Why the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice Dichotomy Obliterates Meaningful Discourse
For a long time I have had the miserable feeling that the whole discussion on abortion in this country has been futile, polarizing, and– surprisingly, given the powerful topic – empty. I believe this stems from the fact that the form of the so-called discussion aborts meaning itself.
The abortion debate is based on a false split. One is asked to defend one of two contrary and mutually exclusive positions before the conversation begins: Are you Pro-Life or Pro-Choice?
Let us look at why this split is deceptive, and ultimately false. The emphasis of the pro-life position is on the rights of the fetus, the inalienable right to life of the human being already conceived. The “Life” in question is that of the unborn child. The emphasis of the pro-choice position is on the rights of the woman, her inalienable right to freedom over her own body. The “Choice” in question is that of the pregnant woman.
Yet (and this is so basic and obvious it seems odd to point this out) the essence of pregnancy rests on the inherently relational nature of conception and gestation. The embryo’s life is not “inalienable” because the embryo only has life through other lives. Conception results from the biological merging of two lives (via meeting of sperm and egg); and gestation happens not only within a woman’s body but because of the constant, active, creative force of a woman’s life. The fetus’s body is not “inalienable” during gestation, proven by the presence and function of the umbilical cord! Likewise, the woman’s body is not “inalienable” during pregnancy, proven by the fact that there is an alien growing within it!
When we skip over the relationship-between as we take our pro-life/pro-choice stances, we collapse the space in which the meaning of pregnancy and abortion dwell.
Why do we overlook this relationship-between?
Why is it easier for us to focus on one part of the equation, one side of the coin, when we know the very nature of gestation points to a dialectic in which “pregnant woman” cannot even be thought of without simultaneous acknowledgement of “fetus;” nor “fetus” without “pregnant woman”?
I suggest that we overlook the relational nature of pregnancy in our discussions and actions regarding abortion because abortion brings us right to the extremes of the human condition: our power and our vulnerability.
In listening to, or articulating, a “pro-choice” position on abortion, do you have the nagging feeling that assertions of a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body rarely seem to honor the vulnerability of fetal life? In listening to, or articulating, a “pro-life” position on abortion, do you wonder why such positions rarely seem to honor the inherent power of women as life-givers to us all?
All religious traditions recognize that the force to give life is inextricably entwined with the power to take it. On a psychological level, the experience of childhood affirms this dual force in our most primal human relationships. As children, we know our parents have great power over us. Though in various ways as toddlers, children, adolescents and even adults, we seek to convince ourselves otherwise, we are aware of our dependence upon our parents for our lives.
This relational dependence arises not only from parental power to create and nurture us, but also from their potential to damage and even destroy us.
Our human dependence makes us uncomfortable. As a result we suffer an unconscious “terror of origins.”
We are in collective denial that we come into existence inside of a woman's body and grow there in a state of utter dependence. We tend to avoid awareness of this vulnerability and power that are at the heart of human interdependence. We succumb to an urge to limit/manage/control the vulnerability and the power inherent in life in ways that help us deny their real presence in our human condition.
Issues of vulnerability and power run through every aspect of abortion, from the personal to the legislative. I believe that the urge to bring abortion into the legal realm rests on a fear of the power inherent in woman’s biology, a power that each and every one of us is beholden to for our lives. Legislating abortion out of the realm of possibility can be a response to society’s vulnerability relative to women’s biological power; it can be used to reassert society’s power.
While the capacity for pregnancy is powerful, pregnancy itself has power over a woman. The very need, the relational pull, of that growing fetal life brings a woman to her own limitations. Speaking from my own experiences of pregnancy: I experienced the power of my own body doing wondrous and almost incredible feats, while these same powers made me feel weak at times with nausea and exhaustion, and filled me with feelings of fear and helplessness because my own illusion of independence was undeniably threatened. Abortion can be a woman’s personal response to her own vulnerability; a response that helps re-assert her power over her life.
A heated debate with two clear sides and a fair amount of name-calling across the divide helps us avoid confronting our terror of origins. But on interpersonal and societal levels, do we really want to respond to our vulnerability with denial, and a need to re-assert our power?
What would happen if we allowed our terror of origins a conscious (rather than enacted) place in discussions of abortion? What if we began with, and stayed with, the relational nature of conception and gestation? What if discernment replaced debate? What if we allowed the age-old wisdoms of our religious traditions to inform our open-ended questioning and experiencing of gestation and abortion, rather than using these same traditions as rationalization for our own fear and closed-mindedness?