"The New Pro-Lifers": Kinder, Gentler, Still WrongS

Frances Kissling, who recently advocated limitations on abortion, gets it totally right this time with her explanation of what it means for a woman to be pregnant — and how even "progressive" anti-abortion advocates misunderstand this meaning.

Obama has been much better at protecting women's reproductive rights than his predecessor — for instance, an administration official today refused to promise that the new health care bill would never allow federal funding for abortions, pissing off Republicans who would like to use prohibitive expense to force women to carry their pregnancies to term. Still, many anti-abortion advocates now support Obama, and consider themselves progressive. Kissling says the "new pro-lifers" are "anti-war, anti-capital punishment, pro-environment." "These new anti-abortionists," she writes, "say rather than prohibit abortion we should work to reduce women's use of abortion by making bearing and raising children or bearing children and placing them for adoption more possible." And they, like the old anti-abortionists, are missing the point. Kissling writes,

While the new anti-abortionists do not use the same words as their older counterparts, they are thinking the same thoughts. Pregnancy is natural and normal. It lasts for nine months and then it is over. Motherhood is part of almost all women's life plans. Many thrive on it. It is safe and results in a wonderful thing — a new person. It is not asking much of a woman who faces an unwanted, difficult or unintended pregnancy to shift the plan she had for this time in her life and continue the pregnancy. That's because the outcome — the new person — is obviously so much more valuable than whatever short-term loss or pain the woman might experience. A woman who does not accept this is lacking some core element of womanhood.

What the new pro-lifers, with their (potentially admirable) attempts to make child-rearing and adoption easier, don't understand is that the decision to go through with a pregnancy isn't just about economics or the availability of a nice adoptive family. It's about what a woman wants to do with her body, and with her identity. On the former, Kissling writes, "even in modern Western culture, in the high-tech U.S., every woman who agrees to be pregnant still risks dying if the pregnancy goes awry." And when a woman commits to a pregnancy, says philosopher Maggie Little, she commits, "blood, hormones, her energy, all resources that could be going to other of her bodily projects."

On adoption, Kissling writes,

If one takes gestation seriously, one must question the wisdom of asking women to alter their identity for not just nine months but forever in order to give a child to someone else. A woman who has had a baby is a mother, even if she places the child for adoption. For many, giving up a child becomes an unhappy part of their lifelong identity.

Kissling's piece hints at a fundamental contradiction within the progressive anti-abortion movement. She says the new pro-lifers (among whom she counts "evangelical thinkers and pastors like Joel Hunter [pictured], David Gushee and Jim Wallis and Catholics like Chris Korzen and Douglas Kmiec") see pregnancy as a mere nine-month commitment, whose impact on the mother is dwarfed by the importance of the fetus. Yet this little thing to be gotten over with also becomes, for anti-abortionists, an incredibly important moral test for a woman. Kissling writes,

In the anti-abortion movement there is a romantic thread about women and pregnancy that includes the notion of submission alongside of passivity. However difficult the pregnancy or the circumstances of a woman's life might be, the sign of a good woman is that she submits to the cosmic event. The alteration of her identity from self-identified autonomous person to pregnant woman and to mother are conditions she has no control over — other than to say no to sex.

The new anti-abortionists want to have it both ways — they want pregnancy to be both a trivial and non-life-changing period, and a sacred and unavoidable duty for women. This kind of doublethink just goes to show that anti-abortion advocates — new and old — fail to understand the importance of a woman's autonomy. Much as they may claim to be helping women, they are still presuming to determine what's best for them, using contradictory logic that suits their own aims. Until they realize that what's best for women is the freedom to choose what's best, we'll never have true common ground.

What's Wrong With The New Pro-Lifers [Salon]
Health Bill Might Direct Tax Money To Abortion [NYT]

Earlier: Should Pro-Choicers Embrace Abortion Restrictions?