Like wallpaper and elevator music, legal abortion has been an abiding background presence throughout most of my adult life. My childbearing years were just beginning in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade. And now, half a century later, the years during which I might have needed, wanted, or considered having an abortion are decades past.
Thanks to easy access to affordable birth control, I never experienced a surprise pregnancy (or any pregnancy, for that matter), but I know plenty of women who have. Some were delighted, some were mortified, but most fell somewhere in between. All, however, were able to decide for themselves how to proceed. And each did so with much soul-searching and careful deliberation.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those women lately, wondering how they feel now that many states, including Kentucky, are passing increasingly restrictive abortion laws and the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn the 50-year-old Roe decision this summer.
No matter what your views are on abortion, they are probably deeply entrenched. This issue has become so polarizing that as a nation we now identify ourselves (and one another) as either “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”
This binary labeling disturbs me because I have never met anyone who wasn’t literally both: who doesn’t favor life over death and having choices over having no choices? Pro-life and pro-choice designations grossly oversimplify the issues surrounding abortion and perpetuate polarization, which keeps us divided and angry.
Maybe it’s time for a less reactionary, more reality-based approach.
We all know that abortion is not going away, whether it is legal or not. It never has and it never will. So rather than drawing lines in the sand and engaging in divisive rhetoric, maybe we should try working together so that our shared values of preserving life and personal freedoms are upheld in the actual world in which we live: the world in which people sometimes become pregnant when they don’t want to be and take dangerous measures as a result.
Imagining ourselves in such a situation might be a good place to start.
Becoming pregnant, under any circumstance and for any length of time, is life-changing. There are risks and consequences, physically and emotionally, no matter how a pregnant person proceeds. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more private and gut-wrenching situation, which is why it is so upsetting that women’s reproductive rights in general — and abortion, specifically — have become such incendiary political fodder.
No one I know is “for” abortion, including the women who have had one. And honestly, wouldn’t anyone considering how to manage an unplanned pregnancy — in their actual body and life, not some patriarchal political pawn game — want to have a full range of safe, legal options?
When those seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade and/or restrict access to safe and legal abortion speak, I listen carefully. I want to understand what drives their efforts. What I usually hear is an argument in defense of an unborn child, which I understand and respect.
Sometimes I hear the words “murder” or “murderer,” which indicate to me that the speaker is moving into that righteous-indignation red zone where polarization — not reality-based problem solving — proliferates.
At such a juncture, stepping into a pregnant person’s shoes might be illuminating because there was nothing remotely murderous about the experience I had in the late ‘70s accompanying a college dorm mate to her appointment at a Louisville clinic.
Instead, terms like self-determination, courage, compassion, and gratitude come to mind when I recall that event. What I witnessed that day, up close and personal, was a thoughtful young woman at a profound crossroads in her life, making a difficult and deeply personal decision with the help of caring medical professionals.
While protecting the unborn is a noble endeavor, don’t we first and foremost have an obligation to respect and protect those who already walk among us — the living, breathing women who live next door, work in the adjacent cubicle, go to school every day, ring up our purchases at Walmart, dance downtown at Rock the Block? Haven’t we assured these women throughout their lives, implicitly or explicitly, that they are strong and powerful, smart and self-determining?
The women I have known who experienced unplanned pregnancies in the 1970s and ‘80s were all of those things and more. One thing they were not was criminal. Some chose to remain pregnant, others did not. None made their decision lightly, and all were grateful to have options.
I’ve lost track of most of these women now, but I imagine in contemplative moments they entertain multiple “what-ifs.” Don’t we all?
The fabric of our lives is woven one stitch at a time, each stitch being a choice made in a particular circumstance, followed by the consequence of that choice. Don’t we each, as citizens purportedly equal under the law, have a right to make our choices and then live with them?
In an ideal world, abortion would not exist. Every pregnancy would be welcome and safely carried to term by a woman who is ecstatic to be on the cusp of motherhood. Every newborn would be cherished and reared accordingly. Cradle-to-grave support would be a birthright.
But we do not inhabit such a world. So how do we proceed?
Abortion is just one of the harsh realities we must reckon with in the coming months and years. Climate change, gun violence, COVID-19, racism, and war are among the major issues looming large on the horizon.
I suggest we all make a concerted course correction and recognize emotional manipulation, moralizing, groupthink, and stubborn rage-fueled sides-taking as the destructive political tactics that they are. Our “leaders” on both sides use them because they keep us worked up, polarized, and stuck.
The current debate raging over abortion rights is just the latest example of how blinded we have become to reality. The stakes in this debate alone are monumental, and current signs indicate we will become even more fractured politically, racially, and socioeconomically if we continue on our current trajectory.
Like my dorm mate so many years ago, we are at a crossroads. And like her, we have choices to make. Chief among them is whether we want to come together and solve problems or remain polarized and divided. We might do well to keep this in mind as we move forward after these recent primary elections, and as we consider how to proceed come November and beyond.
Surely we can do better. Can’t we?