The Bitter Price of Choice

When I was in college, the bumper sticker on my car read, “Don’t labor under a misconception — legalize abortion.” I was one of a handful of feminists on my campus, back in the days when we were jeered at as “bra-burning women’s libbers.” As we struggled against a hazy sea of sexism, abortion rights was a visible banner, a concrete, measurable goal. Though our other foes were elusive, within the fragile boundary of our skin, at least, we would be sovereign. What could be more personal than our reproductive lives? How could any woman oppose it? I oppose it now. It has been a slow process, my path from a pro-choice to a pro-life position, and I know that an unintended pregnancy raises devastating problems. But I can no longer avoid the realization that legalizing abortion was the wrong solution; we have let in a Trojan Horse whose hidden betrayal we’ve just begun to see.

A woman with an unplanned pregnancy faces more than “inconvenience”; many adversities, financial and social, at school, at work, and at home, confront her. Our mistake was in looking at these problems and deciding that the fault lay with the woman, that she should be the one to change. We focused on her swelling belly, not the discrimination that had made her so desperate. We advised her, “Go have this operation and you will fit right in.”

What a choice we made for her. She climbs onto a clinic table and endures a violation deeper than rape — the nurse’s hand is wet with her tears — then is grateful to pay for it, grateful to be adapted to the social machine that rejected her when pregnant. And the machine grinds on, rejecting her pregnant sisters.

It is a cruel joke to call this a woman’s “choice.” We may choose to sacrifice our life and career plans, or choose to undergo humiliating invasive surgery and sacrifice our offspring. How fortunate we are — we have a choice! Perhaps it’s time to amend the slogan — “Abortion: a woman’s right to capitulate.”

If we refused to choose, if we insisted on keeping both our lives and our bodies intact, what changes would our community have to make? What would make abortion unnecessary? Flexible school situations, freedom from stigma, fairness in hiring, more flex-time, part-time, and home-commute jobs, better access to prenatal and obstetric care, attractive adoption opportunities, a whole garden of safe family planning choices, support in learning how to handle our sex lives responsibly, and help with child care and parenting when we choose to keep our babies: This is a partial list. Yet these changes will never come as long as we’re lying down on abortion tables 1,600,000 times a year to ensure the status quo. We’ve adapted to this surgical substitute, to the point that Justice Blackmun could write in his Webster dissent, “Millions of women have ordered their lives around” abortion. That we have willingly ordered our lives around a denigrating surgical procedure — accepted it as the price we must pay to keep our life plans intact — is an ominous sign.

For over a hundred years, feminists have warned us that abortion is a form of violence and oppression against women and children. They called it “child-murder” (Susan B. Anthony), “degrading to women” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton), “appalling” proof of “the misery of the working class” (Emma Goldman), “most barbaric” (Margaret Sanger), and “a disowning of feminine values” (Simone de Beauvoir). How have we lost this wisdom?

Abortion has become the accepted way of dealing with unplanned pregnancies, and women who make another choice are viewed as odd, backward, and selfish. Across the nation, three thousand crisis pregnancy centers struggle, unfunded and unrecognized, to help these women with housing, clothing, medical care, and job training, before and after pregnancy. These volunteers must battle the assumption that “they’re supposed to abort” — especially poor women who hear often enough how much we resent our tax dollars going to feed their children. Pro-choice rhetoric conjures a dreadful day when women could be forced to have abortions; that day is nearly here.

More insidiously, abortion advocacy has been poisonous to some of the deeper values of feminism. For example, the need to discredit the fetus has led us to the use of terms that would be disastrous if applied to women. “It’s so small,” “It’s unwanted,” “It might be disabled,” “It might be abused.” Too often women are small, unwanted, disabled, or abused. Do we really want to say that these factors erase personhood?

A parallel disparaging of pregnancy itself also has an unhealthy ring. Harping on the discomforts of pregnancy treats women as weak, incompetent: Yet we are uniquely equipped for this role and strong enough to do things much harder than this. Every woman need not bear a child, but every woman should feel proud kinship in the earthy, elemental beauty of birth. To hold it in contempt is to reject our distinctive power, “our bodies, ourselves.”

There is a last and still more terrible cost to abortion, one that we have not yet faced. We have treated the loss of fetuses as a theoretical loss, a sad-but-necessary loss, as of civilians in wartime. We have not yet realized that the offspring lost are not the enemy’s, not our neighbor’s, but our own. And it is not a loss of inert, amorphous tissue, but of a growing being unique in history. There are no generic zygotes. The one-cell fertilized ovum is a new individual, the present form of a tall blue-eyed girl, for example, with Granddad’s red hair and Great-Aunt Ida’s singing voice. Look at any family; see how the traits and characteristics run down the generations in a stream. Did we really think our own children would be different?

Like the gypsy in Verdi’s opera, Il Trovatore, our frustration has driven us to desperate acts. Outraged by the Count’s cruel injustice, she stole his infant son and, in a crazed act of vengeance, flung him into the fire. Or so she thought. For, in turning around, she discovered the Count’s son lay safe on the ground behind her; it was her own son she had thrown into the flames. In our desperate bid for justice, we have not yet realized whom we have thrown into the flames; the moment of realization will be as devastating for us as it was for her.

Until that time, legal abortion invites us to go on doing it, 4,500 times a day. And, with ruthless efficiency, the machine grinds on.

Reprinted from SisterLife, Winter 1990