Realizing that “choice” isn’t absolute

Frances Kissling, an ardent pro-choicer, has a thought provoking essay on salon.com for pro-choicers: Can we ever say a women can’t choose? (via Feministing — bold enough to link, but not without distancing themselves). Kudos to her for taking an intellectually honest look at “choice” (I’ll voice my points of disagreement toward the end).

About 15 years ago I was on an ethics panel at a Planned Parenthood annual meeting. The format was the old Fred Friendly case study discussion: The moderator lays out a tough ethics case and then asks members of the panel what they would do if they were — in Planned Parenthood’s case — the doctor, nurse, patient, clinic director, lawyer, whoever.

In one scenario I was the doctor and was asked if I would perform an abortion for a couple — perfectly ordinary middle-class people — who had a son and wanted a daughter to round out the family. The woman was pregnant with another boy. I said I wouldn’t do it and I thought Planned Parenthood policy should preclude such abortions but be open to referring women to providers whose values may be more in sync with the patient’s. I also suggested that institutions as well as individuals have values, and that those of us in leadership positions on reproductive rights had an obligation to let the public know what our values were – in all their complexity.

Just because something is legal — and should be legal — does not mean it is always ethical. And sometimes the right thing to say to a woman is “I am so sorry, I cannot do what you ask.”

We’ve discussed sex-selective abortions before and the challenges they present to pro-choicers. But here, Kissling isn’t afraid to say no. And she brings up several other objectionable examples too, such as abortion in the case of foetal disabilities or anomalies.

There’s always been a fear in the choice movement that if we deal with “morality” we are going to lose. Even the word morality sends chills up the spines of some choice advocates. We are somewhat more comfortable talking about “ethics,” although both words have the same meaning. Morals comes from a Latin root and is a “hot” passionate word, conjuring up religion. Ethics, from the Greek, is cooler, dispassionate, more distancing and secular.

The thought of putting every woman through the indignity of meeting with an ethics committee, or getting a doctor to sign off on her reasons for abortion, has forced most of us to stick with the principle that women must be allowed to make their own private ethical decisions, without the state getting involved. But is it really leadership for us always to simply shrug and say: “Who knows whether that was an unethical decision for that woman?” Don’t we express moral views about every other issue under the sun, from the number of embryos it is ethical to insert into a woman’s uterus to the morality of bonuses for Wall St. executives who robbed us blind? Expressing our views about controversial issues is how society develops norms and shared values.

This is a huge step up from the common “don’t force morality on us!”

Is there not, in an ethical sense, an important weighing of women’s rights and needs against a respect for life, even the life of nonpersons? Is there a point in pregnancy when our respect for life might outweigh a woman’s right to make this choice? And is the fact that we have avoided it part of the reason that polls show that more people are willing to call themselves pro-life than ever before?

Here’s where the disagreement starts to show though. Why should anyone care about the life of such “nonpersons?” Or, more importantly, why should anyone care in some cases, but not others? If the life of a nonperson is ever worth weighing against a woman’s right to autonomy, is it just in the case of sex selective abortions, but not abortion for a masters degree? What is it that could make the life of the unborn valuable sometimes, but still allow for elective abortion?

If so, O’Reilly’s opening salvo: “Do you feel late-term fetuses deserve any protection at all?” is a question we must answer — and I would say answer in the affirmative. We have already decided that embryos and stem cells, very early forms of life, deserve protection, and we have regulations that govern how they can be treated as research subjects. We protect animals and endangered species, even some plants. How we treat these potential forms of persons as well as how we treat other living nonpersons has come to be understood as an indicator of who we think we are as moral persons. We are pro-life to the extent that we do not want to abuse or harm living things if we can avoid it.

More intellectually honest thinking, but the same problem remains for me.

It would be a good idea for pro-choice advocates to stop calling this a “compromise,” as though it was forced on us. Embracing it would mean public acceptance of the fetus as something that has some small claim on us… I think it’s important for us to be able to say: When a fetus reaches the point where it could survive outside the uterus, is healthy, and the woman is healthy, and she has had five months to make up her mind, we should say no to abortion… There is a point when our respect for potential life, for that individual fetus, should outweigh a woman’s desire, even need, not to be pregnant.

Wow. I applaud her honesty and willingness to grapple with a difficult issue. I’d still love to hear what makes the life of another human being only worth protecting at some particular point. If the life of the unborn is worth protecting at all, how could you ever privilege the desire of one human being over the life of another in elective abortion?

I’m reminded of one of the most succinct summaries of the pro-life position: if the unborn is not a human being, no justification for elective abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human being, no justification for elective abortion is adequate.

I still have a twinge of doubt when I write these words. For most of my years as an advocate of a woman’s right to decide, I stepped back from this conclusion. I could not bring myself to say that there are circumstances in which I would force a woman to continue a pregnancy.

Frances, don’t worry — other defenders of abortion have had their doubts too.

Thanks for being honest.

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