As someone whose views on choice have changed dramatically in the past couple of years, I feel it is worthwhile sharing that process. I come from a Catholic background and grew up never thinking carefully about abortion but always with the vague notion that it was morally wrong. Since discovering feminism, I have had occasion to closely examine my beliefs. I came to understand that my previous anti-abortion stance had been dictated to me by the Church. This is the kind of religious brain-washing to which most of the Irish population has been subjected as a result of our non-secular education system. Now is the time to begin thinking for ourselves.
First, I want to clear up the deliberate confusion of terminology that so often hampers useful discussion of abortion. To say I am ‘pro-choice’ means that I believe a woman with an unexpected pregnancy should be given the power to choose how to proceed. I have no opinion on how she should proceed other than to say that it’s up to her to determine. I am not ‘pro-abortion’ because I don’t support abortion as the best option for women with unexpected pregnancies. Rather, I believe the option should be available for women to choose themselves, having been given impartial and supportive information.
Anyway, why am I pro-choice? Bodily autonomy is central to human rights. This is the idea that someone should not interfere with my body without my consent. What does consent mean in terms of bodies? It is my mental approval of a physical experience. For example, it makes the difference between rape and consensual sex. Consent obviously makes a lot of difference. This is because my mental and physical selves are inextricably linked. My mental processes are the precursors of my physical actions and corresponding experiences. My body is the tool through which I experience the world and this experience largely dictates my mental wellbeing. In particular, things that happen to my body without my consent and contrary to my will not only provoke acute mental stress but deny my right to control my own life. My bodily autonomy is central to my dignity as a human being.
Let’s talk about pregnancy and childbirth. These are serious bodily experiences. Pregnancy involves growing something inside of your body that can increase its weight by up to 25%. Your body must stretch and contort in order to accommodate it. Your body must divert part of the nutritional content of your food to nourish it. During pregnancy you will experience a range of symptoms which in any other circumstance would be considered a physical illness, morning sickness, aches and pains, bladder problems, raging hormones and a risk of serious complications. Childbirth itself involves extreme pain, possible risk of death and (unless you want to drastically decrease your chances of survival by giving birth unsupervised), trusting your wellbeing to the over-stretched Irish healthcare system and probably entering one of the maternity hospitals where some of the 1,500 Irish women suffered symphysiotomy over the past century (many of which are still overseen by Catholic religious institutes).
Women’s bodies will naturally go through pregnancy and childbirth once conception has taken place (unless they miscarry, which happens 15% of the time). In the same way, when a person develops a serious illness like cancer their bodies will naturally go to through a process of decay ending in their death. In the modern world, we don’t accept the natural outcome of the second process. If the person consents, we begin a series of interventions designed to prevent the natural process occurring. Why not give women this kind of opt-out for pregnancy?
The main objection I hear from the anti-choice side is concern for the rights of the fetus. Let’s use an even if argument, because though it’s pessimistic I doubt I’m going to change the minds of people who believe the fetus has a right to life. For the record, I disagree. In my view, the fetus is not yet a separate individual who can be granted rights and freedoms. It exists in a parasitic condition, dependent on the host’s body for everything. It would seem ludicrous to apply any of the other human rights we usually recognise to it because it can’t exercise them due to its dependency, like in the case of the right to freedom of movement, or its inability, like in the case of the right to freedom of speech. It seems nonsense to grant this dependent fetus, this potential life, an equal right to life to that of the pregnant woman, a real living, thinking human being.
However, even if we did, the woman still has no obligation to go through pregnancy and childbirth to uphold such a right. In no other situation would we force one person to suffer through months of invasion of bodily autonomy, pain and health risks to protect another person’s right to life.
I find the following thought experiment useful in clarifying this. Imagine one man, A, is chained to the ground and a giant boulder hung above him, by means of a rope which goes through a pulley, and the other end of which is held by a second man, B. If B continues to hold the rope he is in for nine months pain and health risks. After that he will be subjected to 24 hours of torture. After that he will be responsible for caring for the dependent A for the next 18 years. If B lets go of the rope he walks free, but A won’t make it. Surely, B would be considered a hero for holding onto the rope. But would we criminalise him for letting go? I don’t think so.
This example illustrates that abortion is a justifiable choice for the pregnant woman even if we believe the fetus has the right to life. Of course, I don’t believe it does. Unlike the chained man, the fetus is not a fully fledged human being with nerve endings to feel pain, a mind to appreciate its situation or friends and family who care about it. This is not to say that the fetus isn’t special or that in an ideal world it wouldn’t continue to develop and eventually become a fully fledged human being, but that process relies on a woman to consent to go through pregnancy and childbirth for it.
Why do women consent to that stuff?! They do it because they want to bring a child into the world. They choose to go through with the pain and suffering, the health risks and the responsibilities for the sake of creating new life. These women are heroes. We are all living, thinking human beings now thanks to such incredible women.
Yet heroism is not compulsory nor should it be. The refusal to provide abortion services to women who seek them means forcing the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth on women who do not consent. This is no different to refusing medical treatment to a cancer patient or criminalising a person for refusing to suffer pain and torture to save someone else. It can only be defined as a denial of bodily autonomy and consequently, as human rights abuse.
To return to a discussion of terminology, the term ‘pro-life’ seems to me to imply a regard for the sanctity of human life. This regard is certainly part of my pro-choice views. It is because human life is sacred that I refer to system of human rights which serve to uphold human dignity. And it is with a view to upholding this dignity that I object to the violation of these rights that is the denial of women’s right to choose. And that’s why I am pro-choice!
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