Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What if "toning down the rhetoric" works?

And by “works,” of course, I mean “causes there to be fewer abortions and saves lives” – which is the only thing that counts as success in the abortion debate.

It goes against my every instinct to imply that it might. After all, being vehemently and outspokenly pro-life isn’t rhetoric. It’s standing up for the weak and speaking up for the voiceless. Legal abortion is a tragedy and a travesty.

But I recently had a surprising conversation with one of the most pro-choice of my many loved ones who are pro-choice. The last conversation we’d had – less than a year ago – where abortion had come up, she’d declared that she wouldn’t have a baby for another 4 years or so. If she got pregnant before that line, she’d have an abortion. Afterwards, she’d keep the baby. Even the other pro-choice people who were around had joined me in saying that you can’t be that simplistic with the decision. It’s not just about how old you are, and if you have the same resources and support system at 29 as you do at 30, there’s no reason to have a magical age as the threshold.

And yet we recently had another conversation – like I said, well less than a year later – where she told me that if she got pregnant now, she’d probably have the baby. The sentiment was along the lines of “I think I’d have it, even though I couldn’t afford it.” It wasn’t a particularly strong pro-life declaration, and, of course, there’s no saying she’d never change her mind back in the other direction. But though I didn’t ask, it eventually got me wondering what had caused the change of heart. (I couldn’t figure out how to ask – “But you just said 6 months ago that you’d never have a baby before X age!” without sounding like I was trying to hold her to her earlier promise, which I certainly didn’t want to do.)

And I started thinking about these concepts of “toning down the rhetoric” and “finding common ground.” What if having a very popular, strongly pro-choice president who talks about “reducing the need for abortion” as opposed to “reducing the number of abortions” in and of itself could reduce the number of abortions? Trying to think about it from the perspective of someone who’s pro-choice, “reducing the number of abortions” sounds like we’re saying that there will be fewer abortions, no matter who wants them. (I would support that.) And “reducing the need for abortion” sounds like we’re trying to help prevent people from being in the desperate situations in which they would need abortions. (I would also support that.)

Personally, I think that the only situation which approaches there being a need for an abortion involves immediate danger to the life of the mother. But what if public attention on reducing the need for abortion made people think that there are situations in which an abortion is needed – and correspondingly, situations involving unwanted pregnancies in which it is not? What if a national dialogue about reducing the need for abortions tweaked the idea of when an abortion was warranted, just ever so slightly? Instead of an abortion being warranted whenever a mother so chooses, what if there a slight shift of the collective mindset – even if not the laws – such that people started to think of an abortion as something that is warranted when the mother needs one?

It would really just be a shift towards the world that many pro-choice people insist already exists, one where every abortion-related decision is heart-rending and made with much consideration. And if there are fewer abortions in that world than in this one, that’s a victory, right?

As much as I tried to imagine the pro-choice mindset when I was thinking about this, I realize that I’ve failed in one big way, which is the underlying assumption that not every unwanted pregnancy brings with it the need for an abortion. I hear that a big difference in the approach of those who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life, when it comes to reducing the need for abortion, is that the pro-choice side focuses on birth control, while the pro-life side focuses on making sure women who want to keep their babies are materially able to. That implies that the pro-choice side sees an unexpected pregnancy as increasing the need for abortion, and that reducing unwanted pregnancy inherently reduces the need for abortion. I’m sure it does do so, but not inherently.

That’s the point.

What if talking about what reduces the need for abortion slowly brought people around to the idea that an unwanted pregnancy does not equal a needed abortion? If we’re trying to reduce the need for abortion by increasing the support system and the safety net available to women in these situations, shouldn’t we get to the point where all women who are considering an abortion really ask themselves (and I know many do, but I also know many do not), “Do I really need this? Have my support system and my safety net failed me such that I feel I have no other choice?”

Could that happen?

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