This past week I’ve been asked the same question several times by people who are antiabortion/antichoice. “If you support abortions, why don’t you just call yourselves ‘pro-abortion’? Why don’t you like it when people call you ‘pro-abortion’?”
Despite the fact that I have answered this question at length, it seems like there’s a real inability to understand on the opposite side. To most of the antiabortion people I talk to, they consider abortion equal to murder of a child, and any kind of support of the right of women to choose abortion — regardless of how you might feel personally about abortion — is the same as going out and telling everyone you can that abortion is a fantastic option and you should go out and get pregnant just so you can have one. In other words, there’s no difference to them between supporting a woman’s right to choose (including her right to choose things that I disagree with) and pushing abortion on women. In fact, I think a lot of people on the antiabortion side consider supporting the right to choose as bad as having or performing abortions yourself.
I’ve been thinking since I was first asked the question if there’s a way to answer it that people might understand, and I’m writing this post to try and explain my personal position and what “pro-choice” means to me — which also happens to be what it means to everyone I have spoken with personally who considers themselves pro-choice.
The phrase “pro-choice” is pretty much a shortened form of “pro-reproductive-choice”. “Reproductive choice” encompasses a wide variety of options, and while it generally is applied to women, it also applies to men. “Reproductive choice” is everything from contraception, including the right to have access to contraception, the right to negotiate for it before and during sexual encounters, the right to determine what happens to and in your body at all times, the right to reproductive health care, and the right to choose how to handle a pregnancy and what the outcome will be. I’m sure I’ve left a few things off the list that fall under the “reproductive choice” category, but that’s most of it. And by the way, as far as the rest of this post goes, when I say “choice” I mean “reproductive choice”.
Central to the pro-choice philosophy is the idea that our own personal feelings on any of the options that people have are only relevant when it comes to making those choices for ourselves. Each person has an inalienable right to choose for themselves their own path. This isn’t just true of reproductive choice, it’s true of everything in life. Take freedom of religion, for example. It’s one of the most cherished rights of Americans, something most people see as incontrovertible and a core value. But believing we each have the right to choose and practice our own religion — or no religion — does not in any way mean that I have to like the religion you choose. I can even hate your religion (and freedom of speech gives me the right to tell you and the rest of the world how much I hate it) but I can’t prevent you from practicing it.
Being pro-choice is very similar. One thing that’s really crystallized for me the past few weeks is that part of being pro-choice is respecting the choices every woman (and man) makes when it comes to reproductive choice. It means trusting each woman to make her own choices and not needing to know the reasons or justifications. Do some people make bad choices? Of course. We’re human. Making mistakes is part of being human. The best we can do is work had to make sure everyone has the best information we can give them on all of their options, so that they can make the most informed choice possible. Often, when people make bad choices it’s because they have bad information. I recently read an article that described results of a study that looked at how much men knew about birth control and contraceptives, and the results were hysterically funny but also very concerning. They showed how far we have to go in educating everyone, men and women of all ages who are having sex, on how to protect themselves from both STDs and pregnancy.
And thus the greatest task the pro-choice movement has, arguably greater than the political battle of protecting the rights we have to make reproductive choices, is educating people on what their choices are and how to go about accessing them. This is integral to what I think is some significant common ground between the pro-choice and the antiabortion/antichoice movements, a common ground that I don’t think many people realize exists: all of us want to reduce the number of abortions.
I think the reason that people so often confuse “pro-choice” with “pro-abortion” is that abortion is currently the cause that needs the most defending. The right of women to choose abortion is constantly under attack in the U.S. and elsewhere, and many countries have banned it to various degrees, with three countries banning all abortions (which results in the unnecessary deaths of many women who go without treatment for conditions like ectopic pregnancies for fear that doctors will be prosecuted for performing abortions). But being pro-choice is about a lot more than fighting for abortion rights.
Being pro-choice means being pro-adoption. Pro-keeping-your-baby. Pro-support-services-for-women-who-keep-their-babies. Pro-contraceptives. Pro-birth-control. Pro-sex-education. Pro-tubal-ligations-for-women-who-want-them. Pro-vasectomies-for-men-who-want-them. Pro-reducing-unwanted-pregnancies. Pro-reducing-abortions. Anti-rape, anti-sexual-abuse, anti-victimization. And it also means being pro-abortion-rights — even if you don’t like abortion and would never choose it for yourself.
To me, a perfect world when it comes to reproductive choice would be a world where there were no accidental or unwanted pregnancies. Where women got pregnant when they wanted to have kids, and when they didn’t want kids or weren’t ready for them, they had access to the best contraception available. And personally, I would add that this perfect world, with no unwanted pregnancies, would also encourage infertile couples and families to adopt foster children, older children, children that are currently passed over in favor of the more attractive infants of the right race or skin color.
I believe that safe, legal abortion should be available to women who want it, regardless of the reason or circumstances,up until about 22-24 weeks, when the fetus becomes viable. I also believe that women who are considering abortion should be provided with as much information as possible on all of their options, including the potential risks of the abortion procedure they are considering, what kind of adoption options are available to them (open adoption, closed adoption, etc.), and especially what kinds of support services are available to them if they decide to have and raise their child. Any kind of clinic or resource center that counsels pregnant women on their options should do everything it can to locate services that those women need — if they are afraid they can’t provide for a child, have a social worker or counselor who knows the system work aggressively with them to find support services and programs that would make it affordable. If they are not in a position to raise a child, because they are teenagers or in a bad relationship or have more kids than they can handle already, show them all of the adoption programs they might be interested in being a part of, let them meet couples who are looking to adopt, give them information on the type of support they can get through these programs to carry the child to term and be healthy. If there is a problem in the way that is causing a woman to consider adoption, work with her and see if it can be solved.
But not all problems can be solved, and statistics from countries where abortion is illegal show that when safe, legal abortions are not available, women will go to incredible and dangerous lengths to terminate their pregnancies anyway. When a women chooses abortion, they should receive enough counseling to ensure that they are making this choice on their own and not under duress. While women who choose abortion should take into account the opinion of the father of the child, if it’s appropriate or he is in the picture, they should not be forced one way or the other by any partner, boyfriend, husband, family member, friend, or anyone else (including clinic or resource center staff). Because studies show that women with preexisting mental illness are far more likely to develop mental issues following abortions, a basic mental health screening should be part of the abortion process — not because those women should be preventing from terminating, but to identify women who will most likely need additional counseling after the abortion to deal with any consequences or trauma. And that counseling should be free or affordable, if not covered by insurance.
The picture I am trying to paint is of a world in which there are few abortions. Where the abortions that happen are reasoned, serious decisions made only after taking all of the options into account, or are medically necessary. Where most pregnancies are intentional and wanted and result in the addition of a loved child to a family. Where women have access to the contraception and protection they need to plan when and how they will reproduce, and with whom.
So no, I am not “pro-abortion”. I am pro-choice, and I am proud to be.