I’m writing about this here not only because I’m too chickenshit to announce my views in person to most people I know — and let’s be honest, it doesn’t come up in conversation very often — but in the hope that I can learn from the process of being told how wrong I am. Bring it on!
I’d like to explain how I got here, but first a warning: When your brain starts out with very few nuance skills, and then receives a legal education, this is the sort of thought process that results. But it’s the only brain I have, and this is where it has led me on the question of abortion. I’d also like to be clear that I respect people with views on both sides of this difficult question, and I’m far from sure I’m right.
I’m pro-life as both a legal and personal matter. The core of my legal reasoning is this: we don’t really know when life begins and as a result we should err on the side of preserving life. Both sides of the abortion debate must agree on one thing or retreat to the trenches of irrationality: we do not, as a matter of science, know when life begins. Each side has a belief about when it begins but neither side can prove its belief scientifically. From a logical perspective, then, the pro-choice side must concede that it is possible that life begins at conception, just as the pro-life side must concede that, faith aside, it is possible that it does not. It is also undeniably true that, left alone, most pregnancies will eventually result in a life, which potential is undeniably curtailed if aborted.
Given this admitted state of scientific uncertainty, the law can do one of two things: it can let women choose whether or not to have an abortion, with the logical possibility that we as a society are permitting the killing of a human being. Or it can err on the side of life. We can prohibit abortion on the grounds that society should, as best it can, eliminate even the possibility of destroying life, with the logical possibility that we are penalizing the destruction of what is — at least at first — not life.
That’s all well and good as a logical matter, I hear you protest, but what about the reality and risk of carrying an unwanted child to term. I get that my views essentially hijack nine months of the unwilling mother’s life. And full disclosure, I don’t have kids, so it’s nine months I’ve never experienced. I would argue that it is reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child to term — to undergo those nine months of discomfort and risk — for even the possibility of saving a life.
Perhaps where I’ll really get pounded (there so so many opportunities here!) is in saying that I don’t see the nine months of pregnancy as a unique imposition. There are other contexts in which we ask for sacrifice in the name of the unborn, though mostly unborn future generations rather than specific unborn gestating kids. And as a country, we ask a great deal of a great many people when other lives are at stake. We promote and in some cases require measures that preserve the environment — measures not without costs — so that future generations will be safe and healthy. We send soldiers into war — not always voluntarily — and ask them to endure extremely physically trying conditions and risk death both for other lives and for important national principles. We ask police officers and firefighters to put their lives on the line for the lives and sometimes property of others. We ourselves — and I think especially we liberals believe this of ourselves — would risk our own lives to save the life of another. Yes, it’s a horrible thing to have to carry a child to term when you don’t want to but at bottom, it’s nine months of discomfort and risk with the potential of saving a life.
But what about back alley abortions and the risk they pose to women’s life and health? Two answers. If an act is wrong, it should not be permitted simply because, if prohibited, the perpetrator will cause harm to himself. We don’t permit theft because without it, some will starve. And we should do everything in our power to make it possible, acceptable, affordable and preferable to bear a child and to raise him or her* — with the work schedules, benefits, leave, and societal support that that requires — or to put him or her* up for adoption.
Unlike conservatives — in the immortal words of Barney Frank — I’m not just pro-life from conception to birth.
I honestly think being pro-life is far more harmonious with a generally liberal world view than being pro-choice. We’re supposed to support those at the margins of life, to paraphrase Hubert Humphrey. We stick up for the little guy, for the worker against big business, for the political prisoner against totalitarianism, for minorities enslaved or oppressed by majority laws and prejudices.
These views have been strengthened by working in the disability rights community, where I have seen the variety of complicated hands life can deal and the many creative ways of playing those cards. Taking nine months out to ensure no one gets killed seems pretty small beer in comparison. I have also seen the pernicious effects of a societal decision that some people aren’t really people or that we can decide for others whether their lives are worth living. When we start down that path — in which abortion is one paving stone, I believe — we end up with the evil that is Peter Singer.
So what should we do about this? Criminalize abortion? Put women in jail? Doctors?
Oops, sorry, I see my time is up. Thanks for coming!
What? I have to stick around and address the tough questions? Well here’s the answer: I don’t have a clue. In the current political environment, however, I would ask both sides to stop fighting about rights and start creating a world in which fewer abortions actually happen. While it’s fun — and accurate — to direct most of my cynicism on this point toward conservatives who fight against abortion while resisting any public efforts to make it easier to bear and raise children, opposing sex education and birth control and cheerleading for torture and the death penalty, I think the issue has a distorting effect on liberals as well. We direct an enormous amount of money and energy toward court cases designed to preserve the right to terminate a pregnancy, which money and energy could be better directed toward policies that support mothers, children, women, workers, immigrants, and other underdogs. Imagine health care reform that unabashedly refused to fund abortion and enthusiastically supported comprehensive prenatal care, adoption, daycare, and maternity and paternity leave? I’m sure the Republicans would have found something else to demagogue, but it might have helped forge a coalition of righties and lefties who are actually pro-life in the full sense of the word. (No, you can’t have any of what I’m smoking; I need all of it myself.)
I’m going to end this as I end all of my blog posts: awkwardly. I may know more or less how to write, but conclusions are still hard, largely because most of what I write concludes, “for the reasons set forth above, Plaintiffs respectfully request that this Court deny Defendants’ motion.” So I’ll just sign off and turn it over to anyone who is still reading at this point to explain how wrong I am.
Just as I was about to publish this, the incredible advocate Stella Adams posted this on Facebook:
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, protect the rights of those who are helpless. Speak out and pronounce a sentence of justice, defend the cause of the wretched and the poor.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)
Stella – If you’re pro-choice, my apologies for hijacking your post, but this speaks directly to why I think liberals should be pro-life.
*Amy’s 2020 edit: or them.