passing of the 1973 US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States), and learned as much as I could about the issue. For a freshman bioethics project I researched all the grisly details of various abortion procedures, particularly intact dilation and extraction, and wrote an essay outlining all of the ethical problems I found there: primarily, that abortion involves inflicting excruciating pain on a defenseless human being.
One day, when I walked into the high school cafeteria, my pro-life button pinned to my collar, one of my more feisty classmates immediately rolled her eyes at me. “You’re pro-life? Really? Come on, Jeannine. What do you think you would do if you got pregnant?”
I stared at her, indignant. How could this little bitch even think – much less say – something like this about me? In all my fourteen years I’d barely talked to any boys, much less done anything else. I was a paragon of virtue. An example of perfect innocence. Needless to say, I was very, very sheltered for my fourteen years.
At that age I had no real awareness that not all fourteen-year-olds had the same kind of privilege. That in the world – in my country, perhaps even my own city – there were fourteen-year-olds forced into prostitution in order to survive. That a fourteen-year-old could get raped – by a stranger, by a relative, by a friend – and end up pregnant as a result. That the world was filled with all sorts of terror and trauma of which abortion was only one example.
Nowadays, I still believe the basic moral principles that guide the pro-life movement. The question of when human life begins – whether at conception, birth or perhaps some other stage in one’s personal development from childhood to maturity – is complex, and I don’t think that there is a simple answer. However, one fact that cannot be denied is that a fetus is a living being which after the first month of pregnancy has a beating heart and can feel pain, and as I understand it, inflicting the kind of pain that abortion induces on such a being is not morally justifiable. Nevertheless, the arguments of the other side also resonate with a certain truth. My friend’s question comes back to me. If I were to find myself unexpectedly pregnant, even now, what would I do? I’d like to think that I would carry the baby to term and deliver him or her into life (even if I opted to give the child up for adoption afterwards). But still, I can’t say for certain what I would do until the situation happens. Who am I to judge someone else, especially if that someone has become pregnant in traumatic circumstances? For people on the pro-choice side, the issue is not the morality of abortion itself. It is more about who gets to make moral decisions. The choice is left to the individual. If a woman chooses to have an abortion, that is her right and responsibility, and the consequences that come with it are hers to deal with. Members of the pro-life movement often refer to people of the pro-choice movement as “pro-abortion.” I doubt that anyone on the pro-choice side would state that abortion in itself is a good thing. And now we come to the main point of this post.
The debate over abortion – which continues to rage in the United States as well as many other countries – is one fuelled with harsh rhetoric, polarization, and exclusion; it’s a culture war in which each side seeks to strengthen its position by casting the opposition out as an absolute enemy. While pro-lifers frame pro-choicers as “pro-abortion,” pro-choicers frame pro-lifers as misogynistic and “anti-choice,” disrespecting an individual woman’s right to make a moral decision for herself. A closer look reveals that the two sides are essentially arguing about different issues: while one looks at the morality of the act itself, the other focuses on the question of who should have the authority to make this moral decision: the individual or the community? The issues are separate, but the abortion debate combines them into one. And this, to my understanding, is the main reason why this remains such a polarized issue. The two sides continue to argue and argue without admitting just what it is that they are arguing about.
A recent article on the Slacktiverse blog explains this confusion in more depth by focusing on the differences between proclamation and policy – two different philosophical conceptions about the role of law. According to the author of this piece,
The “proclamation” perspective holds that the purpose of the law is to announce or express the moral views of society, while the “policy” perspective holds that law should be used to change the material conditions of society, including through indirect means. The unacknowledged difference between these two perspectives leads to proposed laws being justified in terms that their opponents find literally incomprehensible, causing confused political discourse. Likewise, the under-examination of this distinction leads to thoughtless, unjustified radicalism on this question. Even a cursory exploration of these two sides of the law can help clarify numerous legislative debates, past and contemporary, while allowing citizens to more clearly understand their own views and values.
The author of the article suggests that both proclamation and policy are valid ways of thinking about the law and have their rightful place. He continues,
The “proclamation” model holds that the law represents an expression of moral values. Among the most lauded examples of the “proclamation” model of law was the USA’s Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation marked an official declaration of the Union’s position on slavery: unequivocally against. It was able to fulfill this goal without, in fact, freeing many slaves. Though it ultimately took several more years of military action and a Constitutional Amendment to end slavery in the USA as an institution, the Emancipation Proclamation is still understood as the key moment in the process of emancipation, because it articulated the Union’s moral stance against slavery so incontestably… Conversely, the “policy” model holds that the aim of the law is to change conditions as they actually apply; to address problems and improve the state. It is hard to find an independent, ideal example of legislative work of this form—as policy cannot be considered in isolation, and it does not tend to attract much notice. Thus, we can consider the example of a field rather than a particular law. Traffic law is a useful example for an initial approach. It involves a great number of small decisions which must be made, by the legislature or regulatory bodies. Few, if any, such decisions can be resolved by appeal to prior moral principle.
The author argues that each approach to law has its rightful place and that in some cases, such as in laws against perjury. However, he states that they come into conflict in some cases and cites abortion as an example:
I personally encountered one such question when talking with a pro-life friend. (I myself am pro-choice.) I made the argument that legal abortion keeps the procedure safe while not actually increasing its frequency, and that, on the other hand, the pro-life movement fails to endorse policies that would actually decrease the incidence of abortion. He granted this claim, more or less, but held that it was still important to outlaw abortion as a statement of what is right and wrong. Policy-relevant information will not affect the legislative preferences of someone thinking in proclamation terms.
In general, this argument leads me to wonder if it might be possible to make some sort of compromise on the abortion issue – or at least achieve a greater level of understanding – by looking at the issue in terms of the proclamation/policy distinction. For people on the pro-choice side, I have to ask – would it really weaken their argument to admit that abortion is a painful procedure for both mother and child, that it is traumatic, and that it is – for some people at least – morally questionable? I remember when the war in Iraq was about to begin in 2003. When Democrats began to state their opposition to the war on moral grounds, the standard Republican response was, “We’re not pro-war. No one wants there to be a war. We just see it as the only viable option in this case.” Leavng the Iraq War and its moral implications aside for the moment, I will state that, in general, war and abortion are similar issues. Both involve loss of life, both are deemed inherently immoral by some, and both can’t be prevented by legislation (ever hear of the Kellogg-Briand Pact passed to outlaw war after World War I?) By acknowledging the morally questionable nature of abortion and stating directly that they seek not to promote or actively encourage people to seek abortions, by making a statement about ethos as well as policy, people on the pro-choice side could potentially engage with a much less heated discussion with pro-lifers than what usually occurs.
Meanwhile, people on the pro-life side might benefit from looking at the issue from a policy perspective. If we really want to bring about an end to abortion, is seeking to change the law necessarily the best approach? Won’t abortions continue to occur illegally (and dangerously)? Perhaps the better approach is to focus on policies that will lower the amount of unwanted pregnancies that occur as well as promoting the primary alternative to abortion: adoption. We can also seek to educate women about the options available to them and let them know that abortion isn’t the only option for someone who, for whatever reason, cannot or does not want to become a mother. We can respect the individual’s right to make moral decisions while working – through various peaceful, respectful means – to encourage them to make a good decision.
Finally, for those of us who are religious – as many in the pro-life movement are – we can pray. Pray for healing for those women who have endured abortion, as well as for those who have endured rape, abuse and all sorts of traumas. Pray for healing in a world where the culture of death manifests in so many forms – capital punishment, war, poverty, discrimination against the elderly, disabled and all who are vulnerable in our society. In the world in which we live, it can be hard to believe that prayer still matters; it’s something I all too often forget. But it is through prayer that we can learn to become truly compassionate toward the people who need us most.