For many years living in or near DC, the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion gave me mixed feelings. Decades of women forced into a terrible choice, millions of children denied their first breath – this is a somber occasion, no? But January 22nd also meant the March for Life, which meant a large group of exuberant people gathering together to pray and make their voices heard. Friends would come from far and near to this event, and every time I went it seemed that I’d run into someone I lost touch with or hadn’t seen in a while. Every year on that day I was reminded that I wasn’t alone in my beliefs, which was and is still a cheerful thought.
This year, I saw similar cheer and solidarity among my friends and acquaintance who gathered for the Women’s March on Washington. Despite their anger and fear about the direction of the newly-inaugurated administration, women found cheer and solidarity in each other. The spirit of defending the voiceless and marginalized initially seemed so similar to that of the March for Life that my Facebook’s “trending” feed even conflated the two, giving me women’s march information with the tag “March for Life” (though this perhaps is only the latest example of FB’s algorithms being, well, a bit off).
Unfortunately, at the last minute the organizers of said “Women’s March” more or less decreed that there would be no overlap between protesters in these two marches when they removed New Wave Feminists from their list of official partners. I saw moving responses from pro-life feminists as well as satirists that summed up my frustration at this decision. This isn’t the first time I’ve been been bothered by abortion advocates equating abortion with women’s rights. But this time, as I read these articles and the responses to them, I was struck by the vocal group of women who insisted that to be pro-choice isn’t the same thing as being pro-abortion, and that the Women’s March wasn’t being exclusionary when it declared itself exclusively pro-choice. As they saw/ see it, anti-abortionists are partisan: being pro-choice is the neutral option between being pro- and anti- abortion.
Confused yet? I spent a while trying to wrap my head around the underarticulated logic behind these claims. And I was reminded that the abortion question isn’t just one question: first it involves the ethical matter of whether getting/procuring/administering/aiding in an abortion is an absolute evil, a moral neutral or at least a grey area, or a positive good. Second is the question of whether (or in what circumstances) it should be legal. Unfortunately, when we talk about abortion we tend to conflate these two complex questions into a single binary: are you pro-life or pro-choice? I think that’s why I missed the essential piece for so long. “If you don’t like abortion, don’t get one” always seemed like a snarky (and trite) response to pro-life arguments against abortion; I never thought much about the principle underlying it. Some pro-choice advocates have very cleanly divided the moral issue from the legal one. A law that allows abortion allows pro-abortionists to promote abortion, and anti-abortionists to, well, do the opposite, each according to their moral principles.
I begin to suspect that there are more people trying to just back out of the debate in this way than I’d previously assumed. Gallup keeps a poll running dividing those who identify themselves as pro-choice and pro-life. These numbers tend to run between 40 – 60 %, shifting from one side to the other from year to year. That makes it sound like a simple dichotomy of viewpoints. But when the pollsters actually asked that same group of people about legalized abortion, we get different figures. In their most recent poll, only 29 percent replied they that they thought it should be legal in all cases, while 19 percent thought it should be banned in all cases. So where does that leave the other 52 percent of respondents? Somewhere in the middle. This murky middle surely encompasses a variety of viewpoints: those who see abortion as a moral neutral, those who want it to be safe & rare and feel legalization is the best way to accomplish that, and those who see it as a moral evil but see protection of individual autonomy as a more important moral good, etc. Some of these people still identify themselves as pro-life, while some identify as pro-choice. But I was struck in a new way by the fact that among the roughly half of persons who call themselves pro-choice are some who see abortion as a wrong but still support it being legal. Supporting some legalized abortion means allying yourself with those who are truly “pro” abortion as a clear good, yes, but doing so (and perhaps labeling yourself as ‘pro-choice’) is the only way to remain neutral on the subject of the morality of abortion: everyone gets to decide for themselves.
I think I always dismissed the ‘pro-choice is neutral’ notion as a mask for those who didn’t like to admit that they support abortion-on-demand. Perhaps it is a mask, for some; for others, though – well, I probably should be listening and responding to their words and not assuming they don’t mean what they say. This realization doesn’t change my stance on whether abortion should be legal, but it does change the argument by presenting the problem in a new light. It also gives me some hope for finding common ground with some of these women on the subject.
I do have thoughts about the legal status of abortion and why, alas, no stance can be truly “neutral”, but I do have things called children whose snacks wait for no blog post. Another day soon —