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Abortion's battle of messages

It's not 1973. Pro-choice forces must adjust to regain the moral high ground.

January 22, 2008|Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman | Frances Kissling, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice. Kate Michelman is the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and the author of "Protecting the Right to Choose."

Thirty-five years ago, the Supreme Court affirmed in Roe vs. Wade that women have a fundamental right to choose abortion without government interference. Now, on this anniversary of that landmark decision, the United States has some of the most restrictive policies on abortion in the developed world. In contrast to Europe, the U.S. forbids the use of federal funds for abortions, and the Supreme Court has upheld state laws that require parental consent or notification, mandatory waiting periods and antiabortion counseling. The court's 2007 decision on so-called partial-birth abortions was an unprecedented infringement on physician autonomy.

Since Roe, U.S. public opinion has been relatively stable and favorable to legal abortion. Early efforts to overturn Roe failed miserably. Given this reality, the anti-choice movement changed tactics. It no longer focused primarily on banning abortions but concentrated on restricting the circumstances under which abortion would be available. It succeeded in shifting public attention from broad support for legal abortion to strong support for restricting access. Twenty years ago, being pro-life was declasse. Now it is a respectable point of view.

How did this happen? Did the pro-choice movement fail? Or did those opposed to abortion simply respond more effectively to the changing science as well as the social shift from the rights rage of the '60s to the responsibility culture of the '90s?

In the 1970s, the arguments were simple and polarized: Abortion was either murder or a woman's right to control her body. The fetus, however, stayed largely invisible. The pro-choice movement stayed on the message offensive, tactically shifting in 1989 from women's bodies to the "who decides" question posed by NARAL Pro-Choice America. But this was rapidly parried by the anti-choice demand that we look at what was being decided, not just who was deciding.

Science facilitated the swing of the pendulum. Three-dimensional ultrasound images of babies in utero began to grace the family fridge. Fetuses underwent surgery. More premature babies survived and were healthier. They commanded our attention, and the question of what we owe them, if anything, could not be dismissed.

These trends gave antiabortionists an advantage, and they made the best of it. Now, we rarely hear them talk about murdering babies. Instead, they present a sophisticated philosophical and political challenge. Caring societies, they say, seek to expand inclusion into "the human community." Those once excluded, such as women and minorities, are now equal. Why not welcome the fetus (who, after all, is us) into our community?

Advocates of choice have had a hard time dealing with the increased visibility of the fetus. The preferred strategy is still to ignore it and try to shift the conversation back to women. At times, this makes us appear insensitive, a bit too pragmatic in a world where the desire to live more communitarian and "life-affirming" lives is palpable. To some people, pro-choice values seem to have been unaffected by the desire to save the whales and the trees, to respect animal life and to end violence at all levels. Pope John Paul II got that, and coined the term "culture of life." President Bush adopted it, and the slogan, as much as it pains us to admit it, moved some hearts and minds. Supporting abortion is tough to fit into this package.

At the same time, women and their decisions have come under ever more powerful microscopes. The specter of women forced into back alleys as a result of a one-time "mistake" has been replaced with hard questions about why women get pregnant when they don't want to have babies.

In recent years, the antiabortion movement successfully put the nitty-gritty details of abortion procedures on public display, increasing the belief that abortion is serious business and that some societal involvement is appropriate. Those who are pro-choice have not convinced America that we support a public discussion of the moral dimensions of abortion. Likewise, we haven't convinced people that we are the ones actually doing things to make it possible for women to avoid needing abortions.

Let's face it: Disapproval of women's sexuality is a historical constant. So our claim that women can be trusted still falls on deaf ears. And when the choice movement seems to defend every individual abortion decision, rather than the right to make the decision, it too becomes suspect.

If pro-choice values are to regain the moral high ground, genuine discussion about these challenges needs to take place within the movement. It is inadequate to try to message our way out of this problem. Our vigorous defense of the right to choose needs to be accompanied by greater openness regarding the real conflict between life and choice, between rights and responsibility. It is time for a serious reassessment of how to think about abortion in a world that is radically changed from 1973.

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