The Political Is Too Personal
By Joyce Arthur (copyright © July 2004)
It all started on May 31st when Conservative MP Rob Merrifield called for independent counseling for women considering abortion. Reporters immediately seized on his comments, and together with politicians, used the abortion issue to undermine the credibility and election chances of the Conservatives. Over the next few weeks, the abortion issue was propped up throughout Canada's federal election campaign by scandal-mongering news reporters, pontificating columnists, ivory tower academics, ranting anti-choicers, and holier-than-thou politicians of every persuasion.
Pro-choice groups and leaders did not ask for abortion to become a major election issue. We barely even managed to squeeze ourselves into the ensuing debate, and nobody paid much attention to us, anyway. It seems the media and politicians took it upon themselves to not only speak for us, but to speak for women in general.
Of course, many pro-choice women were allowed to express their opinions during the campaign, too. Which just goes to show that a woman's belief that she can make responsible decisions about her own life is just one competing opinion among other equally "valid" ones.
In a political sense, it was actually a great thing that abortion became an election issue. It helped contribute to the defeat of the Conservatives. And it's important that the public knows which party and which politicians are plotting to take away their rights.
But why did abortion become a political issue in the campaign at all? The answer is both insulting and frightening. It's because a woman's right to control her own life is still seen as a legitimate political football to be kicked around and debated.
And that's where the political just gets too personal sometimes.
Few issues are more intensely personal than abortion. But it's an issue that everyone thinks they're entitled to voice a public opinion on, an issue that many politicians feel they're entitled to pass laws on. From the perspective of most women who have had an abortion though, there is something deeply offensive about abortion being made into a political issue. Because it literally puts our bodies and our lives on the public stage, where they're fair game for public scrutiny, judgment, and control.
I find it truly alarming that Canada's democratic government, held up as a progressive social model around the world, could even consider the possibility of restricting women's reproductive rights—our fundamental human rights. The assumption that these rights are up for debate is based on antiquated and sexist notions that biology is destiny, that women's role is to be mothers, and that society at large has a right to regulate women's behaviour to make that happen. But legal and available contraception and abortion should truly free women to pursue other lifestyles and vocations in addition to or instead of parenthood. This is a freedom that men simply take for granted. Since biology hasn't been destiny for men for at least a couple thousand years, why do people insist it must stay that way for women?
One of the most galvanizing influences that drives my personal passion for pro-choice activism was my own experience of unwanted pregnancy and abortion. I had an abortion under the pre-1988 system of therapeutic hospital abortion committees. The thing that enraged me then, and still does today, is this single overriding thought: How dare they. How dare anyone tell me what I can do with my body, my life. How dare anyone tell me I should submit to their preconceived ideas of how a woman should think and feel, decide and act, live and breathe. How dare they. My life is no-one else's to lead, no-one else's to make stereotyped judgments upon, no-one else's to paternalistically manage. If I want advice and support from others over difficult life decisions, I'll seek it on my own and take what I need from it. Ultimately, I am the final arbiter when it comes to my life. And my decision-making ability includes deciding the fate of my embryo or fetus. Since it lives inside my body and is completely dependent on me and no-one else for its survival, it literally belongs to me and no-one else. I'm solely responsible for it. It has no independent rights because it has no independent existence. This is not selfishness or a lack of caring for my fetus—quite the opposite. It represents maturity and respect, based on a gut-level belief that I shouldn't inflict myself on a child who deserves better.
If only more people thought twice about having children! Instead, too many people have kids just to conform to social expectations, alleviate their boredom, feed their egos, or compensate for their own personal inadequacies. Parenting is treated as an unquestioned right in our society, while abortion is frowned upon. But why? After all, when a woman decides to have an abortion, the problem ends there. It stays her personal business. When a couple decides to have a baby, however, many important responsibilities suddenly come into play. Society has to live with the consequences of that decision, especially if the child is victimized by a dysfunctional family life or abusive parenting. Of course, I'm not advocating that people be officially "approved" before they can have children—that would be dangerously discriminatory. The freedom to have a child is indeed a fundamental right, just like choosing abortion. I only wish that, instead of fretting over aborted embryos, society would offer real help to the children we already have, and to their struggling parents.
Unfortunately, respect for the rights of women and children is not yet a priority for our government. Until that day arrives, abortion will continue to be an issue in Canadian politics, and women's very private right to choose abortion—our fundamental right to self-autonomy—won't be safe.