Pam Tebow And The Idea Of The "Good" Abortion

Slate's William Saletan is criticizing Pam Tebow for her message that women should continue their pregnancies even if it threatens their lives. In the process, he seems to identify a special category of "good," pro-life abortions.

Saletan notes — as Latoya did Monday — that Pam Tebow's pregnancy with "miracle baby" Tim was very high-risk, and could even have killed her. He quotes Tebow: "We were determined to trust the Lord with the children that he would give us. And if God called me to give up my life, then He would take care of my family." Saletan's critique of Tebow's willingness "to sacrifice her life-and leave her children motherless" is reasonable. He cites two women profiled on one of Focus on the Family's websites, who chose to deliver prematurely to preserve their lives. These women, he writes, couldn't save the fetuses they were carrying, but "Laura and Aimee could save themselves. By doing so, they could take care of their surviving children and give life to others."

It's troubling that Saletan's praise of their decision focuses on what they could do for others, but he's right that Pam Tebow's message of pregnancy at any cost is unreasonable and not necessarily pro-family. Where he's wrong is in sanctifying Laura and Aimee's choice at the expense of others. By his math, both women delivered prematurely enough to increase the risks to their already ailing fetuses, and while he says their decision "isn't abortion," he admits "it's a compromise." Both chose to do what was best for their health rather than what was best for their fetuses. Here's how he figures that decision in Laura's case:

She simply interpreted God's will and the sanctity of life in a reasonable way: Carry your baby as long as you can, but safeguard your health so you'll be there for your surviving children.

It's true that premature delivery isn't the same as abortion, but he also says Laura and Aimee "trusted that God's will was to end their pregnancies early." In so doing, he sets up an all-too-common dichotomy between those who end pregnancies for good, Godly reasons, and those who don't. This dichotomy is familiar from Ayelet Waldman's experiences with A Heartbreaking Choice, a web forum on which many women made a distinction between their medically indicated abortions and other, supposedly less justified terminations. What's emerging as Saletan and others try to carve out a "middle ground" on abortion is an archetype of the "good" abortion-seeker. This notional woman has a few defining characteristics:

— she's married, and probably already a mother
— she is religious
— she badly wanted to carry her child to term

While the decision to terminate a much-wanted pregnancy can certainly be heartbreaking, it in no way trivializes the experiences of Laura and Aimee, or of women in their situation who chose abortion rather than early delivery, to say that they aren't the only ones for whom termination should be an option. Because hiding in the shadows of the "good" abortion-seeker is always the bad one — the unmarried woman who is "slutty," who uses abortion as birth control, who aborts for "casual reasons." This woman isn't real, of course, but the language of abortion exceptionalism — the language that calls a medically-indicated termination "A Heartbreaking Choice" instead of an abortion — implies that most women who visit abortion clinics are like her. The truth is, even the "bad" abortion-seeker, should she exist, deserves the right to choose, and the whole concept of the "good" abortion underscores a basic conservative idea: that society should decide what women can do with their bodies. This is the real sticking point in the abortion debate, the reason common ground is so difficult to find, and the reason that offering exceptions for a woman's health, while not trivial, isn't the same as protecting women's rights.

Focus On Your Family [Slate]

Earlier: "Don't Kill Your Baby:" The Real Tim Tebow Story