To mark the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I’ll be posting on the politics of abortion this week. (A single day just isn’t enough: too much to say, too little time.)
When I teach about abortion and reproductive rights, I refer to the anti-abortion position as “pro-life.” I do this as a courtesy, to express respect for my students who call themselves pro-life. Without respect, you can’t hope to have a civil and reasonable discussion, and that’s tricky enough anyway where abortion is concerned. If I marginalize pro-life students, at best they’ll simply clam up, stopping discussion before it even starts. At worse, it can degenerate into name-calling.
But I still struggle with this because I think “pro-life” is a dishonest and misleading label.
Dishonest, because most politicians and too many ordinary people who favor “life” for an embryo don’t give a flying fig about what happens to that embryo once born. Or if they do, they’re not willing to put their money where their mouth is and support programs such as Head Start, SCHIP, etc. that would actually safeguard and nurture children at social and physical risk.
Misleading, because when a woman chooses abortion as her least-bad option, it can give her the chance to preserve her own life. I mean this mostly in the social sense, though of course in rare cases complications of pregnancy can literally endanger a woman’s life. By terminating a pregnancy, a woman may protect herself against poverty, avoid permanent enmeshment in a destructive relationship, complete her education, or just plain finish growing up.
The term “life” is actually an abstraction, as Barbara Duden has pointed out. “My life” is not abstract. Neither is “your life.” But “life” as such is an idea, not a person. Same goes for “human life,” though not “a human life,” which is always specific and embodied.
Now, you might choose to fight for an abstraction, such as democracy or freedom or life. These are abstractions that matter. There are good reasons that they’ve inspired people to make sacrifices to preserve them. But when you start to rank the abstraction higher than actual people, and when you mandate by law that certain individuals or classes of people must make such sacrifices, you risk treating people as mere means to an end. And that is always ethically wrong, as Immanuel Kant argued. (I’m not a trained philosopher, I just live with one. This principle is a pretty basic one, though, and I think most reasonable people would agree with it.)
In “pro-life” rhetoric, this ethical blind spot is exacerbated by a tendency to treat women, in particular, as less than full persons. We see this when pro-lifers expect a woman to nurture a fetus against her will, yet they would not require anyone to donate a kidney – or even blood – involuntarily. We see this when pro-lifers portray women who terminate pregnancies as hapless victims of men who force them to abort. We see this when pro-lifers propose legislation that would require a woman to notify her partner prior to abortion. In all these instances, pro-lifers suggest women are not moral agents capable of making their own decisions.
An honest and ethical politics of abortion would require always viewing and respecting women – and mothers – as ends-in-themselves, not just as a mere vehicle for amporphous “life.” Perhaps paradoxically, it’s that sort of respect – for my students as ends-in-themselves – that I try to honor when I use their term, not mine, to denote those who oppose abortion rights.