informal essays

A Woman’s Right To Choose


“I believe in a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body”

Whenever abortion debates flare up around the Internet, many pro-choicers express this sentiment, without fail and usually without explanation, as if that simple principle is a self-evident final answer. Over and over and over I see that refrain, uttered with a dogmatic conviction that reminds me of fundamentalists who repeatedly say, “The Bible says it and I believe it!” – without taking the time to consider whether or not such a reply actually provides an adequate answer.

I believe “a woman’s right to her own body” is an excellent general principle for building a set of ethics. I recognize that societies throughout history labelled women as the property of their husbands (at best), that men in more enlightened societies have placed and continue to place unjust control – emotional, physical, sexual, even vocational – over women, and that as a man I am likely woefully ignorant of much of this oppression. I generally support efforts to decrease the unjust control of a woman’s body by others and increase her control over her own life.

But a general principle is only helpful as long as you don’t run into a situation that puts it in conflict with itself. This can happen to pro-lifers, too: “Protect life!” sounds great until you have a pregnancy where the continuing development of the child may or may not kill the mother. Does the pithy slogan still lead to the same conclusion, or do you need to go deeper and embrace the terrible tension? I propose that the pro-choice position runs into a conflict with its general principle all the time, because half of abortions involve two women.

Consider the sixteen-week old fetus in the image above from WebMD. She and her mother each have a distinct body. All of her cells have the same unique DNA, and all of her mother’s cells have a different unique DNA. They each have their own head, brain, heart, liver, fingers with unique fingerprints. Their blood, which does not mix, may have different blood types. Two distinct bodies, one inside the other, connected by an umbilical cord.

Simply stating “a woman’s right to choose” does not help us decide which of the two women gets to choose what happens to the weaker one. If a woman’s right to her own body includes her offspring, then at one point her body was the right of her mother’s. By Week 16 her little body already had her own eggs in her own ovaries! When did that body stop belonging to her mother and start belonging to her? When was this “product of conception” no longer merely the property of her mother?

Most pro-lifers say it’s from the moment of conception, when cells with unique DNA begin to divide into a body. Some pro-choicers might say it’s when the child develops consciousness, or the ability to feel pain, or viability outside the womb. (I think each of those have weaknesses, but I commend folks who hold such views for trying to find a line rather than imply there isn’t one.) Only 14% of Americans think a woman’s right to her own body hasn’t started by the third trimester, when that body is filling out with fingernails and body fat and head hair and the ability to recognize words; I think most people feel there is no difference in personhood between a 34-week-old premie and a 34-week-old still in the womb. Only 27% think self-ownership hasn’t started by the second trimester, and I think that number would be lower if more were aware of how much development has occurred at that point.

Such development is starkly illustrated in the recent Planned Parenthood videos. A fetus cannot be a worthless blob of tissue while inside the womb and full of valuable, identifiable organs once removed. To deny her the right to live, you must either say she is just part of her mother’s body, which means the mother has two hearts and two brains for awhile, or she is a separate body without its own rights. You cannot liberate a woman from the property of men only to leave her as the property of her mother. The pro-life position, far from restricting women, actually proposes a fuller liberation!

I don’t think I am alone in saying this. Read Ann Voskamp on the virtues of being “pro-voice” for “both the human in utero and the human in a hard place”. (In fact you would do well if you leave to read her post and never finish mine.)

I think a lot of times pro-choicers feel like pro-lifers don’t seem to care too much about that woman “in a hard place.” Even if one accepts that a fetus is a separate body from her mother, pro-lifers often fail to acknowledge that the development of the fetus exacts a significant toll on the mother’s body. Nausea, vomiting, back pain, the literal rearrangement of internal organs, the possible tearing of the perineum upon delivery, the emotional side effects of all the hormones, the financial costs of doctor and hospital visits and childcare, the lifelong loss of wages due to workforce gaps…

Maybe you only hear pro-lifers get riled up about abortion without seeming to care about all the burdens of developing and raising a child. Maybe you see heaps of stigma and shame on women who have abortions and on single mothers who don’t. Maybe you see the demonization of Planned Parenthood without seeing any concern for the health and wellbeing of the underprivileged.

Personally, I want to stop Planned Parenthood from crushing the most underprivileged of all and extracting their organs, but I don’t want to destroy Planned Parenthood. I have no problem admitting they do a lot of good things that society needs more of. I love how my favorite local pro-life group, Thrive St. Louis, has begun competing with Planned Parenthood on a more holistic level.

I think I would even support much higher taxes to legitimately address more of the aforementioned costs of pregnancy and childbearing. If we are going to accuse Planned Parenthood of not putting life before money, perhaps we should be more willing to do so ourselves. I know we have TONS of underappreciated generous donors and foster and adoptive parents in our ranks. I know the government pays for some medical care for the poor. Is that good enough? Should we at least start talking about… I don’t know, paid maternity leave?

I love small government, but I’m no longer willing to sacrifice life on its altar. Would we see less resistance to banning second trimester abortions if it was accompanied by Cadillac care – or even Camry care – for those women and their children? When a large majority of Americans have already thought such abortions should be illegal for decades now? When most “progressive” European countries already ban abortions at that level?

I know. Pro-lifers have biases. If you categorically defend the pro-choice position with a simple “woman’s right to choose,” I wonder if you haven’t simply perceived these biases that seem to ignore all the other aspects of women’s health and wellbeing and formed your beliefs in reaction to that. Maybe not – maybe you have a well-reasoned position on the beginning of personhood. But if not, I encourage you to not rest behind a convenient slogan, but to wrestle with its inherent tension and enter the fray regarding the important question of when a woman’s right to her own body begins.

I know most abortions occur in the first trimester. I know I can’t post a picture of a four-week embryo to emotionally supplement quite as strong of a case about the number of distinct organs (though I assure you I heard my own son’s heartbeat four weeks from conception). I don’t expect to be able to totally change your mind in a single blog post. But I do encourage you to look at that picture, imagine a female fetus with her own eggs and ovaries, with a developing skull and brain that we currently allow doctors to crush so they can remove the rest of the body and sort out the heart and liver, all in the name of her mother’s right to own her, and consider how twenty years from now you would be saying that no one, not even that same mother, should control those same ovaries, or that same liver, for that matter.

Do you really, truly believe she shouldn’t have the right to that liver now?

Do you?

If not now, when?