Posted by: emjb | February 6, 2008

When purity is not enough

Are women insane?

I ask because if you think about the question of abortion, eventually you have to confront this question too. You have to confront the inexplicable, overwhelmingly documented willingness of women to hurt themselves to escape an unwanted pregnancy.

At least you do if you are privileged or naive enough to not be able to imagine the fear and desperation that led to this:

The first month of my internship was spent on Ward 41, the septic obstetrics ward. Yes, it’s hard to believe now, but in those days, they had one ward dedicated exclusively to septic complications of pregnancy.

About 90% of the patients were there with complications of septic abortion. The ward had about 40 beds, in addition to extra beds which lined the halls. Each day we admitted between 10-30 septic abortion patients. We had about one death a month, usually from septic shock associated with hemorrhage.

I will never forget the 17-year-old girl lying on a stretcher with 6 feet of small bowel protruding from her vagina. She survived.

I will never forget the jaundiced woman in liver and kidney failure, in septic shock, with very severe anemia, whose life we were unable to save.

This is an account by a man who became, and remains, a Canadian abortion provider. He saw this nightmare of suffering and decided to do what he could to make it stop. Those who disagree with him have twice made violent attempts on his life, and yet he continues to provide abortions.

Is he a monster? I can’t believe so. Do I want the septic obstetrics ward to exist again? No. If we ban abortion, will it? I think the answer is pretty unequivocally yes.

Do I still feel uneasy about abortion? Yes.

Which is why I’m pro-choice.

When I was vehemntly (though never violently) anti-abortion/pro-life (pick your tag), I could not understand the women in those wards, or the ones who used bleach and coathangers and mangled themselves so horribly. Why not just have the baby? Give it up for adoption?

But then, I have never lived in a family that believed in honor killings. I was not alive at a time when women who were labeled “promiscuous” were sometimes locked up in asylums. Even if I had gotten pregnant, there was little risk of my being shipped off to a “home” to give birth among strangers and then give up my child forever, no matter what I wanted. I was not a woman who already had other children and who worried about feeding another. I am white; if I wanted to give up a baby, it would probably find a home, so long as it was healthy. Were I black or hispanic, it could be trickier. Were my child disabled, trickier still.

Do you know that in an abusive relationship, one of the most common precipitating events for a man to murder a woman is her pregnancy? Or that conversely, surveys of teenage girls in relationships found that some of their boyfriends attempted to control and impregnate them by throwing away their birth control pills?

When I was younger, I did not think about the fact that the history of our civilization is one in which women have mostly been property, not people. And so women’s bodies, even now, remain a battleground. The ability to reproduce is power, and there are still those who think it’s a power women cannot be trusted to administer properly.

And so the battle over abortion is really about power, down at the root, not about stopping a practice that may be inhumane to later-term fetuses. Even I got sucked in to the idea that “conception=person” an idea that does not survive even the smallest bit of thought. An 8-cell blastocyst is genetically unique, yes, but it’s not a person. A woman’s own body rejects multiple embryos before and after implantation, often before she knows she is pregnant. That does not make her body a murderer. That doesn’t make every period a crime scene.

Later-term abortions are more troubling, because we don’t really know where or how to draw the line. They are also more rare (about 1.4% per the CDC), and much more likely to be the result of actual medical problems with the fetus.

I know from my own experience talking to other women that most women seeking abortions want to do so as soon as possible, before they show, before they begin feeling any investment in the fetus. Third trimester women are not lining up for the procedure willy-nilly, if for no other reason than that if you’ve gone through the first two trimesters, you’ve already suffered whatever backlash you’re going to suffer, and giving birth in itself is probably small potatoes. Even if you have a medical emergency, you’re much more likely to get a c/section than any kind of termination at that stage.

I am troubled by the idea of an abortion that takes place when a fetus might feel pain. As of now, the American Medical Association maintains that the nerve and brain structure to feel pain is not in place until the 39th week, which is at term. But still, like a lot of people, I don’t want to be party to any kind of inhumane death of another person.

And so, I’m pro-choice.

But wait!

Oh yes. Because the supreme ironic failure of the pro-life movement is this; countries with easy access to abortion do not have higher rates of abortion than those where it is illegal. What does go down, dramatically, when abortion is outlawed? Women’s safety. Illegal abortions are incredibly dangerous. But women seek them out anyway. Are they insane? Or perhaps, are they driven by the need to save their own life or their children’s lives, or simply to exercise some control over their own bodies?

I don’t believe the organized pro-life forces actually care about real women and children. Otherwise, why would they have also been anti-contraception, anti-pro-child legislation (medical care, daycare, aid for the poor) that enables women to raise children? They cannot even support treatments like Plan B (which prevents an embryo from implanting) or RU-486 (which facilitate very early non-surgical abortion), despite the fact that they are much less ethically dicey than surgical abortions. Because that would mean returning to women some form of control over their own sexual and reproductive decisions. It would mean trusting women, even supporting them, even valuing them. And the pro-life movement doesn’t value them. It doesn’t care if they end up back in the septic ward, if their already-born kids end up orphaned on the street. It doesn’t care. Its attitudes are shaped by ancient religious hangups that have no more relevance for American government than rules about meat on Fridays, no matter how many nicey-nice words it uses. And women die as a result.

To the younger me, the pro-life position (minus the anti-contraception bit) was more “pure” more clear-cut, and therefore better. But human life is none of those things. An ideological purity that causes massive suffering, abortion septic wards, and more abortions is not a better system than a realistic, nuanced, approach that reduces suffering, reduces the need for abortions, and gives women the dignity and power over their own bodies that they deserve.



  1. Thanks for this rational, but no less thoughtful, articulate essay on how you arrived at pro-choice.

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