Women, Fairness, and Abortion: What Choice Do We Really Have to Make?

I’ve always been proud to be a girl. You could say I’ve been a feminist, even before the fairly recent resurgence of the term—I believed that a girl could do just about anything a boy could do (and thensome), and assumed it was common knowledge. Anyone who thought differently, in my mind, was just stupid. In fact, when it came to figuring out what I wanted to do when I grew up, my biggest struggle was that I felt like I could do anything and be good at it. Because I could.

It’s not that I didn’t realize the world was unjust, and that women often get the brunt of it. Experiences with assault and abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional), manipulation, discrimination and abandonment of women by men were very, very close to home, and so were the consequences, including poverty and mental and emotional health issues that led to generational cycles of abuse and neglect. In other words, I knew that life wasn’t fair, and that the things that made it unfair were not pronouns and wage gaps, but bad people and bad choices. I learned that the way to deal with that reality is to be a good person, make good choices, and choose good people in your life. And I learned, from strong women around me (especially my mother), that I could handle anything life threw my way and I could solve problems and I could make a difference. Because I can.

I remember the first time I had a real fallout with the word “feminism.” It was in a high school English class. We read “The Awakening.” The book is powerful, giving insight into the struggle of a woman living in an oppressing society and feeling stuck. I read, sympathized with her, and felt grateful for things like my calculus class, my track team, my career prospects, my social independence, and all of the opportunities I never would have had without pioneer women (and men!) who opened the world to my half of the population.

The book ends when the protagonist, suffocating in a life she isn’t really living, swims out on a beach and drowns herself. I thought it was a tragic story, first of all for her, but secondly for her children, who never get attention from either of their parents for the entire book and who are now left not only without a mother, but with the emotional scarring that will come with knowing they weren’t wanted.

In class, however, I was surprised to find that as we dissected this main character, we attributed every element of her final suicide to the situation created by someone else. Because she couldn’t change her situation, she had no choice. I was a little baffled. Of course she had a choice. She chose to kill herself. The consequences of that choice were real, and would be imposed on others who didn’t have a choice.

This isn’t a condemnatory comment on suicide; remember that the first tragedy was that the main character was so miserable she felt she had no other choice. That’s a situation most of us will never understand and cannot judge. But what do we do when we find someone who is in that situation, who feels so trapped that they think the only option is to end it all? We don’t encourage it, do we? “You’re right, you might as well do it. It’s not your fault life is so hard; you have no choice but to end it.” Of course not! We love them, we offer them all the help we can, and we do everything in our power to convince that person that they do have other options.

Ironically, I think my deathgrip on choice has disqualified me from being a “feminist” in the current major sociopolitical trend. I believe a woman always has a choice. She doesn’t always get to choose what happens to her, but she always gets to choose what she’ll do. No one can take that power away from her. So, when I hear of women who find themselves pregnant and who aren’t ready—too young, too poor, or not ready to handle parenthood, and feeling trapped—I want to love her, to offer all the help I can, and to convince her that she still has options.

Many women get pregnant because of a reckless decision, and are just as responsible as the men who got them pregnant, yet they face the heavier consequence. Many women are taken advantage of by men and are less responsible, sometimes not at all responsible, for the consequences that come. Like I said earlier, there are some bad people out there and there are some people who just make bad choices, and because of it life isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that men don’t  biologically have to be responsible for their actions (or the actions of others) like women do. And I believe wholeheartedly in doing what we can to counter that biological inequality with social justice.

What I don’t see as an option, however, is passing off the unfairness of life to someone else. Party A should take more responsibility, but they leave it to Party B. Not fair. Party B doesn’t want the responsibility either, so they give it to Party C, who had less to do with the original problem than Party A or B. Have you ever been the Party C in this situation? Even less fair. That’s often how we get cycles of abuse and bullying, and sometimes it’s the reason the people closest to us get our worst behavior. Two wrongs have never made a right, especially when the second wrong happens to someone who didn’t commit the first one.

That’s why, as someone who considers herself a feminist and who refuses to give up the idea of fairness no matter how unfair the world will always be, I do not consider abortion a women’s rights issue. I do not consider it an issue of choice any more than I consider suicide a choice—one that I pity rather than condemn, but nonetheless an escape in the face of feeling trapped when, in reality, there are always other options. If abortion were just another form of birth control, that would be one thing. I’d say that anyone who stood in the way beyond sharing beliefs and opinions was infringing on a woman’s right to her own body. And I’ve never found it acceptable for someone to infringe on someone’s right to their own body.

But a baby’s body isn’t his/her mother’s body. Everyone agrees that we can’t kill babies or children, or anyone for that matter, for our own convenience or even well-being. As much as we try to make this issue a social or political one by lumping it in with women’s issues, LGBTQ issues, healthcare and welfare, and other sociopolitical causes, I think we know that the issue of abortion’s morality and/or legality can only be a question if we settle the question underlying it: is a fetus a human?

Scientists say it isn’t. Oh, but other scientists say it is. It’s dependent on its mother’s body, yes, but it also has its own genetic sequence, and its own blood type, and a brain, and sense perception, and all the physical parts of a separate human body. And it has potential. (I’ve never known a tumor or a parasite to grow up into a human being.) We’ve had such a  hard time pinpointing the moment that a fetus becomes a human, and our definition keeps changing. We have to ask ourselves, really ask ourselves, not in heated political arenas but introspectively and seriously, when we try to define a human, are our attempts genuine, or are we looking for a convenient answer? We’ve found convenient definitions and rankings of human beings before; try slavery and social Darwinism, both of which drastically improved lives—well, some lives. We’ve learned. We’ve learned to really ask the question.

What if we are never able to adequately answer the question? Can we be comfortable killing this maybe-human and ignoring the question? Even knowing that it might be a human, and will be a human, and feels what we do to it, just because it is silent and we can’t ask it? Aren’t we trying to stop silencing victims? And could our attitude toward unborn babies possibly affect our attitudes toward other “inconvenient” individuals? The elderly? The mentally or physically disabled?

I think this needs to stop being a political issue, because it will never be treated fairly as a political issue. Liberals will see it as a feminist issue, and conservatives will oversimplify it and won’t acknowledge the complexity and (sometimes un-chosen) pain and fear felt by an unprepared mother about stigma, birth, parenthood, or adoption. We have work to do:

  • We need to remove the stigmas associated with pregnancies whose conceptions we weren’t there for and therefore have no business making assumptions about.
  • We need to strengthen families and communities to be able to help each other when unexpected pregnancies happen.
  • We need to improve sex education, teaching
    • what is and isn’t acceptable, to target sexual assault
    • self-discipline, and
    • the positive and negative physical and emotional consequences of sex.
  • We need to work on quality, accessible healthcare, including birth control and prenatal care.
  • We need to work on our adoption processes and foster care systems.
  • We need to be more free with our money to make these things happen.

But until we’ve answered that fundamental question, we can’t consider abortion acceptable. Because we, women and men, do have a choice. And even if life isn’t fair, we can be. We can.

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