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The A Word

May 18, 2019

In the past I’ve been guilty of starting conversations about abortion with “I could never personally have one, but…” I’ve come to realize this is a lot like the “I’m totally straight, but I support gay rights” bit. It’s meant to indemnify the speaker while passively showing a semblance of support for “those other people.” Gee, aren’t I progressive and open-minded…but please don’t lump me in with that group!

The abortion debate is one that stirs up a lot of emotion, obviously. Issues like it are often the most difficult to talk about because we messy, irrational humans often don’t want to hear facts; we would rather engage in rhetoric that supports what we already believe. My goal is to set aside my own emotions and context and try to see it from all angles, ones that I can relate to and ones that I have to struggle to understand. I’ve come to see that it’s not enough for me to hold surface opinions on topics like this, I need to dig deeper.

For example, one of the hot buttons on the recently proposed bill in Alabama is the fact that it would no longer allow for exceptions in cases of rape or incest. That’s long been my personal line, the one I’ve held to when discussing abortion. And yes, we should be outraged that women who have faced such trauma would be required against their will to bear their attackers’ children. We should be horrified at the thought of an 11-year old child being forced to carry her rapist’s baby to term.

But there’s a much larger, more complicated problem with that caveat, particularly when abortions are restricted to the early weeks of pregnancy. Imagine for a moment that your 13-year old daughter is raped by someone she knows. Listen to her attacker threaten to kill her family if she tells anyone. Think of how unfamiliar she still is with her own body and its inner workings, and how long it might take for her to realize she’s pregnant. Process your feelings as she tearfully tells you not only of her attack but of her suspected pregnancy. Now look at your calendar. Picture the process of reporting the rape to police. Do a little research into how long these types of investigations typically take. Inform yourself about how often rapes and sexual assaults are actually prosecuted, much less how often attackers are actually sentenced.

Now imagine a world in which your daughter has to wait for that process to be completed, one in which by the time she reports her rape and realizes she’s pregnant it is too late, or worse, the timing doesn’t even matter because the law says she has to go through the trauma of carrying her rapist’s baby, the public humiliation of teen pregnancy, the pain of childbirth. All because the government dictates what happens to her, the victim.

It’s not just victims of rape and incest who would be punished by these proposed laws. Picture your sister. She and her husband have longed for a child and are finally expecting. They walk into the doctor’s office full of hope and joy. The leave in tears, carrying with them the knowledge that their baby will never survive outside the womb. Your sister is already 12 weeks pregnant. She undergoes a barrage of tests over the coming weeks, all confirming the initial diagnosis. She is now 14 weeks pregnant. She and her husband talk with her doctor and together they make the heartbreaking, intensely personal decision to terminate the pregnancy and prevent the trauma of carrying this baby to term and watching it die seconds after it is born. But wait…look at your calendar again. Too late.

Imagine your niece, 18-years old and heading to college on a volleyball scholarship. On prom night she loses her virginity to a boy she’s liked since middle school; he wears a condom. It breaks. She knows that if she has this baby she will lose her shot at a college education, her entire future will be forfeited. Abortions are now illegal, so she makes the only choice left to her. She bleeds out in a back room.

These aren’t exceptions. These aren’t rare circumstances. This is our future if we allow religion and misogyny to determine the law. It doesn’t matter if I agree with abortion. It doesn’t matter when my church says life begins. It only matters that without access to safe, legal abortions, women will pay the ultimate price. As a woman, as a human being, I have to make a choice; and choice is, after all, what’s at stake.

I believe life does begin in the womb. I morally disagree with abortions after a certain point unless the mother’s life is at stake or there is a valid medical reason to terminate. But I am not a doctor. And I am not a woman facing that situation. Therefore, it shouldn’t be up to me to decide what those reasons are. It isn’t my place to determine or even be privy to what is an extremely personal, absolutely private decision between a woman and her doctor. If we are willing to trust medical professionals with our own lives and believe in the Hippocratic Oath, then why are we not willing to trust their judgment when it comes to terminating pregnancies?

If we can agree that we live in a country founded on the concept of religious freedom, and if we can bring up the Second Amendment whenever we think our personal rights are being tread on, then how can we willfully choose to ignore the First Amendment? Our laws cannot be dictated by the views of our religious leaders or by the tenets of our religious texts. To allow that to happen is to disregard our very Constitution, the one so many love to quote whenever their own liberties are perceived as being threatened. Should we also jail men who cheat on their wives? Should we ban divorce except in cases of proven spousal abuse?

And where do we land at the bottom of this slippery slope? El Salvador has some of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the world; women there have been jailed for having miscarriages and stillbirths, suspected of terminating their pregnancies intentionally. Under the bills currently proposed in several US states, doctors could potentially be investigated for suspected abortions in cases where women miscarried or gave birth to stillborn babies; those women could then be questioned and asked to testify in such cases, further traumatizing them after their losses.

Another consideration in this whole debate is a practical one: who takes care of these babies the government says must be brought into this world? If a woman realizes she is pregnant and knows she doesn’t have the means to care for a child, whose responsibility does it become to ensure that child receives food, shelter, and education if that woman is forced against her will to have it? There is so much talk about “heartbeats” and “fetal rights”, yet in the same breath many of those same people support capital punishment, refuse to enact sensible gun reform that would save lives, and denounce social programs that assist those born into poverty and disadvantage. The foster care system is inarguably broken. Children are neglected and abused on a daily basis. We can’t even take care of the babies that have been born; how exactly do we propose to care for the ones being forced into this world? One cannot be both pro-life and refuse to do anything for the “heartbeats” once they become people.

Abortion is polarizing. It’s often presented as very black and white: you either believe in women’s rights or you don’t. You either value life or you don’t. It’s just not that simple. We all have to recognize our personal biases and beliefs as what they are: opinions colored by our history and our associations. We must look beyond our initial reactions and be willing to face some challenging truths, ones that might shake up long-held assumptions or cause us to revise the way we view the issue of abortion.

And the law must remain structured in a way that accounts for the gray, the myriad situations that might lead to this choice. To remove it altogether is to take an enormous step backward and to set our country up for a future that should be left in the past. It’s time to take off the lenses of religion and rhetoric and see that this issue is complex and should be approached as such. Failure to do so could be the last choice we’re allowed to make.

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