It’s one of the most divisive issues in contemporary American culture. And thanks to a series of well-timed undercover videos, coupled with the onset of the 2016 presidential campaign, abortion is once again at the center of our ongoing national debate. I guess I haven’t given the issue serious consideration in a while. But now that abortion is making headlines again, I’ve been forced to reexamine my long-held stance.
I was raised in a Catholic family. Growing up we went to church every Sunday, plus holy days of obligation. At my all-boys Catholic high school, there were organized bus trips to DC every year to participate in Right to Life marches. Senior year during religion class, the priest hit the lights and made us watch The Silent Scream, an old-school video that documents an actual abortion.
I spell out my background to show that, much like a lot of religiously raised Americans, my early thoughts regarding abortion weren’t my own. I was told a specific viewpoint, that abortion is evil, that abortion is murder. If you get an abortion, you’re murdering an unborn baby. As a fourteen-year-old, whatever, that made sense. And it wasn’t like I was exposed to any real opposition.
I started college, George W. Bush invaded Iraq, and all of the sudden I found myself aware of the political landscape in a way that I previously wasn’t. As I sought out an understanding of the world, as I read newspapers and engaged in political debate, my views shifted decisively to the left. Political, economic, social, I found progressive ideals more in tune with my beliefs in virtually every aspect of public discourse.
And yet abortion was one area I was always unwilling to reconsider. It did cause a fair amount of internal strife. Abortion was always this blind spot. Because if abortion is evil, if it’s complicit in the murder of unborn babies, why is the protection of a woman’s right to choose enshrined in liberal orthodoxy? How could they get so much, so right, and then fail to see this for what it was?
I eventually settled on a series of mental compromises. I’d parrot rationalizations that helped ease my conscience. I’d hear things like, “Well, certainly I’m against abortion, but you can’t just make it illegal.” I thought, if you really want to get rid of abortions, you have to strengthen sex education, or provide better access to contraception. Part of me thought, well, I’m not a woman, and so I’ll never really be able to have a valid opinion. And then to make things easier, I’d point out how Republicans are pro-death penalty. If they get to be a little hypocritical on the whole right to life, maybe I can live with my own inconsistencies.
And that’s where I’ve been at for the majority of my adult life. I’m not for abortion personally, but I’m decidedly pro-choice. That’s what most of the mainstream Democrats say, right? Isn’t that President Obama’s stated opinion? And it works. You say something to yourself over and over again, and eventually all the inherent conflicts just sort of smooth themselves out. But not entirely. Because it’s still a blind spot, dependent on more than a little fuzzy logic.
And it’s a big blind spot, one that the political right is quick to exploit. Whereas I have to hem and haw, laying out my beliefs in measured half tones, the right wing has been forcefully voicing their opposition at varying levels since as far as I can remember. Usually it ebbs and flows, depending on the news cycle, or if it happens to be a campaign season.
Take the current debate regarding Planned Parenthood. “Murdered babies!” is ultimately all you really need to say, right? Access to contraceptives, family planning, women’s health, it doesn’t matter that many Americans rely on Planned Parenthood. It’s of little consequence that federal law prohibits taxpayer money from funding abortions. Planned Parenthood serves as a stand-in for abortion, and the political right wants to make an example.
Because of course they can’t go after abortion outright. At least in the current political climate, there’s really not a lot to be done about outlawing abortion entirely. So we get a lot of these proxy battles. States will try to implement legislation making it more difficult for women to find access to abortions. Or, like we’re seeing now, there’s a call for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, at the federal and the state level.
Now that this argument is back in the mainstream, I’m confronted with my moral gray area once again. Of course I think the right wing’s opinion on contraceptives and sex education is deplorable. And when I see them trying to make gains on limiting abortion, I envision a larger battle, where traditions and practices regarding sexuality and procreation are framed strictly in a religious context.
And yet as I try to internalize the entirety of the situation, I’m forced to think about abortion. I read an op-ed by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, where the author basically argues that there’s no moral way for someone who claims to be against abortion to support Planned Parenthood. At the end, he works himself up into a frenzy, proclaiming that those who see abortion for what it is – the murder of unborn babies – should not be involved by contributing their tax dollars.
This immediately set me off, because it highlighted what I perceive to be the hypocrisy of the pro-life agenda. I mentioned it earlier, but where is the outcry over the death penalty? Should those with a conscientious objection to execution be entitled to withhold tax money? How about foreign wars? How about all the American soldiers maimed and killed to protect our moneyed interests? I certainly feel passionately against much of our use of armed force, but nobody’s asking me for approval concerning my tax dollars and the military budget. And how much do we spend as a nation on Planned Parenthood compared to our military anyway? Where do you get off labeling money for Planned Parenthood blood money, money that isn’t even allowed to directly fund abortions?
But do you see what I just did there? I totally sidestepped the issue. I got myself all worked up about the military and foreign wars, these vast global issues that have nothing to do with Planned Parenthood, and it helped me feel justified in my positions, all without having to address the fundamental subject I set out to reexamine. And it needs examining, because until I can really confront abortion, all of my other arguments serve nothing more than cannon fodder for the endless abortion debate.
And so when I really think about it, when I consider an abortion, do I really feel like the removal of a fetus from the womb is murder? No, I don’t think it is murder. And that’s a huge change from what I’ve been telling myself all along. There’s probably a line somewhere. Obviously a full-term baby is a lot different than a newly conceived fetus.
And if you tell me that a one-month-old collection of cells is a human being, I’d have to disagree. I think there’s potential for that collection of cells to develop into an eventual human being, but it’s hard for me to believe that there’s a mind, a consciousness, any of the hallmarks that add up to life as protected by law. Sure, maybe there’s a point where you shouldn’t have an abortion. I think that partial-birth abortions, for example, are generally frowned upon, even by abortion’s most ardent supporters.
I say all this with a clear conscience. And my conscience just happened to be in line with the law as it stands. I trust my judgment, that I’m not the type of person who’d give in to a crooked argument just to make himself feel better. I feel like I have a firm grasp on right and wrong, and when I think about abortion, I’m just not moved by the extreme pro-life argument. Maybe that’s different for you, and I respect the fact that you thought through the issue yourself. And isn’t that the best that any of us can really do?
It kind of pains me to say that, and not because I feel like I’m compromising my beliefs for the sake of justifying an argument, but I understand how strongly the pro-life movement cares about and believes in their cause. Whereas I don’t see abortion as murder, they do, and it makes any sort of compromise all but impossible.
Worse, there’s practically no dialogue. And unfortunately, that’s not the fault of the pro-life movement. It’s because people on the left are simply afraid to participate in this conversation. I know am. I’m terrified that someone in my extended family might see this. I have a deep respect for the beliefs and passions that animate their pro-life stance. But the response to arguments like mine is always swift and decisive.
And I don’t want to be seen as a guy that’s endorsing the murder of unborn babies. Because to me, that’s not what it’s about. Which is why I feel it’s imperative that, if we’re going to have any progress regarding our perpetual abortion debate, we’ve got to lose the stigma attached with abortion. If the right wing is the sole party in charge of framing the debate, we’re going to be constantly fighting the same battles, over Planned Parenthood, over contraceptives, over sex education, over abortion. Ultimately it’s about women’s rights, the right for a woman to choose the fate of her own body, although without an articulated stance from the pro-choice movement, the most we’ll ever hear is cries of, “murdered babies!”
And there’s a lot at stake. We’ve got seven billion people on the planet. Should babies really be brought to term if their parents can’t or are unwilling to care for them? If so, then why? Just because half the country believes that it’s murder? It’s not fair for the beliefs of a part of the population to dictate the rules for everyone.
If more people who think like me, that abortion isn’t murder, learn to speak up even half as vociferously as those who are pro-life, we’ll see a change in the debate over time. Because right now it’s totally one-sided. There’s anger, there’s righteous indignation, and there’s the growing threat that, if this continues, maybe in the future it won’t be so politically unfeasible for the constitutional right to abortion to be put up on trial. Already we’re seeing a bunch of major GOP presidential contenders calling for abortion to be made illegal even in the most extreme cases, such as rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. That’s a huge rightward shift from where we were at ten or twenty years ago. So if you’re on the fence, I urge you to consider the issue anew. But just ignoring the blind spot isn’t going to help us move anywhere.