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Yours Is a "War" We Cannot Support

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By Joyce Arthur, January 29, 2006

On Jan 22nd the New York Times published an editorial entitled Three Decades After Roe, a War We Can All Support by William Saletan, Slate Magazine's national correspondent. ( Mr. Saletan's piece is behind the Times Select Wall. The same editorial may be viewed without charge, albeit under a different title, here: William Saletan: Prochoicers, it's time to defend life.) Also, a subsequent written debate occurred on the Slate webpage between William Saletan and Katha Pollitt, "Is Abortion Bad?"

Joyce Arthur's open rebuttal to Mr. Saletan s included in its entirety below. Mr. Saletan responded to Ms. Arthur personally and a brief email correspondence ensued. The end result was: Mr. Saletan disagrees with Ms. Arthur's views and continues to believe that saying "abortion is bad" is a good pro-choice political strategy, at least in part because it's a moral stance inline with the personal moral stance of most Americans, including himself, towards the act of abortion (not the right to abortion). Mr. Saletan concluded: "I think it's a grave moral, not just political, mistake to equate [abortion] with birth control, reproductive choice, or women's freedom."

Re your article "Three Decades After Roe, a War We Can All Support"

Yours Is a "War" We Cannot Support

Dear Mr. Saletan,

I disagree strongly with the direction you are going, and would like to offer a rebuttal and a better direction, if I may. (Perhaps you've already read Katha Pollitt's rebuttal to your article at:

There are two fundamental problems with your premise. One, you want us to concede abortion is bad, and two, you want to reduce abortion. Neither of these are "solutions." The first is dangerously wrong and the second, while important, is really a red herring.

Your entire entreaty is doomed to failure before it even gets off the ground, simply because you will never convince many people that abortion is "bad." Why should your personal moral view about abortion hold any more weight than mine? Because I, along with countless other people, believe abortion is a positive moral good and a blessing for women. It's an act that empowers them, literally saves their lives, saves their existing or future children's lives, protects and improves their health and that of their families, gives women back their chosen lives, enables them to pursue their career and educational aspirations, improves their economic prospects, allows them to better themselves, gives them a level playing field in the public sphere with men, and enables them to truly attain and exercise liberty and other constitutional freedoms. How can anything that saves women's lives and gives them hope and freedom be "bad"?

Regardless, the moral question of whether abortion itself is bad or good is subjective, at least when it comes to a particular woman's abortion decision - and every abortion decision is a personal one made by one woman. The ONLY person who should be allowed to make an actionable decision about the morality of an abortion is the pregnant woman. That's it. It is absolutely no-one else's business. Everyone else's opinion about it is irrelevant. To be truly "pro-choice" means unequivocally supporting a woman's decision to abort, no matter what her reason or whether we agree with it or not - even if she just wants to fit into her prom dress, or doesn't like the gender of her fetus. Women have the unquestioned right to have a child for any reason, and the same has to go for abortion.

But it's essential to realize that women don't generally decide to have abortions because they think abortion is morally ok, or because it's their political right, or because they think the fetus is a meaningless blob of tissue. When it comes to abortion, the politics is separate from the personal. Almost all women who have abortions do so because, essentially, they recognize the necessity of being good mothers, and that having a child (or another child) right now will undermine the welfare of themselves and their existing or future families. That is the true morality behind the abortion decision - the biological imperative to be a good mother - as well as the fundamental need to control one's own body and life (which is not an abstract right, but a sociobiological instinct). Abortion is inextricably intertwined with pregnancy and motherhood - that is, good mothers will have both babies and abortions. They do so the world over, they always have, and they always will. Half of all women in the world will have at least one abortion in their lifetimes. The abortion experience is part of who we are as women, a fundamental element of our life experience, the means we use to optimize the survival of our families and ourselves. Therefore, labelling abortion as bad is being judgmental against women's very essence. It denigrates our humanity. You are labelling women's behaviour as bad, when in fact it's just women being women. When you say abortion is bad, you're literally saying that women are bad. But not only is there nothing wrong with abortion, I assert that both childbirth and abortion represent what is most wonderful about women - our ability to give life and sustain life, and the freedom to control the circumstances under which it can best be done. Abortion liberates all of us, improves our lives enormously, and ensures our future survival. Abortion represents human power, freedom, and dignity - no other animal can control its fertility to the extent that humans can, and this allows us to control our destiny and shape the world around us. That ability to "play God," as it were, defines what it means to be human and elevates us above the animals.

Your premise that abortion is bad and should be reduced, lacks vision and fails to address the core issue. Which is - the American people do not trust or respect women as equal players in society, entitled and empowered to make their own decisions around their sexuality, ethics, and lives. The bottom line is, if women were respected and trusted as equals, abortion would hardly be an issue at all. It would be socially acceptable to the degree that it would largely cease to be controversial, except among fringe minorities. The root problem behind that lack of trust and respect for women stems mostly from religion and patriarchy. Generally speaking, the more secular a society is, and/or the higher women's status is in a society, the less of an issue abortion is. In countries that fulfill one or both of these criteria, there is generally far greater social and legal acceptance of abortion, such as in Japan, China, much of western Europe, and in Canada, where we have absolutely no legal restrictions against abortion of any kind - not even trimester restrictions - and where it is political suicide for a serious politician to publicly espouse an anti-abortion view.

What we need to recognize then, is not the morality or immorality of abortion itself, which is beside the point, but the integrity of women's decision-making and autonomy. We need to trust and respect women. The abortion issue won't become less controversial until we do that. The more respect and importance accorded to women, the more the fetus will fade in importance - because its fate will be rightfully seen as her private responsibility, to which she can be fully entrusted to handle wisely. And if women are trusted and respected and given equal rights in society, comprehensive family planning, contraception, and other programs to reduce unintended pregnancies become no-brainers. They'll happen automatically, because the political will and authority to make them happen will be there.

Turning to your premise about the need to reduce abortions, may I first point out that your article confuses abortion with unintended pregnancy, and this undermines your whole conclusion. For example, you say the "problem is abortion." And in the next paragraph you say you've "never met a woman who wouldn't rather have avoided the pregnancy in the first place." So the problem then is not abortion, it's unintended pregnancy. Abortion is the solution to the problem, not the problem itself. You make the same error later in the article where you say that "abortion is bad" and the ideal goal is "zero abortions" or at least "fewer abortions," but later you cite the statistic that nearly half of all unintended pregnancies result in abortion. The leading cause of abortion, then, is unintended pregnancy, and that is the problem that needs attention. But then you cite the fact that half of unintended pregnancies are attributable to women not using contraception. In other words, half result from women who DO use contraception, meaning those abortions (at least) are essentially unavoidable, and abortion can never be reduced to zero - not even close to zero in the best of circumstances. Abortion will always be with us, so the most important thing is to accept it and integrate it into mainstream medicine as a normal and routine part of women's reproductive healthcare. It makes about as much sense to say we should reduce abortions as it does to say we must reduce appendectomies. We don't morally judge appendectomy or the person who needs one, or try and restrict access to the procedure, even though an appendectomy itself is unpleasant and painful and represents a "failure" of our bodies - just like abortion and most other medical procedures. When people need an appendectomy, they deserve unquestioned, immediate access to one. Likewise, once a woman is pregnant, it is too late to "reduce" her abortion, we can only provide it. If we can work to actually prevent the need for some appendectomies, fine, but it's absurd and off-base to assign moral status to appendectomies and set a goal of zero appendectomies, or even a goal of reducing them substantially when that is difficult and unrealistic. Likewise with abortion. Reducing the number of abortions is a secondary issue - it is far more important to ensure that women have access to good abortion care when they need it.

However, let me address your main solution for reducing abortion, which is advocating better family planning and more access to contraception. Of course, this is important and valuable, but it also overlooks practical realities and even runs into problems with human rights and liberty. For many women, contraception simply does not work very well or has serious side effects - which is often the case for unusually fertile women for example, the ones who most often need repeat abortions - so your suggestion that such women need extra counselling is both naive and unfairly judgmental. Women should NEVER be morally judged for getting accidentally pregnant, since it's intrinsic to our biology to get pregnant when we have sex, it's extremely difficult to avoid pregnancy over an entire lifetime of sexual activity, women are human and make mistakes, and women are entitled to have sex and enjoy sex as much as men, without obligation to procreate. Women actually have a constitutional right to non-procreative sex, as implied in the Supreme Court decisions granting the right to use birth control (and by extension, women have a basic right to abortion, too). However, I would go further and say that women also have the right to have sex without undue inconvenience. They are under no moral obligation to use contraception if they don't want to. Besides the various side effects both major and minor, contraception interferes with sexual pleasure in various ways (for example, the Pill reduces female libido, and diaphragms and jellies are messy and detract from spontaneity). Since men are rarely judged for not wanting to use condoms and Viagra is seen as a god-given right for men, it is highly sexist and unfair to judge women negatively if they don't want the bother and problems associated with birth control, especially since the burden for birth control falls largely on women. Ultimately, if women would really rather have numerous repeat abortions (although of course very few would, in reality), that's their choice and it's none of our business, other than to offer contraception and educate about any potential health risks of repeat abortions.

I would like to also point out a related perspective that may be new to you, which I've developed based on the fact that Canada has no laws against abortion. Any law that regulates pregnancy in any way, such as an abortion restriction, automatically amounts to discrimination against women, because only women get pregnant, not men. When pregnancy is regulated, it puts a special burden on women that is not placed on men, and this puts them at an unequal disadvantage in society. Since the major difference between men and women is the ability to bear children, and in fact since there is a social and biological imperative for (most) women to bear children, any law or policy or LACK of law or policy that serves to disadvantage women in society by burdening them with a larger share of childbearing and childcare responsibities at no recompense, is also discriminatory. In order to ensure equality for women and a level playing field with men, women need a form of "extra" rights not required by men - namely, access to a wide range of fully funded pre- and post-natal care, including abortion and contraception. For example, it is discriminatory to fund the medical costs of childbirth, but not abortion. Women also deserve help with childcare. Although you could say that fathers could equally assume the role of full-time parent, in practice, women do most of it because they want to. It's natural that mothers tend to be closer to their children than fathers. Women should not be penalized for this. But in our society, childbearing and rearing are penalized in many ways, economically, socially, and politically. If women were truly trusted and respected and given equality, a much higher priority would be placed on the raising of children - they are our future after all - and it would automatically be seen as more of a communal responsibility, with more government investment made in it.

I also very much agree with Eileen McDonagh, who writes that we should argue for abortion rights based on self-defense. (Adding Consent to Choice in the Abortion Debate, Society, Vol 42, No.5, July/Aug 2005, pp 18-26.) Her reasoning is very valuable as a new practical argument for abortion rights, because it stands regardless of whether fetuses are recognized as full human beings with legal rights. In an unwanted pregnancy, the fetus is in effect co-opting the woman's body and endangering her life and health against her will. Since bringing to term is far riskier to a woman than having an abortion, she has a right to defend herself via an abortion. After all, a woman with a born child is under no obligation to donate a kidney or blood to save her child's life, so how can a fetus be deemed to have even more rights over the woman than her born child? In line with this, I like to point out that the anti-choice premise that abortion is wrong because it kills an "innocent" human being is false, and this actually undercuts a huge part of their whole argument. Although an unwanted fetus has no ill intent - it's just doing what it naturally has to do, like a parasite - it nevertheless has a profound effect on a woman's whole being, mentally and physically, and puts her life and health at risk. Therefore a fetus is not innocent, and a woman can defend herself against it by having an abortion. McDonagh's argument fits in well with my earlier argument as well, since if women were actually trusted and respected and given full equality, there would be little or no challenge to their right to defend themselves from an unwanted pregnancy - it would practically be a given. (I wrote an article exploring this and related themes, called "The Fetus Focus Fallacy"

Perhaps I'm not setting out much in the way of practical steps for achieving this idyllic state of trust, respect, and equality for women. But I know for sure that is the direction we must go. I beg you to please stop urging everyone to concede that abortion is "bad" and must be reduced. Because you're wrong.

Thank you very much for listening.

Joyce Arthur
Vancouver, BC

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