I didn't always oppose abortion as stridently as I do now. I was uncomfortable with abortion, but felt it could be justified under certain circumstances: rape, incest, severe fetal deformity, when the life of the mother is in danger, etc. I still believe abortion is necessary when the mother's life is in danger.
I was uncomfortable with abortion, and sympathetic to the argument that abortion is not just a women's issue but also a human rights issue, but I did not know how to articulate such a position. In the early 1980s, my friends in college and I were more worried about being drafted to fight in a war in El Salvador, Nicaragua or the Middle East; or more worried about Reagan launching a first strike against the Soviet Union. "Nuclear war is the ultimate abortion," is how a friend of mine put it.
I was uncomfortable with abortion, but this was based more on emotion than on logic. It was hard to rationalize giving full human rights to human zygotes and embryos, what to speak of regarding abortion as infanticide or genocide against an entire class of humans. Even back then, however, I recognized that the argument about "a woman's right to control her own body" was based on a false premise, because there are clearly two bodies (mother and child) present during pregnancy.
From fellow liberals, I've gotten mostly three types of responses:
a) The standard knee-jerk response about “turning back the clock” on women’s rights and reproductive freedom...which is patently absurd if the unborn also have rights and if abortion is morally equivalent to infanticide. The early American feminists, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc…into the first half of the 20th century, considered abortion an injustice to women; they did not regard it as a means to their emancipation.
Do the unborn have rights? Roe v. Wade stands out as an oddity, because it came at the end of the Vietnam era…at a time when we were expanding our concept of rights to include women and minorities.
If anything, Roe was a step backward, because it denied rights to the unborn and overturned progressive, reform-minded legislation from the 19th century aimed at protecting both pregnant women and their unborn children.
b) Demonizing all pro-lifers as right-wing, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, warmongers, who are against all social support for pregnant women and children, etc. A 2007 article that appeared on AlterNet (a liberal e-mail based headlines newsletter), for example, claimed anti-abortion activists are now borrowing tactics from the Ku Klux Klan.
My book, The Liberal Case Against Abortion, was meant to correct these misconceptions (no pun intended). If you say you’re pro-life, people automatically assume you must be right-wing, Republican, etc. The liberal opposition to abortion goes unreported by the popular news media.
c) The argument about women being forced into "back-alley" abortions, should abortion be outlawed. This is a legitimate concern; one which I tried to address in The Liberal Case Against Abortion, and in a July 2007 debate with a pro-choicer on AlterNet. I think pro-lifers on both the right and the Left should pay greater attention to refuting this argument, because it is central to the pro-choice position.
Because my book is aimed at liberals, I mention the "consistent-ethic" movement: pro-lifers simultaneously opposed to capital punishment. I mention LGBT activists who compare discrimination against the unborn to discrimination against lesbians and gays. I call for expanding the welfare state to provide for pregnant women, single mothers and their children. I think it’s odd that the Democratic Party—the party of childcare and human rights—ignores the human rights of the unborn.
I point out that under current U.S. law, corporations are considered legal persons while humans in prenatal development are denied this moral status. I discuss animal rights and its relevance to the abortion debate.
I point out that since we have laws on the books against drugs and prostitution, which are arguably victimless, there's no reason we can't similarly pass legislation against abortion, which is arguably the taking of human life.
This last point is significant. Many religious pro-lifers on the right link their opposition to abortion to things like instituting school prayer or opposing LGBT rights. And to many of us on the Left, this makes abortion look like a "religious" issue rather than a secular human rights issue. By contrasting drugs and prostitution with abortion, I'm making it clear abortion is not "victimless."
Prostitution was legal in ancient India for the same reason the Prohibition of alcohol in the United States failed, or the current “War on Drugs” is failing. There are or have been economic conservatives, like the late Milton Friedman, in favor of drug legalization. And even some conservatives concede that prostitution can be victimless. In a 1995 column entitled “Prostitution as a Privacy Right,” Robert Craig Paul, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Times, wrote:
“If a woman’s right to control the use of her reproductive organs permits her to enter into a cash transaction with an abortionist, then how can this fundamental right of privacy not apply to other transactions involving her use of her body?
“…abortion has been against the law and restricted with greater intensity for more of our history than prostitution, reflecting social norms that abortion, viewed as infanticide, is more immoral than prostitution…
“In contrast (to abortion), prostitution is entirely an act between consenting parties that does not affect the bodily integrity, identity and destiny of a third party (the unborn)…
“It is legal nonsense that privacy conveys the right to abort, but not the right to ingest drugs or engage in sodomy…
“It will be interesting to watch the court sort out on the basis of Roe v. Wade why it is legal for a woman to contract for abortion but not prostitution.”
I've gotten a negative response from some conservative pro-lifers, because of the comparisons and arguments given above. Pro-life liberals, however, have responded favorably.
If abortion is not merely a "religious" issue, but a secular human rights issue, then I don't think I'm being "unconventional" at all.
Imagine a wave of religious fundamentalism sweeping America. Crosses are burned, blacks are lynched, gays are bashed, yet the public is told that whether or not these minorities have any rights is a subjective religious belief--a matter of personal "choice"! No one would take it seriously…no one on the Left, anyway!
If pro-lifers really want to protect the unborn, opposition to abortion must come from across the political spectrum, and not just from the far right. I’m a liberal Democrat. My book is aimed specifically at liberals and Democrats.
The figures who immediately come to my mind are columnist Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice—a self-described “liberal Jewish atheist”; writer and former Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy; the late governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania; and Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, human rights and women's rights activist, and environmentalist. Of course, I can’t forget Carol Crossed of Democrats For Life, either, who was kind enough to write the foreword to my own book on the subject.
The pro-life movement desperately needs religious diversity. Pro-lifers should welcome people of other faiths and those of no faith. Not everyone in the United States is a Christian. This country wasn’t founded by Christians; many of America’s founding fathers were Deists. There are other faiths, besides the Abrahamic faiths. There are other holy books out there besides the Bible or the Koran, which also claim to be the word of God.
I also have a problem with pro-life Christians who adhere to a double-standard: i.e., they insist their stand against abortion be applied to everyone, including others who may not share their faith, but then they embrace moral relativism when it suits them, e.g., “Your religion says it’s wrong to kill animals for food, clothing or sport; mine doesn’t.”
There are Christian vegetarians and vegans, of whom I have the deepest respect. I don't take it seriously when meat-eaters say, "The Bible permits us to eat meat," because the Bible was also used to uphold human slavery. The Bible can also be used to justify abortion:
Genesis 38:24 says Tamar’s pregnancy was discovered three months after conception, presumably because it was visible at the time. This was positive proof that she was sexually active. Because she was a widow, without a husband, she was assumed to be a prostitute. Her father-in-law, Judah, ordered that she be burned alive for her crime.
If Tamar’s fetuses had been considered to have any value whatsoever, her execution would have been delayed until after their birth. There was no condemnation on Judah for deciding to take this action.
Similarly, Exodus 21:22-24 says if two men are fighting and one injures a pregnant woman and the fetus is killed, he shall repay her according to the degree of injury inflicted upon her, and not the fetus.
Author Brian McKinley, a born-again Christian, sums up the passage as: “Thus we can see that if the baby is lost, it does not require a death sentence—it is not considered murder. But if the woman is lost, it is considered murder and is punished by death.”
Can you imagine 18th century Christians telling abolitionists, "We don't need to free our slaves...That’s 'good works’…we don’t have to ‘work’ for our salvation...All we have to do is accept Jesus...Paul said Jesus told him three times, ‘my grace is sufficient for thee,’ ...we don't need to free our slaves..." ?
Or how about an 18th century Christian preacher who tells his followers, “You don’t have to free your slaves…All you have to do is accept Jesus.” ?
None of the religious arguments pro-life Christians make to justify the status quo with regards to animals would make any sense if this were 300 years ago, and we were discussing the abolition of human slavery instead of animal slavery, and I think the same holds true with regards to abortion. I'm surprised pro-choice Christians haven't tried to deny rights to the unborn using the same religious arguments pro-life Christians use to deny rights to animals!
We really live in a secular society. Secular arguments are religiously neutral and are thus applicable to everyone, including atheists and agnostics. The pro-life movement already has the support of organized religion. Instead of preaching to the choir, i.e., wasting time with religion, pro-lifers should focus on prenatal development, genetics, DNA, RNA, etc. to make their case to mainstream secular society.
AAgain, the pro-life movement desperately needs religious diversity. It's already stereotyped as being predominantly Christian (Catholic, fundamentalist, born again, etc.) and will need to become completely secular as it attempts to convince the courts, legislatures, universities, philosophers, ethicists, etc. that human zygotes and embryos should be regarded as legal persons.
“I have always thought it peculiar how the liberal and conservative philosophies have lined up on the abortion issue,” observed pro-life feminist Rosemary Bottcher, in the Tallahassee Democrat. "It seemed to me that liberals traditionally have cared about others and about human rights while conservatives have cared about themselves and property rights. Therefore, one would expect liberals to be defending the unborn and conservatives to be encouraging their destruction."
The only frustration I have with the Left, therefore, is its failure to see abortion as a secular human rights issue…especially those who claim to espouse nonviolence, e.g., are antinuclear or antiwar, or support nonviolent civil disobedience.
During the spring of 1989, for example, a huge pro-choice rally in Washington, DC was endorsed by the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Studies in Atlanta. I found this incredibly Orwellian! It’s like many on the Left have trouble seeing abortion as a human rights issue; seeing it as an act of violence against the unborn.
Similarly, in the mid-‘90s, a group of various recording artists released an album benefiting the abortion rights movement, entitled Born to Choose. The title also struck me as Orwellian: We are “born to choose” whether or not someone else may be “born” to choose.
AAnd recently I saw a car with two bumper stickers: one of them read “Create Peace” and the other read “Pro-Choice.” The owner of the car apparently saw no contradiction between the two slogans.
Instead of talking about "making abortion illegal again," which sounds regressive, let's talk about "extending human rights to the unborn," which sounds progressive.
Pro-lifers need to become progressive! Back in the 1980s, the San Diego Pro-Life League had a pamphlet or a flyer or a brochure saying they were "Restoring Respect for Life." The key word is "Restoring." They were looking backwards, to a time that never was.
Pro-life liberals, on the other hand, see extending human rights to the unborn as social progress, in the tradition of women's rights and civil rights, children’s rights and animal rights.
Instead of packing the courts with conservatives, I think pro-lifers should be pushing for a Constitutional Amendment to extend human rights to the unborn. The central issues in the abortion debate are the “personhood” or moral status of the unborn, and the extent of individual and marital privacy.
Stephen Douglas has been quoted as having said in debate with Abraham Lincoln that human slavery be resolved through the democratic process. Let the people decide: if they “want slavery, they shall have it; if they prohibit slavery, it shall be prohibited.”
Whether or not democracy is the ideal form of government is not the issue here, but since we live in a democracy, what is wrong with Douglas’ statement? It was through the democratic process that we gave women the right to vote, gave 18 year olds the right to vote, and even attempted the Equal Rights Amendment. Isn’t this how we should extend human rights to the unborn? Isn’t this how we should give rights to animals?
Pro-lifers compare Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision of 1857. In both cases, rights were denied to an entire class of humans based upon an arbitrary criterion, such as developmental status or the color of the skin. The conclusion author Paul Nowak draws from this in Guerilla Apologetics for Life Issues is that the Supreme Court is not infallible.
Roe v. Wade was decided in part by denying rights to the unborn, but also by assuming a right to privacy (Griswold v. Connecticut assumed a right to marital privacy regarding the use of contraception) not clearly spelled out in the Constitution.
Can we overturn Roe without overturning Griswold?
Is the solution to the abortion crisis to pack the Court with conservatives who might also oppose things like church-state separation (Nat Hentoff, an atheist, must know that in the Newdow case regarding the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, Justice Scalia had to excuse himself from the case, because he doesn’t believe in complete church-state separation) and deny us contraception and a right to privacy (Griswold)…or is the solution to enact a Constitutional Amendment to extend human rights to the unborn?
And again, as Paul Nowak says, the Supreme Court is not infallible. The views of the Court are constantly changing. In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld a sodomy law. A few years ago, they reversed themselves, which outraged the religious right, but pleased lesbians and gays, the parents and friends of lesbians and gays, and political liberals.
I cannot understand how pro-life liberals and pro-life Democrats, most of whom respect the private nonviolent behavior of consenting adults, most of whom support church-state separation, and most of whom support contraception and better sex education as the most effective way to prevent unplanned pregnancies, would want to align themselves with pro-life conservatives and pro-life Republicans in order to pack the courts with conservatives in the hopes of eventually overturning Roe v. Wade.
It’s my conviction that we do have a fundamental right to privacy, and I cannot advocate putting the women of America unwillingly under electronic surveillance, probing their past without their consent, denying them contraception, or even going through their personal effects (although the Fourth Amendment does protect us against unwarranted search and seizure). There must be a better way.
Until we pro-life Democrats have enough numbers to change our Party platform to one calling for a Human Life Amendment (as is the case with the Republican Party), I think we should be advocating: easy access to contraception; better, more comprehensive sex education; real social support for pregnant women and children; and reasonable restrictions on abortion (e.g., a ban on partial-birth abortion, parental notification or consent, 24 hour waiting periods, informed consent or “women’s right to know” laws, etc.)
Doing this would dramatically reduce the abortion rate, which would please both pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike within our Party. It would also be consistent with Bill Clinton’s “safe, legal and rare” position. If “safe, legal and rare” becomes the new mantra in the Democratic Party with regards to abortion, I will consider it real progress from the 1970s, when pro-choice bumper stickers read: “Abortion is every woman’s choice.”
AAgain, instead of packing the courts with conservatives in the hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade, I favor grassroots activism and educating the American public about when human life begins, prenatal development, etc. in order to get them to eventually support a Constitutional Amendment to extend human rights to the unborn.
I wrote The Liberal Case Against Abortion to convince fellow liberals and Democrats to take a stand against abortion on secular human rights grounds. I also wrote it because the liberal opposition to abortion goes unreported by the popular news media.
An earlier piece of mine, discussing parallels between the pro-life and animal rights movements and why they should join forces, appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of Studies in Pro-Life Feminism. It can also be viewed online at the Feminism and Nonviolence Studies Association website (ww.fnsa.org), along with a Fall 1998 piece I co-wrote with pro-life feminist Mary Krane Derr discussing Hindu perspectives on abortion.
Time magazine reported back in the late 1980s, that school prayer is next on the agenda for those on the right opposed to abortion, whereas for those on the Left, abolishing capital punishment is next. Neither side appears to be thinking in terms of animal rights, which is one of the reasons I devote an entire chapter on animal rights (and its relevance to abortion) towards the end of The Liberal Case Against Abortion.
I believe abortion is the karmic reaction for killing animals. And therefore, pro-lifers should learn that it's in their best interest to include the animals in their ethics. I've tried to make the case in secular, political language, because I'm not trying to "convert" them to another religion. In contemporary American society, animal rights and vegetarianism are a secular trend which could use the inspiration, blessings and support of organized religion. The record of organized religion with regards to animals is mixed: stronger in some religions than in others.
I'm not singling out pro-lifers for special criticism here, either. War, like abortion, is also the karmic reaction for killing animals. Many in the peace movement are unaware of this. In the April 1995 issue of Harmony: Voices for a Just Future, a “consistent-ethic” periodical on the religious Left, Catholic civil rights activist Bernard Broussard concludes:
“…our definition of war is much too limited and narrow. Wars and conflicts in the human kingdom will never be abolished or diminished until, as a pure matter of logic, it includes the cessation of war between the human and animal kingdoms. For, if we be eaters of flesh, or wearers of fur, or participants in hunting animals, or in any way use our might against weakness, we are promoting, in no matter how seemingly insignificant a fashion, the spirit of war. All are manifestations of a ‘survival of the fittest philosophy.’”
I read somewhere that one of the leaders of Operation Rescue came to oppose abortion in the 1970s, upon seeing a bumper sticker which read: “Abortion? Pick on someone your own size!” Yes. That’s precisely my point. The “might makes right” mentality that makes abortion possible begins with what we humans do to other animals. Pythagoras warned: “Those who kill animals for food will be more prone than vegetarians to torture and kill their fellow men.”
Domestication of other animals is artificial. Our relationship with other animals on this planet, wild and domesticated, is, therefore, partly an environmental ethics issue:
According to the editors of World Watch, July/August 2004: “The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future—deforestization, topsoil erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities and the spread of disease.”
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, similarly says: “…the survival of our planet depends on our sense of belonging—to all other humans, to dolphins caught in dragnets to pigs and chickens and calves raised in animal concentration camps, to redwoods and rainforests, to kelp beds in our oceans, and to the ozone layer.”
The threat of “overpopulation” is frequently used to justify abortion as birth control. On a vegetarian diet, however, the world could easily support a population several times its present size. The world’s cattle alone consume enough to feed 8.7 billion humans.
America’s largest animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), over 1.6 million strong, is challenging those who think they can still be “meat-eating environmentalists” to go veg, if they really care about the planet. If it could be shown that meat-eating leads to abortion and war, would this be enough to cause our friends in the pro-life and peace movements to go veg as well?
BBecoming a vegetarian or a vegan is not merely helping the pro-life movement, it is literally pro-life!
a) Keep the debate completely secular! The pro-choice position is entrenched in the political Left. The religious right is not going to win over the secular Left on the issue of abortion by quoting Scripture or turning to unprovable religious beliefs to back up their position. Doing so will only reinforce the stereotype that pro-lifers are all religious fanatics who aren’t grounded in secular reality.
In Guerilla Apologetics for Life Issues, author Paul Nowak also says, "You should try as much as possible to keep religion out of the discussion." This is significant. Only in the secular arena can we promote our ideals without imposing our religious beliefs on others. And persons using the secular arena to defend the unborn must not turn to nprovable religious beliefs to deny rights to animals. In the secular arena, one’s religious identity must be completely irrelevant.
b) Point out the scientific fact that individual human life is a continuum from fertilization until natural death. Religion did not discover when life begins, the biologists did. Zygote, embryo, fetus, infant, toddler, adolescent, etc. are all stages of human development. To destroy that life at any stage of development is to destroy that individual.
Animal rights activists insist, “A dog is a rat is a pig is a boy,” i.e., there are no morally relevant differences between humans and other animals as far as everyday ethics are concerned. Pro-lifers must similarly insist, “A zygote is an embryo is a fetus is an infant is a toddler is an adolescent is an adult,” and back it up with science.
Paul Nowak asks his readers to try and get pro-choicers to determine when they think human rights should begin; implying that since life begins at fertilization, all other criteria (viability, birth, etc.) are arbitrary. The real question in the abortion debate is not the seemingly absurd scenario of giving full human rights to human zygotes, but rather the thorny question of how to protect those rights without violating a new mother’s privacy and civil liberties.
Writer and activist Jay Sykes, who led Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 antiwar campaign in Wisconsin and later served as head of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union wrote, “It is on the abortion issue that the moral bankruptcy of contemporary liberalism is most clearly exposed,” because the arguments in support of abortion “could, without much refinement, be used to justify the legalization of infanticide.”
c) Keep the debate rational. This isn’t a shouting match. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers agree on everything except the timing; i.e., the time to decide when to have a child is before fertilization, not after. The abortion issue is not a confrontation between misogynistic oppressors of women and cold-blooded “baby-killers,” rather it is a rational, secular debate on when human rights should begin.
d) Avoid propagandistic euphemisms. I only use the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” because these are the political labels by which the pro-abortion and anti-abortion sides identify themselves. But they are both misleading. Dr. Bernard Nathanson (cofounder of NARAL; a physician who presided over some 60,000 abortions before changing sides on the issue), wrote in his 1979 book, Aborting America:
“…the Right-to-Lifers are not in favor of all ‘life’ under all circumstances. They are not in the forefront of the save-the-seals crusade. They are not devotees of Albert Schweitzer’s ‘reverence for life,’ or its equivalent in Eastern religions, in which the extinction of cows or flies somehow violates the sanctity of the cosmos.
“Turning to the human species, they do not necessarily oppose the taking of life via capital punishment. Where were they when Caryl Chessman was executed for a crime he did not likely commit—and a rape at that, not a murder?
“They were likely not notably in the opposition while the United States was sacrificing lives on both sides of a questionable war in Viet Nam.
“They are not ‘pro-life’; they are simply anti-abortion.”
However, Dr. Nathanson goes on to say about those who prefer to be called “pro-choice” instead of “pro-abortion”:
“This is the Madison Avenue euphemism of the other side. Who could possibly be opposed to something so benign as ‘choice’? The answer is: Almost anyone—depending. The diehard opposition to civil rights and public accommodations for black Americans in the ‘50s and ’60s was ‘pro-choice’ with a vengeance. Some whites wanted the ‘right’ to serve hamburgers or rent hotel rooms to whomever they wished.
“Most of us now oppose the concept of choice in such ugly claims. The true question is, ‘What choice is being offered, and should society sanction that choice?’ In any honest discussion we must focus upon what is being chosen, without hiding behind the slogan.”
e) Most Americans are neither pro-life nor pro-choice. American public opinion falls somewhere in the middle. We see those on the pro-choice side opposing even reasonable restrictions on abortion.
For example: our laws require parental notification or consent if minors want tattoos or pierced ears; why should abortion be exempt?
The decision to take a life is very grave, so why is it unreasonable to require a 24 hour waiting period, to give a new mother time to think things through, rather than make a decision in haste?
The pro-choice rhetoric that women are capable of deciding for themselves whether or not to carry a child to term means they ought to be able to make informed choices. The informed consent or “women’s right to know” laws advocated by pro-lifers are consistent with pro-choice rhetoric.
Even many on the pro-choice side are uncomfortable with abortion during the later stages of pregnancy, yet they are often reluctant to support a ban on partial-birth abortion: a procedure which is never medically “necessary,” and which former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan likened to infanticide.
In Guerilla Apologetics for Life Issues, Paul Nowak points out that Planned Parenthood opposes even reasonable restrictions upon abortion, such as 24 hour waiting periods, parental notification, informed consent or “women’s right to know” laws, etc. Nowak writes: “Planned Parenthood opposes clinic regulations, despite the fact that in many states there are more restrictions on veterinary clinics than self-regulated abortion facilities.”
Since the goal of the pro-choice movement is to “keep abortion safe and legal,” why does Planned Parenthood oppose clinic regulations?
I sent over a thousand copies of The Liberal Case Against Abortion to organizations and activists across the political spectrum. I first heard Serrin Foster, Executive Director of Feminists For Life, speak at Stanford University in 1998. When she found out who I was, she came over and hugged me, and told me how much she enjoyed my writings.
Serrin told the audience that Feminists For Life has many vegetarians and vegans in its ranks, although the organization itself takes no position on animal issues. When I told her the animal rights movement is divided on abortion, she said understandingly, “The Children’s Defense Fund is also divided on abortion.”
Serrin told me privately at the end of 1999 that she wished there were more pro-life Democrats. Early in 2006, I received a kind note from Serrin, in which she wrote:
“Thank you for sending me The Liberal Case Against Abortion, and congratulations for its release! May you reach many who exclude the unborn from the principles we all cherish: nonviolence, nondiscrimination and justice for all! Because women deserve better…”
And in a letter dated July 18, 2007, former Vice President Al Gore wrote: “Thank you…for sending me a copy of The Liberal Case Against Abortion. I look forward to reading it and wish you much continued success.”
That is the best possible recognition I could ever hope to achieve in this lifetime.