Commentary Abortion

It’s Not About the Egg/Zygote/Embryo/Fetus: Re-claiming the Abortion Debate

Angi Becker Stevens

Up until the latter half of the twentieth century, arguments against abortion focused primarily on enforcing traditional gender roles for women, not on "saving babies." We need to reclaim the debate by focusing on women.

For those of us who have come of age as feminists in the past few decades, the opposition to abortion we’ve encountered has virtually always centered on the life of the (choose one) fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus. In the not so distant past, however, anti-choice rhetoric came from a very different place. Up until the latter half of the twentieth century, arguments against abortion focused primarily not on the notion of saving an innocent life, but on enforcing traditional gender roles for women.

Historically, abortion—as well as all forms of contraception—was typically seen as an evil not out of concern for the unborn, but rather out of the belief that allowing women to separate sex from child-bearing would lead to a complete collapse of womanly morality, allowing women to have sex willy-nilly for no other reason but pleasure. In other words, contraception and abortion would allow women the same sexual freedom enjoyed by men. There also was a widely accepted view that any woman who wished to avoid motherhood was inherently some kind of deviant; shunning the “natural” role of mother was viewed as a serious gender transgression. And of course, no attempt to maintain gender roles has ever been merely about preserving tradition for the sake of it, but rather about upholding the patriarchy. Social and economic equality are virtually impossible for women whose lives are circumscribed by compulsory motherhood.

After the gains won by feminists in the 1960s and 70s, however, it has been increasingly difficult to garner widespread support for any stance based blatantly and openly on the notion that women should fulfill their “natural” roles by staying home and serving as submissive wives and dutiful mothers. And so the anti-choice movement has gradually—and effectively—changed its strategy. Instead of talking about deviant, promiscuous women, the anti-choice movement today speaks about saving babies—indeed, a much more palatable goal in the 21st century than the subjugation of women. From fetal pain bills to personhood amendments, the proliferation of anti-choice legislation we’ve witnessed in the past few months serves as frightening evidence of just how effective this line of anti-choice argument has been.

Unfortunately, many of us who wish to defend reproductive freedom fall into the trap of bending to counter these arguments on their own level. When anti-choicers talk about saving babies, an extremely common pro-choice response is to talk about the horrible life of the child born into poverty if abortion were not an option. But there are a few problems with engaging in this line of argument. First, when we start talking about the suffering of children born into poverty, what is this saying about the women living in poverty—disproportionately women of color—who do choose motherhood? Obviously, no one wants to see children living in dire economic circumstances. But we walk a line dangerously close to eugenics if we argue that the solution is abortion rather than arguing for the improvement of the socioeconomic conditions that place so many women in poverty to begin with. It can of course be useful to point out the hypocrisy of conservatives who would claim to care so deeply about saving fetuses, but who then refuse to support any kind of social welfare programs to support babies once they’ve been born. And we can’t deny that poverty—and the already limited ability to care for already-existing children—is a factor in many women’s abortion decisions. But we must be careful not to speak about abortion and poverty in ways that shame poor mothers. Any dialogue about reproductive justice must also include the right of a woman to be a mother, regardless of her class position.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Another problem with this defense of abortion lies on the exact opposite side of the coin: if we defend abortion solely from the perspective of saving a potential child from suffering, then where does that leave a woman who has every imaginable resource to care for a child, but simply does not want to be a mother? Are we really prepared to say that abortion is only morally defensible in circumstances where the potential baby in question would lead a so-called miserable life?

What gets left out of these arguments—on both sides—is the woman. When we respond to anti-choicers with our own counter-arguments about the life of the fetus, we have already allowed them to win a large part of the victory simply by allowing them to take the woman and her autonomy out of the equation. For too long, we’ve been willing to fight this battle on the opposition’s turf. As feminists, it’s our responsibility to bring women back into the discussion. We need to reclaim this argument, to focus on the fact that equality is unimaginable in a society where women cannot choose how and when and if to bear children.

I am firmly convinced that at its core, the anti-choice movement has never actually stopped being about the enforcement of traditional gender roles. Anyone who genuinely saw abortion itself as a tragedy would, logically, also support things like contraception and comprehensive sex-education. But if the goal is to prevent women’s liberation, to maintain the patriarchal order, then the apparent contradiction between opposing both abortion and the means to prevent unwanted pregnancy disappears. This is not to claim that an individual person who claims to be against abortion is coming from a position of being anti-feminism or anti-woman. I’m confident that many are reasonable human beings, who have simply bought into the well-crafted “pro-life” message of saving the unborn. Anecdotally, I know a handful of individuals who were once active in anti-choice movement, who reversed their position on abortion when they realized that the movement was not actually pro-child, but anti-woman. I believe that many more anti-choice activists are capable of making such a change, if only they can see the reality of what the movement is really about. That can only happen if we reclaim the argument, and make it once again about the lives of women, not fetuses.

This shift in focus has the potential to impact not only those who are firmly on the anti-choice side of the fence, but also to inspire activism among those who already identify as pro-choice. I believe many young feminists and others on the left have somewhat ambivalent feelings about abortion; they might feel strongly about supporting choice, while at the same time they view abortion with a degree of discomfort—a natural reaction for those of us who have grown up with the language of “killing helpless babies” instead of the language of defending women’s rights. Too often, even defenders of reproductive freedom speak of abortion as kind of necessary evil. And it’s exactly that middle-ground position which allows for the conditions we seem to be heading toward: a country where abortion is legal, but so highly restricted it is rendered virtually unavailable.

The National Network of Abortion Funds’ profiles of women who rely on NNAF services and Amplify’s 1 in 3 campaign are both excellent examples of re-centering the abortion dialogue on the lives of women, not fetuses. This woman-centered approach is one we should view as a model not only for our activism, but for the language we use in conversations and debates with family and friends, and on our personal blogs and social networking sites. We have played defense, allowing those who oppose abortion to set the terms of the debate, for long enough. It’s time to take back the conversation, and to spread the message that opposition to abortion today is about the same thing it has always been about: not the humanity and personhood of fetuses, but the humanity and personhood of women.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open The Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.