Renovating the abortion debate

Getting rid of what isn’t working, welcoming what might.

It’s no secret that the topic of abortion access stirs extremely polarized reactions in the hearts and minds of the public. It’s personal, political, and always touches on humans’ fears regarding life and death.

Beliefs surrounding abortion debates are informed by our own personal histories, spiritual and religious affiliations, and socialization. Various types of research also play a role in shaping our beliefs: psychology, medicine, economics, and humanities – every discipline has researchers with something to say about abortion’s place in the world. It’s overwhelming. Who is right? How could it be that one professional researcher is more right than another? How can one spiritual teacher forbid abortion, and another church leader say it is okay?

“Murderer!” yell some pro-life protestors. Their idea is that pregnancy should never be voluntarily terminated. They believe that post-partum options are the only real options for a woman with unwanted or unexpected pregnancy.

“My body, my business!” rally the people who identify as pro-choice. Persons identifying as pro-choice believe that because pregnancy happens to a woman’s body that she should have the right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, that her individually unique circumstances and bodily autonomy are all the validation she needs to make this type of decision.

I’ll be honest — it’s really difficult to briefly summarize the debate. It’s so much more complex than I could possibly ever hammer out with a keyboard. But it’s important to understand this polarization, because believe it or not, in this country, and in this province, there lies some common ground for allying. But first, instead of referring to various statistics or research, let’s go over some underlying assumptions about abortion. These assumptions can create problems for anyone honestly trying to make sense of it all.

Problem 1: The language of the debate

Pro-life and pro-choice are opposite sides of the debate. In what other context are opposing arguments “pro-something”? To be pro-something is to be in agreement, and here both positions are agreeing with contrasting ideas. It’s safe to say most people generally prioritize life and the quality of said life. That’s why the pro-choice advocates haven’t bought into the dichotomy, and have largely used “pro-choice” instead of “anti” anything. It illustrates that they support women making the decisions, whatever the decision is, instead of being against life (which they’re not!). See, it’s actually quite smart for pro-life supporters to define their position with being for something so positive-sounding – life! It was a brilliant marketing tactic for a while. But what people are catching onto, is that to be pro-life in this context, is to essentially be against choice, and against options for woman. The result: an increasing body of people are referring to this movement as “anti-choice”, calling it what it is, instead of its cutesy alternative, because life in and of itself is not the real issue.

Problem 2: Assumptions regarding the meaning of life and death

Arguments against abortion usually claim that it involves ending a life, and that the fetus is a living being since … conception, maybe? When is that again? Unless everything happens under a microscope, it’s impossible to determine when a woman becomes pregnant. Is life something that “happens” in a moment, or is it a process? What meaning is attached to life throughout various points of development?

Overall it’s clear: meaning is given to life and death by people – not the other way around.

How about death? When are humans considered to be dead? Is it measured by the heart? The brain? The soul? How does the biology of human life and death tie into a conscious, soulful human presence? Everyone from politicians to doctors to ministers have a different definition of where life begins, and the point at which life ends is equally arbitrary. The Fifth Estate recently featured an episode filled with interesting facts on how time-of-death definitions differ from one hospital to another in this country.

Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes researched mother-offspring attachment under the conditions of extreme poverty in the shantytowns of Brazil in her ethnography Death Without Weeping. The women and mothers who informed her work live with violence and scarcity on an everyday basis. Understandings about life and death are affected by the realities of miscarriages, stillbirth and infant mortality. For Scheper-Hughes, this revealed that mother-infant attachment, and the expectation that infants will live to grow up, is a luxury that can only be enjoyed according to class.

Overall it’s clear: meaning is given to life and death by people – not the other way around. Beautifully flawed humans living in a world of extraordinary difference.

Problem #3: Assuming abortion is “the easy way out”’ or “giving up”

When faced with unwanted or unexpected pregnancy, there is no easy way out, no matter what is chosen. Creative Commons photo.

When faced with unwanted or unexpected pregnancy, there is no easy way out, no matter what is chosen. Plain and simple. The process can be mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically devastating for women, and still be the best choice for them. To label this option as “giving up” or “easy” denies women of their experience. Something as life-altering as carrying a pregnancy to term, becoming a parent, giving a child to adoptive parents, terminating a pregnancy and living with stigma no matter what happens, are never easy or a sign of giving up. Each option is a challenge in its own right. It’s useless to police one another’s decisions with our own assumptions about each choice.

Separating the personal from the political

I’d love to be able to summarize by saying that this debate is irrelevant here – that here in Newfoundland and Labrador, at least we have access to sexual health and abortion services, and that efforts to publicly raise these issues is unnecessary drama. But this is not the case.

As we see in New Brunswick right now, these services can disappear almost instantly if certain people are in power (hint: tons of policy makers think abortion is wrong). Politicians all over the world are taking backhanded approaches to making abortion access impossible, melding personal beliefs with political power. This part is especially outrageous given most politicians do not own a uterus. They do so with no regard for a woman’s absolute ability to make that choice for herself. To ensure that the right people are standing up for what a progressive society needs, we need to be extremely public about protecting access to abortion services.

The common ground

Whether we lean towards pro-choice or anti-choice attitudes about abortion, the one thing we can all agree on is that sometimes women become pregnant unexpectedly, or not wanting to. Maybe the couple were using a form of birth control that failed, or maybe she was a victim of rape. Maybe she honestly didn’t know how to prevent pregnancy. Maybe he didn’t know how to either.

When I was a teenager doing a high school elective called “Ethical Issues”, I vaguely remember the chapter about abortion. What I remember well is arguing with my teacher and getting kicked out of class (first and only time) for declaring the textbook stupid (what I meant was, I felt the text wasn’t doing an adequate job of explaining things). Ten years later, I realize I wasn’t wrong. It really wasn’t an adequate treatment of something that could affect so many of us.

If additional energy was directed towards [sexual health education], perhaps fewer women would need to face choices about unwanted and unexpected pregnancy in the first place.

Let’s not be naïve about educating children – there are lots of youth and adults who do not understand how to protect themselves, not only from pregnancy but from all sexual health issues. To ensure fewer women face unwanted and unexpected pregnancies, and to save them from the potential trauma associated with their decision, maybe this debate also calls for better education in sexual health. We need to thoroughly teach the sperm-owning people what safe sex is — that they are equally responsible for protection, but also about consent. We need to teach the egg-owning people about safe sex and consent too, but also about bodily autonomy — and that sex is never owed to anyone. These are just a few examples of many of the topics we need to address. I’m not just talking about education on the mechanics of sex, I also have concerns about how children and youth learn about sex on a social level, with so much unhealthy and unwise information readily available. If additional energy was directed towards this, perhaps fewer women would need to face choices about unwanted and unexpected pregnancy in the first place. It’s simple. If there are people who really can’t get past the fact that abortion is sometimes the best option, maybe they can try directing some of that energy towards better sexual health education. That would honestly be the best way to ensure that abortions happen less.

Shaming people we don’t agree with won’t get anyone very far. Listening—really listening—to what one another is saying can help foster that common ground for allied work on better sexual health education and services. Whether abortion rates decrease or not, discussing abortion with critical attention paid to the language (without our assumptions about the meaning of life and death), and respecting that one choice is not simply easier than the rest, can make for a better informed and kinder discussion.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to an article on or address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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