For decades, we have been conditioned into believing that the contentious debate around abortion comes down to a binary decision. Pro-life, or pro-choice? It’s a seemingly obvious demarcation to separate views on apparently opposing ends of the political spectrum. But what if we realised that this is a false dichotomy?
How It Happened
The pro-choice narrative germinated from the self-evident idea that it is, literally, a right to choose or not what a woman does with her body. If a draconian government bans abortion, the woman loses that freedom to choose and is consequently exposed to substantial risk. For example, she has to undergo a dangerous termination, the threat of jail, and of course, maternal death. It is not a fallacy to call it a right to choose. However, the problem lies in the fact that it is deceptively framed as mutually exclusive with abortion, otherwise known as ‘pro-life’.
To unpack the pro-life argument, it purports that women should not have abortions because the embryo or foetus’ right to survival should supersede the mothers’. ‘Pro-lifers’ often define the right to life at different points, some right from the moment of conception, and others at varying stages of gestation, making the argument more convoluted. However, the general premise here is that proponents are primarily occupied with protecting life for religious reasons or otherwise.
The Law of Excluded Middle
Otherwise known as the exhausted hypotheses fallacy, the law of excluded middle describes a statement falsely claiming something is an ‘either/or’ situation when there is at least one other valid option. The idea of irreconcilability between the two stances is the product of a longstanding patriarchal system of setting women up as collateral.
It deliberately pits liberals and conservatives against each other in a constant game of identity politics. By relentlessly emphasising this reductionist choice, swathes of the population are duped into missing a far more peaceful conclusion: that one can be pro-life and pro-choice simultaneously. One can disagree with a woman having an abortion (pro-life) but still respect her right to choose to have one (pro-choice).
Anyone who disagrees with another’s decision should not be able to prohibit them from taking that course of action forcibly. Just as a Christian would legitimately be condemned for ripping a headscarf from a Muslim, male dominated governments cannot be legislating against women’s rights just because leaders object to their decisions. Imagine the furore if governments forced men to have vasectomies. It would never happen because society values male freedom far more than women’s. But all people deserve physical liberty, not just men. Bodily autonomy should be an inalienable right for all.
And if none of this resonates, the data supporting reproductive safety flies in the face of the pro-life stance; abortion rates are lower in countries with ‘liberal’ abortion laws. Make no mistake; banning abortion does not prevent them. It increases them. Consequently, more women have unsafe abortions, and more women and their foetuses die.
The Consequences of Reproductive Oppression Across the Globe
To look at real-world applicability, let’s take Texan pro-lifers as an example. Recently, they proposed a provision that would not just outlaw abortion, but legally qualify it as a homicide. What this equated to, considering the state’s death penalty, was not just criminalising, but sentencing women to death if they chose to have abortions. Suppose supporters claim to protect the sanctity of life obsessively. Why then do they propose legislation which would extinguish life itself?
The answer is that being ‘pro-life’ is a disingenuous, a misogynistic smokescreen to cover the real motivation of many promoting it: to control women. Not only this but to infantilise women by refusing to trust them to make their own choices. Criminalising abortion also, by the law of unintended consequences, punishes women who are not even attempting to terminate their pregnancies.
Christine Taylor from Iowa was charged with attempted feticide after she fell down the stairs in her home. A Louisiana native was jailed for second-degree murder for unexplained vaginal bleeding. She had, in fact, suffered a miscarriage. Three women were collectively imprisoned for 30 years after being accused of aborting their babies. They had also suffered miscarriages. Blanket bans, which El Salvador, Malta, the Philippines and San Marino have issued are worse, meaning women who would die in childbirth essentially receive a choice between a death sentence, or incarceration if detected having abortions.
The ‘pro-life’ quagmire that conservatives place themselves in is antithetical to conserving life itself. Globally, an average of 70,000 women a year die from unsafe abortions, which of course happen where governments have criminalised or refused to provide them. The term ‘pro-life’ is a deceptive misnomer.
Journalist Jordan Klepper: ‘Are you pro-life? Would you do anything to protect human life?’
Trump supporter at a rally: ‘Of course.’
Klepper: ‘Why are you not wearing a mask?’
Supporter: ‘It’s a personal choice.’
The Trump administration has been predictably catastrophic for women, especially when it comes to reproductive rights. He reimposed the global gag rule, making international aid disbursements conditional on no funding being used for reproductive services. Trump also signed the Geneva Consensus Declaration Pledge, which ‘reaffirms that there is no international right to abortion”.
There is hope, however, with Joe Biden’s win. He states in his manifesto that he will codify the right to abortion, and repeal the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision barring the use of federal funds for terminations, except to save the woman’s life. He also pledged to reverse obstructive policies such as parental notification prerequisites, mandatory waiting periods, and ultrasound requirements.
The European Counterpart: Poland
It is not just the US which is playing out a dangerous script on the world’s stage. Recently, Poland’s High Court declared abortions of foetuses with congenital defects unconstitutional, tightening an already archaic set of restrictions. The ruling Law and Justice party enacted this when street congregations were prohibited, attempting to exploit the pandemic and circumvent accountability by quashing potential demonstrations.
“Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban and violates human rights.”
-Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic
However, despite the mass gathering ban, protests surged ahead. Poland was brought to a standstill by hundreds of thousands of protesters for almost two weeks, marching in multiple cities including Gdańsk, Wroclaw and Warsaw. Many bore wire coat hangers, a symbol of deadly abortions that happen where safe zones are inaccessible. In a partial win for women, the Polish government indefinitely delayed the ruling as a result.
Bridging The Divide
These positions are not monolithic. We all disagree in various ways, but we can respectfully do so without dictating women’s lives based on contention. The ‘pro-life’ camp is a self-contradiction when evidence shows it ends in more death, but it is still a position held by some. As a society, we need to recognise another harmonious option, contrary to what we’ve been led to believe. Governments should not legislate on women’s liberty, just as they would not criminalise people for being religious if they were atheist.
The real question is why governments are still debating whether they should dictate the permissibility of what women do with their bodies and futures at all. Internationally, there is some progress, with Northern Ireland and most recently Argentina legalising abortion. However, there is still an incredibly long way to go.
If you are concerned with protecting life, protect women. Protect them from maternal death, from harassment at abortion clinics, from discrimination and criminalisation. If you feel strongly about it, consider becoming a foster parent to one of the 3000 children waiting for adoption in the UK, and support progressive abortion laws. We protect life in far more ways when we end the cycle of disenfranchisement, empower women and respect their choices.
Cecilia Jastrzembska is a Senior Policy Advisor in central government and is an elected representative of the Young Fabians (progressive political thinktank) National Executive Committee, the International Policy Group and International Network. She coaches public speaking, was shortlisted for an award for her work on mitigating algorithmic gender bias alongside a UN branch and is producing a pamphlet, ‘The Gendered Impact of The Pandemic: Rebuilding The World For Women’. She writes for a variety of publications, including Global Politics, the Oxford Political Review and Policy Network.