I touched on this topic in my Blog for Choice post this year, but I wanted to go into it a bit more, because I think issue-framing is something crucial that we sometimes ignore in our debates. I’ve noticed that pro-choice people often use the argument, to try to look less “scary,” that no one wants abortions, or that both sides want fewer abortions. Whether it’s true or not, this is a problem.
The problem is that this argument makes the debate about should women have abortions? I don’t think we want to go there. Once we go there, then the point of contention becomes “how do we reduce abortions?” And we know we disagree on this. One side thinks the answer is abstinence-only education, crisis pregnancy centers, and making abortion illegal. The other side thinks the answer is sex education, combating rape culture, and fighting systemic issues that take away womens’ effective right to choose. Certainly, that’s a debate we need to be having, but not while the legal right to have an abortion is under attack.
What we should be asking is not should women have abortions, but should abortions be safe and legal? Abortions will happen. Even if we “want fewer abortions,” we’re never going to get it down to zero. We need to focus on the medical trauma that women go through when they go to unsafe providers. We need to focus on how provisions like the Hyde Amendment and any number of state laws make it impossible for poor women, many of whom are indigenous women and women of color, to get a safe and legal abortion. We need to focus on the costs to the system when women try to abort without proper medical attention, and then come in for emergency care. We need to put that stark picture in pro lifers’ faces and say “is this what you want?” Then, we need to address the issues that underlie abortion. We can do this simultaneously, advocating for sex education, for enterprise programs in poor neighborhoods that give women more options, for an end to racist policies, for anti-rape messages in schools, for all these things that will in the long run decrease the number of abortions. But we can’t make our argument about whether women should have abortions, or we stand a high chance of losing.
I was just reading an article comparing US and Mexican abortion laws, and the author, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, made a really good point that I think we need to keep reminding ourselves of as we fight for our liberal values. We can talk about individual autonomy and choice all we want, and that perspective can be great, but choice doesn’t mean much if you can’t access the choice. Often choices require financial privilege or other means that not everyone has. While some forms of privacy/autonomy are easy for governments to ensure (negative liberties that don’t require the government to take action, only to refrain from it), positive autonomy requires resources.
This is where I go all socialist on you, but I really think we have a lot to learn from forms of government (and on a smaller level, forms of community activism or tribal systems) where the focus is on the group rather than the individual. Yes, this form can hurt women when they are blended into the group as a whole, but it also can provide guarantees of community support. The individualist system often claims to give all individuals a choice, autonomy, etc., but if the individuals do not have the resources to exercise these rights, then those individuals (often women) will suffer. The challenge is to find a balance, where women are not marginalized, not erased, and not harmed in between the lines of the law. It’s probably a challenge that can never be fully realized, but it’s a good goal.