Should Pro-Choicers Embrace Abortion Restrictions?

Is the pro-choice movement too absolute? Should supporters of abortion rights recognize some abortions as morally abhorrent — and therefore rightly illegal? In an editorial in Salon, Frances Kissling answers yes to both questions.

Kissling starts out by saying that she feels doctors should refuse to perform abortions for reasons of sex-selection. She stops short of saying such abortions should be illegal, but she does say that pro-choice people need to consider the "morality" of abortion more than they currently do. She writes,

The thought of putting every woman through the indignity of meeting with an ethics committee, or getting a doctor to sign off on her reasons for abortion, has forced most of us to stick with the principle that women must be allowed to make their own private ethical decisions, without the state getting involved. But is it really leadership for us always to simply shrug and say: "Who knows whether that was an unethical decision for that woman?" Don't we express moral views about every other issue under the sun, from the number of embryos it is ethical to insert into a woman's uterus to the morality of bonuses for Wall St. executives who robbed us blind? Expressing our views about controversial issues is how society develops norms and shared values.

Her description of what those shared values might look like is the following:

I think it's important for us to be able to say: When a fetus reaches the point where it could survive outside the uterus, is healthy, and the woman is healthy, and she has had five months to make up her mind, we should say no to abortion. One can and should have compassion for the woman or girl who seeks to end a pregnancy at that late date, but absent severe fetal abnormality, a threat to her life or a clinical diagnosis of serious mental or physical health consequences of continuing the pregnancy, I believe we should say: "I am so sorry. You waited too long. I know this is a difficult decision for you to bear, but we cannot give you an abortion. I will help you any other way I can, but I cannot perform an abortion."

Again, Kissling refrains from bringing the law into it. Her words seem directed more at doctors than at lawmakers, more at the people in a position to personally refuse one abortion than at those with the power to prevent many. This may be due to Kissling's lingering ambivalence about the issue. She writes,

I still have a twinge of doubt when I write these words. For most of my years as an advocate of a woman's right to decide, I stepped back from this conclusion. I could not bring myself to say that there are circumstances in which I would force a woman to continue a pregnancy.

Now, however, she is comfortable writing a sentence like, "I have come to believe that women's autonomy does not require that all efforts be made to protect women from pain or from hearing the word 'no,'" and saying that, "President Obama was correct during the campaign when he said "mental distress" without clinical dimensions is not a justifiable reason for late-term abortion." She is comfortable using the fact that there are only two late-term abortion providers in the country as evidence that we should more severely limit late-term abortions, and the fact that Dr. Tiller sometimes refused patients as evidence that other doctors should. "What changed for me?" she asks. Her answer involves a fear of "a coarsening of our respect for both women and for life," but what really seems to have changed is Kissling's regard for a woman's own self-determination — and her understanding of what that self-determination means.

The right to choose isn't about being "protected from the pain of being told 'no.'" It's about having the right to decide whether or not you make your body home to another life. Kissling would call this "single value ethics," would argue that it ignores all the moral circumstances attendant on every abortion. And it does. Or rather, it places the responsibility for considering these moral circumstances on the mother, which is ultimately where it belongs.

It's not "coarse" or single-minded to say that the final choice about whether to have an abortion should rest with the woman, even if that choice displeases us. We aren't "simply shrugging and saying: "Who knows whether that was an unethical decision for that woman?" if we say that abortion is an ethical decision that woman have to make for themselves. Instead, we are giving them the power and the task of being the ones who determine if it is morally acceptable to end a pregnancy. It's not a comfortable power; it's not an easy task. It's not one that we, as a society, should wish to take upon ourselves. Instead, we should recognize that we're not protecting women or letting them off the hook by allowing them to choose whether to have an abortion. We're taking an often devastatingly difficult decision and setting it where it belongs: with them.

Can We Ever Say A Woman Can't Choose? [Salon]