Abortion As a Blessing, Grace, or Gift–--Reclaiming The Conversation about Reproductive Rights and Moral Values
This article is part of a broader conversation exploring how all of us, including freethinkers, can reclaim the language of morality and spirituality that the priesthood has asserted as their own exclusive right.
Most Americans think of childbearing as a deeply personal or even sacred decision. So do most reproductive rights advocates. That is why we don’t think anybody’s boss or any institution should have a say in it. But for almost three decades, those of us who hold this view have failed to create a resonant conversation about why, sometimes, it is morally or spiritually imperative that a woman can stop a pregnancy that is underway.
My friend Patricia offers a single reason for her passionate defense of reproductive care that includes abortion: Every baby should have its toes kissed. If life is precious and helping our children to flourish is one of the most precious obligations we take on in life, then being able to stop an ill-conceived gestation is a sacred gift. Whether or not we are religious, deciding whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy is a process steeped in spiritual values: responsibility, stewardship, love, honesty, compassion, freedom, balance, discernment. But how often do we hear words like these coming from pro-choice advocates?
Our inability to talk in morally resonant terms about abortion has clouded the broader conversation about mindful childbearing. The cost in recent decades has been devastating. In developing countries millions of real women and children have died because abortion-obsessed American Christians banned family planning conversations as a part of HIV prevention efforts. Those lost lives reveal the callous immorality of the anti-choice movement.
Back home, here in the U.S., our inability to claim the moral high ground about abortion has brought us one of the most regressive culture shifts of a generation. We are, incredibly, faced with “personhood rights” for fertilized eggs, pregnancies that begin legally before we even have sex, politicians with “Rape Tourette’s,” and a stunningly antagonistic debate about contraceptive technologies that could make as many as ninety percent of unintended pregnancies along with consequent suffering and abortions simply obsolete.
The voices that are strongest on reproductive rights often falter when it comes to the cultural dialogue. At least part of this absence is because so many of the pro-choice movement's leaders and funders are secular and civic in their orientation, awkwardly uncomfortable with the moral and spiritual dimension of the conversation, or, for that matter, even with words like moral and spiritual. From language that seems moderately wise--Who decides?--we fall back on “safe, legal and rare” (a questionable effort to please everyone) or even the legal jargon of the “right to privacy.”
The other side talks about murdering teeny, weeny babies and then mind-melds images of ultrasounds and Gerber babies with faded photos of late term abortions. And we come back by talking about privacy?? Is that like the right to commit murder in the privacy of your own home or doctor’s office? Even apart from the dubious moral equivalence, let’s be real: In the age of Facebook and Twitter, is there a female under twenty-five in who gives a rat’s patooey about privacy, let alone thinks of it as a core value?
The right to privacy may work in court. But it is a proxy for much deeper values at play. Privacy simply carves out space for individual men and women to wrestle with those values. In the court of public opinion, it is the underlying values that carry the conversation.
Far too often those who care most about the lives of women and children and the fabric of life on this planet limit themselves to legal and policy fights. Fifty years ago, reproductive rights activists took the abortion fight to the courts and won, and they have kept that focus ever since. But the legal fight has drawn energy away from the broader conversation. And the emphasis on “privacy” has meant that even the most powerful stories that best illustrate our sacred values are too often kept quiet.
Legal codes and cultural sensibilities are never independent of each other. Abortion rights were secured legally because of a culture shift that was aided by anguished stories and statements by compassion-driven Christian theologians during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The brutal deaths of American women every year, at a peak of thousands in the 1930’s, was, beyond question or doubt, a profound immorality that many Americans were desperate to stop. Protestant leaders across the theological spectrum took a moral stand in support of legal abortion. In contrast to the Vatican, they had long agreed that thoughtful decision-making about whether to bring a child into the world serves compassion and wellbeing—the very heart of humanity’s shared moral core.
At this point it should be clear that the tide has turned. Opponents, having lost in court, instead took their fight to conservative churches, where they have been refining their appeals for forty years. The last few years have seen a systematic erosion of legal rights driven by a culture shift that had been building long before. It has also seen a complete reversal of the once-stalwart moral support for reproductive rights among American Protestants, which in the 1950s was seen as a moral good by almost every denomination from the most liberal to the most conservative. Unless this shift is challenged and stopped, there is every reason to fear that abortion will once again become inaccessible for most women in the U.S.
Can pro-choice advocates reclaim the moral and spiritual high ground? Yes. But to do so will require a challenge to the status quo on two fronts. Rather than ignoring the right's moral claims, we must confront their arguments. We must also express our pro-choice position in clear, resonant moral and spiritual terms. In other words, in combination, we must show why ours is the more moral, more spiritual position.
This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Most “pro-life” positions aren’t really pro-life; they are no-choice. They are designed to protect traditional gender roles and patriarchal institutions and, specifically, institutional religion. The Catholic Bishops and Southern Baptist Convention—both leaders in the charge against reproductive rights-- represent traditions in which male “headship” and control of female fertility have long been tools of competition for money and power. They use moral language to advance goals that have little to do with the wellbeing of women or children or the sacred web of life that sustains us all.
The arguments they make to attain these ends are powerful emotionally but not rationally. They appeal to antiquated and brittle conceptions of God. They appeal to the crumbling illusion of biblical and ecclesiastical perfection—and the crumbling authority of authority itself. They corrupt the civil rights tradition and turn religious freedom on its head. They play games with our protective instinct and cheapen what it means to be a person. They lie.
That adds up to a lot of vulnerability in what should be the stronghold of the priesthood: their claim to speak for what is good and right.
Republican Strategist Karl Rove will go down in history for his strategy of attacking enemies on their perceived strength -- for example, by attacking John Kerry on his war record. In the recent election, we saw this strategy in play on both sides. Obama proved to be less vulnerable than his opponents hoped on his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act. But by the time the election was over, Romney’s strongest credential, his background in business, was seen by many as parasitic “vulture capitalism.” If we want Americans to understand and distance from the moral emptiness of the “pro-life” movement, we will have to challenge the patriarchs in on their home turf, in their position as moral guides.
Here, for openers, are a few ways we might change the conversation:
1. Talk about the whole moral continuum. A moral continuum ranges from actions that are forbidden, to those that are allowed, to those that are obligatory. When it comes to abortion, we talk only about one half of this continuum—Is it forbidden or is it allowed?—when, in actuality, a women faced with an ill-conceived pregnancy often experiences herself at the other end of the continuum, wrestling with a set of competing duties or obligations. What is my responsibility to my other children? To society? To my partner? To myself? (To cite a personal example, my husband and I chose an abortion under circumstances where it would have felt like a violation of our core values to do otherwise.) The current conversation doesn’t reflect the real quandaries women face, one in which moral imperatives can and do compete with other moral imperatives. Nor does it reflect the wide range of spiritual values and god concepts that enter into the decision making process.
- No-choice advocates say: Abortion is immoral. God hates abortion.
- We can say: For me, bringing a child into the world under bad circumstances is immoral. It violates my moral and spiritual values. / Whose god decides?
- They say: Abortion is murder. Abortion kills little babies.
- We can say: A person can think and feel. My cat can feel hungry or hurt or curious or content; an embryo cannot. / Thanks to better and better pregnancy tests, over 60 percent of abortions now occur before 9 weeks of gestation. Want to see what they actually look like?
- They say: A fetus is a baby. A baby is a living soul from the moment of conception.
- We can say: In nature, most fertilized eggs never become babies. A fetus is becoming a baby, grows into a baby, is a potential person, or is becoming a person.
- They say: Liberals are to blame for abortion. Planned Parenthood is an abortion mill.
- We can say: Obstructing contraceptive knowledge and access causes abortion and unwanted babies. That’s what’s immoral. We have the technology to prevent almost all of the suffering and expense caused by unintended pregnancy, but many women don’t have access to that information or technology because of the twisted moral priorities of religious and cultural conservatives. Barack Obama and Planned Parenthood have done more to prevent abortions in America than all of the choice opponents combined. The no-choice position is anti-life. It kills women. It puts faith over life.
- They Say: Abortion is psychologically scarring. Women end up haunted by guilt and permanently traumatized after having an abortion.
- We can say: No one should do something that violates her own values. Violating your values is wounding; that is why each woman should be supported in following her own moral, spiritual and life values when making decisions about pregnancy.
- They say: Employers shouldn’t be forced to provide contraceptive or abortion coverage.
- We Can Say: The freedom to choose how your employees spend their hard earned benefits and the freedom to choose whether to have a child are two very different things. No institution—and nobody’s boss--should have a say in one of the most personal and sacred decisions we can make: whether to have child. That is why all women, regardless of who they work for, should have access to the full range of contraceptives and reproductive care.
- They say: Abortion is selfish. Women just want to have sex without consequences.
- We can say: A loving mother makes hard decisions to bring her kids the best life possible. A responsible woman takes care of herself. A caring father wants the best life possible for his children. Wise parents know their limits.
- They say: Abortion is bad. An abortion is regrettable.
- We can say: An ill-conceived pregnancy is bad. An unintended pregnancy is regrettable. An abortion when needed is a blessing. It is a gift, a grace, a mercy, a cause for gratitude, a new lease on life. Being able to choose when and whether to bring a child into the world enables us and our children to flourish.
- They say: Abortionists are murderers.
- We can say: God (or Nature) aborts most fertilized eggs. Abortion doctors are compassionate healers who devote their lives to helping women and men ensure that they have strong, well-planned, wanted families. Their work is as sacred as any in the field of medicine.
Most women chose an abortion so that they can later choose a well-timed pregnancy; or so they can take good care of the kids they have, ensuring those kids have the best possible chance in life. Sometimes a woman ends a pregnancy because she is choosing to put her life energy elsewhere. Even then, she is accepting that to embrace life fully she must choose among the kinds of good available to her and take responsibility for avoiding harm. She may or may not put it in these terms, but those are moral and spiritual questions, the kind that religion has long sought to guide. That is why many religious traditions support a woman or couple in weighing their own deepest values when it comes to reproductive decisions.
As individual stories show, the decision to end a pregnancy may be based in humility, responsibility, nurturing, prudence, forethought, vision, aspiration, stewardship, love, courage. . . . or some combination of these qualities. Mere tolerance fails to affirm the many strengths that go into reproductive decisions including the decision to end a pregnancy. These are virtues worthy of honor.
- They say: An abortion is shameful. An abortion should be kept secret. An abortion needs to be forgiven by God.
- We can say: Choosing abortion can be wise and brave. It can be loving and generous. It can be responsible and self-sacrificing.
Toe kissing is a small, spontaneous celebration of love and life, the same values that are at the heart of our spiritual traditions. They are the values that no-choice, anti-abortion leaders claim to represent, but represent so poorly. We would do well to say so.
Thank you to Brian Arbogast and Sara Robinson for their input on early drafts of this article.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com