On choosing

In response to my post yesterday, the lovely Catherine asks:

I’ve tried to understand the Choice viewpoint, and I earnestly desire to do so.  I would never, ever condone a man or a woman or the government or any power deciding when a woman should give her body over to a child.  But I get confused over how the anti-abortion arguments are asking for that.  Isn’t sex what leads to conception, after all?   I ask, with all friendliness and desire to learn another’s viewpoint – doesn’t a woman by nature make that choice when she becomes one of the willing pair?

First, I must point out that Catherine is in a tiny minority.  Most people are not looking to understand the other side’s view on this.  Most people are not respectful in their questioning.  I am honored to try to answer Catherine’s question and invite others who wish to also respectfully reply to do so in the comments section.  Rude, judgmental, or otherwise unpleasant comments will be returned to the sender wrapped in a package of dog doody.

Now, to Catherine’s question.  Well, the most obvious response is that sex does not always happen between a willing pair.  There are cases of outright rape that lead to conception.  There are also less horrifying instances in which people are not forced by a particular partner but are, rather, coerced by a life situation.

While I agree with Jen’s point that personal anecdotes have little to do with policy on this, I would, in the spirit of openness, like to share a story from my own past to illustrate my point.  Back before I met my wonderful husband, I had the self-esteem of a rather slimy slug (although, for all I know, slugs may have very high self-esteem).  I had lived through a very rough childhood and adolescence.  I was lucky to come out alive, let alone functional.

But, of course, I wasn’t completely functional.  And I took my clothing off more often than I should have, and not because I was a free spirit or anything like that.  I didn’t particularly enjoy sexual activity; but it was a good way to get some affection.  The only way I could see.  This past is not something I am proud of, but it’s not something I am ashamed of, either.  I wish I had thought more of myself at the time.

I was lucky.  Nothing horrible happened.  I got no diseases.  No condoms broke.  But I did end up having sex with someone I did not like.  And, although I said “no” early in the evening, I think it would be pretty fair to say that by the end, I gave the impression of being “willing.”  To myself and to him.

I was “willing” only because my past had made me think so little of myself that I thought sex was pretty much all I had to offer.  I had been a victim for fourteen of the previous nineteen years.  There hadn’t been much time for me to learn about myself and the world.  So, was I legally “willing?  Absolutely.  It was in no sense rape.  But, was I really choosing to be in this situation as a healthy, mature adult?  Hell, no.

Had the condom broken, I would not have gotten pregnant.  That’s because I had fertility issues, but there was no way of knowing that.  And should I have then been forced to carry a child I was in no way ready for because I was too much of a basket case to have the sense to keep my clothing on?

So, the word “willing,” even when it can be applied to a sexual situation, is at best inadequate.  And we all know there are many, many sexual situations much worse than the one I was in.  Should we allow abortion only in the case of rape?  Well, it’s better than no abortion, but frankly I think there are a lot of women who might not have been raped in the moment of conception but who had been long battered and bruised on their way to that moment.  And it would be awfully hard to craft a law that said “abortion in the case of rape or tragically low self-esteem.”

Not that we should, of course.  Because every situation is different.  Sexuality is complex and fraught with all levels of human emotion.  And legislation does not belong in the bedroom.  While in a perfect world all sex would be between two mature people able to accept the consequences of their mutual choice, also in a perfect world I would be six foot two and blonde.

There was a piece in Brain, Child awhile back that – frankly – appalled me.  It was by a woman – happily married with a couple of kids – who chose to abort a pregnancy.  She had the money to support the child and she planned on having another kid.  She just wasn’t ready right at that moment.  In fact, she went on to have a planned pregnancy a few months later.

The essay bothered me.  While I believe abortion ought to be available to anyone who feels the need, that kind of egotistical belief that she should only bear a child if it absolutely suited her at the moment repulsed me.  However, her point (and I believe a correct one) was that if we allow abortion, we must allow it to whomever sees the need.  It is not for anyone other than the person carrying the child to assess how urgent that need is.

Make no mistake – I think that woman is repugnant.  I really do.  But it’s not for me to tell her what to do with her body.  It’s not for anyone to say, “Well, you had sex.  I think it was probably lovely, consensual sex.  So, have the baby.”

Ideally, we would live in a world where every woman respected her soul, her mind, and her body – including the awesome power of the reproductive system – enough to only have sex when she was in a beautiful relationship.  Ideally, we would live in a world where every man respected women that same way.  But, that world would also include a legal system that respected women and their bodies – including that awesome reproductive system – enough to let women control their bodies.

(Someone else can get into things like medically necessary abortions if you like.  Or how every child should be wanted before being brought into the world.  I threw my back out a few days ago, and if I sit at the computer any longer I am going to need traction.)

24 responses to “On choosing

  1. Thanks, Emily.

  2. When this issue comes up, I think about a history show that was on several years ago. The host talked about the first foundling hospitals in England, begun in part because the wealthy were tired of stepping over the half-dead infants that were abandoned in the gutters, left to slowly starve. The sad part was that the children did not fare much better in the hospitals, but now at least the upper classes didn’t have to watch them die.

    For the past thrity years, many in the US have taken great pleasure in letting people suffer the consequences for “decisions” they may or may not have made, and young children have not been spared. There is little enthusiasm to fund children’s insurance, adequate school food programs or public education. (We’ll forget for a moment how single mothers are still looked upon, and what we are comfortable saying about them if they avail themselves of well-established government entitlements.) And if those children- and I mean children- commit a crime, we are increasingly willing to punish them as severely as we are the adults.

    We’re not as far away from stepping over dying children as we like to think we are, but for some reason we pat ourselves on the backs that we demand they to be born in the first place. Sorry, I don’t get it.

  3. Thank you, Emily, for hearing my question in the spirit it was asked – that too is a very rare thing. And more, for answering with such a personal response. I’m going to mull this over and perhaps come back with more – but did want first to thank you.

  4. I read that “Brain, Child” article too, and really wrestled with it. On the one hand, the author is right when she says we can’t impose limits. On the other hand, I can’t believe that she chose to have the abortion when she so clearly could have cared for the child, and in fact wanted another child. And, beyond that, when her partner wanted to keep the child. I don’t think that my partner has the right to decide what I should do with my body, but I would also not callously disregard his feelings in the way I feel she disregarded her partner’s.

  5. I had a friend who could be described much like that author — married, had children, wanted another, and chose abortion when unexpectedly pregnant. There were many factors that went into her decision, which I’m not going to really go into here, but they were, in my opinion (and far more importantly, in hers), quite sound, and included medical concerns for the conceptus and for her, her long-term career plans, and the family’s long-term finances.

    And lots and lots of married women (often mothers) face similar decisions, and many of them choose abortion. Not because they were too young or immature or what-have-you for a child, not because they didn’t love their potential baby, not because they didn’t love their husband, not because it would have killed them — but because it wasn’t right for them.

    I don’t understand aborting because of a pregnancy being a mere few months ahead of schedule — I can’t even wrap my mind around that, but then, I took 1.5 years to conceive once we started trying. (If nothing else, the hubris in assuming that getting pregnancy again will be just as easy…!) But I also know that as much as I want a second child, and as tenuous as my fertility is, if I had conceived when the Boychick was less than a year — and probably when he was less than two years — I would have had an abortion. I simply was not ready. Financially secure, in a solid relationship, but very, very much not ready.

    I also, whenever we talk about choice, like to bring up the flip side to that: choice is important not just for those who would choose abortion, but so people can choose pregnancies. My mom became unexpectedly pregnant (on an IUD, and in medical school!) in 1974, shortly after abortion was legalized in the USA. She’d volunteered for Planned Parenthood, and was very much pro-choice. She strongly considered abortion. Ultimately, she chose to keep the pregnancy — which turned an unplanned conception into a very much chosen and wanted child. She was free from resentment and regret because while the pregnancy was unchosen, the baby was not forced upon her.

    She has always maintained that without that choice, she would never have gone on to have me. Choice works both ways. Choice is, literally and figuratively, vital.

  6. Here’s the bottom line for me: I hate that situations exist in which children are not planned for or loved. I wish that there never had to be an abortion ever. BUT, the issue of abortion is way too nuanced, with too many vagaries and ethical issues associated for reproductive rights legislation to be the answer. Think of the phrase “medically necessary.” There are so many possible interpretations of that, not to mention ethical questions associated that I believe it impossible for Congress (any Congress) to craft a law that covers all possible situations and ensures the “right” outcome. For instance, is the life of the child more important than the life of the mother? Vice-versa? What criteria do you use to make that decision? What if the mother and father disagree? What if the birth of a child that will most assuredly die or suffer injures a mother in such a way that she is unable to have future children? How do you quantify suffering? What about rape and incest?

    The list goes on and on. There is also the additional consideration of the fact that our legal system in this country is built on precedent. If we set the precedent that the government can legislate our reproductive choices, where does that stop? I don’t want to go down any road that leads in that direction.

  7. I like the point above that choice works both ways. I have my personal opinion. And I know that when I was faced with this choice, 19, college freshman, unmarried, that I chose not to have an abortion. And i have a very loved, well adjusted 15 year old, who spent her first three years helping her mom graduate from college.

    But, I also had a lot of help and family members who would support me no matter what. And who took me to an adoption agency when I asked so that i could make the choice for myself.

    I don’t like the idea of abortion. But, i also don’t like the kids that I see in my office, who are growing up in homes with abuse, and drugs, and boy friends who come and do damage and leave. I am not saying that these children should have been aborted, because that isn’t right either. But, i am saying that I wish that more women would view children as a choice in the very beginning and not something that “happens” to them.

  8. I think the issue is so complex and varies from one situation to the next so it is difficult to make generalizations on either side. I was in a somewhat similar situation to the woman who wrote the article in Brain, Child. Although I’m not married I am in a stable and committed relationship. My partner and I had a 6 month old daughter. While on vacation in Europe I made a huge mistake, forgetting that the antibiotics I was on for my sinus infection nullified the birth control pill I was on, and ended up getting pregnant. I chose to abort. The reasons were many but the most pressing was the very deep and dark postpartum depression that I was just beginning to climb out of from the birth of our daughter and the thought of going through another pregnancy and birth, at that point, filled me with dread. I did not feel I could do it. On the other hand I felt horrible and sick about it. Like I was a terrible person b/c I did have a supportive partner and we already had a child and although we are by no means well off we are doing okay financially. But having another child so soon, how would that affect my emotional well-being? Which so directly would affect not only the child I already had but the child who was coming into the world. Would the depression be even worse next time causing me to want to do harm to myself or my children? Should I inflict all of this upon them, and my partner, because of a mistake I made with our birth control? My partner, though supportive of every woman’s right to choose, does not believe abortion is ever “right”. However, he stepped back and said it was my choice to make and he would support me either way. In the end, looking back, I do feel I made the right decision – however difficult it was for me to make. A year later we made a very conscious decision to get pregnant again and now have a beautiful 4 month old boy. And there has been no issue of postpartum. So do I wonder what would have been? If maybe everything would have been okay at the time? Sure. But all I could go off was the information I had then. And honestly I do feel that having back to back pregnancies at that point in our lives would have had very negative consequences for us all.

  9. Emily, thanks for bravely sharing your story and opening up this discussion. I’m pro choice, but I think you made a great argument for what I believe… I’m not FOR abortion. I wish that it never happened. but your points that we cannot expect everyone who is having sex (particularly when sexuality is so glorified) to be ready to be a parent… and to force the consequences of a pregnancy on unready children (the parents and the child to born) is not fair, OR for the betterment of our society. I most certainly would like to see the abortion numbers dwindle to nothing, but outlawing it is not the way to go.

  10. Emily, thank you for posting such a thoughtful essay that has inspired such deeply personal comments. I am impressed by the tone of these responses. It is rare to have such a reflective and respectful discussion about this issue.

  11. I loved what was said by all, Valerie and Painted Maypole. As the point was made, I am not FOR abortion and in most instances I don’t think it would be my choice. However, I am vehemently for choice. I think, as Lauren just said, what I am most impressed by is the tenor of the comments and the openness of those making them. Em, you’ve developed such a lovely audience.

  12. For me, either you give people the right or not. You can’t micro-manage beyond that. And the logical thing, for me, is that, of course, you have to give them the right, for two reasons 1) some will do it anyway, and it would be more dangerous, and 2) it’s a medical issue, and I don’t want legislation involved with medical care.

    I do definitely see abortion as killing, and I can get judgey about particular instances, but not to the point where I see it as illogical to make abortion illegal. I see humans as not too different from other species that sometimes feel compelled to abortion or infanticide because of outside pressures. That’s just a biological norm.

    It’s sad, of course, though. It’s an ending of a life. But–death is a normal thing. If you are irreligious, like me, maybe it’s easier to see it as a biological, not a moral, situation.

  13. I think you know that I agree with Catherine on this issue. One of the things I appreciate most about your blog is the respectful tone of the discussions here. I think the abortion issue leads to such divisive and angry interactions that we rarely have respectful discussions of it. (I think, for the record, that that is what Focus on the Family and the Tebows were trying to do at the Super Bowl, offer their perspective in a non-threatening and open way and invite folks into the conversation. I don’t know that they did it well, but it IS what they were trying to do.)

    So I am going to try to offer a respectful response from the Pro-Life viewpoint. If anything I say is offensive, please know it is not meant that way.

    I think we all agree that the fact that rape and victimization of women and young girls exists in our society is a great evil and that we can and should do all in our power to support women who have been victimized. Those are great emotional appeals for allowing a woman to choose abortion. If, however, you look at the statistics from states that ask women to report why they are having abortions, under one percent of those state that the pregnancy was a result of rape or non-consensual sex, and only a little over one percent are because of danger to the mother’s health. The other 98% of abortions are reported by the women and abortion providers as due to other reasons. Even if women who are victims are afraid to tell the truth, that would have to be a LOT of women keeping secrets to skew the figures any other way.

    As Emily has pointed out, most folks who advocate choice would say there should still be choice for that 2% and that, therefore, there must be choice for all women, even if we think their reasons for getting an abortion are wrong. Advocates of choice believe that what a woman chooses to do with her body is not for the government to dictate. And I agree that the government doesn’t have a right to tell me what to do with my body, unless I am using it to harm another person’s body.

    And this, as you already know, is where the Pro-Life argument hinges. If it is despicable for a financially secure, happily married woman who wants a child to abort it because the timing is inconvenient, it is despicable because she is selfish. She can’t be selfish unless she is putting her rights above those of another human being, not just a fetus but a baby.

    So why is it any different for a women who has been raped or victimized or is young and unmarried? I don’t believe it is for the child. The woman may not have an abortion for selfish reasons, but that doesn’t change what the act of abortion does to the person in the womb. For those of us on the pro-life side, abortion is a violation of the rights of the most innocent person, an unborn baby.

    But pregnancy is hard and parenting is hard and many children are conceived in less than perfect circumstances. Still, I don’t believe that hardship and inconvenience and imperfect circumstances are enough to justify ending a baby’s life. That is why many people who are pro-life choose to further their cause not by making Super Bowl ads or holding up signs with photos of aborted babies or (and this is the worst atrocity of all) killing an abortion provider. They choose to respect and support the dignity of all human life by working in pregnancy support centers, walking with women through the difficult months of pregnancy and labor, helping with financial and emotional and physical needs, crying and rejoicing with them through birth and adoption and parenting, and offering alternatives and hope and healing to girls and women who have been victimized.

  14. Twosquaremeals, I’m curious as to where you stand on the issue of medical necessity?

  15. I think the legal battle surrounding abortion has become such a distorting factor. I didn’t see the ad that sparked these posts. Did it make an argument that abortion should be illegal? Does it matter to anyone whether that argument was made or not? Is it simply a political reality that any statement made against abortion, on any grounds, will be heard as a call for legislation? The comments about the Brain, Child article have been very interesting – no one thinks that what that woman did was right, yet there is a consensus that we are required to support her because the alternative is to make abortion illegal. There are many things that are legal about which we can still have meaningful ethical conversations. I oppose legislation against abortion in part because I don’t think that conversation can really start until the threat of legislation is taken off the table.

  16. I, too, was repulsed by the Brain, Child piece.

    But my grandmother almost died of an illegal abortion, pre-Roe v. Wade.

    We have to let everyone do it, so no one dies from not getting to do it legally.

  17. Valerie, as the daughter of a pro-life OB, I had talks with my dad about this very issue many times. He said there are very few instances where an abortion is medically necessary to save a woman’s life. No one has the right to force parents to choose who should live or die in that case, and it would add misery to an already impossibly hard situation to force a choice. I believe that in those cases, the parents have to make that choice.

    My biggest concern is that abortion providers use the woman’s psychological health as a thinly veiled reason to perform an abortion of convenience. I feel that “medically necessary” is a convenient phrase that should be edited to include “due to the imminent threat of death” (or something like that). If immediate death due to the physical act of carrying and birthing the child is the issue, then a horrible choice has to be made. I think that my husband and I would choose not to abort and pray really hard for a miracle. But, again, those cases are rare. Most “medically necessary” abortions are not performed because of an immediate threat to the life of the mother.

    Any other physical or psychological problem with pregnancy should be dealt with using the medicines and support systems and community resources available. And if they aren’t available, we need to work to make sure they are so that women don’t feel like ending the life of their baby is the only way to save their own. That’s why I love the selfless, hard work of folks in pregnancy crisis centers around this country.

    Hope that answers your question. In short, I think anything less than the mother’s imminent death is not a good enough reason to perform an abortion.

  18. I appreciate Emily’s willingness to open up this discussion though I have to admit that when I read some of the comments yesterday I noticed that I felt angry.

    When I was in college in the early 80’s, the issue of abortion was often linked very closely to issues regarding birth control. I attended a Catholic university that had ob/gyn services available for only two hours once a week in the student health center because the administration felt it was unnecessary. Birth control was not only not available but not to be discussed at all by staff. Anyone who wanted birth control would have to make the trek to the local Planned Parenthood office.

    The theme in the early 80’s was that not only was abortion wrong, but birth control was too. I think it’s hard for some people to imagine access to birth control being difficult but it was. If birth control could be easily obtained, then it was seen as promoting sexual activity. The morning after pill has also been politicized as well and it seems to me that women get boxed out of good options when they are denied access to birth control.

    I don’t like abortion and I’m not for abortion. But what I’ve never understood is how so many people who are against abortion are also against access to birth control. It seems to me that religion gets injected into this issue in ways that make me very uncomfortable and I wish that were not the case.

    I’m glad that some of you have parents or dads with whom you could have open discussions about abortion, birth control, etc. I hope that you would realize that not everyone has your experience and not everyone is lucky to grow up feeling loved and respected.

    I’ve often felt that the pro-life movement seems to lack compassion for women and the difficult issues that we face. I also think there is way too much focus on women and girls and rules about what women and girls are allowed or not allowed to do (i.e., get permission from your parents or your husband to obtain an abortion). If we’re going to make laws about what women can and cannot do, perhaps men should be subjected to those laws too (boys should have to get permission from their parents to have their girlfriend get an abortion).

    I can see from how jumbled this is that obviously I have an emotional reaction to this. I do not think this is a simple issue but it seems to me that it’s sometimes hard for people to imagine that their experience is not universal.

  19. At the risk of hijacking this comment section even more…(Sorry, Emily, please feel free to tell me to bug off. I won’t be offended.)

    I am just going to address a couple of things that Jennifer mentions. But I do want to apologize if anything I wrote seemed insensitive. I absolutely realize that many people did not have the safe and healthy family environment I had growing up. People who are pro-life do not hate women or want to oppress people who have already had difficult lives. Most of them really love people, grown and in utero and everything in between, and that is why they fight so hard to protect lives and provide loving, supportive options for women in difficult situations.

    Also, many pro-life supporters, including me, do not have a problem with access to birth control. My husband and I have used it at various times in our marriage, and I think it is definitely a better option than getting pregnant and having an abortion. Christians may oppose the use of birth control among themselves because their sexual ethic is different than non-Christians, but they have no reason to impose that rule on non-Christians because the use of contraception does not harm another human being. It is a personal decision with personal consequences only.

    Finally, I totally agree about men and boys needing to be held to the same standards as women when it comes to this issue. As long as men are not required to take responsibility for the life they help to create, women will keep finding themselves pregnant and alone and afraid and will keep seeking abortions instead of being supported to bring a child into the world.

    Again, I can’t emphasize enough how many loving, compassionate, generous people are in the pro-life movement. They are people who don’t shoot abortion providers or hold up grotesque signs or think the answer is in electing the right politicians. Don’t judge us for a few bad apples, and we won’t judge you for the folks who tried to slander the Tebows for their very understated, sincere, and not at all pushy ad. Deal?

  20. You are not hijacking the comment section and I am so happy to have you speaking so earnestly here. You have written some very thought-provoking things.
    I think the issue with the Tebows’ ad was not them expressing their opinions but the fact that it was aired during the Superbowl by a broadcasting company that has turned down other ads during the Superbowl for being too political. And, correct me if I am wrong, but wasn’t the ad paid for by an organization with the stated goal of legislating against abortion? Thereby making it a political ad. The issue is not with the Tebows (in my opinion) as they are perfectly within their rights to express themselves, but rather the corporate forces behind the ad.
    Again, thank you to everyone for this amazingly civilized debate. Please continue to see this space as a forum for this conversation.

  21. Interestingly, I am writing this comment on a break from the Diversity class I am currently teaching at a local university. I am talking tonight about something called the Fundamental Attribution Error – when we someone in our own group misbehaves we easy say “well, that was THAT person, not representing the whole group.” But when someone in another group misbehaves we tend to say “See, that’s what’s wrong with that other group.”

    That is so easy to do in the conversation about Abortion. Its so easy to believe the worst about the people who are on the “other side.” There are pro-life people who are hateful and unsupportive and unable to see that some women lack the community resources they need. But they are the rare (though easily publicized) exception, just as the Brain, Child author is not the standard that Choice advocates would say is the norm for women who have abortions.

    If we are going to make any progess in this issues – and we all, no matter where we stand, want to see progress – we need to see the other side the way they see themselves. This is why I asked my question in the first place, and this conversation has been helpful to me.

    Bea, I think you raise a very good point – we need to make a place where we can talk about ethics without the legislation issue taking over. I hope we can do that, and I hope we can all learn from each other.

  22. Since I brought up the issue of birth control birth control, I just would like to address the comment about how many loving and compassionate people there are in the pro-life movement. It’s my sense that it is not loving or compassionate for pharmacists to say that they will not dispense the morning after pill because it runs contradictory to their religious beliefs or that they will not dispense birth control pills to unmarried women for the same reason. I realize that I am stretching what was said but I think if you think about it, you can see that there is something judgmental going on when one person uses their “beliefs” to control someone else’s access to something that really is about health care.

    As I noted, I am not for abortion but I also feel that our societal attitudes about abortion and birth control are often very judgmental and not very compassionate and that it’s very hard for most of us to accept the differences that exist in our country. Look how polarized we have become.

    And Emily is correct about the corporate forces regarding the Tebow ad as well as the fact that when a pro-choice group wanted to advertise during the Super Bowl, they were denied.

  23. However, those pharmacists are one end of a spectrum. As Inthefastlane has pointed out, the majority in the pro-life movement are people working against abortion not by creating laws and rules, but by trying to help women have other options.
    I wish as a parent I were better at that kind of behavior modification 🙂

  24. Jennifer, if it helps I’ve known thousands of pro-life people in my life and at the most maybe two or three who were opposed to birth control. So it really isn’t the same thing for the vast majority of people. And as for the pharmacists you mentioned, I would still say that is a big problem, but a different problem than the abortion issue at large, since it is such a very, very tiny segment of anti-abortion people.

    For the record, I am pro-life, pro-birth control, pro-compassion, and against the Tebow ad.