This year marks the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and its lesser-known cousin, Doe v. Bolton (both were pseudonyms, lest you think it’s crazy that two women named Doe and Roe were at the Supreme Court at the same time.)
The arguments on whether or not abortion should be legal have taken a backseat in recent years to the arguments over whether gay marriage should be legal, but it occupies the same public/private, secular/religious zones of argument in American society. And before gay marriage, Iraq, and the domestic economy became the issues du jour, Roe v. Wade made headlines because it seemed poised to take its most significant blow yet: a South Dakota law that outlawed all abortion that may likely be argued all the way to a newly conservative Supreme Court.
It’s the tenuous nature of ruling’s constitutional basis that has allowed other rules and courts to chip away at it over the years. I would be remiss to no disclose here that, as a proper feminist, I am avidly in favor of abortion rights. That doesn’t mean I think that people should go about having abortions every day, which of course no one does. I’ve also never found comfort with the “protect our bodies” rhetoric that most mainstream feminists and pro-choice activists retreat to. I think abortions are quite bad, and no one should have them. Wait, make that, no one should have to have them.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, in Arkansas, and the main component to the most vociferous anti-abortion argument is the Bible for which the belt is named. I have nothing against the Bible or those who adhere to it, literally or not. But do I think the Bible has a place in public policy? No, and there are many esteemed officials from our country’s past who agree. Using the Bible for justification also necessarily dislodges an argument’s logical base: if you believe abortion is wrong because of something the Bible (and through it, God) tells you, I would have very little success in using any terrestrially-based sentiments or data to convince you otherwise.
I mention the Bible because I think it’s key to what’s going on here. Not only are some of the loudest opponents of abortion from the Christian Right, but also they use the Bible’s words about when life begins to argue that fetuses are alive and abortion is tantamount to murder.
More than that, however, is that the miracle of life is still seen as that — a miracle. If God has a role in implanting a seed in your womb, who are you to stop it? In Arkansas, which has the second-lowest personal per capita incomes in the nation, the idea of fate has always been rather fatalistic. If God controls our lives to such a degree, why would we exercise any agency in anything that we do?
To that end, planning pregnancies, scheduling the number of children you have and how far apart you have them, givens for a young married couple in the middle class, would be rather pointless for the very poor but faithful. You’re just going to have kids, and life is hard and they’ll do what they can. The idea that you can improve your child’s chances by actively changing the way you parent hasn’t quite trickled down to the poorest people in American society, and who knows if it ever will.
Which brings us to another morally sticky situation, and that’s that not all the pregnancies you and I might assume are unwanted are really so. For girls in Arkansas, having babies remains the most important thing they will do in their lives. It’s not necessarily a given that the father will play a roll in a child’s life. It’s not a given that every young woman can go to college and have a meaningful career. So why not get on with it? Many young women, in Arkansas and I suspect elsewhere, want babies even when they’re “too young,” though they may not say so in so many words. It’s something to love. It’s something meaningful to do. And it’s something they can do, unlike so many of the things they can’t: milestones like graduating from college, to which few around them ascribe as much value as they do to crossing over the motherhood threshold.
There is also an encoded language of morality for people on the extreme right who oppose abortion. Anyone who is amoral enough, in some eyes, to have sex before marriage deserves whatever hardships come to them. This is still a world where abstinence only education is the norm (I received none at all.) Despite high teen pregnancy rates no one’s passing out condoms and counseling teenagers on effective birth control. In fact, most parents I still know there are adamantly against it, arguing that it would promote sexual promiscuity while obviously ignoring the fact that teenagers are already having sex and seemingly believing that carrying an umbrella will cause rain. (Incidentally, the information about the “pores” in condoms that do not protect against AIDS is something that my health teacher, who was also a coach, told us.) There is a big line in the dirt in this part of the South, dividing the “good” from the “bad,” and everyone knows what side they’re on. One social transgression isn’t going to damn you if you’re already damned, and, likewise, no one can save you.
All of these are reasons why I think no one’s talking about preventing unwanted pregnancies, or speaking realistically about teen pregnancies. And all of it goes back to why the focus should be shifted back to sex education and birth control, instead of chipping away Roe v. Wade or defending the right to abortion without admitting that the idea of having one might always make people feel like they’re killing babies. Despite the prevalence of birth control, it’s not always available to the very poor or the morally outcast. But most people who believe it should be available have ready access to it, and may not realize there are some who don’t. And there are some who refuse to acknowledge that an unwanted pregnancy can exist, because every pregnancy must be wanted if God made it happen.
William Saletan made the smart argument two years ago that we should shift the debate to unwanted pregnancies, and no one has taken him up on it. As he pointed out, banning abortion will do nothing to stop unwanted pregnancies or, for that matter, abortions. Neither will it stop middle class and wealthy women with large support groups and a number of resources from getting what they need. It will disproportionately punish poor women. And that’s what this should be about. Reaching out to poor women and men, young or old, who still don’t know enough about their bodies all these years after the second wave to know that they need protecting. Women and men who don’t have access to birth control, or who still refuse to use it, whatever their reasons. Women for whom having a baby at any cost is still the only fulfilling thing they believe they will ever do. Women who have children but cannot afford another because they work minimum wage jobs and have very little support. Helping the poor women who would be punished by draconian laws is what both pro-life and pro-choice movements should be about, giving them choices for their lives.