Ending the Silence
Professor Sanger’s About Abortion is a beautifully – even elegantly – written text, showcasing a great deal of granular research about matters invisible to most partisans on either side of the abortion debate. It is a portrait of abortion as lived today in the United States within our legal and cultural frameworks, from the perspective of a deeply committed advocate of legal abortion. An advocate who believes that legal and readily available abortion is a necessary condition for respecting the human rights of women. Consequently, the book continually highlights events and stories which buttress a conclusion that restraints and regulations on legal abortion harm and humiliate women.
Who can gainsay that we live still in an overlapping cultural and legal context in which women’s nonmarital sex, and any misgivings about becoming a mother or practicing motherhood, are judged more harshly than men’s? I cannot. And I believe it would be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to so gainsay. From this perspective Professor Sanger’s stories inevitably involving women—and often very young women—face to face with judges, protestors, and invitations to view the pictures of their soon-to-be-deceased child, invite more than a little sympathy for women.
Highlighting and normalizing abortion rights as the way forward, however, is not an intellectually or legally or morally coherent response. Doubling down on the radical equality and interdependence of diverse human lives is. This encompasses women. It encompasses all human life, no matter how small or weak or dependent. It is the better and stronger and more coherent way to advance any human rights struggle, whether it concerns the human rights of undocumented immigrants, prisoners on death row, Syrian refugees, women, or human lives before birth.
For once this principle of the radical equality among human lives is neglected or abandoned, we usually move to “enforcement mode” in order to attempt to restore it. And enforcement will often be less than pretty. Waving pictures of dead or scarred Syrian children in the face of politicians. Graphic descriptions of bungled capital punishments involving excruciating pain for prisoners. Public storytelling by immigrant children whose parents have been deported. Inviting pregnant women to see an ultrasound of the human life that the abortion would end.
A problem with enforcement, of course, is that it may not only seem offensive, but is also often too late. We are “revealing” or “unmasking” the lives at stake very downstream from where the present dilemma got started. The lives at stake on death row were really at risk from their very beginnings; but we didn’t open our eyes to the stew of poverty, family structure deficits, mental health problems, and other factors affecting them from the start. We didn’t “see” them. Several generations of Supreme Court opinions, federal and state policies, and the technology shocks of contraception and abortion–combined with strenuous advocacy for both—effectively stripped sex of its biological and emotional links with couple-union, future, family, promise, intimacy…and children. Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Love and Anthony Giddens’ The Transformation of Intimacy brilliantly unpack this. No wonder that by the time we get to the question of abortion, it seems unkind, even shocking to raise up for reflection and decision this matter of the existence and value of human life before birth. Or that in a society still sexist about sex (i.e. expecting women to conform to men’s preferences, then shaming them when they do), the opprobrium falls on women.
Still, the answer for women does not lie in normalizing or “shouting” abortion while drawing a veil over abortion’s destruction of human life. It lies in allowing both women and men to see all the factors of reality, all the human lives at stake–beginning at the time when human life begins—most especially the lives of the woman and of her child.