Abortion–the topic that won’t go away–or even morph by Esther Nelson

Esther NelsonRecently, 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.

Categories: Activism, General, Reproductive Justice

Tags: , ,

43 replies

  1. Thank you for this lucid discussion. It is all too easy to think or feel from a position of e.g. economic comfort and never easy to put or imagine one’s self in the shoes of the other. I often wonder whether, if I had no other choice, I would choose prostitution or stealing as a way to e.g. feed my children.

    And imposition in any shape or form is a road to perdition.


  2. Thanks for this. We take life all the time. It is not a question of not taking life–if other than human lives are considered life. So what is more conscious and more deserving of continued life? A child or a fetus? A lamb or a fetus. For me there is no question–both the child and the lamb are already developed individuals. I will take the life of a fetus and of a lamb, but not a child. This is my decision. I also might kill an attacker, but I would never serve in an army. This too is my decision.


  3. I totally agree with what you have said. Most women contemplating an abortion are making a very hard decision, and whatever they decide should be supported by their community.


  4. Just to mention that the death rate connected with child birth in the 19th c. was extremely high, so that abortion was sometimes self-defense, especially if the woman already had a couple of kids and dying would therefore leave them abandoned. More than 700 women die in childbirth every year in the United States, even in modern times, and more than 52,000 develop serious medical conditions as a result of pregnancy or giving birth. .And that includes acute renal failure, shock, respiratory distress, aneurysms and heart surgery. If you consider the statistics, I think it would lack compassion not only for the mother, but for the whole family, not to have the right to choose.


  5. Well done. Well done. I’ve had an abortion. The choice was complicated by a number of factors. I knew exactly what I was doing. I still wonder what my 21 year old would be like. But I also know that I did the right thing for reasons I will not share here.

    Your point about class is well-taken. As it has often been pointed out, those who deride a woman’s autonomy over her own body by expressing how they cherish life are not typically willing to help care for these children or support social services that would make it possible for women at social risk to raise their own. Neither do they support the use of birth control. It’s a fabulous hypocrisy.


    • Thanks, Laury. Yet, even if people are willing to support some social services (as my FB relative), there’s an absolutism about their stance that just doesn’t set well. I mean, even Jesus would not join in with the stone throwers of the adulterous woman and those stone throwers had the “law” on their side and expected the Son of God (by golly) to uphold that law. Glorious that he didn’t ;-)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Laury. And thank you for your perceptive insights regarding feminism and religion.


    • I am vegan. I do not take animals’ lives. I would never impose an anti-abortion law – religious or civic – on other women. And yet, I mourn every aborted foetus I happen to hear about from my friends. And I dream and work for a society where women who cannot raise a child are encouraged and nourished to still carry them full-term, give birth to them and then give them away to those who want children or to good loving children’s homes where the childrenare given opportunities equal to those raised in families. Just because the society we live in now is capitalist and essentially anti-life it does not have to mean that the choice will always be: abortion or suffering for the Mother and child.


      • There are some good alternatives to abortion as you note. Still, not everybody who is pregnant chooses (or can choose) to take advantage of the services you provide. I don’t believe the two polarities you mention–abortion or suffering for mother and child–are the only paths. Why is it, though, that so many people want to control what pregnant women do–or don’t do?


  6. I have friends/family who get quite “animated” over this subject. I’ve been of the “it’s a decision to be made between a woman and her doctor” opinion. You put some of my other thoughts into words so well. I do notice that people, (including me sometimes!), tend to be “against” what they themselves do not need. It’s so much easier to be someone else’s “conscience”.


  7. This topic touches us all deeply. The decision is never easy. May I be so bold as to share a bit of poetry I wrote recently?

    our dance

    just then
    you whisked by my ear
    as you brushed away
    a silent tear
    …rock a bye baby …

    you come in the
    between the notes of lullabies
    …when the bough breaks …

    i killed you

    it was all so clinically
    my accomplices even offered
    tea and biscuits
    when it was over

    yet still your smile glows
    still you come
    … when the wind blows …

    in the shhhh of a falling star
    in the swish of katydid’s wing
    in the kiss of a starling

    our Beloved Brigid tells me
    you enchant the sprites
    with your graceful flight
    in the firelight of the Milky Way
    please save a dance
    for me
    some day
    … in the treetops …

    a pirouette …. an arabesque …
    an embrace …
    and then we’ll dance again
    one day

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Aunt Esther,

    Since your blog post made it seem that you do not know me well, I thought that as your nephew’s wife I should take a little time to help you get to know and understand me and my beliefs a bit more. Hopefully at Preston’s wedding this summer we’ll have more time to talk face-to-face!

    I’ll go ahead and start by sharing that I volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center in college, and worked for the last 6 1/2 years at a non-profit international adoption agency (one that also did a great deal of humanitarian work). I’ve seen poverty and destitution firsthand while traveling internationally for my work and volunteer trips, and seen children in orphanages, and living on the streets. I’ve had friends and family members find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, and have walked alongside friends in difficult financial situations. Martin and I hope to adopt and/or foster someday, and have financially supported many friends in their adoption processes. While my 29 years of life experience can’t compare to your…39? ( :-))…I got the impression from your blog that you think I’m pro-life because I am sheltered from the reality of life, poverty, or the hardships that could come from carrying a baby to term. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

    I think at the heart of our disagreeing viewpoints about abortion is a differing view of God, humanity, and how the two are connected. My belief is that each person (born or unborn) has a soul, and is created by God and in His image. Because of that, each person’s life is valuable and has worth. I believe in eternal life after death, and that this world is just a temporary place we are passing through. If a person believes that this life was our ultimate destination, then it might make sense to have a “survival of the fittest” mentality and to do whatever is possible to make oneself comfortable, happy, and satisfied here (even at the cost of others).

    From what I see in your past Facebook comments and your blog, it appears you believe sometimes the opportunity for education, personal advancement, success, comfort, wealth (or “ending the cycle of poverty”, as you put it), are more important than the life of another person. My view of the value of life causes you and I to differ here.

    The reason I brought up my “sweet baby girl” in my Facebook post was because I think all too often we ignore that fact about the abortion debate…that this isn’t just ideology or rights we are talking about…we are talking ultimately about babies. But again, you and I differ as I see them as individuals created by and in the image of God, and you put them on the same level as an unborn baby cow.

    I think animal rights and war are two separate and very different issues, and two that of course are also worth discussion and thought. But that is not what my post was about.

    Anyway, my “sweet baby girl” is waking up from her nap so I have to run :-) I think discussions like this are hard to have online, so I’d love to continue it further with you in person. There are SO many other pieces to this than what I mentioned above, but I thought I’d at least go ahead and clear up the confusion about who I am!

    Much Love,


    • Thanks, Kristen. Seeing poverty first hand is not the same thing as “living in” poverty first hand. To impose what we think is “right and good” on other people–about whose lives we know little or next to little–is insulting to their human dignity. Am delighted that you “reach out” to women and families in need. There should be more people like you willing to provide such services.


      • When it comes to poverty and abortion, I see the problem being the poverty, not the pregnancy/child in the womb. Abortion doesn’t end poverty. Shouldn’t our focus be on offering this woman and her family help to get out of poverty, not offering her an abortion?


    • Seeing poverty first hand is not the same as living in poverty first hand. However, kudos for the work you’re doing to alleviate suffering for people facing difficulties with pregnancy, family, and reproduction.


    • Seeing poverty first hand is not the same thing as living in poverty first hand. Nonetheless, kudos for your work with people attempting to find their way through life’s mazes.


    • Kirsten, I have several friends who got pregnant and were more or less forced to give their babies up for adoption by their parents. Sometimes we think this is a good “choice,” but in fact for many women it is a much worse one than an early abortion would have been. The pain of giving up your own flesh and blood after nine months, and the guilt for having done so haunts these women to this day. In one case despite the wishes of the mother which she was told would be abided by, the child was given to fundamentalist Christians who happened to be cruel, and the daughter is troubled to this day as well.


  9. Should the pro-abortion issue really be so focused on “what I will do with my body”, or is there an issue that extends beyond me and my body to the life that I will or will not be able to take care of and nurture? I had an illegal abortion 50 years ago when I was 18 and totally unable to provide for a baby. It had nothing to do with my body, but everything with my in-ability to BE a mother. I was not thinking of me but of a life I could not possible take care of.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right, Majak. Through this frail attempt of mine, I’m attempting to widen the conversation and incorporate various ways of understanding the “abortion dilemma.” I understand your stance–“in-ability to BE a mother.” But can we so easily separate our bodies from other entities that make us who we are? I don’t know. Am asking……


    • Yes…am attempting to widen or broaden out the conversation on abortion. Thanks for your insight into this.


  10. Thanks Essie for your hard hitting blog, on a hard topic! As you know, the rhetoric about “living” babies as some how ones that escaped murder en-utero was a specific tactic used by pro-Lifers (even that name falls into the same place). This then gets used about “beautiful baby girl”s in a seemingly innocent manner. Who would make the links you have done for us here, when all that seems to be at stake IS the baby girl’s beauty?

    Beverly Harrison asked deep ethical questions in her book Our Right to Choose. Yet it gets so easily compromised by the rhetoric which focuses soley on the life, beauty, or beating pulse of an almalgam of blood and cells without considering fully the rights and circumstance of the mother. That was one point I took away from her book.

    I lost my sister, 3 years older than me, just before her 18th birthday because the poverty of no choice and the shame of reproduction hit her hard through the whole taboo of sex we inherited from our uneducated parents coupled with my father’s Methodist minister sentiments. She tried that coat hanger route with the father and then could not say anything even when she fell sick, until even after being rushed to the hospital where they said poison was all over her body.

    I often say, silence killed her, because she did not have the right even to speak of her condition, as pregnant or as post-self abortion. Thus, to speak only of the beauty of a child is a privilege. It must be coupled with the full integrity of the woman and used to construct systems of beauty for all life. We are no where near that just because we might decide to keep or abort. For when these are not in balance, whose choice is it anyway?


    • Right on, Amina. So many people who oppose the right to choose abortion come from privilege (and knowing if/when you’ll eat again IS a place of privilege).


    • Amina, your story brought back to me a story told by one of my white students about her friend who secretly arranged a back alley abortion while in college (before Roe vs. Wade) and bled to death in the hotel room she arranged for her “recovery.” She may have had more privilege than your sister, but they both died in guilt and shame and for lack of “choice.” I hope everyone who reads this blog will remember what lack of choice means for women who need to have a choice. So sorry about your sister, I can’t imagine bearing the pain of her story.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Exactly Majak.


  12. Not an easy topic to write about, but I do appreciate your emphasis on privilege and “walking in the other person’s shoes.”

    One point I have never seen the conservatives embrace: the crime rate in the USA has dropped significantly in the past twenty years. Most “experts” cannot explain this trend, but Steven Levitt in “Freakonomics” credits the Roe v. Wade decision and access to safe abortions!

    My mother was a teacher, a lifelong Republican, and a lifelong supporter of Planned Parenthood. When I asked her about her stance, she would always reply, “Every child should be wanted.”


  13. It’s interesting how and where we decide to “draw lines.” We keep pets and adore them, yet we eat other animals without a thought to their suffering. Women shed unfertilized ova monthly and men “lose” sperm via masturbation and/or sex on a regular basis, yet no one “mourns” those losses. As a humorous aside, I offer this youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUspLVStPbk


  14. Thank you for the wonderful post. I’d never thought much beyond the “my body-my choice” perspective. Your insights are refreshing, thought-provoking, and open. Especially, thank you for approaching this hot topic with such a gentle tone. :-)


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: