According to The New York Times, younger supporters of abortion on demand are done with the “pro-choice” label, choosing instead to counter their “right to life” opponents with terms like “reproductive rights” and “women’s health.”
One might think this vocabulary change is just a new marketing strategy, a face-lift for an aging movement Nancy Keenan famously called the “Menopausal Militia.” But what if something more substantive is going on?
Are abortion rights supporters fully embracing an absolutist agenda, one that legitimizes and praises a woman’s choice to abort, no matter the circumstances?
It sure seems that way. In the past few years, activists have moved away from Bill Clinton’s philosophy that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” Or that abortion is, in Hillary Clinton’s words, “a tragic choice.”
Why leave behind words like “rare” and “tragic?” Because speaking of abortion this way lends credence to the pro-life position that there is something wrong with ”terminating a pregnancy.” If the abortion-rights agenda is to succeed, then, abortion must be de-stigmatized. And nothing will remove the stigma from abortion faster than making it common and celebrated.
That’s why Wendy Davis, the abortion rights hero who tried unsuccessfully to block last year’s tightening of abortion clinic standards in Texas, received a mixed reaction when she told the story of her past abortions. Two tragic cases: the first pregnancy was ectopic and the second had fetal abnormalities. Davis worried that her baby was suffering. Many women cheered Davis’ courageous transparency, but the abortion absolutists worried that Davis’ difficult circumstances reinforce the idea that there are “right” and “wrong” abortions, or situations that make the choice either “good” or “bad.” For example, Emily Shire writes:
Davis’ abortion narrative has helped diminish the social stigma surrounding abortion. But until the “bad” abortion stories are just as acceptable, pro-choice advocates have a long way to go.
So, prepare yourself. There is an aggressive wave of in-your-face abortion talk that seeks to end the social stigma.
- It’s a wave that has crashed onto charities, as Melinda Gates discovered when her foundation’s decision to not fund abortion was derided by those who claimed she was reinforcing the stigma surrounding abortion.
- It’s a wave that’s crashed into the entertainment world, as Mindy Kaling’s claim that a sitcom-treatment of abortion would “demean the topic” was met with fierce opposition.
- It’s a wave that’s crashed into the theaters, with the arrival of Obvious Child, a film dubbed by critics as “an abortion comedy.” (One of the howlers in this movie is when the main character is about to go on stage and is told, “You’re going to kill it up there!” To which she replies, “No, that’s tomorrow…” in reference to her unborn child. Cue the canned laughter.)
- It’s a wave that’s flooded social media outlets, where women like Emily Letts have decided to “film their abortions,” to demystify the procedure and show other women that there’s nothing to be scared of.
Of course, we aren’t really seeing abortion or its aftermath in these movies or YouTube stunts, only the woman undergoing the procedure. Abortion absolutists may be “in your face,” but there’s one face we never see. The broken body of the little victim is always off camera.
The agenda for abortion absolutists is clear. We must dispense with the mystery and gravitas surrounding a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy. It is time to talk frankly about the abortion procedure as if it were just a normal part of a woman’s range of reproductive health choices.
But even among abortion absolutists, there is disagreement about the effect of all these ”positive” abortion stories.
Alex Ronan in New York Magazine recently wrote a chilling article about her year as an abortion doula, when she provided women with “emotional and physical support” during their abortions. Ronan worries that the positive narratives about abortion, intended to protect abortion rights around the country, “isolate and silence patients who struggled with their abortions, even if they know getting an abortion was the right choice.”
Ronan is just as absolutist in her fervent support of a woman’s right to abortion as others are. The difference is that she thinks putting a positive spin on the procedure ignores the variety of responses she sees from women:
Some of the first-trimester patients scream and cry and shake. Others remain calm, barely seem to register any pain, are thrilled to have it over with.
Then, she confesses: “I find it hardest to tend to the patients who don’t seem to struggle.” But not because there’s any morality involved. “It’s not that I’m judging them: Pain breaks down barriers, and without it, I’m more hesitant to touch, less certain of my role.”
Ronan’s version of abortion absolutism isn’t dependent on “positive abortion narratives.” It’s all about the mother’s autonomy. The baby, fetus, or “stuff” is whatever the woman says it is.
I’ve been taught to follow the patient’s lead. If she calls it her baby, then I do too. But with the next patient, just as far along, it’s fetal tissue, it’s the products of conception. One stumbles over her words, says “all the stuff inside,” and that feels right, too.
The result of abortion absolutism, no matter its form, is the dehumanization of the unborn. Ronan’s article ends with this disturbing description of an abortion:
The fetus comes out easily; they put it in the bucket and shove it near me. It is fully intact, curled on its left side, fists closed, knees bent up. He sleeps just like you, I think. Then, a second thought, an act of distancing: He looks more like an alien than a person.
I have, by this point, seen lots of women and lots of fetuses, and the sight of the second doesn’t change my feelings about the first. The mourning for what could have been is countered by an appreciation for what is — a woman’s life, allowed to proceed as she wants it to. When it is over, I say, “You did great. You were so brave,” and I tell them they’re done now, because sometimes they don’t know. “It’s all finished,” I say.
Here it is in all its horror: a violent procedure, a corpse, a pang of conscience, and then the race to mentally distance oneself from the victim. It is striking in its resemblance to the tactics employed by white Americans who justified the enslavement of blacks as “brutes” or the Germans treating Jews as an inferior race, barely above the animals.
The abortion absolutists want to put a positive spin on the culture of death, to whitewash the bloodstains and dispense with the guilt we collectively feel over this atrocity. But the positive stories cannot bury the baby.
Abortion absolutism is about “freedom” that tramples over human remains. And in the end, it’s not just the unborn. In our celebration of death, we are chipping away at our own humanity.