Saturday, January 21, 2006

Realizing choice for women: beyond abortion

I recently read a sad anecdote at abortion clinc days:
yesterday i spoke to a woman, age 28, who began her story by telling me all the reasons that she could not continue her pregnancy. she had no doubt that abortion was a better choice for the baby since she felt that it would be neglected and possibly even at risk. her older children had learned to avoid dad, an abusive alcoholic, when he was drunk. and the patient, whom i'll call rachel, supported the family as sole wage earner. there would be no income when she had to take maternity leave and her job would not permit her to work once she was showing because of the physical hardships of the job. she felt that she could not risk leaving the baby alone with her husband at any time because he was not responsible and had lately been getting worse.

then she began to sob and told me that if her mom were still alive, it might be different. both times that she was pregnant in the past it was her mom who encouraged her to continue the pregnancy, telling rachel that she could do it, that she, mom, would help her. the day before had been mom's birthday and rachel told me she went to the cemetery to talk to mom, as she often does. she had been telling mom about her situation, how much she missed her, how she wished she did not have to have an abortion. rachel told me, it was all ok because her baby would be with mom. mom knew that the baby was coming to join her in heaven, which made rachel feel at peace. then rachel said, "the hardest thing for me every day is to be without my mom. that's what i'll never get over."

It's a heartbreaking story, and others like it are all too common. Overwhelmingly, women do not want to have abortions. Pro-life partisans accuse women who have abortions of doing so for "convenience" or selfish reasons. What they ignore is the fact that most women who consider abortion are doing so because they do not have any easy or good options available to them. Raising a child in poverty is hard, bearing societal judgement toward young single pregnant women is hard, giving up an infant for adoption is hard, bearing the physical burden of an unwelcome or unhealthy pregnancy is hard, and having an abortion is hard. These are often the only set of options available to a woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant.

When the only options available to a woman are unacceptable, she does not have a choice. She can't weigh one option against the other when they are all equally bad, and her choice may as well be random for all the good it does her.

Being pro-choice is necessarily far more than being pro-abortion. As I have discussed before, if making abortion available were the only goal of the pro-choice movement, the result would hurt women more than it would help:
We as a society should know enough about the moral equality of every human being that even if abortion were impossible, we could make progress on the front of gender equity. Abortion is used as a moral crutch where we make women more like men instead of appreciating the fundamental equality of the genders.
To many women - even many women who have abortions, like the one presented above - abortion is not an acceptable reaction to an unplanned pregnancy. Rachel was put in the position of accepting an unacceptable option. Working for choice is working to allow women to choose abortion or not to abort, no matter her economic circumstances.

There is an organization called Feminists For Life whose slogan is "Women deserve better." While they are not above some of the usual deceptive tactics other pro-life organizations use to try and eliminate abortion, the center of their movement is to eliminate the factors that force women to choose abortion, as they say, "to provide resources and solutions that will support women."

I fully support the pro-choice cause, and believe that abortion is always a legitimate choice when a woman is faced with an unplanned pregnancy. This is where I strongly depart from the Feminists For Life philosophy, but I still have deep admiration for their stated goal. When people need help, they need help. Rubbing someone's nose in their bad circumstances - whether they are culpable in them or not - does not help them make the decisions they need to improve their lot. Stabilizing the circumstances under which people are living is the best way to allow them to make their own good decisions. If Rachel had access to reliable birth control, paid maternity leave, affordable childcare, and was empowered to make her decisions according to what is best for her (instead of what will make her life the least worse), she would not have chosen abortion.

For society to truly allow women autonomy in their choices, we must do two things. We need to be certain that women are empowered to make their own choices on their own terms, and we need to trust the choices women make. When pro-life advocates concentrate solely on abortion, they show that they do not trust women to make their own choices and that they do not care for women beyond their role as a vessel for the conveyance of children. If the pro-life movement is truly concerned about women, it must concentrate on helping women's lives, not shaming them into submission.
More than 80 percent of Planned Parenthood clients come to us for contraceptive services. It's estimated that contraceptive services provided by Planned Parenthood health centers prevent more than 600,000 unintended pregnancies each year.
Planned Parenthood, while it respects a woman's right to choose abortion, exists to give women control over their reproductive health. They aren't all things to all people, but they play an important role in empowering women worldwide to make their own choices. Pro-life organizations, with their anti-contraceptive and anti-sex bedfellows, serve to create numberless unplanned pregnancies, and then they have the audacity to criticize the organizations that give women a choice in the situation that the religious conservative pro-life philosophy created.

Feminists For Life does a good job of shedding light on exactly how much pro-life and pro-choice advocates could have in common if they truly were concentrating on making womens' lives better, but it obfuscates these commonalities with wishful thinking and deception, and does not trust women to make their own choices. The work that Planned Parenthood and their allies do give women the ability to control their lives. Some might say that it's ironic that Planned Parenthood effectively prevents more abortions than pro-life groups ever have, but that's not the correct term. When groups like Feminists For Life betray their own stated principles, it's called hypocrisy. Not only is this hypocrisy damaging to the Feminists For Life mission, it is poisonous to female empowerment.

Pro-choice is holistically pro-woman. Forcing pregnancy or motherhood on a woman is just as restrictive as any other senseless dictate that women have suffered at the hands of a patriarchal society. Women are absolutely capable of making their own choices regarding abortion or any other issue - they just need the resources to make their choices a reality.

This post was part of NARAL Pro-Choice America's Blog For Choice. Bloggers web-wide are rallying for the cause of choice today. Check out the other entries to see the diversity of perspectives on why choice is so important to women.

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