What is the pro-life movement about? Oddly, it is this question that is most contested. If pro-choice people agreed with us as to the purpose of the pro-life movement, we might actually get somewhere.
This was brought home to me recently at a conversation-with-cookies gathering organized by a friend to bring together people on different sides of the abortion debate. Talking with people who didn’t share my pro-life views, I realized that bringing up the subject of legality could be confusing, because it starts the conversation several steps away from what we actually care about. To say that “abortion should be against the law” is not just a statement about abortion, but a statement about what laws are for.
We can and should talk about what laws are for. But not before we talk about a fundamental divide in how people perceive issues surrounding abortion. For people who are pro-life the question of the moral/legal status of the unborn child is paramount. Those who are pro-choice, however, are focused on the right of a woman to make all decisions about what goes on in her own body, free of legal constraints.
It seems obvious to say it, but if we recognize that there is a difference in what each side believes this debate to be about, we might then begin to be able to have a real conversation. We must realize that the heart of our own argument is not about laws. We must be willing to have the conversation where we say something like, “Sure, let’s grant that a pregnant woman does have a legal right to decide what to do with the baby/fetus/whatever-you-want-to-call-it that she is carrying—but on what basis does she then make her decision?” This would not be a question about any other person—let alone any state or federal law—telling her what to do. This would simply be a question about how she decides what to do.
At that point we could begin to ask other really interesting questions. Is there something in that baby/fetus/whatever that would ensure a woman ought not to kill it even if no law prevented her from doing so? This, after all, is how we think about most other killing. Even if we wanted very much to kill someone, even if their death would be in our immediate interest and even if we were in some area of the globe where murder wasn’t against the law, we would still conclude that it is not right to do so. We sense there is something inherent in our fellow human beings, and in the world we all inhabit, that prevents us from killing at will. It is what is meant by justice. Otherwise the stronger would have a de facto right to do whatever they want regardless of how their actions effect the weak. We don’t need the (positive) law in order to apprehend this.
Women who are deciding whether or not to have an abortion may not feel as though they are powerful, may not feel as though they are “the stronger.” In many cases, they feel trapped, compelled by circumstance to choose to abort their baby. They may be bullied by the baby’s father and/or others to make a choice they would prefer not to make. One thing the pro-life movement has been about since the beginning—though it does not get a great deal of press—is helping women to experience the real freedom of being able to choose to keep their baby.
But if a woman who does feel completely free to choose, whose choice is not constrained by any circumstance, decides to abort a baby because she wants it not to exist … it’s hard to read that as anything but simply wrong. She has been free to choose. She has used that freedom to deprive another person of life. She may not have understood her choice as being this, when she was making it. And that choice does not need to be the end of her story: When people, men or women, choose to do the wrong thing, they can admit it, seek forgiveness, and become powerful advocates for justice and good precisely because they have these wrongs in their past. But first the wrong must be faced.
This, after all, is at the heart of what we are talking about as pro-life people: We are saying that in the case of abortion, there is not one person involved, but two, and that ending the life of the less powerful one is not a morally right call for the more powerful person to make.
I suspect that there are very few cases of abortion in which the women who have them genuinely experience themselves as free in the way I’ve described above. But when talking about abortion generally, it’s important to consider this kind of case. Some of the rhetoric surrounding abortion on the pro-choice side has celebrated the empowering nature of the choice to have an abortion. It’s presented in some cases as an act of existential strength that allows a woman to assert herself. This is appealing. We should, as humans, assert ourselves; we should embrace our power to make real changes in the world. But these choices must be aligned with the good of other people, not simply expressions of our own bare will. We have free will in order to be able to make choices in league with the good, becoming more human and more ourselves as we do so. To choose to hurt someone else may feel like a powerful act, but ultimately it does not promote our own well-being, nor enhance our own power. Like addiction, the choice to do wrong ultimately enslaves the person who makes it.
I would say too that I believe women have been profoundly alienated from their own bodies and their own best moral instincts by the rhetoric surrounding abortion, rhetoric that focuses on law and individual right, and that does not address the fact that it is in the real interest of every woman not to become complicit in the death of her child. I think that there is a great deal of confusion in many women’s minds about this, and that if they could for a moment see clearly, they might be profoundly relieved to admit to themselves what has been happening—even if it is an extraordinarily painful thing to change one’s mind about. And I would tell those women that honesty is worth it, that there is hope on the other side of that pain.
People who are pro-life must be willing, in these conversations, to genuinely table, for the moment, the question of legality—to acknowledge that it is a great good if a man or woman comes to recognize that it is right not to have an abortion, even if he or she still believes that there should be no legal constraint on it. Pro-life people must be willing to see that the question of law is a separate discussion.