Ophelia Benson

The campaign to restore abortion to its former status as illegal and taboo has won many battles; in huge swaths of the United States, that campaign has effectively won the whole war, because abortion is not even available. There are no clinics, no doctors, and no cheap fast ways to get to them.

A major battle the no-choice side has won is that of convincing a great many people, including many of those who support abortion rights, that abortion itself is tragic. You know the slogan: abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. You know the phrase: “Nobody actually wants abortion.” You know the euphemistic way the sides are lined up: pro-life and pro-choice.

There was a reason for that last one, of course; the bald label “pro-abortion” sounds as if that side wants to urge abortion on everyone, including people who have no desire for one, as opposed to simply supporting the position that women should be able to get abortions if they want them. Political slogans have to be carefully chosen, or you get stuck with what turns out to be a gift to the other side.

But abortion rights are far from being only political, although like all rights, they depend on politics. Rights are intended to be in some sense beyond politics—prior to politics—which is why there are declarations of them. It’s a mistake to let the discussion of reproductive rights be wholly taken over by the needs of political jockeying and rhetoric.

The more we buy into the meme that abortion is always a tragic lesser-of-two-evils situation, the more we lose sight of the reality, which is that for a woman or girl who does not want to be pregnant, abortion is a glorious human invention, a life-salvaging bit of technology.

Of course it is! It’s not the case that everyone everywhere would welcome any pregnancy, no matter what. Imagine if pregnancy were random, an abrupt unrequested gift of the gods that could happen to either sex at any time. Would it be a joy to the recipient every single time, in all possible circumstances? Obviously not. The same applies when only one sex is affected—traditionally the inferior, expendable, subordinate sex, the one whose whole purpose is to reproduce—and the chain of causation is understood. Just like anyone else, girls and women may not want to be pregnant at a particular time, just as they can not want to have a demanding job or a difficult project at a particular time. The existence of a method of ending a pregnancy is a good thing for women and girls in that situation. It’s not tragic. What’s tragic is the huge number of women who don’t have that option.

There are people who think human beings ought to be helpless before nature. Veteran religious-Right culture warrior Phyllis Schlafly said as much on an Eagle Forum blog the other day: “Many people don’t realize the peculiar ideology of the feminists. They are not promoting equality of male and female; they are for interchangeability of the genders. The feminists are at war with Mother Nature, and Mother Nature keeps winning, so the feminists are constantly angry at what they call criticize [sic] as patriarchy.”

But Schlafly is at war with “Mother Nature” too, as almost all of us are. She’s clearly condemning “the feminists” in that passage (and in all the rest of the post too), but hardly anyone has sworn a peace treaty with nature. Schlafly used language to write that post. She used the Internet to disseminate it. Schlafly wears clothes. You can see from pictures of her that she wears makeup and jewelry, too. I’m betting she lives in a house and eats cooked food and travels in cars and airplanes. I think we can assume that she uses medicine, dentistry, phones, electricity, sewer systems—there is no end to the ways Schlafly is at war with nature, just as I am, just as we all are. Nature is cold and rain, predators and disease, starvation and contaminated water.

Yes, we are moderns, and we live with artifices of many kinds. We are ultimately helpless before nature, but in the interim we can make things a lot safer and more comfortable and more interesting for ourselves and indeed for other people. With technology, we can save hundreds of people from disasters or millions from diseases. With technology, we can also do a lot to plan how our lives are going to go. We can decide we don’t want to have children until goals A, B, and C are accomplished. We can decide we don’t want to have children at all. We can decide we want to have a round dozen, or we can decide we want to have one. Infertility may be an obstacle, but technology can do a lot to overcome that. Unwanted pregnancy may be an obstacle, but technology has a fix for that. We don’t have to be helpless before a failure of contraception, because there is a fix. That’s not tragic.

Of course, that’s not to say that abortion is never sorrowful. It’s to say that it’s not inherently and always sorrowful and that it shouldn’t be made so by people who care more about a stranger’s pregnancy than about her right to decide whether it will continue. The pervasive idea that abortion is inherently and always sorrowful is a product of the political war against it and should be clearly recognized as such.

That idea and that brand of sorrow are worked up, the way political sentiments generally are worked up, for good and ill. We can work up people’s sympathy for refugees, or striking workers, or victims of civil war or mass rape or female genital mutilation; we can also work up people’s sympathy for hotel owners who don’t want to allow same-sex couples to stay in their hotels, for white people upset about brown people moving into their neighborhoods, for high-school science teachers not allowed to teach creationism in the classroom. The antiabortion side has done a very good job of working up its particular brand of sympathy and even spreading it to many people who support abortion rights, people who would cringe in shame at the mere suggestion of sympathy for racism or xenophobia. The antiabortion side has preached its sermon that a pregnancy is a person from the instant of conception with such dogged persistence that way too many people feel required to split the difference—to continue to say we should have abortion rights but also to agree that everyone should feel wracked with guilt about it.

Religions are good at making people feel wracked with guilt for bad reasons. It’s one of their best marketing tools. “You smell bad: buy our product to solve this problem.” “You are a worm: buy into our god to solve this problem.” Factitious abortion-guilt is a branch of this advertising campaign. It ignores whole continents’ worth of human suffering and premature death for the sake of fretting about the death of “persons” who are in fact imaginary. It’s a lot like the belief in God that way: God is wholly a matter of thinking about a non-present, nonobservable asserted person and caring about that person more than humdrum perceptible human beings. So is the fetus as person. It’s hidden, like God; its personhood is asserted rather than demonstrated; it has more rights than the real, tangible person hosting it against her will.

Sometimes we learn our own lessons too well. People who value reason and free inquiry know that they should try to understand opposing points of view on their own terms, and assume good faith unless there are obvious and compelling reasons not to. This is probably even more the case with arguments over abortion than it is with other controversies, because it’s so easy to sympathize with the core feelings. But the result after decades of fetus-fetishizing is a view of abortion like that in the movie Juno. The clever, independent-minded high-school student Juno decides to have an abortion, no problem, but outside the clinic she encounters a protester who babbles at her about the fetus’s fingernails. Juno goes in anyway, but once inside . . . ah yes, here it comes, the change of heart. Fingernails! Juno changes her mind, because fingernails.

That’s the “liberal” Hollywood take: abortion is there, it’s possible, but you shouldn’t have one. It’s legal, but it’s tragic. A teenager with an unwanted pregnancy is doing a fine thing by continuing the pregnancy in order to give the baby to an infertile couple.

That’s not good enough. The right to abortion needs to be defended more robustly than that, if it’s to be a real right.


Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).