It’s Not About the Egg/Zygote/Embryo/Fetus: Re-claiming the Abortion Debate

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Commentary Abortion

It’s Not About the Egg/Zygote/Embryo/Fetus: Re-claiming the Abortion Debate

Angi Becker Stevens

Up until the latter half of the twentieth century, arguments against abortion focused primarily on enforcing traditional gender roles for women, not on "saving babies." We need to reclaim the debate by focusing on women.

For those of us who have come of age as feminists in the past few decades, the opposition to abortion we’ve encountered has virtually always centered on the life of the (choose one) fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus. In the not so distant past, however, anti-choice rhetoric came from a very different place. Up until the latter half of the twentieth century, arguments against abortion focused primarily not on the notion of saving an innocent life, but on enforcing traditional gender roles for women.

Historically, abortion—as well as all forms of contraception—was typically seen as an evil not out of concern for the unborn, but rather out of the belief that allowing women to separate sex from child-bearing would lead to a complete collapse of womanly morality, allowing women to have sex willy-nilly for no other reason but pleasure. In other words, contraception and abortion would allow women the same sexual freedom enjoyed by men. There also was a widely accepted view that any woman who wished to avoid motherhood was inherently some kind of deviant; shunning the “natural” role of mother was viewed as a serious gender transgression. And of course, no attempt to maintain gender roles has ever been merely about preserving tradition for the sake of it, but rather about upholding the patriarchy. Social and economic equality are virtually impossible for women whose lives are circumscribed by compulsory motherhood.

After the gains won by feminists in the 1960s and 70s, however, it has been increasingly difficult to garner widespread support for any stance based blatantly and openly on the notion that women should fulfill their “natural” roles by staying home and serving as submissive wives and dutiful mothers. And so the anti-choice movement has gradually—and effectively—changed its strategy. Instead of talking about deviant, promiscuous women, the anti-choice movement today speaks about saving babies—indeed, a much more palatable goal in the 21st century than the subjugation of women. From fetal pain bills to personhood amendments, the proliferation of anti-choice legislation we’ve witnessed in the past few months serves as frightening evidence of just how effective this line of anti-choice argument has been.

Unfortunately, many of us who wish to defend reproductive freedom fall into the trap of bending to counter these arguments on their own level. When anti-choicers talk about saving babies, an extremely common pro-choice response is to talk about the horrible life of the child born into poverty if abortion were not an option. But there are a few problems with engaging in this line of argument. First, when we start talking about the suffering of children born into poverty, what is this saying about the women living in poverty—disproportionately women of color—who do choose motherhood? Obviously, no one wants to see children living in dire economic circumstances. But we walk a line dangerously close to eugenics if we argue that the solution is abortion rather than arguing for the improvement of the socioeconomic conditions that place so many women in poverty to begin with. It can of course be useful to point out the hypocrisy of conservatives who would claim to care so deeply about saving fetuses, but who then refuse to support any kind of social welfare programs to support babies once they’ve been born. And we can’t deny that poverty—and the already limited ability to care for already-existing children—is a factor in many women’s abortion decisions. But we must be careful not to speak about abortion and poverty in ways that shame poor mothers. Any dialogue about reproductive justice must also include the right of a woman to be a mother, regardless of her class position.

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Another problem with this defense of abortion lies on the exact opposite side of the coin: if we defend abortion solely from the perspective of saving a potential child from suffering, then where does that leave a woman who has every imaginable resource to care for a child, but simply does not want to be a mother? Are we really prepared to say that abortion is only morally defensible in circumstances where the potential baby in question would lead a so-called miserable life?

What gets left out of these arguments—on both sides—is the woman. When we respond to anti-choicers with our own counter-arguments about the life of the fetus, we have already allowed them to win a large part of the victory simply by allowing them to take the woman and her autonomy out of the equation. For too long, we’ve been willing to fight this battle on the opposition’s turf. As feminists, it’s our responsibility to bring women back into the discussion. We need to reclaim this argument, to focus on the fact that equality is unimaginable in a society where women cannot choose how and when and if to bear children.

I am firmly convinced that at its core, the anti-choice movement has never actually stopped being about the enforcement of traditional gender roles. Anyone who genuinely saw abortion itself as a tragedy would, logically, also support things like contraception and comprehensive sex-education. But if the goal is to prevent women’s liberation, to maintain the patriarchal order, then the apparent contradiction between opposing both abortion and the means to prevent unwanted pregnancy disappears. This is not to claim that an individual person who claims to be against abortion is coming from a position of being anti-feminism or anti-woman. I’m confident that many are reasonable human beings, who have simply bought into the well-crafted “pro-life” message of saving the unborn. Anecdotally, I know a handful of individuals who were once active in anti-choice movement, who reversed their position on abortion when they realized that the movement was not actually pro-child, but anti-woman. I believe that many more anti-choice activists are capable of making such a change, if only they can see the reality of what the movement is really about. That can only happen if we reclaim the argument, and make it once again about the lives of women, not fetuses.

This shift in focus has the potential to impact not only those who are firmly on the anti-choice side of the fence, but also to inspire activism among those who already identify as pro-choice. I believe many young feminists and others on the left have somewhat ambivalent feelings about abortion; they might feel strongly about supporting choice, while at the same time they view abortion with a degree of discomfort—a natural reaction for those of us who have grown up with the language of “killing helpless babies” instead of the language of defending women’s rights. Too often, even defenders of reproductive freedom speak of abortion as kind of necessary evil. And it’s exactly that middle-ground position which allows for the conditions we seem to be heading toward: a country where abortion is legal, but so highly restricted it is rendered virtually unavailable.

The National Network of Abortion Funds’ profiles of women who rely on NNAF services and Amplify’s 1 in 3 campaign are both excellent examples of re-centering the abortion dialogue on the lives of women, not fetuses. This woman-centered approach is one we should view as a model not only for our activism, but for the language we use in conversations and debates with family and friends, and on our personal blogs and social networking sites. We have played defense, allowing those who oppose abortion to set the terms of the debate, for long enough. It’s time to take back the conversation, and to spread the message that opposition to abortion today is about the same thing it has always been about: not the humanity and personhood of fetuses, but the humanity and personhood of women.