John Buell

Abortion and Innocent Life

I am sickened by the death of Dr. George Tiller. Operation Rescue condemned his murder, though in language that tacitly encourages further violence. Randall Terry described Tiller as a “mass murderer” of babies. He even accused Tiller of performing late-term abortions for women who had simply decided they did not wish to have a baby.

Terry never lets facts stand in the way of his viscious war against the rights of women. Grand juries in culturally conservative Kansas found no grounds for Terry’s charges.

“Pro-Life” political terrorism, surely an oxymoron, leaves women, many poor and already facing desperate health issues, more alone and vulnerable. Melissa Harris-Lacewell at (June 2) convincingly shows that Terry’s goal is to isolate and humiliate poor and pregnant women. Women are routinely intimidated.

Political symbolism also counts for more than the lives of the unborn. Cristina Page reminds us at (June 1): “That Clinton presided over the most dramatic decline in abortion rates in … recorded history … left them unmoved.” Once the “pro-life” George W. Bush assumed office, health and family planning options and education diminished, abortions skyrocketed—and the demonstrations stopped.

The vast majority of abortion opponents do not condone this murder. Most are repelled by Terry’s rhetoric. They believe that life begins at conception. Their concern is the preservation of innocent life.

I don’t believe a distinctively human life begins at conception, but I have no iron-clad argument to convince an opponent. Nonetheless, if protection of innocent life is our motive, responsibility must be shared equally between men and women. In this society, denying women abortion imposes all the risks of sustaining innocent life on women.

The late Ellen Willis once advocated re-centering the abortion debate on equality of sacrifice. (See No More Nice Girls, “From Forced Pregnancy to Forced Surgery.”) What a privilege it is to be a male! Pregnant women must sacrifice their careers, comfort, health and sometimes even lives to have a baby. If my child, or any child, becomes gravely ill and needed my body, e.g., for bone marrow, I might feel a moral obligation, but government can’t compel me to accept these risks.

If there is an absolute obligation to sustain innocent lives, men need to accept dramatically increased risks and responsibilities. A detailed portrayal of the medical demands that might reasonably be made of men, especially as the frontiers of transplant and genetic medicine expand, could shake up the abortion debate.

Some citizens might demand a draft for male kidneys, livers, and bone marrow. Others within conventionally gendered families might still maintain the “natural” role of women as primarily responsible for the health of all life. Such an argument might be hard to sustain in a world where the possibility of motherhood and the process of having a baby are now so heavily medicalized. My suspicion, however, is that even some pro-life families would entertain the notion that if men will not sacrifice their health for sons or daughters, women should not be forced to make bear such sacrifices alone.

Nonetheless, children are our future. Society must move beyond expanding “choice” for women to a more complete appreciation of the sacrifice involved in parenting. Many women face unrelenting physical, emotional, and economic distress. It is hard even to acknowledge let alone address any inner doubts about a cause to which one devotes so much of one’s life. It becomes all too easy to regard those who reject such roles as selfish or even evil.

Society must do more to expand the cultural and economic space for women in all modes of life—better family planning resources and sex education, tax credits for stay at home parents, more free time for families and family emergencies, more opportunities for a voice in their children’s education, jobs that pay men and women equal and sustaining incomes.

The boundaries in the culture war are not fixed and impermeable. Progressives can expand opportunities for many families to live out their own values. Such a course may not convert all cultural conservatives to progressive causes and probably won’t sway Randall Terry. Nonetheless, the foundation and the hope of democratic politics is that over time subtle transformations in moral and political vision will allow more of us to live together even as we continue to disagree on some core principles.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2009

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