Abortion *is* a personal moral choice

After putting up yesterday’s post on abortion, I wound up having some interesting discussions about it with friends. Interesting, because halfway through, I realized that despite my contestation that I didn’t really buy it, I was arguing the “abortion is a personal moral choice” line to a tee. It suddenly made perfect sense to me that the choice of what to do with any individual fetus has to be made, and can only be made, by the person who is pregnant with that fetus (and cannot be scrutinized or judged by anyone else).

In a nutshell, here’s why:

The ethical question that is abortion, when you get down to brass tacks, is about two things. One the one side, there is the fetus, a living thing with some sort of undefinable moral/ethical value (and while we can debate about that value, I hope we can agree that it exists). On the other side is the pregnant person, and their right to bodily autonomy, and the fact that in order to preserve the life of the fetus, that person will have to make some equally undefinable set of sacrifices in their life. And in any decision about abortion, these two things are weighed against each other.

The thing is, though, that while we all have approximately the same capability to parse and consider the value of fetal life, there is only one person in the world who can fully understand or know the extent of the sacrifices that are required of an individual pregnant person should they choose to carry the fetus to term, and that is the pregnant person themself.

For better or worse, when it comes right down to it, the only person who even understands the values that are being balanced in any individual decision to abort (or not) is the individual person faced with the decision. The rest of us do not, and cannot, ever know what is in the balance, and thus we cannot reasonably claim to be able to judge that decision. And that’s it.

Pregnant people are people, too

I am pro-choice. 100%. Under all circumstances, and for any reason, I believe that the decision of whether or not to continue hosting a fetus inside of their body lies with the person who’s body is being inhabited by the fetus. And mostly, I leave it at that. But I also think it can be useful to explore the actual ethical quandaries that can be wrestled with in coming to this conclusion. Because I do think that a lot of people struggle with this issue, and that’s legitimate, but I also feel like there’s not always a good space to talk about it in a debate where one side tends to shut down any discussion of morality and the definition of life, and the other simply calls abortion murder, no discussion.

But I think that both of those positions are reductionist. it’s completely unreasonable to say that fetuses aren’t living things; quite simply, they are. And I also think that late-term fetus may even count as people (at least, they’re as much people as newborn babies are). And I wanted to actually put in words the reasons why I can hold these views and also still be 100% pro-choice in every instance.

Because I actually don’t fully buy the “well it’s a personal moral choice” argument, and the “right to privacy” grounds on which abortion is legal in the US have never made even the slightest bit of sense to me. If, in fact, abortion were tantamount to murder, these arguments would imply that murder shouldn’t be illegal on the grounds of privacy and personal moral choices, which is ridiculous.

The thing is, I don’t think that the question of whether a fetus is a person (or when a fetus becomes a person) has any real bearing on whether abortion should be legal or not. It’s not news that every fetal “personhood” argument ever made has completely erased the personhood of the person that the fetus is living inside the body of.

Because, for me, this is the crux of the whole thing. I don’t care if the fetus is a person or not, because no person should ever have the right to live inside of another person against their will. In this model, the death that results from abortion is self-defense, (or possibly a mercy killing, since removing the fetus intact and simply letting it die would be comparably cruel) and not murder. This is not a difficult moral issue for me, but I’ll play along and try to anticipate some of the objections to this.

But the fetus can’t live outside the womb! It’s not deliberately invading your body! it just needs you to survive!

This is just completely irrelevant. Bodily violation is bodily violation regardless of intent, regardless of the whether the person (or fetus) violating someone’s body knows or understands that they are doing so. The person being violated is being violated regardless, and they have the right to stop the violation.

We are never legally required to sacrifice our bodies to save other people’s lives in any other circumstances. We aren’t even required to do so for our own children after they are born. I would be legally within my rights to deny a kidney, or even my blood, to my child, even immediately after birth. But for some reason people still insist that I should be required to carry the thing around for nine months inside my body. The inconsistency here is unfathomable. My right to bodily autonomy is not changed by the fact that I happen to be pregnant.

But you brought it on yourself! I mean, I can see a reason why abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest, but you gave implicit consent for the fetus to take up residence in your body when you chose to have sex, (you slut)!

Um, no. That’s not how consent works – meaningful consent can be withdrawn at any time. Even if I have sex with the intent of creating a fetus in my body, if I later decide that I do not want said fetus in my body, I can kick it the fuck out.

That’s not even how natural consequences work. By the logic above, there’s a bunch of other conclusions you would have to come to that are patently ridiculous. We don’t, for instance, tell people that chlamydia is just a natural consequence of sex, and that to take antibiotics is to kill the chlamydia is wrong. (Again, even if for some reason I decided to have sex with the express purpose of getting chlamydia, I would be well within my rights to seek treatment for the consequent chlamydia.)

Or let’s look at other things relating to bodily autonomy. I’m registered on the list of bone marrow donors where I live, which means that if someone turns up requiring bone marrow that matches mine, I may be contacted to donate. Being on this list has positive consequences for me – it makes me feel good about myself. Maybe not as good as sex, but still, it’s a thing I chose to do of my own free will and for not much other reason than because it made me happy to do so.

And yet.

If I were called on to donate marrow to someone, I would not be obligated to follow through. Similarly, just because I enjoy having sex sometimes does not mean that I am morally obligated to carry a resulting fetus to term. There’s just no logic by which this could possibly follow. Just no.

This is the logic that is so often used to control women’s bodies and actions – you shouldn’t be out alone at night, or drunk, or dressing outside of certainly narrowly defined and contradictory “rules,” or rape is a direct consequence. You shouldn’t be pretty at work, or getting hit on by your boss is your fault. You shouldn’t be ugly at work, or getting fired is your fault. You shouldn’t try too hard to be conventionally attractive, or harassment is your punishment. You shouldn’t stray too far from conventional attractiveness or harassment is your punishment. You shouldn’t have sex with other women, or corrective rape is your punishment. You shouldn’t have no sex at all, or someone will have to rape you to teach you that sex is good. But you shouldn’t enjoy sex too much, or babies are your punishment.

And yes, I do fully analogize the bodily violation of rape with the bodily violation of being legally forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy. That shit wreaks havoc on your body and on your mental health. Birth is not a simple thing, it’s painful and exhausting and ugly.

Fuck. That. Noise. Consenting to sex does not imply consent to anything other than having sex in that moment.

But isn’t it the nice thing to do to let the innocent fetus use your body? And the nice thing to do is the right thing to do, after all.

Um, yeah, I guess it might be the nice thing to do. It would also be the nice thing to do to donate half of my income to charity, but most people would understand that weighing the hardship that would befall me if I did such a thing outweighs the desire to be nice. Once again, choosing to carry a fetus to term is a very big commitment, with far-ranging impacts on quality of life, ability to work, mental health, and many other things. Sure it’s nice, but it’s grand gesture nice, and not common courtesy/moral obligation nice.

…So, have I missed any of the big arguments?

Words: they’re important

(via dannipenguin at Flickr)

Ozy Frantz’ recent post on the issues with the term “sex-positivity” made me think about the ways in political movements sometimes use language in an interesting way: instead of using words that accurately represent their ideals or goals, the chosen words are actually perfectly chosen to be in complete opposition to the cultural forces that they are combating.

Sex-positivity (so called to combat sex-negativity, or the clandestineness and dirtiness with which sex is often treated in North American society) is only one example of this.

I sometimes feel the same way about LGBTQ pride. Being queer is just a thing that you are, and not something to strive for or take pride in. Really, the ultimate goal of most LGBTQ activists is really just for sexual orientation to be a value-neutral characteristic that people have. So why “Pride”? Well, there’s a couple of ways of looking at it.

The way I explained it to my mother when she got all upset the first time I went to a pride parade (“It’s not something to be proud of”) was that the point is “I’m [insert brand of queerness here], and I’m proud of who I am”. And I think this is sometimes the message that pride demonstrations get across.

But more often than not, the real message is “I am queer, and I am not ashamed“. It’s pretty clear that this is the message that anti-LGBTQ groups take from pride demonstrations, who like to describe the celebrations in terms of their unabashedness or shamelessness. These aspects of Pride bother hate groups because their power depends on queerness being a shameful thing; they depend on queer people’s fear of being open in order to keep up the idea that queer people are a mysterious, insidious evil that hides in the shadows and infects children, or whatever it is that they say to scare people into agreeing with them.

In fact, Pride demonstrations were originally created to combat this very kind of control. At their inception, they were intended to combat gay shaming tactics. So, while the real goal is to eliminate the shame, rather than create artificial pride in queerness (and an implicit devaluing of heteronormativity, when heteronormativitiy is only a negative thing when it’s held up as an ideal, or the right way to be), “Gay Pride Parade” has much more rhetorical power than “Gay Not Ashamed Parade”, and is a much more positive statement of opposition to the LGBTQ shame squads.

The same sort of argument doesn’t quite work for sex-positivity, though. Because by and large, the people who get labeled as sex-negative aren’t people who actually say “sex is bad”; their message is more akin to “sex is a wonderful, beautiful gift from some sort of deity, but only if it is practiced within a certain very narrow context and/or in these particular ways and for these particular purposes“. They don’t hate sex; they hate “bad” sex. So the sex-positive movement hasn’t just constructed a rhetorical position in opposition to the messaging of the cultural forces they’re combating – they’ve also rhetorically constructed sex-negativity so that they would have something to directly oppose. The reasons that I am less comfortable with identifying as sex-positive (which are the same as Ozy’s reasons) than I am identifying with queer pride as because the language of sex-positivity is a few steps more rhetorically removed from the actual intent of the movement.

Sex-positivity is easier to misinterpret than gay pride, and even if people do see the rhetoric of gay pride as suggesting that gay people are better than straight people, I don’t see what great harm can come of that, other than some straight people kind of wanting to be gay. But really, they’ll have the support of all their straight family and friends, and I’m sure they’ll be able to get through that tough time in their lives and somehow, some way, find a path to fulfilling straight existence. I’m sure there are some role models out there somewhere.

Sex-positivity, on the other hand, runs the risk of sending the message that sex is inherently good, and that turning down sex is bad. This is a very real problem for asexuals (who don’t have role models for fulfilling lives to the same extent that woebegone straight people do), or for anyone else who has ever not been in the mood.

The rhetorical construct of sex-positivity is more akin to pro-choice/pro-life rhetoric; since each side falsely presents their opponents as anti- whatever they claim to be pro- (though I feel like anti-life is more disingenuous than anti-choice), both sides have pulled the trick of rhetorically constructing both sides of the argument in their own way, whereas with gay pride, the movement is set up against the actual stated rhetoric of the haters.

So, how do we fix it, then?

Planned Parenthood is moving away from using “pro-choice” rhetoric in favour of talking about “reproductive justice”. The main reason for this – that it removes the binary nature of the argument and allows for their to be a spectrum of perspectives; “reproductive justice” is what anyone with any opinion on abortion is seeking, in their own way – is solid. And I like it a lot.

Rebranding any political or activist position or debate can be very powerful, and I think this is something that needs to be done for sex-positivity. Because what the sex-positivity movement wants isn’t for everyone to think that all sex is awesome all the time; it’s something more like the gay pride movement, about removing the stigma around many sexual activities, and making sexual preferences a value-neutral trait.

So what can we call that, and celebrate the true diversity of human sexuality without alienating or erasing the people who simply don’t like sex, or who only like certain things and feel like they aren’t adequately “sex-positive”?

I lean toward “Sexual freedom”, which at least rhetorically contains the concept of freedom from sex (or any kind of sex you want to be free from), as well as the freedom to have whatever sex you enjoy. But I don’t know. There might be something better.