For too long the two sides in the mainstream
debate over abortion have been talking past each other,
speaking completely different languages and approaching the issue with
radically different perspectives. I was reminded of this last month
when, in one of his final acts as president, Bush issued
a proclamation making
January 18 "National Sanctity of Human Life Day." The language used was overtly religious and unapologetically pro-life:
"All human life is a gift
from our creator that is sacred, unique and worthy of protection. On
National Sanctity of Human Life Day, our country recognizes that each
person, including every person waiting to be born, has a special place
and purpose in this world."
The proclamation goes on to
outline accomplishments of the Bush White House:
"My administration has been
committed to building a culture of life by vigorously promoting adoption
and parental notification laws, opposing federal funding for abortions
overseas, encouraging teen abstinence and funding crisis pregnancy programs."
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To anyone in the reproductive
justice movement this is a list of horribly sexist anti-choice
legislation that we have been organizing against for at least the last
eight years. Parental
are an extra barrier that can prevent young women from being able to access abortion
services in a timely manner, causing them to wait until it is too late
for a legal abortion. The global
gag rule, which
President Obama lifted, tied the hands of healthcare
providers all over the world, keeping contraception and other reproductive
health services out of the hands of women outside the U.S. Abstinence-only
stop young people from having sex, but they do keep them from learning
how to have safe sex. Crisis
mislead women, doing whatever they can to stop people from obtaining
abortions. The cumulative effect of presidential support for these policies
and programs has been devastating.
But reading the language of
Bush’s proclamation I was reminded of a time, not all that long ago,
when that sort of rhetoric spoke to me. I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist
family and community, and was raised vehemently pro-life. Now I look
at this proclamation and shudder, aware of what these policies have
meant and continue to mean in the lives of real people the world over.
Back then, I heard this same sort of language about a "culture of
life" and my mind turned to the souls of unborn babies murdered in
cold blood before they even had a chance to experience the world, before
they could defend themselves.
I say this not because I think
this ideology is anywhere close to right, but because it is a mindset
I believe we must come to understand if our movement is to succeed.
Growing up surrounded by Focus
on the Family language,
announcements for Sanctity of Life rallies and marches, stories about
the "silent scream," I never really thought about the effects of
all of this on actual living women. To me, it was all about the innocent
lives I believed were being destroyed. My father’s stories about praying
at women outside abortion clinics with Operation
Rescue sparked my first thoughts about what those women
must be experiencing. But it wasn’t until a radical change of community,
until I was surrounded by pro-choice organizers and was presented with an
alternative logic, that my worldview changed. I came to recognize the
narrow and deeply religious ideology that led me to focus on the unborn
and ignore the lives of women. I came to to see abortion as about saving
lives or making more fulfilling lives possible, about recognizing the
humanity of all people.
From this perspective Bush’s
proclamation is an insult, a proud affront to human dignity and self-determination,
and a direct attack against women. Thinking back to my younger pro-life
self, though, I know others read this proclamation as a gift, a recognition
of the valuable humanitarian work they are doing.
Yes, anti-choice ideology is
fundamentally sexist. I didn’t know this when I was a pro-lifer, though,
and I do not believe hatred of women is an intentional part of the belief
system of most people in that movement. It’s easy to paint pro-lifers
with one simplistic stroke as misogynist bigots bent on maintaining
patriarchal power, and this may be true of much of the movement’s
leadership. But I do not believe the average pro-life person is coming
from a place of hate. Most of these people believe they are doing good,
compassionate, life-saving work. Our movements simply cut the issue
in radically different ways. To a person whose religious beliefs are
a central part of their identity, being told that abortion is about
a human soul connects the issue to their most deeply held convictions,
making it an unquestionable moral good to work against access to abortion.
Women’s lives barely enter the picture.
As a pro-lifer I didn’t understand
the likelihood of an unplanned pregnancy: I didn’t appreciate the
ways having a child can limit a woman’s opportunities, didn’t hear
stories about dangerous illegal abortions or understand why someone
would swallow poisonous chemicals because they couldn’t access an
abortion clinic and absolutely could not carry a pregnancy to term.
It was easy to focus on the unborn child when I wasn’t thinking about
the many different things getting pregnant and having a child can mean.
It is vital in our work for
reproductive justice that we do not oversimplify and underestimate those
working to restrict reproductive rights. Our opponents are not Disney
villains bent on doing evil; they are good, well meaning people who
believe wholeheartedly that they are doing the right thing. We have
to understand where these people are coming from so that we can look
for connections, find the beliefs we share, and then find ways to present
a different perspective on these issues. It took cutting the issue differently
for me to change sides; I know I am not the only person out there susceptible
to a compassionate argument in favor of abortion. But that conversation
starts with respect and understanding for the beliefs of pro-lifers.
The more we frame the conversation as being about the lived experience
of real people the harder it becomes to argue that restricting abortion
is about caring for human life. If someone in the pro-life movement
is really motivated by a desire to save lives this humanizing of abortion
can speak to them, as it did to me.
Bush has proclaimed eight "National
Sanctity of Human Life Days," each one a gift to pro-lifers and an
insult to the reproductive justice movement. But I choose to look back
on the past eight years as an opportunity to examine the state of the
abortion debate, to charitably contemplate the ideology behind Bush’s
rhetoric, and to recognize the vital work of changing hearts and minds
that must be done if we are ever to achieve reproductive freedom for
all. As we move forward with a pro-choice administration let’s work
to reframe the issue so we do not continue swinging back and forth between
administrations that focus on the rights of the unborn or the rights
of women. We need to connect abortion to people’s daily lives and
create a conversation that is relatable instead of rehashing abstract
political arguments. Someone had the conversation with me once, so I
know it can happen again.