YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The Moral Choice: Elevate Parenting

Women understand the profound significance of ending pregnancy. It's an exercise of responsibility. Ask one who's been there.

August 11, 1996|KATE MICHELMAN | Kate Michelman is president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League

Abortion. Few words arouse such intense passion. I know, because I had one, in the days when abortion was illegal. And because I've made my life's work fighting to ensure that other women have what I didn't: the right to make the difficult choice about abortion.

The raw emotions often obscure a fundamental truth understood by every woman who contemplates ending a pregnancy, that the decision involves profound moral and ethical considerations.

Some abortion opponents now argue that they should first persuade people that abortion is "immoral" and "evil" before enacting laws to ban the procedure. Even a few pro-choicers call for more public discussion about the morality of abortion, implying that women do not understand the moral significance of their decision.

I know they do. In 1970, I struggled to get a safe abortion in a hospital, though I was prepared to seek an illegal abortion if necessary. But coming to terms with the moral considerations was as important to me as my health or safety.

I was a young mother, with three wonderful daughters under 5. My life was my family. Then my husband left. I was terrified; suddenly, I alone was responsible for my children's needs--financial, physical and emotional. I was a homemaker, with no money, job or car. I couldn't even get a charge account at the local five and dime. My family was forced onto welfare.

Two weeks after my husband left us, I learned that I was pregnant again. I was devastated. I didn't know how I would support my family. How could I care for another child?

Like most women, I never expected to have an abortion. I struggled with my crisis alone. I was a Catholic woman in the days when abortion was illegal. How could I discuss it with my mother, my sister, my friends? Deciding whether to have an abortion involved serious moral and ethical considerations. I had to balance the responsibility to care for, feed and nurture my three daughters against that to the developing life within me. The all-consuming responsibility for my daughters led me to decide to have an abortion. I believe it was the right and the moral thing to do.

Like many women who choose abortion, I did so out of a desire to be a good mother--a moral responsibility itself. But the government did not trust me to make this decision myself. I had to appear before a panel of men at the local hospital who probed the most intimate details of my life. When I finally won their approval, I learned that there was one more hurdle. I had to get written permission from the man who had deserted me. It was humiliating and degrading.

Today, opponents of choice humiliate women by harassing them outside clinics and enacting laws that make access to abortion difficult and dangerous. Now, they have opened a new front in the abortion wars. Prominent opponents of choice such as William J. Bennett argue that they must convince the public that abortion is "evil" before they can achieve their goal of criminalizing all abortions. Feminist author Naomi Wolf asserts that the "pro-choice movement has relinquished the moral frame around the issue of abortion."

I disagree. As a pro-choice leader, I have long talked about the serious ethical and moral considerations involved. The anti-choice campaign of harassment, intimidation and violence and the state and congressional assault on abortion rights have forced us back to the barricades. I still talk about the moral complexity of the abortion decision, but is anyone listening?

Instead of shouting past one another, leaders on both sides should work to make abortion less necessary. In 1989, my group began to call for reducing the need for abortion. In 1994, we officially expanded our mission to include making abortion less necessary. We work for policies that reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, increase contraceptive options, expand sexuality education (including but not limited to abstinence) and foster greater access to prenatal and childhood health care. But opponents of choice never discuss the moral responsibilities of parenting in a nation where one in four children live in poverty.

Twenty-six years after my abortion, I can say that the experience was profound and life-shaping, as was raising and nurturing my three daughters. The lessons I learned were that this is a decision we should trust to the women of America. That government and politicians should not interfere in our personal lives. And that ultimately, we must strive to elevate childbearing and parenting to a higher moral ground. Our children deserve no less.

Los Angeles Times Articles