A Pro-Choicer’s Guide to the Pro-Lifer’s Logic

The political differences aren’t really about who values bodily autonomy or science or women or babies, because at some reasonable level, people on opposite ends of the abortion debate genuinely (in their hearts) value these things in one way or another. So, where do we differ?

A Pro-Choicer’s Guide to the Pro-Lifer’s Logic
Photo by Dylan Lees (copyright 2022, Alice Dreger)

As a pro-choicer whose now-elderly parents raised us on abortion picket lines – with my father running for Congress on the Right to Life party line and my mother being a leader in Feminists for Life – I’m here to help be your guide to the minds of the people on the other side.

Why am I bothering? I know it is fashionable to yell slogans at the other side on everything, especially you’re your political tribe feels deeply threatened. I know it feels good to think we understand science or history or law or medicine better than “they” do.

But I also know it is critically important, if you’re going to try to have a positive political effect, to understand the people on the other side. And the difficult fact is that, on a lot of issues of abortion, the people on the other side are coming to very different conclusions from similar values.

You think you’re pro-science? Well, so are my parents. They took us to the Museum of Natural History in New York a lot more often than those abortion clinic protests. The arguments pro-lifers make about human life beginning at conception – abortion being a form of murder – are often based on reasonably educated ideas about what science has learned about fertilization and development.

People who are anti-abortion, they have a pretty tidy answer to where life begins. When I look at the same science, I have no idea where what I think of as a human being starts. I don’t think there is any easy answer. It’s the reason that, like a lot of voters who consider themselves pro-choice, I am very uncomfortable with late-term abortions except in cases where the mother’s life is truly at stake.

I don’t think fertilization makes a cell a human being. I don’t think a heartbeat does, either. But science doesn’t solve this question for us in a simple way, and people who are against abortion are not necessarily anti-science. Insisting “we” are pro-science and they are not is just silly.

You think you’re in favor of bodily autonomy? I don’t know anyone who says they’re not. The same logic that gets me to the idea of leaving intersex children’s bodies alone for them to decide on surgeries and hormone treatments (except for urgent medical issues) gets anti-abortionists to the idea that the fetus has a right not to be terminated.

Again, these are differences in lived implementation, not in value.

You think you care about women more? People are sometimes surprised when I mention my mother’s work with Feminists for Life, thinking that’s got to be a joke. But my mother was a serious feminist – in fact, she’s how I got my feminism.

As she said to the cardiologist when I brought her in for a checkup a few years ago, “I burned my bra in the 1970s and never bought another one.” Bras for small-chested women (she explained to me when I asked for a bra in middle school) exist for men – for their ideas of femininity –  and she and I didn’t need that. She also didn’t shave for the same reason, and she tried to talk me out of shaving my legs and armpits, telling me to love my body as it matured naturally. She also raised me to be able to be financially independent so that I would never need a man’s help. And she actively encouraged me to pursue “male” interests all the time, including strongly encouraging me to study physics.

When I asked my mother once how being anti-abortion is feminist, she looked at me like I was daft but explained her reasoning: if men respected women, women would not need abortions. They would not get pregnant when they could not handle a child, and if they had a child, the father would provide for it. To her, men and their misogyny were the cause of abortions.

Again, being feminist doesn’t get you only to being in favor of abortion. It can also send you in a very different direction.

You think the pro-lifers should recognize that early abortion was, for centuries, utterly uncontroversial?

It’s true that, in the West, abortion was generally considered acceptable before “quickening” (when the fetus was felt to move in the womb). But it’s pretty bizarre to me, as an historian, to hear progressives use this historical argument as a reason why early abortions should be acceptable to conservatives now. There are plenty of other outdated ideas that progressives would never argue should be maintained – like ownership of other persons, the “right” to beat your children senseless, and so on.

If you tell an anti-abortion person that early abortion used to be considered okay, they will just (reasonably) tell you that people also used to think it was fine to burn people at the stake for “wrong” ideas.

Many of the values on the abortion-politics spectrum are the same in theory, but interpreted differently in practice. Where do we different qualitatively?

One key issue: I think consented, pleasurable sex is a perfectly fine thing for any sexually mature person to engage in. Conservative Christians, of course, view sex as only appropriate within the confines of heterosexual marriage where the risk of pregnancy is acceptable (and accepted).

In that sense, their view is qualitatively different from mine because it arises from a worldview that is fundamentally about sex functioning in the service of kinship order and patriarchal homage (including via religious systems) – to the point where they do not want abortions even in the case of rape and incest.

So, the political differences aren’t really about who values bodily autonomy or science or women or babies, because at some reasonable level, people on opposite ends of the abortion debate genuinely (in their hearts) value these things in one way or another. The difference is about how you think about sex – whether you think it is for you and your consenting partner, or (also) for some larger group that controls who has pride and who has shame around sex.

Want abortion to be legal? Work on de-shaming sex, particularly with the next generation.

How do you do that with children? I wrote a book to explain how I did it. I made sure it is short and cheap.

Find my website here.

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