Regular readers of RH Reality
Check have no doubt encountered recent thought-provoking articles contributered by
Exhale leader Aspen Baker.
Aspen promotes a radical new approach to the abortion debate, which
is to get past the political camps known as "pro-choice" and "pro-life"
to forefront the stories of actual women who’ve had abortion, asking
them what they want and need and shaping our national conversation,
and law, in response. Aspen calls it the "pro-voice" solution.
I’m deeply impressed with the results you can get when you treat the
voices of women who need or have had abortions as if they matter most.
At minimum, it’s a major step up from watching disturbing videos of
Sam Brownback rubbing his uterus-free stomach protectively while implying
that fetuses can talk.
Taking women’s stories out
of an ideological context has great potential. Now, many pro-choice
women feel they can’t admit to any mixed feelings about having had
abortions for fear of fueling anti-choice fire. And, of course,
we have the growing problem of anti-choicers coaxing suffering women
into blaming every problem they’ve had, from failed relationships
to toe-stubbing, on previous abortions. The reactions women have
to abortions are as individual as the women themselves, and it’s time
our public discourse on the subject reflected that.
I think the pro-voice approach
has radical potential to change the debate. But there are some
things that it just can’t do, and where we still need the more traditional,
rights-based pro-choice movement.
Pro-choicers could really benefit
from dwelling on pro-voice methods—many of us are admittedly uncomfortable
acknowledging the experiences of women who, while knowing that they
had to end their pregnancies, mourn the loss of the potential child,
and may even use language that implies that the potential child was
real to them. (It’s a feeling well captured in Gwendolyn Brooks’ "The Mother": "Believe me, I knew you, though
faintly, and I loved, I loved you/All.") By refusing to face this
reality, we make many women seeking help and support feel they can’t
find it in the pro-choice community.
Get the facts, direct to your inbox.
Subscribe to our daily or weekly digest.
Pro-voice is having the courage
to believe that our convictions can handle the messiness of the real
world. Really, we have nothing to lose. Our nation already
embraces a pro-voice attitude about divorce. Most people are intimately
familiar with the highs and lows of divorce, that it can be a relief
or a gut-wrenching loss, or both, and it’s precisely because we
know about people’s stories that most Americans support the pro-choice
view on divorce, known generally as no-fault divorce.
A pro-voice approach to abortion
can help the mushy middle better understand the issue, for this reason.
Generally pro-choice Americans who support measures like parental notification
might reconsider their positions if they heard women’s stories.
One law about parental notification or waiting periods can’t adequately
deal with the diversity of women’s experiences, but how will average
voters know this if they don’t hear stories from women who were injured
by "commonsense" regulations?
Pro-voice could have a dramatic
impact on those who naïvely identify as "pro-life," but are unaware
of the misogynist and racist history of the movement, or don’t realize
that the movement actively fights common sense measures to spare women
unintended pregnancies, such as increased contraception access or sex
education. Rank-and-file pro-lifers often see a few pictures of
disembodied fetuses and sign up to protest or fund-raise without giving
much thought to the women they could be hurting. Perhaps more
exposure to the real experiences of real women could encourage them
to take a more nuanced view, and put their efforts into more productive
areas (like fighting for sex education or Title X funding expansion).
But where I must disagree with
Aspen is on the issue of whether or not this strategy will do anything
to bring peace to the abortion wars. At best, it would help drain
the pro-life side of the energy of naïve activists. That might
be enough to marginalize the movement. But it won’t shut up
the hardcore anti-choicers, who are not and have never been in this
to protect fetal life so much as reinstitute a patriarchal society that
stifles women’s hopes and dreams, rewarding "good" women who practice
submission with wifehood and punishing the rest with ostracism and poverty.
As such, we can expect the anti-choice movement leadership to use women’s
stories for poster child purposes if they can be manipulated to their
own ends, or condemned if they conflicted with their ideology.
We don’t even have to dwell
on figures that could, with straining, be dismissed as fringe (like
Leslee Unruh) to prove this point. Rick Warren, major political player
and of course, a shining star of the pro-life movement, is someone who
has declared that his opposition
to abortion rights is non-negotiable.
His views about abortion are inextricable from the larger tapestry of
pro-patriachy views–Warren also believes wives
should submit to their husbands,
that gay marriage is immoral and should be illegal, and that victims of domestic
violence should stay with their abusers.
Abortion bans function as part of this tapestry, a way to control and
punish women. People who view women as things to controlled and
punished aren’t going to be swayed by women’s voices, when they
don’t respect them in the first place.
The national conversation over
abortion feels like war because it isn’t about
abortion per se. It’s the most important battle in the struggle over
the existence of the patriarchy. The dictionary defines patriarchy as, "a form of social organization
in which the father is the supreme authority in the family, clan, or
tribe and descent is reckoned in the male line, with the children belonging
to the father’s clan or tribe." This explains why abortion matters
more than anything else–if we believe that "life" begins at conception,
then the father gets all the credit for making children, and this in
turn justifies male authority over women and official "ownership"
of children. If we believe that "life" begins at some other
point in fetal development, then the credit for new people goes to women,
and patriarchal justifications dry up.
That said, the pro-voice approach
could have a powerful effect on all the mushy middle people who identify
as "pro-life" even though they don’t have the stomach to ban abortion
or may even use abortion services themselves. At the end of the
day, the feminist side can only reach peace if we manage to dwindle
the numbers of patriarchy enthusiasts until they are officially a marginal
group that can be safely ignored.