By Jeanne Flavin and Lynn Paltrow
As other contributors to this series have observed, “pro life” and “pro choice” do not adequately capture the dimensions and diversity of opinions and experiences that people have with regard to abortion and, as we will make clear, a whole lot more. Drawing upon our own observations formed during decades of gender scholarship and legal advocacy, we join others in their critique of the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy. As part of that conversation, we offer “pro-lives” as a term that more accurately reflects the values of people on all sides of the abortion debate.
We begin by noting that while similar numbers of people identify as pro-choice and pro-life, some 43 percent of all Americans (including 51 percent of all Catholics and 59 percent of Black Protestants) identify as both pro-life and pro-choice. We also point out an extraordinary diversity of opinion and perspective regarding beliefs about the morality of abortion and the extent to which people think abortion should be restricted or Roe v. Wade overturned. Regardless of their political party, most people do not hold a hard-line position on abortion. More than two out of three Latino registered voters, for instance, agreed that “even though church leaders take a position against abortion, when it comes to the law, I believe it should remain legal.”
As many before us have recognized, the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” (and their relatives, the “anti-s”) fail to reflect the values and beliefs of those to whom the terms are often applied. Since the 1990s, women of color leaders have offered a comprehensive alternative vision to the pro-choice framework. The language of “choice” did not describe the experiences of racism, poverty, and other structural barriers that left many people without choices, including the choice of going to term and being able to parent with dignity. Integrating the concepts of reproductive rights, social justice and human rights, Loretta Ross and other members of Sistersong created the concept of “reproductive justice.” As Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Kierra Johnson recently explained, reproductive justice presents a collective vision: “a world where all people have the social, political, and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about gender, bodies, sexuality, reproduction, and families for themselves and their communities.”
Others have also challenged the pro-choice framework and the false dichotomy between pro-life and pro-choice. For example, Exhale, an organization that offers a non-judgmental after-abortion talkline, was founded to advance a “pro-voice” framework. Regardless of their personal views about abortion, many people have abortions or know people who have. Recognizing this, Exhale works to create an environment where each person’s experience and perspective about abortion is “supported, respected, and free of stigma.” More recently, Planned Parenthood announced its decision to move away from the language of “pro-choice”. While the term “pro-choice” has been discussed and critiqued at some length, we focus here on the term “pro-life” and its limitations in discussions of abortion.
In the context of pregnant women and abortion, the “life” in pro-life is singular, that is, limited to only one life: the unborn life. It excludes the lives (plural) of the pregnant woman’s existing children, her other family members, and the life of the pregnant woman herself—even if that means she might die. The singularity of the pro-life position is particularly clear in the case of Angela Carder. In that case, the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) argued that court-ordered cesarean surgery on Ms. Carder was justified because the only life that mattered was that of the unborn child. The USCCB insisted the surgery was necessary to advance the rights of the unborn child even though Ms. Carder opposed the surgery and wanted interventions that might prolong her own life. The USCCB defended their position despite the fact that the forced surgery contributed to her death and the fetus was so far from viability that it was born alive but did not survive. More recently, this exclusive focus on unborn life prompted a bishop to revoke the official Catholic designation of a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona after staff there permitted the termination of a pregnancy to save the life of a mother who was experiencing an ectopic pregnancy.
In order to protect unborn life in the singular, the “pro-life” position demands public policies that treat fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses as legal entities completely separate from the pregnant woman. Such a position requires outlawing abortion in all circumstances. As leading medical and public health organizations recognize, these pro-life policies provide the basis for undermining maternal, fetal, and child health and the lives (plural) of pregnant women, new mothers, and their families. Locking up women who have or seek to have abortions (most of whom are already mothers) not only imposes an extraordinary punishment on the woman who is incarcerated, but also on the children who are separated from her. And, as our research on hundreds of cases documents, post-Roe anti-abortion and pro-life measures have been used to justify the arrests, detentions of and forced interventions on pregnant women whether they are seeking to end a pregnancy or to continue one to term.
We are confident that many people who identify as “pro-life” are, in fact, pro-lives. These are people who care not only about unborn life in the singular, but also the lives of pregnant women, mothers, and their families and communities. In the example mentioned above, nearly three-quarters of the Catholics in the diocese sided with the Phoenix hospital’s decision to save the life of the mother.
Many people who are deeply opposed to abortion and who might be labeled “pro-life” do not want to see women with ectopic pregnancies die when Catholic hospitals deny them abortion. Similarly, they probably do not want doctors to be empowered to threaten to arrest pregnant women who disagree with their advice, as happened recently in Florida. Because many people who are “pro-life” and who oppose abortion are in fact pro-lives, they do not want women to be arrested, charged as criminals, humiliated at trial and incarcerated, including women like:
- Jennie McCormack (Idaho), geographically isolated and without childcare for the three children she already had, who safely self-induced an abortion;
- Bei Bei Shuai (Indiana) who, while pregnant, attempted suicide;
- Rennie Gibbs (Mississippi) a sixteen-year-old pregnant teen who suffered a stillbirth;
- Christine Taylor (Iowa) who fell down a flight of stairs while pregnant;
- Laura Pemberton (Florida) who was attempting a vaginal birth after one previous birth by cesarean surgery.
In contrast to the pro-life position with its almost exclusive focus on the abortion issue, a pro-lives position reflects concern for the millions of people in the United States who do not have health insurance, safe and stable housing, a living wage, or enough to eat. “Pro-lives” clearly includes those Catholics who, by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, want a greater focus on social justice and helping the poor, even if less attention is given to abortion. Most Americans (including Catholics) also agree that the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy and that one of the big problems in the U.S. is that not everyone is given an equal chance in life. Sister Pat Farrell’s recent challenge to the Church to think beyond a singular pro-fetus perspective and advocate more broadly for social justice (discussed elsewhere in this series) and the USCCB’s own stated advocacy positions (e.g., those concerning economic justice) similarly point to a pro-lives perspective.
It seems that most people, regardless of their views of abortion, want a more just society overall. In our view, this includes ensuring that pregnant women retain their right to life as well as all other rights associated with constitutional personhood. We hope that most people take strong issue, as we do, with a society that allows women to be subjected to a separate and unequal system of law that would punish them for attempting suicide, falling down a flight of stairs, or exercising their right to medical decision making.
To that end, and in the interest of advancing reproductive justice, we invite people of all political persuasions and faith traditions (and of none) to adopt, or at least consider, a “pro-lives” perspective. Such a position is consistent with the demand for reproductive and social justice. It also challenges us to embrace a true culture of life that values all life including the lives of women who give birth to and sustain that life.