Today is International Womens’ Day. It’s a day to stand together, to call for rights when they’re lacking, and to defend rights when they’re in danger.
And there is some danger at the door, with a declaration yesterday that the “perfect storm” makes the perfect moment for the U.S. crusade against womens’ reproductive rights to be brought to Parliament and across Canada. In the U.S., most supporters of reproductive justice were silent in hopes that the issue would abate, only to see wave after wave crash over state after state, and an environment fomented where it has become detrimental or even toxic to be visibly supportive of womens’ rights in the equation. That is how change happens without reopening the “debate.”
But today should also be positive. And that’s why I’m taking the moment to come out in favour of womens’ reproductive rights, and encouraging others to do the same. Where womens’ rights failed in 2012 was that — aside from those few who’ve been working openly for reproductive justice already — people were shamed and intimidated away from defending them. The fewer the voices who speak, the fewer the people who are willing to. And so I’m adding my voice. While I’ve not been personally touched by a life situation where some of these questions come up, I recognize the need to work toward an environment where those who have can speak without fear.
I feel it’s imperative to take this position. Here are just a few of the reasons why.
The Heart of the Debate.
If there is obvious intent to resurrect the debate on abortion, then it’s important to get right back to the heart of what the debate is. For many readers here, this will not be new, but since the debate has been relatively dormant in many areas of the collective consciousness in recent years, since many of the people engaging in the discussion now didn’t live through the era of coathanger abortions and the awareness generated by Roe v. Wade or the Morgentaler clinic clashes, and since it won’t hurt to revisit the question as it’s inevitably thrust back into our faces, it’s timely now.
As with any highly-charged issue like this, I should preface this with an acknowledgement that my views in this series may not represent those of the parent website or other contributors. What follows is meant to be a characterization of activism and not people. When I talk about the personhood agenda, for example, not all anti-abortion people or organizations have that as an objective. Likewise, not everyone who is pro-choice has avoided being vocal, but it is what has tended to happen in the overall social conversation.
This issue, of course, is highly emotional, and amplified by stark images of aborted foetuses and language about genocide. When dealing with something which is that emotionally triggering, I tend to ask:
Are You Being Manipulated?
The attacks on Planned Parenthood have demonstrated some vividly unethical and underhanded tactics in reopening the debate. I won’t go as far as to claim that only the pro-life side distorts things, because in any debate that people feel passionately about, there will be those who get overeager and zealous to “win.” But having watched events unfold on both sides of the border over the past year, many of the anti-abortion tactics in particular have been so unethical that for me personally, it requires scrutinizing practically everything from that source relentlessly and with a skeptic’s eye. Especially when some of the same leaders repeatedly try to link LGBT people to child sexual exploitation, praise new anti-gay laws being proposed in foreign nations while omitting the fact that the death penalty is in the mix, and spin a legal ruling that overturned a ban on same-sex marriage in California as “persecution of Christians.”
And when I see groups form that claim to represent lesbians and gays opposed to abortion, using language typical of religious ideologues, not concerned with the fact that anti-abortion lobbies also use their funding to oppose LGBT rights, and not willing to have a visible face of who’s behind the movement, I have to be suspicious of that as well. In the U.S., a number of techniques (including trojan horse interest groups) have been used to try to leave Planned Parenthood and reproductive justice organizations friendless, and further divided from within. As an advocate for transsexual and transgender people, I’ve seen this tactic before, usually from the losing end.
Defining the Debate
Part of the problem with the issues surrounding abortion is that the sides were delineated long ago, with only one side remaining predominantly visible today (although to be fair, there are many reproductive justice advocates who have tried to remain vocal). The anti-abortion lobby largely asserts that all stages of foetal development constitute life. The other side? Well, “choice” is the same thing that’s been denigrated over the years and used to justify discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. It’s the means used to undermine human rights for LGB people, and the means used to undermine trans identities and existence. The argument is that nobody should have to respect or accept us if we’ve chosen to be different, chosen to live life in an unapproved manner. Choice, you see, has been demoted in our society to whim and fantasy or irresponsibility, rather than something people can arrive at by critical thinking and need. It’s a deflection, too, from the fact that faith and belief are also choices. Manipulation, again.
So what are we talking about? Is a foetus life or not life? Chances are, if you are on either side in this debate, one of these questions will offend you, but what makes a foetus worth more than an amoeba? What makes it worth less than a baby?
Foetal development goes through a myriad of stages. Pro-life advocates often define that as being at conception / fertilization (or sometimes even before), the moment that the ovum is fertilized by sperm to form a zygote. Certainly, that’s when “personhood” amendments are designed to establish human life as beginning. Even then, though, the foetus’ quest to live is only starting. Then, it needs to attach itself to the uterus, begin undergoing cell division, and then start cellular differentiation. At any of those stages spanning at least eight weeks, development can fail and the zygote is flushed out during menstruation. If you maintain that life begins at fertilization, then the human body has an entirely natural process that routinely causes uncountable numbers of abortions globally.
That’s why the anti-abortion lobby also fosters studies to establish life at the first heartbeat, at the first neural signals, at the ability to sense pain, at the first kick. At times, pro-life idealogues have gone even further back to assert that anything that affects gametes (sperm and / or ova) is immoral (thus calling in-vitro fertilization and masturbation into moral question), so while we can speculate on motivations, the pro-life side doesn’t provide any clear answer on when life actually begins. None of the benchmark moments occur at the same stage, so the inevitable conclusion is that life, birth, creation and human genesis as a whole are part of a nine-month process. A foetus isn’t a baby. It’s not a tumor, either. It is life potential. Any hardline stance on either side of that question is doomed to fail.
The question then becomes whether people are or are not justified in making the decision as to whether that life potential does indeed become life. Should every fertilized egg be made to develop into a human, or are we sometimes justified in stopping that process? If the failure of “pro-life” is that the activists who tout it (and sometimes also their supporters) take an extreme, hardline position on the issue where all potential human life has “an inalienable right to life,” then the failure of “pro-choice” is that it sometimes retreats to a “clump of tissue” argument to obscure its unease with a process that is not easily defined.
When we recognize the foetus as life potential, it then affords us the empathy that is sometimes needed in this debate. A woman who has miscarried becomes able to talk about her emotional tumult without that being dismissed as though there was no real loss. A woman who is pregnant becomes able to talk about the bond she is forming without feeling like (or being told that) it somehow undermines her legal rights as a woman. Someone who feels guilt for having or needing an abortion becomes able to work through that process without being forced into an either-or scenario of having to either deny what she is feeling or else be pushed into the corner of believing herself to be evil incarnate.
It’s entirely natural to be uncomfortable with the question. I don’t think anyone ever looks at the idea of abortion with glee — despite the portrayal the anti-abortion lobby will often give you. I’ve personally come to the conclusion that abortion needs to be available. Here’s some reasons why.
The question can be broken down into several questions. Do you feel aborting life potential can be justified if the woman in question conceived out of rape, out of respect for the accompanying emotional anguish? Do you feel aborting life potential can be justified if the woman in question conceived in an incest scenario? What about forms of contraception that are abortifacient, like the morning-after pill? What about hormonal contraception, which can either prevent fertilization, or prevent fertilized eggs from bonding to the uterine wall and developing?
All of those things prevent life potential from developing into life. Contraception too can sometimes impede the development fertilized ova, which is why when the 2011 assault on abortion began, it took little time for that to become a target too. This is also why the Roman Catholic Church is steadfastly opposed to condom use, with only scant begrudging acknowledgment of harm reduction made recently, and then walked back.
And if we are prepared to make that decision in any one of these instances, then we’ve realized this is not an absolute either-or situation.
That goes both ways. If we’re prepared to allow abortion, are we then fine with sex-selective abortion, or characteristic-targeted abortion? Supporting the availability of abortion doesn’t mean that one is going to be comfortable with everything that comes with it. It can, however, mean that reasons for supporting its availability are more urgent than reasons to oppose.
Through history and throughout the world today, pregnancy and childbirth have been used to control and oppress women in life-changing ways. Because childbirth uniquely places a life-long obligation upon women, it’s been used to dictate their entire lives. Don’t get me wrong: motherhood and family are not easy jobs and are admirable pursuits (although I qualify this somewhat when talking about responsible stewardship in a few moments). I’m not anti-family. I simply take issue with the way it is often unequally imposed upon women, usually by people who never have to experience the same life-changing consequences of that role.
Because face it, that is what we’re talking about and why this is such a contentious issue for women: it’s a complete life change, and implicit in the quest to ban abortion (even if pro-lifers aren’t consciously pursuing this end) are the conclusions that sex should only be engaged in for the purpose of conception, and that conception should always result in a lifetime role of motherhood. You wanted to go to college? You wanted to pursue a career? All of those are secondary now. Now, you’re a mother. Banning abortion takes self-determination right out of the equation.
How many anti-abortion organizations seek to mitigate this result by supporting programs to enable mothers attend higher education? How many support subsidized day care or welfare programs? Most often, it’s quite the opposite, and we end up with right-wing hacks bemoaning the existence of “overeducated” women.
At that point, abortion really does become a human rights issue. Whenever a characteristic class has their autonomy and self-determination taken from them, human rights are at issue. And this takes away not only the ability to make the one choice whether or not to have a child, it can radically affect how a woman will live the rest of her life. And what “personhood” and other anti-abortion initiatives in fact do is assert that potential life rights trump those of living humans in ways that last a lifetime.
The cost of raising a child is often a huge factor in the decision to have an abortion. For some of the women who seek it out, the inevitable consequence of removing that option for them, their families and the children they’d be forced to raise is poverty. This is significant enough a factor that any attempt to target abortion should also target the poverty that drives it. Instead, the religious far-right is developing a radical ideation of capitalism. Until a real solution to poverty can be developed, I can’t see how we as a society could even consider changing the status quo on abortion in any responsible fashion. If anything, the abortion question becomes a distraction from the growing inequity and widening chasm of poverty that Canadians face.
The Politics of the Body
I mentioned the implications of allowing abortion when it comes to issues like sex selection. Abortion is part of a larger collective debate on what is moral and ethical and should or should not be done with the human body. Someday, that debate could probably even include cybernetics or more. For now, it includes abortion, contraception, body modification, medical and surgical transition for transsexuals, circumcision for boys and men, voluntary sterilization, involuntary sterilization and “circumcision” for girls (more aptly known as female genital mutilation, or FGM). As you can tell from that list, not all of those things are desirable, nor are they all undesirable (unless you take the hardline anti-abortion stance). There needs to be a consistent rule of thumb here.
My personal feeling is that it comes down to consensual, informed decision-making, with some consideration also given to the health needs of the person. Girls who have been victimized by FGM have not been given the option of deciding on the basis of unbiased evidence. Neither, for that matter, have circumcized male infants, even though the consequences are far less severe and life-changing. Transsexuals are given ample time and opportunity to be fully informed before deciding (although they have the luxury of taking more time, unlike time-sensitive pregnancy situations). In the case of abortion restrictions, some of those mandates even go the opposite direction and jeopardize the lives and health of women in medical emergencies in order to protect the foetus — even banning life-saving abortions or requiring misleading state-scripted counseling that runs counter to medical wisdom (and physicians’ consciences) on abortion (and that’s not even getting into what happens at crisis pregnancy centers).
Overpopulation and Responsible Stewardship
I look at the drive over the past few years to discredit climate change science and have to shake my head. We know about the harmful effects of lead. We know about the harmful effects of asbestos. We know about the harmful effects of thousands of chemicals, most recently endocrine disruptors like bisphenol A. We can’t realistically act like we can create crud, throw it into the air, water and earth without it having an effect on our bodies, our communities and our ecosystems. We are supposed to be responsible stewards of our planet. Yes, I know that some believe that global collapse is a pre-ordained sign of the end times and meant to happen, but the rest of us need to exercise rational thinking and responsible behaviour.
In an age of global overpopulation where even the richest economies cannot sustain their people economically, requiring every embryo to result in a child is irresponsible stewardship of our planet. While I won’t go the opposite direction to advocate for restrictions on parenting, I do recognize the potential for that to become a future emergency, and can only see pro-life actions now as exacerbating the problem.
Reproductive justice advocates have long relied on the concept of harm reduction: the stories of horrific coathanger abortions, the concern for women who have conceived out of rape, the instances where abortion becomes necessary to save the life of the mother, and so on. They’re absolutely important to consider, although I disagree with depending on this as the only or primary argument.
However, this is where reproductive justice clearly has the moral high ground over anti-abortion lobbies. If anti-abortion groups were concerned about harm reduction, it would be a no-brainer to focus on promoting contraception, barriers and age-appropriate sex education to minimize the need. What would prevent abortions more than contraception and condoms? “Abstinence-only education” sure doesn’t. Instead, the far right acts as though providing responsible options will lead to an epidemic of promiscuity that will collapse the continent. And talking about sex at all in schools has become inappropriate… even though handing out plastic foetuses to pre-teens and taking them to anti-abortion protests is becoming more socially acceptable, nowadays.
Anti-abortion activists often try to allege that abortions are obtained by irresponsible women (notice that men are given little to no culpability) who don’t plan ahead, don’t use protection (although anti-abortion activists have a weird penchant for opposing contraception and condoms too) and simply abuse the procedure because it’s convenient. The reality is that there’s so much stigma and often many barriers to obtaining an abortion that it tends to be an act of desperation rather than whim when it’s accessed. And in reality, taking responsibility sometimes admitting that one is not ready or financially stable enough or emotionally prepared to bear and care for a child.
Divisive Wedge Issues and Voting Lobbies
Part of what has driven this so completely in America has been abortion’s effectiveness as a wedge issue and as a motivator for a voting lobby.
In terms of wedge issues, abortion has proven an effective distraction from a collapsed economy and massive financial bailouts that enabled corporate America to net record profits while creating no jobs, no new loans and no relief for the public. It has also proven effective at dividing the public bitterly, a population control tactic.
U.S. groups also use abortion legislation to drive right-wing voters to the polls. Sometimes, questions are even placed on ballots specifically to get right-wing voters to the polls and motivate churches to conduct voting drives.
Indeed, the tactics of the anti-abortion lobby have informed many other political issues, with a cross-border and cross-issue pollination of ideas, as the conservative right has increasingly conflated hardine faith with the public will, modified tactics to attack gays, smear the Occupy movement and villainize unions, engaged in a bizarre form of capitalist ideation that turns Jesus from a shepherd for the poor into a businessman who wants to abolish the minimum wage and end the five-day work week, all in a way that blurs the lines between corporatism, Christianity and political governance like never before.
The Coming Debate
The image of the promiscuous woman who casually and callously uses abortion as a means of contraception because she can’t be bothered to engage in responsible sex practices is not a true face of abortion, although it’s the most commonly-exploited presumption out there.
But that caricature will persist as long as women who have had abortions continue to hide. Shame and fear understandably certainly drives the lack of people coming forward, but without the intensely personal and sometimes powerful stories of people who have had to make that decision, the myth will be allowed to persist.
Since this is likely not to change for some time, affirmative support from allies will be that much more important in the coming debate. You may disagree with me, and that’s fine, as long as you make sure you understand the issue. Knowing the onslaught that “defund Planned Parenthood” brought to the U.S., Canadians cannot be caught unaware.
(Crossposted to rabble.ca)