Kirsten Moore is President and CEO of The Reproductive Health Technologies Project (RHTP).
When state legislatures are passing abortion bans; when women are being denied access to birth control; when laws are enacted to criminalize pregnant women's behavior, it is easy to understand why some advocates and strategists believe the way to regain momentum is to focus on prevention of unintended pregnancy and abortion to highlight the extremism and hypocrisy of our political opposition.
Certainly, exposing the opposition's agenda will motivate some, but I believe we can and must do better. To really change the tone and direction of the abortion debate in this country, we have to acknowledge that most people are ambivalent about abortion. That's okay; uncertainty doesn't mean anti-choice. We should recognize – and indeed celebrate – that abortion is not the same lynchpin in women's equality that it once was. We must renew our efforts to build a policy agenda, organizing strategies, legal framework and long term message strategy that reflect the "pro-child" side of our "pro-choice" mission that will connect with people's hopes and aspirations for their future and their family's future.
Abortion is No Longer Effective Shorthand for Women's Equality
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Let's start by acknowledging that as a class, the position of women in the United States has improved; our view of ourselves, our potential, and our future has expanded dramatically. Of course discrimination, gender stereotypes and biases still exist – particularly for poor women and women of color – but as a society we have largely accepted that women have a right to a future outside of their home and an identity independent of wife and mother.
Many of us in the pro-choice movement believe that abortion and the right to control our reproductive lives is at the center of that power and that potential. Thirty years ago, when biology was a woman's destiny, it was. But today, with more and better birth control options and greater acceptance of different family structures, including single parenting, abortion is something that should be available when other options fail. It is a means to an end that comes with lots of nuance, consequences, and shades of gray.
Abortion is Not Just About a Woman
Embracing that nuance means putting abortion into a bigger frame than a woman's "right to choose." Neither the individual aspect of that frame nor the choice part accurately captures the ways women make decisions about whether to carry a pregnancy to term, nor the barriers that many face when making those decisions.
While, it is true that our opposition has successfully fetishized the fetus, it is also true that Roe v. Wade struck a balance between the interests of the woman and the fetus. Technological advances are changing the public's perception of that balance. In a 2005 survey conducted by RHTP, four in ten respondents, including one in five who describe themselves as "solidly pro-choice," agreed with the statement, "Now that I've seen a sonogram picture, I feel more supportive of restrictions on abortion." Rather than ignore the value people place on a fetus, on pregnancy, why not work with that?
Beginning the Next Chapter in the Story
By respecting the conflicting feelings people hold about abortion, we will connect strongly with the so-called "abortion grays". By acknowledging that – thankfully – most women don't make the decision to end a pregnancy alone, we can ask for understanding and empathy. By reminding people that the decision to become a parent is one of the most important any one can make, we can ask them to respect a woman's decision if she is not ready to become a parent; we can remind them this is why we need to keep abortion available.
Most important, by tapping into the aspirations around pregnancy and being a parent, we can begin the real work of strengthening the ability, the capacity, and the right of each person to shape a future for oneself and one's family in our communities, our country, and our world. And that is where the next chapter begins.
While advocacy and support for policies which seek to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy and the need for abortion are an integral part of the pro-choice movement's mission, it is time to go further. We can build support and resources for women who are trying to get out from under a substance abuse problem or a violent and coercive relationship. We can seek better information about ways to reduce exposure to toxins in everyday products that make it harder for women and men to conceive when they want to. We can hold our governments accountable for providing a secure environment that will enable families and local communities to thrive.
To recapture our movement's role in delivering on the hopes and aspirations of so many, we must align ourselves with a broader progressive vision that delivers on the value of caring for others while simultaneously upholding individual autonomy.
Editor's note: A version of this article will appear in Conscience Magazine next month. Rewire would like to thank our friends at Catholics for a Free Choice for sharing it with us.