Reinterpreting a woman's 'choice'

Reluctantly pro-choice, one woman argues the first choice is responsibility

There we were, a houseful of relatives discussing the presidential race, when Cousin Jane offered her two cents: She absolutely, couldn't vote Republican.

Why not?

"I can't vote for any party that wants to regulate my body. Abortion is a hard decision for a woman to make, but it should be hers to make."

I couldn't resist playing devil's advocate: "What's so hard about it, if it's not even a life?"

"It's the possibility of life."

But, I asked, hadn't she once been an embryo, then a fetus? Hadn't I? Hadn't we all? Just some of life's many stages - hence, life?

Despite this admission, I am pro-choice - reluctantly. For the sole reason that if made illegal, abortions would continue to occur under unsafe circumstances.

So what was I arguing about with Cousin Jane? Not the legality or illegality of abortion, but what I consider the largely cavalier attitude of the women's movement toward abortion. I don't buy the timeworn feminist tract that the abortion debate is about a woman's body. Nor do I jumble biological facts to make my pro-choice stance easier on my conscience.

I believe, and can admit, that abortion is a life being discarded. And I'd ask any woman having an abortion to admit the same, to at least accept this much responsibility now, which she didn't earlier, when egg and sperm were still separate, and not an embryo.

Most of my fellow wanderers in the pro-choice camp won't ask even this much, and I'm running out of patience. Instead, my co-ideologists demand rights without responsibilities. The loudest message when it comes to abortion remains a fait accompli: Just accept sex is going to happen; forget about prevention and go straight to the reckless cure.

But sex - especially unprotected sex - doesn't have to happen. Why should the assumption be that human beings can't control themselves? If everyone understands that sex can lead to conception, self-control isn't an unlikely message to promote.

But abstinence - the only sure way to prevent conception - is not promoted as a meaningful option by the pro-choice camp. Yes, lip service is offered to abstinence as a responsible choice - but it seems from feminist priorities that it is largely considered unrealistic and almost an abuse of a woman's right to "choose." Veterans of the sexual revolution, feminists act as if it's ceding hard-won "rights" to promote abstinence. That to ask a woman to exercise the "choice" not to have sex under conditions that risk an unintended pregnancy is not allowing a woman to be a "whole person."

While promoting and providing contraception, why can't we also just as strongly promote an ethic of self-control and the selflessness that comes with thinking of the "possible life" first and ourselves second?

But what about women who are trying to be responsible but accidentally get pregnant? As if the 1-million-plus abortions in the US annually are due largely to technical failure of our modern contraceptive methods, my cousin insists: "Birth control fails."

But not if you use it correctly. According to 1998 data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute for Reproductive Health, close to half - 47 percent - of unintended pregnancies occur in women who do not use contraception at all. The majority of the remaining 53 percent of unintended pregnancies are due to inconsistent or incorrect use of contraceptive methods, and include the "methods" of periodic abstinence and withdrawal. Indeed, it is human error - misuse and non-use - not actual effectiveness of a product that accounts for most of the failures.

A 1998 study by James Trussell, of Princeton University's Office of Population Research, found that while "perfect use" of the pill resulted in a 0.5 percent pregnancy rate, "typical use" resulted in 5 percent. Similarly, the 3 percent failure rate resulting from "perfect use" of the male condom became 14 percent when used "typically."

Somewhere, pretense must end and an honest argument begin. As the numbers suggest, "choice" was made when a couple chose to have unprotected sex.

So I am pro-choice on the only principle the movement has to stand on - abortion's inevitability.

If the other pro-abortion arguments - that embryos and some fetuses are not life, and a woman has a right to govern her body - held any water, the movement wouldn't need to prove its point through distorted cases the way, for example, this year's highly celebrated, heavily pro-choice, Oscar-winning script "Cider House Rules" did.

Here was a film that delivered its message through the exception rather than the rule, although it had ample setup to do the reverse. It told of a young, pro-life, amateur surgeon won over to the pro-choice side after the incestuous rape of a poor black girl by her father. Meanwhile, the protagonist goes on to engage in impulsive, unprotected sex with his friend's fiance even after she'd already had one abortion. What if she had become pregnant instead of the incest victim? Then the good doctor would have had to decide whether to abort his own child.

If, ultimately, the protagonist went through with it, at least screenwriter John Irving would've been more forthcoming about the driving force behind the pro-choice movement: Convenience.

After all, rape and incest account for only about 1 percent of abortions nationally, according to Guttmacher. Add to that cases of potential danger to the mother or deformities in the infant, and it's still only around 7 percent. The abortion debate is not about these special cases, which should be dealt with as a separate issue.

In championing this "women's cause" as if it were women's suffrage, abortion activists end up glorifying a painful and damaging, yet avoidable, alternative to responsibility.

The right shoots itself in the foot by seeking unilaterally to mandate on a moral issue, but the left does the same with its abortion-on-demand zeal and its zero tolerance for dissent.

Each side forces the other to its extreme, and so the extremists emerge to commandeer the dialogue, thereby alienating the movements from each other. The essence of the debate subsists on each side shutting the other out, when what they need to do is work together to encourage a woman's choice not to get pregnant. This way, maybe accountability will kick in first, before the dialogue has to turn to rights.

*Julia Gorin is a contributing editor to

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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