Thursday, April 14, 2011

Understanding Pro-Choice: A Woman's Control of Her Body

I've titled this blog post "Understanding Pro-Choice," for a reason. I am not in pursuit of a "solution," whatever that might be, to the theological and ideological impasse that exists between pro-choice and anti-abortion groups (or, pro-abortion and pro-life groups, whatever "label" you prefer). As an evangelical believer in Jesus Christ (who also happens to be a feminist), I approach this matter from a very particular point of view. I believe that the life formed at conception is precious to God and inherently valuable to humankind. Of course, this does not necessarily mean I am forced to conclude certain things about public policy or law, but it does mean that at the most basic level, I find both the act of abortion and the society that normalizes abortion deeply tragic and wrong on multiple levels.

So then, although I am not in pursuit of a solution to the impasse, I am in pursuit of understanding--that is to say, a meeting of the minds, even if for only a brief period of time, over a few select issues. I am writing, therefore, with the hope that my readers can appreciate the value of understanding each other, and (especially in the case of my evangelical friends) exercise discernment enough to realize that when I seek to better understand the point-of-view represented by abortion rights advocates, I am not seeking to promote the point-of-view.

The place most people begin in discussions of abortion rights is the infamous US Supreme Court decision called "Roe v. Wade," decided in 1973. In this ruling, with a seven to two majority vote, the Court concluded that most laws against abortion in the US violated a constitutional right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Since that time, anti-abortion groups of various persuasions have taken issue with this "right to privacy," because, in the words of dissenting Judge Byron White, they believe the court "simply fashion[ed] and announce[d] a new constitutional right for pregnant mothers."

At this point, I will leave the legal discussion to the legal minds. Although the Roe v. Wade decision is the starting point for most in the abortion rights discussion, I think it is vital for the sake of understanding to realize that the average defender of abortion rights does so not on the basis of a Court decision (although they will fervently defend the decision, for sure), but on something much more basic and, frankly, much more significant: the right to control one's person, that is, the inherent human entitlement to have primary say over what happens to one's body, mind, and soul.

Now, I know there are lots of directions we could go in the discussion of this presumed basic human right. Persons from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic perspectives would rightly bring up the rulership of God over all things, which certainly has an impact on the way one may exercise one's individual right to control one's person. As a Christian, I affirm that my body is not my own and I do not have absolute say over what happens to it. Also, there is the discussion of one's obligation to the community and the consideration of the perceived impact a person's "rights" have on the broader society (a topic I addressed in my post Thoughts on Feminism and Abortion. These matters are significant. But, I have a feeling my readers are familiar with these ideas and I'm headed someplace else.

Although I cannot speak for abortion rights advocacy groups, nor can I presume to speak for individual women who seek to protect their access to abortion, I am quite convinced that abortion is not an act they relish or find inherently good. (I'm sure there are some who do feel this way, but they are in no sense the majority, even among the most fervent pro-choice advocates.) Indeed, if you listen closely, the matter of the right to control one's person comes up over and over again.

As I seek to better understand the abortion rights position, I have pondered this issue for some time. For those who advocate for abortion rights, why is the right to control one's person such an important matter to defend? And, why would any limitations on such rights be so abhorrent and objectionable (when, at the same time, in the view of pro-life advocates, such "rights" lead to equally abhorrent practices)? There's insufficient space at this point to address this matter fully, but let me unpack just a small portion of the baggage wrapped up in this debate.

Although Western democracies have made significant advances in the protection of women and women's rights, for most women in the US, it remains a fact of life that she will have her physical (not to mention mental and spiritual) person violated on a number of occasions. By way of personal example, when I worked in a restaurant as a teenager, I had to contend with male employees and customers who violated by bodily space (through a variety of means I won't mention), simply because I was female. I'm sure the men in question weren't thinking deeply about their actions, but clearly the fact of my female body clearly suggested to them I had no right over my body--the right to not be touched, harassed, etc. It would not have occurred to the same men to treat the bodies of other men in a similar manner.

Admittedly, this is a rather mild example, compared to what other women have experienced. The truth is, fear of harassment, rape, abuse, etc, is something women in the US face on a daily basis and most of that is closely tied to the fact that men don't believe women have "rights" simply because they are women. The female body, even in the Western world, is constantly seen as vulnerable and open to misuse by men. (I could also talk here about the rampant problems in the maternity care system in the US, in which women constantly have their bodies violated without or against their consent in the name of "medical care.")

Moreover, in the rest of the world, women are generally and systematically deprived of the right to control their own person. In some countries, there aren't even laws to appeal to in order to right these wrongs. I could illustrate this problem with a vast number of examples, but here are a few.

Women abuse. A quarter of the world's women will experience sexual assault by a man in their lifetime. And, every ten seconds in the US, a woman is physically assaulted by an intimate male partner. I've detailed additional statistics about this evil pandemic in a previous post. This is a major problem.

Rape. Women are raped by their boyfriends, acquaintances, husbands, fathers, brothers, cousins, and neighbors. Women in the developing world often experience rape as a tactic of warfare, where soldiers will kill the men of a particular region and then systematically rape the women.

I don't have the time to go into the other horrific things that women experience all over the world. Sexual trafficking. Enslavement. Honor killing. Sati. Bride burning. Female circumcision or excisement. Targeted abortion of female babies. Forced prostitution. Feel free to Google or Wikipedia these things for more information.

Unfortunately, the ways women are subjugated and controlled do not end with this brief discussion. But, I think this description is sufficient to make my point. With so many women worldwide, unable to exercise even the slightest control over their bodies, it is understandable that abortion rights advocates fervently defend against anything that would provide further restriction. The above practices are not limited to "undeveloped" or "under-developed" countries and, in a sense, women everywhere are at a fairly constant risk of being exploited or mistreated. This is not an exaggeration. This is a statistical and experiential fact.

So, what am I getting at? Although we do not have to go from this observation to the defense of abortion as a practice or abortion rights as a public policy (because I don't and many others don't), I do believe evangelicals (and all those who call themselves Christians) need to soberly consider how the Christian faith informs the way we approach the defense of women and women's right to control their own person.

Tragically, in the past, Christian theologians and leaders have done more to contribute to the plight of female subjugation than they have contributed to its alleviation. Indeed, a frank survey of the Early Church Fathers, Reformation leaders, and others, reveals a sad history of misogynism and androcentrism. I don't want to repeat this problem in the present day but I fear that many unwittingly do so.

Women's bodies should be protected and their persons defended. Their right to control their person should be upheld. And, women's babies should be welcomed as the natural good that they are. In my humble opinion, somehow, Christians need to find a way to affirm both. Is that possible? I definitely hope so.


Rev Kev said...

Thank you for this thoughtful response to an issue at an impasse. Alasdair MacIntyre brings it up as an example of moral incommensurability. We cannot agree on ends, so we argue emotively and incoherently.

Andrea Collison said...

It is something I pondered when I watched the movie "V For Vendetta". To lose the personal rights assured us by our Constitution is a horrific thought - although I still dont see that right to privacy and abortion have much to do with each other, except perhaps in the case of rape. First off, Jesus tells us in the gospel of Matthew (as well as others) that we cannot expect the world to act as we do. He sees them as lost and wandering sheep and we are to adopt this view while still being "as wise as a serpent, as gentle as a dove.". Jesus wept over Israel much like many of us lament over the US and the brokenness that we see. Keeping in the with this, I believe that we as Christians must approach it on a case by case basis rather than one grand sweep of all women who may entertain the idea of abortion are monsters. How many of us who pass such judgements have been raped? Have been raised with no sexual education and a poor example set before us? We have the resources to make a huge outcry politically but the ones who are truly struggling with such matters often have no voice. For women to have control over their own bodies is a must - but with that comes the responsibility of what you do with that control. Once you gain control, you lose the ability to blame others for the choices you make. Reaching out to the lost and hurt in our world and teaching them about Jesus will give them in a way an ultimate power over their bodies - one that no one can take from them.

Robert Martin said...

I found it interesting that the concerns about life in the womb are not a recent concern at all. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in "Ethics" wrote on this exact topic. Note, especially, as pertains to this discussion, the second paragraph...

‎"Destruction of the embryo in the mother's womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and [it] has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.
"A great many different motives may lead to an action of this kind, indeed in cases where it is an act of despair, performed in circumstances of extreme human or economic destitution and misery, the guilt may often lie with the community than with the individual. Precisely in this connexion (sic) money may conceal many a wonton deed, while the poor man's more reluctant lapse may far more easily be disclosed. All these considerations must no doubt have a quite decisive influence on our personal and pastoral attitude towards the person concerned, but they cannot in any way alter the fact of murder." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Ethics"

Grace is VERY important in understanding other people, their situations, and their life. This understanding is important, but it does not negate the act, only alters, softens, and guides us in our own reactions. Vilification of pro-choice/pro-life viewpoints is not a gracious attitude and needs to be examined through a lens of grace itself.

Natalie said...

Thank you for this post - it so wonderfully expresses an issue I have been dealing with lately. My right not to be touched was violated the other day on the train, and it made me think about women all over the world who deal with so much more--on a daily basis--than the occasional drunk on the train. We need to talk about this much more often!