Thirty years ago I learned the basic lessons that shaped my views on abortion. What I came to understand back then is that abortion is an essential right for women. But since that time, the anti-choice movement has stigmatized abortion so badly that many pro-choice people fail to defend it. The basic lessons about abortion are thus not being effectively passed on to the next generation. With the battle for women's reproductive freedom moving into a new phase of intensity, now seems like a good time for a review.
Lesson One: a woman is a person; a zygote or a fetus is not. To be a person is to be self-conscious and to be able to think, feel, hope, and dream. These are the capabilities that make us human and that give us claim to rights and protections not extended to plants and animals. Women have these capabilities; zygotes and fetuses do not. Which is why most sensible people (two-thirds to three-fourths of Americans, according to polls) agree that the health and well-being of a woman should take priority over the preservation of tissue that might someday be a human being.
The counter-claim that "life begins at conception" and that a fertilized egg is thus morally equivalent to a person is merely the expression of a peculiar religious belief, one that flies in the face of science, common sense, and other religious belief. If some people want to use this belief to guide their own choices, that's fine. But in a diverse, secular society such a belief should not be the basis for public policy. There is little hope of changing the minds of people who for religious reasons believe that fetuses have rights that trump those of grown women. It is worth pointing out, however, that a belief in fetal personhood does not necessarily preclude abortion. One can imagine a fetus to deserve the same moral consideration as a person, and yet argue that the state has no legitimate right to force a woman -- at risk to her physical and mental health, and with potentially life-altering consequences -- to use her body to provide someone else with nine months of life support. Judith Jarvis Thomson's essay, "A Defense of Abortion," is the classic statement of this view.
Lesson Two: if legal abortion is not available, women will have illegal and unsafe abortions, and many women will die as a result. Women have always sought to exercise sovereignty over their bodies, their sexuality, and their reproduction. This has included, and always will, the termination of unwanted pregnancies. When abortion is legal and performed by trained medical personnel, the procedure is safer than pregnancy and childbirth. When it is illegal and improperly performed, it can be extremely dangerous.
In pre-Roe days, an estimated 1.2 million illegal abortions were performed every year in the United States. An estimated 5,000 women per year died because many of those abortions were not competently performed under medically safe conditions. Today, researchers at the Alan Guttmacher Institute estimate that 80,000 women die annually, worldwide, from botched abortions in countries where the procedure is illegal. So just to be clear about the implications of Lesson Two: if Roe is overturned and abortion is outlawed, thousands of women will die as a result.
Lesson Three: No form of contraception, no matter how responsibly used, is 100% effective. Abortion must therefore be available as an option. The alternative is to say that once a zygote forms, a woman loses her right to decide whether to bear a child. Some religious fundamentalists, who believe that pregnancy is the price that must be paid for the sin of having sex, embrace this sort of primitive patriarchal ideology. Fortunately, a majority of Americans don't, and it would be good if more of them said so.
For anyone who believes in choice and yet has qualms about abortion, let me add Lesson Three, Part Two: reducing the number of abortions depends on young women at all income levels everywhere having access to comprehensive sex education and affordable, effective birth control. So if you want to reduce the number of abortions, resist the efforts of anti-choicers to undermine comprehensive sex education programs and to restrict the availability of birth control.
Lesson Four: pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing are fraught with far greater costs for women than for men. Although modern medicine has greatly reduced the health risks of pregnancy and childbirth, those risks are not negligible and are still borne entirely by women. It is women who suffer months of nausea and discomfort during pregnancy, as well as the pain of childbirth. It is women who are likely to suffer far greater emotional fallout from carrying and bearing a child. And, in a sexist society, it remains too easy for a man to evade the responsibilities of parenthood, while those responsibilities befall a mother for a lifetime.
What Lesson Four implies is that the choice to bear or not bear a child should ultimately be in the hands of the pregnant woman, because the stakes for her are enormous. Others can second-guess a woman's decision, but it's not those others whose health and lives are on the line in the same way. And so the proper role of others is to provide advice and support. The proper role of legislators, presuming they have an ounce of compassion, value individual freedom, and are not dedicated to preserving male supremacy, is to ensure that the conditions exist for women to make choices about reproduction.
Lesson Five: without reproductive freedom, including the right to abortion and access to safe abortion, women will never achieve equality with men. If women are forced to be mothers, they can't compete as equals with men who need not worry that pregnancy, or the obligation to care for a child, will impede their striving for success in work and politics. But impeding women's ability to compete with men is only part of the problem. Anti-abortion laws also send a message about the inferiority of women as a group.
Men presume themselves fit to make decisions that have life-and-death consequences for millions of people -- decisions about economic policy, agricultural policy, health policy, and war. Anti-abortion laws imply that women, in contrast to men, are not capable of making wise decisions in matters related to life and death. Laws that limit women's reproductive freedom thus reinforce the patriarchal view that women are not men's equals when it comes to dealing with the vital affairs of society and the world. In this archaic view, it is best if women stick to making babies, rather than making laws and history. In the thirty years since I learned these basic lessons, I've learned some other things. One is that many anti-choicers lie outrageously. They lie about abortion being unsafe, and about abortion causing breast cancer and depression. They lie when they lure desperate and vulnerable young women to mislabeled "crisis pregnancy centers," where those women are emotionally manipulated and propagandized into carrying unwanted pregnancies to full term. They lie when they say they care about women's well-being, because genuine caring would mean respecting women's moral autonomy by telling the truth.
I've learned that in a patriarchal society women suffer from a lack of control over their lives, and that reproductive freedom reduces women's suffering by expanding that control. This is not just plausible theory. It's what is shown by the bulk of serious psychological research on the consequences that follow when women exercise their right to choose. I've learned about the high rates of sexual assault and sexual coercion in U.S. society. Victimization studies have found that the rate of rape and attempted rape among college women in the U.S. is about 28 per thousand. Which means that on a campus with 10,000 undergraduate women, there could be as many as 280 rapes and attempted rapes occurring each year. Under these conditions, any policy or practice that limits women's access to contraception and abortion is cruel and morally irresponsible. I've also learned that if women, like members of any oppressed group, do not stick together, they can be deprived of one right, one freedom, after another. When middle-class and upper-middle-class women do not defend public funding of abortions for low-income women, they are one step closer to losing their own reproductive freedom. When some women say, "I believe in choice, but /I/ wouldn't have an abortion," they make it harder for other women to choose abortion without being stigmatized. When women in liberal states do not defend the rights of women in regressive states like South Dakota and Mississippi, the rights of women everywhere are on shakier ground.
Women's freedom is likewise at greater risk when men who claim to believe in gender equality remain silent because they think abortion is only a women's issue.
Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) have recently introduced the Freedom of Choice Act in both houses of Congress. This Act would guarantee women's reproductive freedom in every state in the nation. People who believe in choice need to speak up in support of this legislation. Sometimes all you need are the basics to know what's right.