Discussing the nuances of the case of Marlise Munoz, the legally dead pregnant Texas woman kept alive for weeks over her and her family’s wishes, my recent conversation with a pro-life friend continually circled back to one question of his: “But why wouldn’t she want the baby?”
Of course, the answer seemed obvious to me, but later I reflected more on his question, and realized why the concept seemed so absurd to him. To most pro-lifers, I think, it is incomprehensible that a woman who initially wanted a pregnancy might want to later terminate for almost any reason.
Abortion, after all, is for those women, way over there, the ones you’ve heard about but never met, despite the fact that 3 in 10 American women will have an abortion by age 45, and that 65% of women who had abortions in 2008 were Protestant or Catholic. To pro-lifers, it’s the domain of “amoral” women making an “irrational” decision they’ll regret when they get to know what having a child is truly like, despite the fact that most women who have abortions already have at least one child. And they claim it’s physically and psychologically harmful, despite the much lower risk of physical complications compared to pregnancy, and the thorough debunking of the largest study purported to show a causal link between abortion and mental illness.
None of these claims are new or uncommon, and none are really reflective of reality. But for those who desperately cling to them, the eminently insulting pro-life motto of recent years, Women Deserve Better, is perhaps more understandable (if not more palatable). But what explains the huge dichotomy between reality—at least, what little of it we can interpret from statistics—and the pro-life mythos of the woman who chooses abortion?
Well, for one thing, these stereotypes are pervasive because that’s what we tend to see. What else except the self-evident “truth” of such claims would explain the dearth of stories about elective abortion in the media—stories that humanize it and display its depth as an issue? A recent analysis of television and movies that portrayed abortion showed that 9% of women who had or even contemplated an abortion died, a gross over-exaggeration of the procedure’s risk. (The actual risk of death from legal abortion is less than 1 per 100,000.)
And in public venues (like, say, slots for public testimony before legislatures considering abortion restriction bills), it is clearly only deemed “acceptable” when a woman who had an elective abortion appears regretful, wringing her hands and gnashing her teeth. Relatively very few women are willing to testify about purely elective abortions they have obtained, even if they do not regret them, and not without cause. When they do publicly discuss it, they risk serious consequences, like Lucy Flores, the Nevada legislator who told the story of her abortion as a teenager in support of a sex education bill and was summarily subjected to a torrent of death threats.
Even more subtle and pervasive than death threats is social ousting. Only days ago I had a conversation with another friend who, while she supports legal abortion, followed that up with the postscript that abortion is still “murder” and in “scenarios where I would not support her decision [I] would most likely be forced morally to cut ties with her.” Every time a friend, neighbor, or relative expresses such a sentiment (despite the high likelihood of unwittingly saying it to someone who has had an abortion), the idea that it is unacceptable to speak about the importance of abortion to the lives of real women is reinforced.
There are sadly far, far too many examples to name, but every time a politician describes abortion as an evil only terrible sinners might contemplate, he effectively silences women as well. Being told, for instance, that you are morally inferior to a rapist since “at least the rapist’s pursuit of sexual freedom doesn’t result in anyone’s death” (I’m looking at you, Rep. Lawrence Lockman) tends to have that effect.
In turn, shame-induced silence propagates the impression of absence. The void is filled by the “socially acceptable” hand-wringers and teeth gnashers who, while they certainly represent a portion of women who obtain abortions, are not reflective of the whole, or even the majority. Pro-lifers continue seeing exactly what they expect to see, and continue advancing (and believing!) the notion that abortion is tangibly harmful, not only to fetuses, but to women.
And, very, very slowly, the pro-choice movement loses ground in the culture war.
The number of people who labeled themselves “pro-choice” in the Gallup poll on abortion, which has been tallying the estimated percentages of pro-choice vs pro-life citizens since 1995, reached an all-time low of 41% in 2012. Other polling has shown an increasing number of pro-lifers among Republicans, and more disturbingly, an increase in the number of Democratic men who oppose abortion as well. While these numbers are more complicated than they appear (for instance, a personally pro-life person may still support some or all legal abortion despite his or her views), the trends over time still have a story to tell.
The Overton window is a political theory that describes a narrow range of political beliefs that are considered acceptable. The silence of women caused by systematic social shaming and a climate of public threat, combined with an increasing number of openly hostile public remarks about abortion, seems to have shifted this window significantly further to the right in the last decade. As claims of dubious medical credibility and offensive remarks about the character of women who choose abortion become more mainstream, support of abortion up to viability is slowly coming to be perceived as an extremist view.
So how can we reverse the trend?
End the silence.
1) Gallup polling on abortion, trends over time: http://www.gallup.com/poll/154838/pro-choice-americans-record-low.aspx
2) The Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project on support for legal abortion: http://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/01/support-for-abortion-slips2/
3) Guttmacher Institute factsheet, Induced Abortion in the United States: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html
4) Guttmacher, Characteristics of US Abortion Patients, 2008: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/US-Abortion-Patients.pdf
5) CDC Abortion surveillance for 2009: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6108a1.htm
6) Slate, “Characters Who Have, or Just Think About Having Abortions, Often Die”: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/01/17/abortion_in_movies_and_on_tv_often_results_in_death.html
7) Article on Lucy Flores, Nevada assemblywoman who received death threats following her testimony about her abortion at 16: http://www.policymic.com/articles/33199/lucy-flores-abortion-nevada-lawmaker-faces-death-threats-after-talking-about-her-abortion
8) An excellent article I recommend, “Abortion as a Blessing, Grace, or Gift: Changing the Conversation on Reproductive Rights and Moral Values” http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2014/04/03/abortion-blessing-grace-gift-changing-conversation-reproductive-rights-moral-values/
9) A great TedX talk on abortion stigma: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxI6HGpaP3Q