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The Bangor Daily News (Maine)

Recenter Abortion Debate on Equality of Sacrifice

I am sickened by the death of Dr. George Tiller, a physician who displayed lifelong respect for the woman and her body. Operation Rescue condemned his murder, though in language that tacitly encourages violence. Randall Terry, calling Tiller a "mass murderer," even accused him of performing late-term abortions for women who had simply decided they did not wish to have a baby. Terry never lets facts stand in the way of his vicious war against the rights of women. Grand juries in culturally conservative Kansas rejected Terry's charges.

Some pro-life forces engage in or tolerate "acts of political terrorism." Melissa Harris-Lacewell, writing in a blog for The Nation, convincingly argues that Terry's goal is to isolate and humiliate poor and pregnant women many of whom already face desperate health issues. Demonstrators routinely intimidated Tiller's patients.

Political symbolism also counts for more than the lives of the unborn. Writing on the Common Dreams Web site, Cristina Page reminds us: "That Clinton presided over the most dramatic decline in abortion rates in recorded history left them unmoved." Once the "pro life" George W. Bush assumed office, health and family plan-ning options and education diminished, abortions skyrocketed - and the demonstrations stopped.

Most abortion opponents do not condone this murder. Many are repelled by Terry's rhetoric. They believe that life begins at conception. Their concern is the preservation of innocent life. I don't believe a distinctively human life begins at conception, but neither I nor my opponents have ironclad cases on this point. Nonetheless, if protection of innocent life is one's motive, responsibility must be shared equally between men and women.

In this society, denying women abortion imposes all the risks of sustaining innocent life on women.

The late Ellen Willis once advocated re-centering the abortion debate on equality of sacrifice. (See "No More Nice Girls, From Forced Pregnancy to Forced Surgery.") What a privilege it is to be a male! Pregnant women must sacrifice their careers, comfort, health and sometimes their lives to have a baby. If my child - or any child - becomes gravely ill and needed my body, e.g., for bone marrow, I might feel a moral obligation, but government can't compel me to accept these risks.


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If there is an absolute obligation to sustain innocent lives, men need to accept dramatically increased risks and responsibilities. A detailed portrayal of the medical demands that might reasonably be made of men, especially as the frontiers of transplant and genetic medicine expand, could shake up the abortion debate.

Some citizens might demand a draft for male kidneys, livers and bone marrow. Others within conventionally gendered families might still maintain the "natural" role of women as primarily responsible for the health of all life. Such an argument might be hard to sustain in a world where the possibility of motherhood and the proc-ess of having a baby are now so heavily medicalized. My suspicion, however, is that even some pro-life families would entertain the notion that if men will not sacrifice their health for children, women should not be forced to bear such sacrifices alone.

Nonetheless, children are our future. Society must move beyond expanding "choice" for women to a more complete appreciation of the sacrifice involved in parenting. Many women face unrelenting physical, emotional and economic distress. It is hard for some to acknowledge let alone address any inner doubts about the ideal of motherhood to which one devotes so much of one's life. It becomes all too easy to regard abortion rights defenders as selfish or even evil.

Society must expand the cultural and economic space for women in all modes of life - better family planning resources and sex education, paid paternity and maternity leave, more free time for families, more opportunities for a voice in their children's education, jobs that pay men and women equal and sustaining incomes.

The boundaries in the culture war are not fixed and impermeable. Progressives can expand opportunities for many families to live out their own values. Such a course may not convert all cultural conservatives to progressive causes and probably won't sway Randall Terry. Nonetheless, the foundation and the hope of democratic politics is that subtle transformations in moral and political vision will allow more of us to live together even as we continue to disagree on some core principles.

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John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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