framing the choice debate

October 16, 2006

Saturday’s Alternet has a really fantastic piece written by a former anti-choice activist. Elizabeth Wardle’s “Reflections from a Former Anti-Abortion Activist” is concise but carries a broad and productive critique of the overall tone and message of the both the anti- and pro-choice movements. She briefly describes her childhood, attending anti-choice rallies and believing that the abortion debate was a simple one, it was about life-and-death. She went to college and learned that this issue is grayer than she thought:

In my women’s studies classes I learned about poverty and racism, about misogyny, about the history of birth control (or rather, control of birth control). I learned that for many women there are several important questions that come before whether or not a fetus is a life–questions such as, “Will this pregnancy cost me my life? Who will feed this child? Where is one person who will provide me with some support if I have this child?”

Easy enough, but now the confusing part comes when she tries to synthesize her former beliefs with her newly-acquired ones:

By the end of college, my former certainty about abortion had completely deserted me. I had arrived at a place where I couldn’t identify myself as pro-life any longer. I now believed in choice, but without advocating abortion. I still believed a fetus was a life–but I had come to understand there were other issues at stake, too. Was mine a pro-choice position? None of the pro-choice rhetoric with which I was familiar led me to believe it was; having once been a true believer in the pro-life movement, I found nothing in the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement that appealed to me or adequately stated my position.

Wardle’s words rang true for me, as I believe they ring true for many pro-choice folks who understand that the “pro-abortion” image of the movement is not representative of the beliefs of most people who are actually pro-choice. None of us is pro-abortion; rather, we understand that the issue is more complicated that that. I believe that it is the anti-choice movement that has created the image of us as baby-haters (and worse: baby-killers). Wardle is spot-on when she writes that the coat hanger is no longer a useful image for the pro-choice movement and one of the reasons why the anti-choice movement is successful is because of its gory images. On the coat hanger, she writes:

…that symbol is rhetorically empty for women of my generation forward. As a result, the pro-choice movement simply does not have competing images for those placed on placards by the anti-choice movement. As long as abortion is legal and safe, there is (thankfully) no image to rival the visual horror of an aborted fetus; instead, there are only sterile, unemotional concepts in which to believe: privacy, choice, legalization. While feminists may feel the rightness of choice, that rightness can’t compare, on an emotional level, to the emotions associated with the implied opposite of pro-life (pro-death) or with the images of bloody fetuses.

And thank you for clearing up that the main focus of the pro-choice movement is not abortion (or at least it shouldn’t be):

Here is a pro-choice position I can get behind: Abortion is generally not the problem in need of our attention. In most cases, abortion is one result of a number of related problems; abortion is wrapped up in intimate ways with attitudes about sex, living wages, access to good jobs, healthcare, childcare, education, and so on.

If we want to prevent bringing unwanted or unsupported life into this world, birth control must be accessible to all; men and women alike need education about the necessities of birth control. Birth control, sex education, and factually correct abstinence-only programs are abortion issues.

Full article here.


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