Carol Sanger Replies to Helen Alvare: Disagreement About Radical Equality

I am grateful to Helen Alvare for her thoughtful commentary, and for calling my text “elegant,” a special pleasure coming from a writer like Alvare. In her post, Professor Alvare describes my book as 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.”  She is right both on the ambition of the book—to create a portrait, or what Michael Dorf has called a “guided tour of the practices and ‘culture’ of abortion”—and with regard to the author’s commitment to legal abortion. Indeed, I would go further and say that I am something more than an advocate of legal abortion: abortion is legal now and yet I still complain. This is because I think abortion should not only be legal but should not be made to feel or be experienced as though it were not. Nor should it be a matter of shame, secrecy or disrepute.

Yet About Abortion is not intended as “singing to the pro-choice choir.” To be sure, the book presents arguments about the price that women, and girls in particular, must pay for choosing abortion. But my examples are meant to introduce people unfamiliar with abortion regulation to how it all works. My thought is that even those who come to the subject from a pro-life/anti-abortion perspective might grimace on occasion as when they read about teenage bypass hearing or about mandatory ultrasound statutes. Indeed, Professor Alvare acknowledges that the various vignettes, most taken straight from case law, “invite more than a little sympathy for women.”  My hope is that either reaction—sympathy or grimace—might cause pro-life advocates to pause and reconsider how the law should treat women and girls in the circumstances of an unwanted pregnancy.

The book is not meant to change anyone’s mind about how a fetus should be characterized, whether as a person of the same moral status as a born person, or as a human being at an early stage of development, or even as an egg (l’oeuf) as the French do in the case of early abortions. This is a matter upon which people differ depending on their prior beliefs and commitments.  Yet I hold the view that partisans on both sides of the issue (to simplistically boil things down to only two sides) must in good faith attempt to grasp the essence of the other’s position in order for any civil discourse to proceed. Thus, I tried to show how the pro-life view of prenatal life—that it is a full-out person—is not wholly inaccessible to pro-choice people who, when carrying a wanted pregnancy of their own, begin to talk about and connect to the prenatal life less as a clinical fetus and more like their special fetus, or even their child.

As Robert George and Christopher Tollefson explain in Embryo: A Defense of Life, one cannot deny that a human embryo is human or that it is alive. Thus it is from a biological perspective, a human life, and not a frog. If Professor Alvare is suggesting that pro-choice advocates ought to be willing to acknowledge this, then I agree. But a human life is not a human being—a person—in a legal sense. Thus I disagree with her compiling “undocumented immigrants, prisoners on death row, Syrian refugees, women, or human lives before birth” into one category about whose human rights we must be equally concerned. I understand her to be saying that a human life before birth (or switching the perspective slightly, a human life from conception forward) is the same as the immigrant, the refugee, the prisoner. For me, a human life from conception forward is not the same as the immigrant, refugee, or prisoner. I do not deny that abortion ends some form of human life, whether embryonic or fetal: without question a termination of pregnancy ends–kills if you want, though not in a statutory sense—prenatal life. That is how abortion restores women to their non-pregnant selves.

Alvare suggests that in a country whose jurisprudence has “effectively stripped sex of its biological and emotional links with couple-union, future, family, promise, intimacy…and children,” it might well seem “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.”  But it hardly needs to be raised up for reflection and decision. Women today are well aware of the state’s position on the value of human life before birth. How can they not be?  Billboards and bumper-stickers reinforce the message that a fetus is “a child, not a choice”; women are required to listen to heartbeats before consenting to abortion;  women soldiers cannot get abortions in military hospitals;  and the President himself described (inaccurately but in primetime) the outright murder of  babies where “in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother.”  Moreover, I want to return to Alvare’s connection between sex and “its biological and emotional links with couple-union, future, family, promise, intimacy and children.” These are exactly the factors upon which women’s decisions to have an abortion are commonly based:  the absence of a couple-union that brought about the pregnancy, mothers’ obligations to their existing children, and the promise of a future and a family chosen by the woman herself.  It is simply (or not so simply) that some citizens find those issues lead to only one conclusion, and others do not.

Finally, with regard to my final chapter, Normalizing Abortion, Professor Alvare writes that “normalizing abortion rights as the way forward … is not an intellectually or legally or morally coherent response.”  Here some clarification may be in order.  I regard normalization as a strategy to bring discussion about abortion more in line with the practice of abortion: a decision women regularly and soberly make despite the perceived and actual risks of stigma and other harms.  My conception of normalizing is not offered up as a legal response to the issue except in that more open talk, even at the private level, may over time bring about more open talk at the political level as elected officials come to know that there is a great possibility of six (or fewer) degrees of separation between them and abortion.  The statistics are becoming familiar: one in three American women will have had an abortion by the end of their reproductive years.  Responsible pro-life advocates ought to know be aware of these figures, even in the abstract. A motto of the National Network of Abortion Funds is Everybody Loves Someone Who Has Had an Abortion.” The problem is that everyone doesn’t know that they do.  That is what normalizing is meant to accomplish.

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