Beyond False Dichotomies: The Debate around Life and Choice
So much of our political discourse these days is deeply polarized and vastly oversimplified. We have dehumanized and villainized one other, created caricatures of those who are politically different from us. These caricatures are steeped in moral judgments and are often reinforced by false dichotomies that lack room for nuance or complexity.
One of the most prevalent false dichotomies that has driven much of this election, is the question of whether one is “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”
For many conservative Christians who have unwaveringly supported Trump, I find that the issue of abortion is the most common apologetic. The narrative is something like this:
Over 55 million babies have been murdered due to the legalization of abortion under Roe v. Wade, and we have an opportunity to turn the tide through a Trump presidency and new Supreme Court appointees. There is a moral obligation for Christians to end abortion, and thus whether we personally like Trump’s personality or not, the issue of abortion is far too important. To vote for Trump is a chance to protect the unborn- the most vulnerable members of our society. To vote for Biden is to have “blood on your hands” and to contribute to the murder of innocent babies.
Now, let me share a few places of resonance. I too, find it deeply grieving that there are so many abortions happening in our country, and that sacred and vulnerable lives are being lost. I too, want to see our nation do everything we can to reduce the number of abortions that occur yearly. I too, think that abortion should not be considered flippantly or conveniently, but is something that is morally costly and has great consequence.
But for me, the choice between being “pro-life” or “pro-choice” feels like a false dichotomy. This year’s election has been spun as a choice between preserving innocent babies, or supporting their murder. And that is simply a vast mischaracterization. To be pro-choice does not mean to be pro-abortion.
I actually believe that there are significant reasons why one might vote for Biden- a “pro-choice” position and candidate- while having a clear desire to reduce and even end abortions happening in this country.
Here are a few reasons why:
1) The Supreme Court alone will not be able to end legalized abortion.
One of the main reasons people are voting for Trump is for his appointment of judges- both at the level of the Supreme Court and at lower levels. A conservative leaning Supreme Court, it is often argued, can overturn Roe v. Wade, leading to an end to legalized abortion.
Yet history shows that Republican majority Courts have had multiple opportunities to overturn Roe v. Wade, but did not. For example, the 1989 Webster v. Reproductive Health Services and the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey Ruling which upheld Roe v. Wade, were both made with a court of justices that were majority Republican-appointed. Even the original Supreme Court that established legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973 was also made by a Supreme Court that had 7 Republican appointees and 2 Democrat appointees.
In the extreme case that Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, what would happen? The reality is that it will then be up to various states to determine what their abortion laws will be. And while quite a number of states have been slowly chipping away at Roe v. Wade and creating restrictions to abortion, many other states would likely continue to provide access to abortion, even if Roe v. Wade was overturned. There is no way to completely ban abortion in this country, even with Trump’s Supreme court nominees.
2) Abortions will not simply disappear just because they are made illegal.
I tried hard to try and find statistics about how many abortions were performed annually before Roe v. Wade, and they were quite difficult to find. But this Washington Post series from 1966 traced how women were getting abortions at that time, when only 4 states legally allowed them, and it is truly tragic. From floating, assembly line abortion rings, to women faking bleeding to get a OB to perform an D&C, to psychiatrists writing notes about women being depressed and “prescribing” abortions as treatment, it is clear that simply because abortion is illegal, it does not mean they won’t happen. In fact, this article estimated that around one million abortions were performed in 1966 (when it was illegal in all but 4 states, remember). For reference, in 2017, there were 862,000 abortions performed.
We all know that making activity illegal doesn’t magically make it disappear. It often just makes the activity more dangerous. Take the Prohibition, for example. In fact, recent studies have found that countries with more restrictive laws around abortion actually have higher rates of abortion. So to assume that making abortion illegal will end abortions is vastly oversimplified and tries to find a solution by criminalizing behaviors rather than addressing the reasons why abortions are sought out.
3) The most effective means of lowering abortion rates is granting access to contraceptives.
The total number of abortions in our country has been on a steady downward trajectory, and actually hit a historic low in the last 5 years even with Roe v. Wade still being the law of the land, and with significant number of states creating laws that severely restrict access to abortion. Much of this decline in abortion rates is connected to access to contraception, as the ability for women to access contraception is strongly correlated with lower abortion rates.
Yet the Trump administration has actually created restrictions and barriers to access to contraception, by allowing employers to opt out of providing health coverage that includes contraception. While I understand the potential religious conflicts that are presented by contraception, to reduce the number of abortions requires reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. Greater access to contraception is one of the most effective way to lowering unintended pregnancies. If conservative Christians truly want to end or reduce abortions in this country, they should also be fighting for quality sexual education that doesn’t just teach abstinence, and support policies that fight for access to contraceptives for all communities.
4) To be truly pro-life means supporting policies that alleviate the burdens of pregnancy and parenting.
Another factor that helps determine lowering abortion rates is to create more support systems to increase quality of life, at every stage- not just in the womb.
As a mother who has gone through 2 pregnancies and is raising 2 children in this age, I will say that enduring pregnancy and raising children in this world is an incredibly costly commitment, on every level. Moreover, as somebody who knows a number of women who have gotten abortions, the question at hand wasn’t just about the life in the womb, but the quality of life for that child and their mother outside of the womb, and it was a very heavy decision. Having children is a lifelong commitment, and it is easy to say “don’t murder babies” and much harder to commit to a lifetime of caring for them.
So what are the social policies that help a somebody raise a child in this world in a healthy and sustainable way? How do we increase access to child support, paid maternity leave, affordable housing, quality prenatal care, affordable health coverage, contraception, nutritional programs, child care, debt-free education, and sustainable basic income? How do we also continue to combat forces that cause a woman to bear a disproportionate amount of the burden when it comes to pregnancy and parenting- patriarchy, purity culture, domestic violence, incest, and sexual abuse? How do we create a society with less wealth inequity and higher quality of life for all women, so that preserving a baby’s life in the womb doesn’t feel like a death sentence for a mother’s future?
5) Allowing the government to control women’s bodies is a slippery slope.
Obviously, a strong component of the pro-choice movement is around the woman’s right to choose what is done with her body. Although most conservatives tend to emphasize personal liberties and minimize the role of government in our lives, taking away a woman’s right to choose makes her body subject to control by the state. While I understand the complexities of this, and the moral argument that “Who speaks for the baby who has no choice?” I personally believe that allowing the government to control a woman’s body becomes a slippery slope. And it is telling that the vast majority of legislators who often make these decisions are men who will never understand what it feels like to experience severe hyperemesis gravidarum, or to have to make decisions about risking their own health or delivering an unviable baby, or decide whether to bear a child that was conceived out of sexual violence and without consent.
After Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, I learned of an early lawsuit that she was involved in, in which she actually defended the right of a woman (Susan Struck) to NOT have an abortion when she was pregnant. That woman was in the Air Force, and at the time, the U.S. Air Force required women to get abortions if they got pregnant or be discharged. In the case, Struck v. Secretary of Defense, she argued that forcing pregnant women to have an abortion or leave the military was discriminatory, and presented reproductive rights as a right to choice rather than a right to abortion.
It is clear that the movement for choice has never been a movement for the killing of babies, but a protection of a woman’s autonomy over her body. If governmental institutions could previously force women to have abortions, and can also “force” women not to have them by making them illegal, how do we safeguard against the state controlling women’s bodies in other ways?
Ultimately, I am saddened by the ways that other Christians have allowed themselves to be consumed by a single issue and single outcome, without seeing the bigger picture of what is needed to actually end abortions in this country or the ways that the Trump Administration is not actually pro-life.
To uphold the sanctity of all life means taking seriously a virus that has killed over 217,000 people and continues to spread. It means to establish immigration policies that take seriously the plight of our migrant siblings, not reducing refugee caps, returning asylum seekers to dangerous situations, forcing women to get sterilized while in detention, or taking away children from their families, no matter how young. It means to explicitly decry white supremacy, not just in word, but also in deed. It means to provide equal rights to all of our nation’s citizens, regardless of their gender or sexual identity. It means to not support a candidate who has devalued lives by making statements such as to grab women by their pussies, calling covid-19 the “China Virus,” mocking a disabled reporter, calling Mexicans drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, and calling people “pathetic” and “losers” and “dummies.” It means to continue to support science, fight climate change, and work toward a better world for all our children.
I am saddened by the ways that the lives of the unborn have been used a political bait to grant continued power to an Administration that has repeatedly diminished the value of life, time and time again.
Rather than focusing merely on one candidate or one election, we must focus on building a culture that honors women’s bodies, works to end unintended pregnancies, alleviates the burdens of raising children, and uphold the sanctity of all life- not just life in the womb. We must recognize, as Vinoth Ramachandra states:
“Neither personal discipline nor punitive laws, important as they are, can effect lasting social transformation. Cultures need to change and oppressive socio-economic structures dismantled. And Christians, instead of always trying to use the apparatus of the state to impose their vision of human well-being, need to take on the intellectual challenge of articulating that vision in meaningful and winsome ways to the wider public… Christians should work for cultural change which would make abortion unthinkable, by most people and in most circumstances, whether or not it is illegal.
As a Christian, I hope that others in the Church see that simply opposing Roe v. Wade does not make us pro-life. It is not enough.