Recently, I got involved in a conversation about abortion. It happened on Facebook when a relative posted that her heart hurts when she considers her “sweet baby girl” and how the law (Roe v. Wade, 1973) in the United States gave her the choice as to “whether [or not] I would have her killed.” She’s sincere. Many of her friends “liked” her post and, with few exceptions, commented in agreement. I was one of the exceptions.
March celebrates Women’s History Month–a month to remember the accomplishments of our foremothers, noting their work helping to secure for us (their progeny) certain rights, most notably the right to vote (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1902) and reproductive rights (Margaret Sanger, 1879-1966). Support for abortion nowadays almost always falls under the rubric of “women’s reproductive rights.” So when we hear, “It’s my body and I’ll decide what I’ll do with my own body,” the speaker is giving voice to what many consider to be a fundamental right–the right to be autonomous and exercise free agency over one’s own person.
Interestingly enough, abortion was legal in the United States until the 1880s. Some theorists suggest an anti-abortion backlash took place as a response to suffrage and reproductive freedom/birth control movements. Crusaders sought to control women who traveled into “men’s territory” by voting and take initiative regarding their own reproduction. Even today, the term “femi-nazi” (made popular by Rush Limbaugh, meaning “women whose goal is to allow as many abortions as possible”) is used as a put down of women who dare to color outside patriarchal boundaries.
Today in the United States, the topic of abortion is polarizing. To many, abortion is equal to killing. Life begins when a spermatozoa fertilizes an ovum and killing that life is wrong–absolutely. To others, abortion is considered to be a private matter–something between a woman and her doctor or her conscience or whatever she chooses it to be between. Ultimately, it comes down to a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body–pregnancy being an extension of herself. Those against abortion are perplexed. How can you say it’s your body when there is another human being involved?
The two positions–killing and individual rights–seem to be irreconcilable. Perhaps they are. But what if we broadened out the conversation?
We kill all the time. War, for example. Some people do assert that war is unwarranted killing (most notably Quakers) and refuse to participate in the horrific enterprise. But most people believe that war is a “necessary evil,” knowing full well that dead soldiers and dead civilians (“collateral damage,”) are an inevitable outcome. Killing an enemy becomes “right” when your tribe/region/country decides to go to war. Sometimes the reason for waging war is ideological (“they” believe wrong things), sometimes essential (“they” have brown skin), and sometimes because certain people are a threat to those who want to wield power. For millennia, we’ve celebrated victory over our dead enemy through poetry, sacred text, and song. Can we think of no other way to solve those problems that take us to war in the first place? Many people (including some who are against abortion) say no–killing the enemy is the only way. Yet, if a woman cannot provide food, medical care, education, and other basic necessities for a child and sees no alternative but to abort (kill), she’s often censored–called a baby-killer, and at times coerced into carrying the fetus to term.
When we kill during war, are we not really killing?
What about the exploitation, torture, and slaughter of millions of farm animals for food? Some who have no ethical problem, for example, knowing that male calves are taken away almost immediately from their mothers after birth and raised in confining crates for veal, allowing us (humans) to take (some say, steal) a cow’s milk and her offspring for our own consumption become teary-eyed and broken-hearted about an embryo or fetus being suctioned from a woman’s uterus when a woman has decided (from among a number of reasons) that she cannot afford to give a child a decent life. Yet they use the products (yoghurt, butter, meat) of those exploited and killed sentient beings we call animals and fail to see how their own sentimental ideology (“my sweet baby girl”) takes no thought of the agony other beings endure by carrying a fetus to term such as mother cows and women with little (if any) autonomy living in slavery-like conditions. Would we decide to kill our offspring if we knew our child’s future included confinement and a horrific death? (Toni Morrison addresses this theme in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, BELOVED.) If a cow were able, would she not abort her slaughter-bound fetus?
When is killing the “right” thing to do? Who gets to say?
I’ve counseled hundreds of women contemplating abortion. Never did I see a woman “choose” the procedure lightly. Factors such as poverty and family circumstances weigh heavily on them, often forcing them to go forward in a way that affluent and well-connected people are spared and, therefore, can easily ignore. Some young women have told me their parents would be so dishonored by their pregnancy, their parents would “need” to kill them in order to preserve the family honor.
When we kill in order to keep from being killed, isn’t that called “survival?”
My Facebook relative does indeed have a “sweet baby girl.” Her vision, though, is narrow. She experiences the world through her own affluent lens while cocooning herself in an ideology she can easily afford. But she goes further. She imposes her ideology, very sweetly, on all women whether they can afford it or not.
Contextualizing the subject of abortion within a broader conversation that includes our inter-connectedness with all living beings upon the earth can avoid the dichotomy that has not moved the abortion conversation forward in decades.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.