To someone who believes that women are not lesser creatures than men and should not lose the right to direct their own medical care the moment they become pregnant, the political fights over the right to abortion are maddening. The anti-abortion crusade was born of the Roman Catholic Church’s obsession with sex and male control over women. Catholics sold their obsession to evangelical Protestants, who bought it for political reasons of their own, rather than out of any abstract or biblical moral reasoning. It quickly became a widespread obsession that now even threatens to outlaw birth control devices.
The anti-abortion folks call themselves “pro-life,” which is ironic on many levels. The same people often seem unconcerned with quality of life, with child welfare, or with capital punishment. To many, a single-cell fertilized egg is worthy of more moral consideration than a one-year-old child. At best, this is illogical, at worst, outrageous. As a rhetorical slogan, however, “pro-life” sounds righteous and compelling. “Pro-choice,” by contrast, sounds selfish and uncaring. Calling the anti-abortion crowd “anti-choice” isn’t any better.
I got to thinking about how the pro-freedom forces can better advance their cause in the abortion wars by altering tactics.
As a rhetorical device, the term “pro-life” is very strong. The anti-abortion side has worked hard to encourage people to view the embryo/fetus (or even the zygote/blastocyst) as a human being. Human beings have rights, so the logic goes, and the developing human in the womb cannot advocate for itself. Implicitly, he mother, on the other hand, who is morally oblivious to the nature of the life she is carrying, can mistakenly act in what she sees as her own self-interest unless prevented by an enlightened and benevolent government.
There are problems with the “pro-life” rhetoric. Perhaps most importantly, is the identification of everything from a fertilized egg to a newborn as a human. In all cases, it is human, but it is not necessarily a human. By analogy, a severed finger is human but not a human. Clearly, a baby is a human just before birth, but months earlier, it has more in common with a fish or a frog. That it may have a heartbeat means little; so do adult fish and frogs. Whether it can feel pain early in life is likewise not dispositive (and is, in any case, debatable). So can fish and frogs. For many pro-lifers, the status of the unborn really hinges on the unstated assumption that the “baby” has a soul. Clearly, many people do not believe this, and the existence of a baby’s soul is hardly a valid consideration in the policy-making of a secular democracy. (No, the U.S. is not a “Christian” country and was never intended to be.) In any event, I find the argument to be made for my cats having souls more compelling than any for the souls of zygotes.
A case can be made—the Supreme Court accepted such a case, after all—that, at some point in a pregnancy, abortion should, in nearly all circumstances, be disallowed. I lack the wisdom to know where that point is, and so do the anti-abortion folks, irrespective of their claims. Save for egregious cases, I’m perfectly willing to leave the matter to women and their doctors.
Returning more directly to rhetorical concerns, pro-choice people necessarily need to place more emphasis on women acting as free and rational beings in their choices to abort their pregnancies. Probably, the most effective pro-choice tactic would be to have ordinary women who have had abortions explain their choices in public—on television, on social media, and in person with their friends. (Acceptance of homosexuality depended on people’s encountering actual homosexuals after all.) There is also a place for sloganeering, a consideration that led me to create this graphic:
This seems like an appropriate message in the age of #MeToo: women are to be respected and their medical choices assumed to be reasonable (or, in any case, ones they should have the freedom to make). The use of “choices” here subtly suggests choices related to abortion, since everyone is assumed to be familiar with pro-choice rhetoric.
I encourage others to use the above graphic freely. A larger version is available by clicking on the one shown here.
Postscript: I first posted my graphic on Facebook and decided that I should put in on my blog as well. I intended to write a short introduction to it but got carried away. I hope people find this essay interesting, perhaps even useful. I invite rational discussion and reserve the right to delete comments that do not qualify.