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I believe that abortion care is a positive social good—and I think it’s time people said so.
Not long ago, the Daily Kos published an article titled “I Am Pro-Choice, Not Pro-Abortion.” “Has anyone ever truly been pro-abortion?” one commenter asked.
Uh. Yes. Me. That would be me.
I am pro-abortion like I’m pro–knee replacement and pro-chemotherapy and pro–cataract surgery. As the last protection against ill-conceived childbearing when all else fails, abortion is part of a set of tools that help women and men to form the families of their choosing. I believe that abortion care is a positive social good. And I suspect that a lot of other people secretly believe the same thing. I think it’s time we said so.
Note: I’m also pro-choice. Choice is about who gets to make the decision. The question of whether and when we bring a new life into the world is, to my mind, one of the most important decisions a person can make. It is too big a decision for us to make for each other, especially for perfect strangers.
But independent of who owns the decision, I’m pro on the procedure. I’ve decided that it’s time, for once and for all, to count it out on my ten fingers.
I’m pro-abortion because being able to delay and limit childbearing is fundamental to female empowerment and equality. A woman who lacks the means to manage her fertility lacks the means to manage her life. Any plans, dreams, aspirations, responsibilities or commitments—no matter how important—have a great big contingency clause built-in: “... until or unless I get pregnant, in which case all bets are off.” Think of any professional woman you know. She wouldn’t be in that role if she hadn’t been able to time and limit her childbearing. Think of any girl you know who imagines becoming a professional woman. She won’t get there unless she has effective, reliable means to manage her fertility. In generations past, nursing care was provided by nuns and teachers who were spinsters, because avoiding sexual intimacy was the only way women could avoid unpredictable childbearing and so be freed up to serve their communities in other capacities. But if you think that abstinence should be our model for modern fertility management, consider the little graves that get found every so often under old nunneries and Catholic homes for unwed mothers.
I’m pro-abortion because well-timed pregnancies give children a healthier start in life. We now have ample evidence that babies do best when women are able to space their pregnancies and get both prenatal and preconception care. The specific nutrients we ingest in the weeks before we get pregnant can have a lifelong effect on the well-being of our offspring. Rapid repeat pregnancies increase the risk of low birth-weight babies and other complications. Wanted babies are more likely to get their toes kissed, to be welcomed into families that are financially and emotionally ready to receive them, to get preventive medical care during childhood, and to receive the kinds of loving engagement that helps young brains to develop.
I’m pro-abortion because I take motherhood seriously. Most female bodies can incubate a baby; thanks to antibiotics, cesareans, and anti-hemorrhage drugs, most of us are able to survive pushing a baby out into the world. But parenting is a lot of work, and doing it well takes twenty dedicated years of focus, attention, patience, persistence, social support, mental health, money, and a whole lot more. This is the biggest, most life-transforming thing most of us will ever do. The idea that women should simply go with it when they find themselves pregnant after a one-night stand, or a rape, or a broken condom completely trivializes motherhood.
I’m pro-abortion because intentional childbearing helps couples, families, and communities to get out of poverty. Decades of research in countries ranging from the United States to Bangladesh show that reproductive policy is economic policy. It is no coincidence that the American middle class rose along with the ability of couples to plan their families, starting at the beginning of the last century. Having two or three kids instead of eight or ten was critical to prospering in the modern industrial economy. Early, unsought childbearing nukes economic opportunity and contributes to multigenerational poverty. Today in the United States, unsought pregnancy and childbearing is declining for everyone but the poorest families and communities, contributing to what some call a growing “caste system” in America. Strong, determined girls and women sometimes beat the odds, but their stories inspire us precisely because they are the exceptions to the rule. Justice dictates that the full range of fertility management tools—including the best state-of-the-art contraceptive technologies and, when that fails, abortion care—be equally available to all, not just a privileged few.
I’m pro-abortion because reproduction is a highly imperfect process. Genetic recombination is a complicated progression with flaws and false starts at every step along the way. To compensate, in every known species including humans, reproduction operates as a big funnel. Many more eggs and sperm are produced than will ever meet; more combine into embryos than will ever implant; more implant than will grow into babies; and more babies are born than will grow up to have babies of their own. This systematic culling makes God or nature the world’s biggest abortion provider: nature’s way of producing healthy kids essentially requires every woman to have an abortion mill built into her own body. In humans, an estimated 60 to 80 percent of fertilized eggs self-destruct before becoming babies, which is why the people who kill the most embryos are those like the Duggars who try to maximize their number of pregnancies. But the weeding-out process is also highly imperfect. Sometimes perfectly viable combinations boot themselves out; sometimes horrible defects slip through. A woman’s body may be less fertile when she is stressed or ill or malnourished, but as pictures of skeletal moms and babies show, some women conceive even under devastating circumstances. Like any other medical procedure, therapeutic contraception and abortion complement natural processes designed to help us survive and thrive.
I’m pro-abortion because I think morality is about the well-being of sentient beings. I believe that morality is about the lived experience of sentient beings—beings who can feel pleasure and pain, preference and intention and who at their most complex can live in relation to other beings, love and be loved, and value their own existence. What are they capable of wanting? What are they capable of feeling? These are the questions my husband and I explored with our children when they were figuring out their responsibility to their chickens and guinea pigs. It was a lesson that turned expensive when the girls stopped drinking milk from cows that didn’t get to see the light of day or eat grass, but it’s not one I regret. Do unto others as they want you to do unto them. It’s called the “Platinum Rule.” In this moral universe, real people count more than potential people, hypothetical people, or corporate people.
I’m pro-abortion because contraceptives are imperfect, and people are too. The pill is 1960s technology, now half a century old. For decades, women were told that the pill was 99 percent effective, and they blamed themselves when they got pregnant anyway. But that 99 percent is a “perfect use” statistic. In the real world, where most of us live, people aren’t perfect. In the real world, one in eleven women relying on the pill gets pregnant each year. For a couple relying on condoms, that’s one in six. Young and poor women—those whose lives are least predictable and most vulnerable to being thrown off course—are also those who have the most difficulty taking pills consistently. Pill technology most fails those who need it most, which makes abortion access a matter not only of compassion but of justice.
State-of-the-art IUDs and implants radically change this equation, largely because they take human error out of the picture for years on end, or until a woman wants a baby. And despite the deliberate misinformation being spread by opponents, these methods are genuine contraceptives, not abortifacients. Depending on the method chosen, they disable sperm or block their path, or prevent an egg from being released. Once settled into place, an IUD or implant drops the annual pregnancy rate below one in five hundred. And guess what? Teen pregnancies and abortions plummet—which makes me happy, because even though I’m pro-abortion, I’d love the need for abortion to go away. Why mitigate harm when you can prevent it?
I’m pro-abortion because I believe in mercy, grace, compassion, and the power of fresh starts. Many years ago, my friend Chip was driving his family on vacation when his kids started squabbling. His wife, Marla, undid her seatbelt to help them, and, as Chip looked over at her, their top-heavy minivan veered onto the shoulder and then rolled, and Marla died. Sometimes people make mistakes or have accidents that they pay for the rest of their lives. But I myself have swerved onto the shoulder and simply swerved back. The price we pay for a lapse in attention or judgment or an accident of any kind isn’t proportional to the error we made. Who among us hasn’t had unprotected sex when the time or situation or partnership wasn’t quite right for bringing a new life into the world? Most of the time we get lucky; sometimes we don’t. And in those situations we rely on the mercy, compassion, and generosity of others. In this regard, an unsought pregnancy is like any other accident. I can walk today only because surgeons reassembled my lower leg after it was crushed between the front of a car and a bicycle frame when I was a teen. And I can walk today (and run and jump) because another team of surgeons reassembled my knee joint after I fell off a ladder. And I can walk today (and bicycle with my family) because a third team of surgeons repaired my other knee after I pulled a whirring brush mower onto myself, cutting clear through bone. Three accidents, all my own doing, and three knee surgeries. Some women have three abortions.
I’m pro-abortion because the future is always in motion, and we have the power and responsibility to shape it well. As a college student, I read a Ray Bradbury story about a man who travels back into prehistory on a “time safari.” The tourists have been coached about the importance of not disturbing anything lest they change the flow of history. When they return to the present, they realize that the outcome of an election has changed, and they discover that the protagonist, who had gone off the trail, has a crushed butterfly on the bottom of his shoe. In baby-making, as in Bradbury’s story, the future is always in motion, and every little thing we do has consequences we have no way to predict. Any small change means that a different child comes into the world. Which nights your mother had headaches, the sexual position of your parents when they conceived you, whether or not your mother rolled over in bed afterward—if any of these things had been different, someone else would be here instead of you. Every day, men and women make small choices and potential people wink into and out of existence. We move, and our movements ripple through time in ways that are incomprehensible, and we can never know what the alternate futures might have been. But some things we can know or predict, at least at the level of probability, and I think this knowledge provides a basis for guiding wise reproductive decisions. My friend Judy says that parenting begins before conception. I agree. How and when we choose to carry forward a new life can stack the odds in favor of our children or against them, and to me that is a sacred trust.
I’m pro-abortion because I love my daughter. I first wrote the story of my own abortion when Dr. George Tiller was murdered, and I couldn’t bear the thought of abortion providers standing in the crosshairs alone. “My Abortion Baby” was about my daughter, Brynn, who exists only because a kind doctor such as George Tiller gave me and my husband the gift of a fresh start when we learned that our wanted pregnancy was unhealthy. Brynn literally embodies the ever-changing flow of the future, because she could not exist in an alternate universe in which I would have carried that first pregnancy to term. She was conceived while I would still have been pregnant with a child we had begun to imagine but who never came to be. My husband and I felt very clear that carrying forward that pregnancy would have been a violation of our values, and neither of us ever second-guessed our decision. Even so, I grieved. Even when I got pregnant again a few months later, I remember feeling petulant and thinking, I want that baby, not this one. And then Brynn came out into the world, and I looked into her eyes, fell in love, and never looked back.
All around us living, breathing, and loving are the chosen children of mothers who waited, who ended an ill-timed or unhealthy pregnancy and then later chose to carry forward a new life. “I was only going to have two children,” my friend Jane said as her daughters raced, screeching joyfully, across my lawn. Jane followed them with her eyes. “My abortions let me have these two when the time was right, with someone I loved.”
Those who see abortion as an unmitigated evil often talk about the “millions of missing people” who were not born into this world because a pregnant woman decided “Not now.” But they never talk about the millions of children and adults who are here today only because their mothers had abortions—real people who exist in this version of the future, people who are living out their lives all around us—loving, laughing, suffering, struggling, dancing, dreaming, and having babies of their own.
When those who oppose abortion lament the “missing people,” I hear an echo of my own petulant thought: I want that person, not this one. And I wish that they could simply experience what I did, that they could look into the beautiful eyes of the people in front of them and fall in love.
Editors’ note: This article was originally posted on AlterNet. It has been adapted for publication in Free Inquiry with the permission of the author.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light (Oracle Institute Press, 2010). Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured on sites including AlterNet, Salon, The Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.