The Rhetoric of Abortion: Reflections from a Former Pro-life Activist

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Abortion Under Attack: Women on the Challenges Facing Choice, edited by Krista Jacob.

In the house and church I grew up in, there was no question about where I would stand on abortion. A fetus was a life. We opposed taking life. Case closed.

What conversation can be had when only one question is considered pertinent? I was a chaste, Christian, small-town, pro-life teenager from a happy home with two parents. My most exciting experiences were church camping trips. At sixteen, I had never even kissed a boy. Nothing had ever happened to me to suggest other questions were relevant in the abortion debate. I was sure of my views and sure my experiences provided enough information with which to make an informed decision about what was right for all women everywhere.

Thus, I goaded my girlfriends into attending protests and meetings and starting teenage pro-life groups. No one questioned me. Where we came from, my girlfriends were wrong not to have thought of going to the meetings before I did. They admired my staunch, unquestioning sense of what was right and wrong. Looking back, it's clear I was pompous, self-righteous, and unbearably certain of myself. But I had the total peace of mind that only comes from a worldview with no shades of gray.

My certainty and peace of mind were not to last, however. College showed me that life is full of gray.

In college I discovered that some people have sex without feeling they have done something dirty, that women get pregnant who are in no position to take care of a child, and that one of the most frightening things in the world for an eighteen-year-old from a pro-life, Christian fundamentalist family would be telling her parents she was pregnant. If I had become pregnant and informed my parents, I knew exactly where I would have gone: straight to a home for pregnant teenage mothers, to be physically well-cared for and proselytized to for nine months, after which time my child would have been adopted by a good, white fundamentalist family dying for a healthy new (white) baby. I would have been shamed. My parents' biggest concern would have been how to hide my pregnancy from their friends.

Problematic as this response would have been, it pales in comparison to what has actually happened to other Christian teenagers, who have been disowned, thrown out of their homes, and even physically harmed. It later came as no surprise that, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, one in five women seeking abortions is a born-again or an Evangelical Christian. Had I become pregnant as a teenager, I would have done all in my power--including consider an abortion--to avoid the shame I would have felt in the eyes of my Christian community.

I began to understand why parental consent laws might be a bad idea: they can raise the number of late-term abortions, as young women from conservative homes put off a decision or wait for parental or judicial consent. Some pregnant teens would even choose illegal abortions rather than face their parents' wrath.

In my women's studies classes I learned about poverty and racism, about misogyny, about the history of birth control (or rather, control of birth control). I learned that for many women there are several important questions that come before whether or not a fetus is a life--questions such as, "Will this pregnancy cost me my life? Who will feed this child? Where is one person who will provide me with some support if I have this child?" I learned that two out of three women who have abortions say they cannot afford a child and half do not have a dependable partner with earning potential. In one study, Glen Stassen and Lewis B. Smedes, Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, found a clear correlation between unemployment rates, healthcare costs, and abortion rates.

The more I learned the more I began to let go of my carefully held certainties. After my worldview took on a few more shades of gray, my friends started telling me about their abortions. I had to come to terms with the fact that the women against whom I had so emphatically protested in high school were good people, people I knew, people I would want for my friends. What to do with that? Love the sinner, hate the sin? Fairly easy to say in Christian theory, but my friends didn't seem like sinners. They seemed like girls who had fallen in love, or been taken advantage of, or even raped.

I started to wonder about sin, and why so much sin in the Christian tradition falls on women, centers around women's bodies.

By the end of college, my former certainty about abortion had completely deserted me. I had arrived at a place where I couldn't identify myself as pro-life any longer. I now believed in choice, but without advocating abortion. I still believed a fetus was a life--but I had come to understand there were other issues at stake, too. Was mine a pro-choice position? None of the pro-choice rhetoric with which I was familiar led me to believe it was; having once been a true believer in the pro-life movement, I found nothing in the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement that appealed to me or adequately stated my position.

Those against choice gained the upper hand in the rhetorical battle over abortion long ago. They won a major victory when they managed to convince even their foes to refer to them by the rhetorically persuasive term "pro-life." (After all, who isn't for life?) "Pro-lifers" have the much stronger rhetorical position, both verbally and visually. They believe they have God on their side, and they convincingly convey the righteousness of their position in every statement they make. They compare abortion to the Holocaust--a metaphor no one for choice can rival. They have pictures of what they claim are aborted fetuses, fetuses that appear both human and violently damaged. Such pictures appeal to pathos in a way no logical pro-choice argument can hope to.

Members of the pro-choice movement are not entirely to blame for their inability to match the rhetorical strength of their opponents. Second-wave feminists who fought for legalized abortion witnessed or experienced illegal abortions and all the terror caused by them; they translated this horror into the moving symbol of a coat hanger. However, that symbol is rhetorically empty for women of my generation forward. As a result, the pro-choice movement simply does not have competing images for those placed on placards by the anti-choice movement. As long as abortion is legal and safe, there is (thankfully) no image to rival the visual horror of an aborted fetus; instead, there are only sterile, unemotional concepts in which to believe: privacy, choice, legalization. While feminists may feel the rightness of choice, that rightness can't compare, on an emotional level, to the emotions associated with the implied opposite of pro-life (pro-death) or with the images of bloody fetuses.

But part of the loss of the rhetorical war is the fault of pro-choice feminists; for decades they have reacted to the terms set by anti-choice conservatives, simultaneously alienating women like me, who are for choice but not for abortion. I'd like to see us engage in a new discussion, employing new terms, contexts, and standards; being pro-active instead of reactive.

Here is a pro-choice position I can get behind: Abortion is generally not the problem in need of our attention. In most cases, abortion is one result of a number of related problems; abortion is wrapped up in intimate ways with attitudes about sex, living wages, access to good jobs, healthcare, childcare, education, and so on.

If we want to prevent bringing unwanted or unsupported life into this world, birth control must be accessible to all; men and women alike need education about the necessities of birth control. Birth control, sex education, and factually correct abstinence-only programs are abortion issues.

Girls from conservative homes like mine do not need lectures about the shame of sex, but about the beauties and dangers of sex, and ways to avoid the dangers. They must learn to love their bodies, draw appropriate boundaries, and know what precautions to take when they are ready for sex. Hatred of women and women's bodies in the Christian tradition are abortion issues.

Women from all walks of life must make a living wage so they can support children when they are ready to have them. If two-thirds of all women who seek abortions say they cannot afford a child, improving economic conditions by providing viable job opportunities for both men and women should greatly decrease the number of abortions. Raising the minimum wage is an abortion issue.

Women everywhere must have affordable health care for themselves and their children, so they can bring healthy children into the world and keep them healthy. Affordable universal healthcare is an abortion issue.

Women must have access to quality daycare that will not cost more than they make at work. Government-subsidized child care is an abortion issue.

Women must have access to affordable education so they can compete for living-wage jobs, and so they can promise that same access to their children. Education-related government grants and loans are abortion issues.

Adoption must be demystified, shown to be a loving and generous choice, not abandonment. Adoption laws, adoption agency regulations and oversight, and attitudes about adoption are abortion issues.

To engage in productive dialogue about abortion, we must account for justice and equity; we must strive to make our country one where laws, practices, programs, and attitudes nurture women and allow them the opportunity to bring babies into the world when they can support them, provide them excellent healthcare, send them to college without putting themselves in massive debt, and promise them truthfully there are living-wage jobs waiting for them.

Come to think of it, if this isn't a genuinely pro-life position, I don't know what is.

Copyright 2006. Edited by Krista Jacob, from Abortion Under Attack: Women on the Challenges Facing Choice. Reprinted by permission of Seal Press, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, distributed by Publishers Group West. All rights reserved.

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