The other night, I turned off a DVD in frustration after about half an hour. In the movie, a woman had learned that she was pregnant, and she was pissed off. She was distraught, and went on about it as though this pregnancy had just ruined her career and hence, her life. I turned the TV off when I got tired of yelling, "Get an abortion, you idiot." "You know you don't HAVE to have a baby, for god's sake." And, "What the hell is wrong with you???" I was imagining an actual baby being born to this narcissistic stupid woman, and also the damage movies like this did to a woman's right to have an abortion, because it did not even consider that women had an actual choice. I must add that I assumed in the end she had the baby and magically turned into a warm, loving mother, maybe because the title of the movie was, "Mothers and Daughters." I may be wrong, in which case I apologize, but it truly wasn't worth another hour and a half of my life to find out.
On the other side, in one of the plot-lines in the brilliant television series, Shameless, fifteen-or-so year old Debbie intentionally gets pregnant, and battles the insistence of her oldest sister and parental surrogate Fiona to have an abortion. As the baby is lovingly accepted into the family, Debbie realizes that parenting is far more than she thought she wanted or could handle, and that she may have made a big mistake.
In Dr. Willie Parker's dynamic and personal account of the battle for women's right to abortion, he talks about how crucial it is to be sure a woman has actually decided that she wants to have an abortion independently and with certainty. In Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice he describes a heartbreaking incident in which he thought a woman had made that decision, only to learn after the procedure, that she had been coerced by her husband.
It's been a few weeks since I read that book, and the description of that incident has stayed with me.
One of the things that we pro-choice advocates tend to ignore is that pro-choice means that women -- and girls -- have the right to choose pregnancy as well as abortion. That is certainly my bias. I was truly fortunate that I never had to face that with my daughter, because it may not have been my shining moment as a parent. I know MY choice would have been for her to have an abortion, regardless of her choice.
We make quite a big deal, we liberals, about how pregnant girls should not be forced by parents to have a baby. About how it can ruin their lives. About how they will be hurt emotionally and financially. We know that raising a child on her own is an extraordinary hardship for most women. It is likely to impair relationships, with family, friends and potential partners. It will interfere with educational opportunity and career goals. The emotional stress of having a baby without adequate support will affect the health and well-being of the baby.
And of course, it just makes sense that they wait to have a baby until they are emotionally and financially ready.
But is that right? If I am to be truly honest here, is it more right to deny a teen the right to have a baby than to deny her the right to an abortion? And what about the pressures from husband, boyfriend, parents on adult women to end a pregnancy?
Let's take care of that latter question first. A woman should be in charge of her own decision regarding a pregnancy. Period. There are social mores, as with some religions, that put the decision in the hands of the husband, most often forcing a woman to bring the pregnancy to term. It may also happen the other way, as Dr. Parker described, in which the spouse has ordered his wife to end the pregnancy, and she complies. Which is why it is so critical that clinics have the ability and training to interview and assess whether the woman has independently chosen an abortion.
Far more difficult is the teenager's choice. Would you let your teenager really choose? When I was pregnant at age twenty there was no conceivable way I would have told my parents. My father, with whom I wasn't speaking on and off since I was fifteen, would certainly have stopped speaking to me. My mother, with many tears and recriminations, would never ever have approved of an abortion. And I would have been totally unable to care for a baby on my own. But had I decided to tell my parents and keep the baby, they surely would have loved it.
Decades later, had my daughter become pregnant, I would have assumed that she would have an abortion. Her teenage years had been rocky enough between she and I; I can only imagine the rage on both our parts as we each fought for what we thought was right. Her life as I wanted it to be would have been over. But her life as she might have wanted it to be....
The irony is that as parents it is up to us to make decisions about our children that affect their well-being. And as they grow older, at some point we lose control over those choices, even though we may know better. They may experiment with drugs and alcohol. They can choose to fail in school, drop out or refuse to go to college, take a low-paying job with no future. They can decide to date or live with someone who has himself made bad choices. And one of the things they may choose, even under our roof, is whether they become pregnant, and whether or not to have a baby.
Because we have needed to be so rabidly engaged in the fight to protect our right to reproductive freedom, i.e. contraception and abortion, we have let the right wing control the other side. We have let them talk about killing babies and how those who are pro-abortion would take away a woman's right to have those babies.
It is time to take this argument away from the anti-choice brigade. Because what they are proposing is not "pro-life" but anti: against both sides of "choice."
Pro-choice should mean certain rights to women and girls who choose to be pregnant. It should mean that the government will provide to them the safety net that will assure the well-being of both mother and child. A pregnancy should not mean hardship and punishment, difficulty finding work or even the need to find work while caring for an infant. Proposing that pregnant women and girls should be required to carry the pregnancy to term without financial security, health care, and emotional support services is not pro-life. It is punishment. Punishment for those who are pregnant, punishment for their families, and punishment for the child to come.
Those who are most rabidly in the anti-abortion league tend to be those who are most determined to cut away any safety net that would actually optimize life. That is why Texas now has the highest maternal death rate in the developed world. In a country that has no problem spending tax dollars on prisons, we are hearing Tea Party idiots like Mick Mulvaney talk about how taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for food stamps. While they are promoting fanciful lies about how abortion kills babies, they are cutting funding for clinics that would provide the care that would save the lives of women, infants and children.
If we honestly believe our stance is "pro-choice" we need to start talking about the right to have babies as well as the right not to. And then we can have the argument on our own terms. That is, that a woman or girl who chooses to be pregnant deserves the support of the government. Health care, housing, child care -- no one who claims to be pro-life should obstruct those rights.
It is time to own this side of women's right to choice.