Changing How We Approach Abortion

The political world is all atwitter (pun intended) this week with the comments of Senate candidate Richard Mourdock from Indiana, who made the mistake of saying what he really thought on the topic of abortion. Secifically, Mourdock was asked about any cases in which he would allow abortion, and he responded only in the case of the mother’s life being in danger, but not in the case of rape:

I struggled with it myself for a long time. But I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

Ensue kerfuffle.

There have been a lot of crazy things said about abortion and rape in this election cycle, but this really isn’t one of them. Mourdock’s belief that God “intended” for life to arise out of a horrific event like rape may not be theologically sound, but it’s not something we should be terribly surprised at hearing.

Amy Sullivan, like myself a former conservative evangelical who now has a not-so-passing interest in progressive politics, agrees:

Despite the assertions of many liberal writers I read and otherwise admire, I don’t think that politicians like Mourdock oppose rape exceptions because they hate women or want to control women. I think they’re totally oblivious and insensitive and can’t for a moment place themselves in the shoes of a woman who becomes pregnant from a rape. I think most don’t particularly care that their policy decisions can impact what control a woman does or doesn’t have over her own body. But if Mourdock believes that God creates all life and that to end a life created by God is murder, then all abortion is murder, regardless of the circumstances in which a pregnancy came about.

That last sentence is especially significant for this conversation; Mourdock simply is outspoken and consistent about the natural ramifications of his belief that abortion ends an innocent human life.

But the reaction to this impresses on me that perhaps we need a few more Christians, conservative and progressive, to do on abortion what people like Justin Lee and Rachel Held Evans are doing around the issues of homosexuality and women’s roles in church, respectively – that is, speaking out for a renewed effort to understand each other and foster constructive dialogue.

Because it should be clear by now that our national conversation about abortion is toxic. Both sides are to blame, though one side more than the other, and it’s not helping foster a constructive dialogue about how to fix what both sides agree needs to be solved – the fact that abortions are necessary in the first place.

Here’s how I see the current dialogue failing us. I cry pardon in advance for the generalizations I’m going to make about the more outspoken elements in this debate:

The liberals

There is a decided failure among pro-choice partisans to make any effort to understand pro-life sentiment.

In the case of Mourdock, his run-of-the-mill – though poorly phrased – opinion that every life is a gift from God was immediately twisted into a caricature. Those who oppose abortion, especially those who oppose first-trimester abortions and morning-after abortifascents, are often considered to be anti-science loonies. Pro-life politicians are lumped together as angry men hell-bent on controlling women’s bodies.

But if my friends on the pro-choice side could see pro-life people as the compassionate, loving people they tend to be – people who have considered this issue carefully and decided, as I have, that abortion is a matter of human rights, perhaps the dialogue would be improved.

The conservatives

But in all fairness, many pro-lifers have not shown much compassion or love in their own approach to this topic. Instead, their protests have been vicious and tasteless; their most outspoken leaders are brash, arrogant and ugly; and they treat every women who has decided to have an abortion as a heartless murderer.

Further, while Mourdock may not have said anything truly terrible, there are plenty of pro-life politicians who have. Todd Akin’s incredibly ignorant comments earlier in this election season about “legitimate rape,” for example, or Paul Ryan (and others)’s support for a bill that would have added the adjective “forcible” to the rape exception.

Pro-life partisans seem intent on branding every abortion doctor as a serial killer, every mom who visits an abortion clinic as a murderess, and every supporter of abortion rights as a callous monster. This is not true either.

If my friends on the pro-life side would step back and listen to what pro-choice politicians actually say about abortion, they might be surprised at the commonality they find there. For example, many of them, including the current president, are personally opposed to abortion. Most, if not all, want to see abortions occur as little as possible. There are certainly people who make a living in the section of the health-care industry that provides abortions, but the pro-life caricature of all pro-choice advocates as greedy killers who want to see as many abortions performed as possible is simply not based in reality.

So there is common ground. Can pro-life and pro-choice advocates and politicians work together to reduce the number of abortions while setting aside their more fundamental disagreements about abortion’s legality? I think they can.

Frankly, this is going to require more of an effort from the pro-life side. Conservative partisans have moved further away from the center on this issue, now dragging contraception into the culture wars despite its proven effectiveness in significantly limiting the No. 1 reason for abortions, unplanned pregnancy, especially among the poor.

Further, the conservative demonization of organizations such as Planned Parenthood, which provides a host of services for low-income women, a tiny number of which happen to be abortions. Those services not only can save lives, in the case of cancer and STD screenings, they can reduce abortions, in the case of providing education and contraception. Likewise, the puritanical notion supported by religious conservatives that children in school should only be taught about abstinence and not about the proper ways to prevent pregnancy is counterproductive to what should be the greater goal of reducing abortions.

The pro-life movement has waged a singular focus on changing the laws, but it would be nice if its leaders could better and more publicly recognize this inconvenient fact: Making abortion illegal has not been shown to actually reduce the number of abortions performed – it simply reduces their safety and increases the risk that they will cost two lives instead of one. Likewise, the nearly obsessive effort to overturn Roe v. Wade seems to betray a failure to understand that such an event would simply  turn abortion laws over to the states, not make the practice illegal.

That’s why I say this will require more effort from the pro-life side, and that both sides are not equally to blame for the sorry state of discourse on abortion in our country. Progressives would love to work with conservatives to extend availability to contraception, implement effective sex education, and increase health-care access for the impoverished so that abortion becomes a last, rather than first, resort for pregnant women. But conservatives, both political and religious, have largely demonized these efforts, and in fact are doing so more now than ever.

Conversely, progressives say they want abortion to be “safe, legal and rare,” but spend more time on the first two than on the last item in that series. I’d like to see progressives come out more strongly in favor of adoption programs and push to include adoption as a significant piece of reproductive education both in schools and at places such as Planned Parenthood.

This would not solve the fundamental divide over abortion’s legality. Nor would it answer a question about rape and abortion that is simply difficult to answer – should women be required to carry the unborn child of their rapist to term, regardless of the emotional and physical damage such a pregnancy and birth might cause? Mourdock didn’t do a great job capturing the nuance of that question; neither, on the other hand, did President Obama, who continues to catch flack from some of the pro-life people I know for his comment about not wanting his daughter to be “punished” with a baby produced by rape. I’m convinced we might all need to show a little more grace toward those with whom we disagree on this question, in particular.

But setting aside those questions and focusing on common ground might do something more productive than what’s happening now – it might actually reduce the number of abortions, something both sides say they want, if only they would listen to each other.


2 thoughts on “Changing How We Approach Abortion”

  1. The fact of the matter is the pro-choice crowd will never embrace your challenge because to them it is not a matter of protecting children, born or unborn – they have no desire to do that. It is, rather, an issue of feminist empowerment. My body, my choice. Keep your laws off my body. This is their mantra, this is their driving force, not compassion for the most defenseless among us. And I will ask you, is radicalism in the name of righteousness such a bad thing? Was it wrong for the abolitionists of prior centuries to radically oppose the abomination of slavery? Or would it have been better to simply be pro-choice about slavery? It’s OK if my neighbor owns slaves, I just choose not to do so.

    1. Hi Jeff, thanks for responding!

      I think your response rests on two faulty assumptions. The first: that liberals who support abortion rights don’t care about protecting children. Yes, there’s a significant feminist component, but that’s in part because women are people, too, and the choice of whether to have a child is often far more complex than those of us who oppose abortion like to acknowledge, as evidenced by the difficulties faced by those who are forced to account for their opposition to rape-based exceptions to their anti-abortion stances. Regardless, I take at their word those significant voices in the pro-choice movement, including the president himself, who say they want to see the number of abortions reduced.

      The second faulty assumption is the comparison with slavery. Yes, both are human rights issues, but there is no evidence, as there is with abortion, that making the practice of slavery illegal actually leads to more slavery. If it did, that would only serve to complicate the righteousness of the abolitionist cause, not weaken the complexity of the abortion issue. The end goal should be fewer abortions, not more, right? I notice your paraphrase of Barry Goldwater – “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” – but what if the truly radical position to achieve this more righteous outcome of fewer abortions were to make the practice fully legal and actually focus on efforts to take care of the girls and women most likely to obtain one? In other words, focus less on the law and more on love. Unfortunately, I think that is a harder sell for many of those who call themselves pro-life.

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