Walk With Me (#8): Abortion & Trust

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

We’re all just walking each other home. — Ram Dass

Dear Asha,

I am confused why there is such controversy over a woman’s right to choose whether to have a child or not.

A married friend with two children does not want a third, yet there is so much guilt in this society if she decides to terminate this pregnancy. And, yet, if a woman is carrying a child, say with Down syndrome, she is often given the right to terminate that pregnancy with little to no guilt.

We’re in an election year, and there seems to be such misinformation about what Democrats say on this issue. I recently had a talk with Catholics to whom this is very important and they wish the Democratic party would use different language, phrased something like supporting that “every means be available to women before termination, so abortion is safe and rare”.

Can you help me understand how to talk to people about this issue?

Sincerely, LSC

Dear LSC,

There is a lot to unpack here. One, the question of a woman’s right to choose. Two, the way women are treated around the decision to terminate a pregnancy. Three, abortion and religion, and four, party platforms and electoral politics. Many people more qualified, and less essentially cranky than I am, have tackled the complexity of all of these topics extensively in books, articles, and research projects.

They can give you measured responses, and debate-worthy rhetoric. If you are really interested in trying to talk about women’s right to choose to have an abortion with people who are, at best, ambivalent, those people are going to be a better bet than me.

I listened to a recent interview with a researcher who interviewed 1000 women repeatedly over years, some who received abortions and some who were denied them, to see the long term effects on their lives. The data may be interesting to you, and useful in your conversations.

I don’t have data. I don’t have a measured response. I do have my own experience and the experience of women I know. I also have a bone-deep conviction that my body belongs to me, and is not available for use by anyone else without my consent, even to get born. And I don’t give a good goddamn if someone disagrees with me about my right to choose. They can wrest my bodily autonomy out of my cold, dead hands.

Since we ended the draft, the only way in which a man is ever required to submit his body without his express consent to be used by society is through imprisonment. Prison slavery is still legal in these United States, in case you hadn’t heard. Tying women to their biology by removing their right to choose whether or not to bear a child is also slavery. Slavery is always deeply, morally wrong.

So, in case it wasn’t clear yet, I unequivocally support any woman’s right to have an abortion if she wants one, period. I don’t care if she was or wasn’t using birth control. I don’t care if she’s ever had an abortion before, or already has other children. I don’t care if she’s in a stable relationship and has the means to support a child. I don’t care if the child has potential genetic disorders or not. I don’t care her age. I don’t care the stage of her pregnancy. I don’t care if what that woman is gestating is considered a fetus or a “baby”. I don’t care if she’s sad, numb, resolute, or just damn happy.

I do not believe any woman should ever have to bear a child unless she chooses to.

The first woman I ever knew who had an abortion wasn’t even a woman. She was a girl, a thirteen year old girl that I was friends with in junior high school. She was the alienated daughter of a struggling immigrant mom with an illegally older boyfriend and a chip on her shoulder heavier than the Chrysler building. She huffed film cleaner behind the building at lunch, didn’t use birth control, and glibly declared that if she got pregnant she would “just get an abortion”, which she did.

She was a textbook example of the kind of female person that folks who are opposed to women having a right to choose take issue with. Hell, even I, who believed she had a right to choose even then, found her laissez-faire attitude unsettling. You know what would have been even more unsettling? That same young woman in charge of the livelihood of a child.

Her irresponsibility was ethically questionable, but her instinct that she was not ready to have a baby was right on the money. Women don’t have to be traditionally “virtuous” to earn the right to know if they should consent to bear a child.

I have never had a medical abortion, despite years of sexual experimentation during which I was sometimes less than careful about the use of birth control. Maybe I was lucky, and just never got pregnant. Maybe it was my periodic use of herbal abortifacients when I was more than 3–4 days beyond the point I would have normally started my period, just in case.

I knew I wasn’t ready to bear a child. I used the tools readily available to me to make sure I didn’t, as women of child-bearing age have for thousands of years.

A dear friend had a medical abortion when she was in college, completely clear that she didn’t want to have a child at that age, or with that man. Just over a decade later she was married with two children, and using birth control because she didn’t want any more kids. She got pregnant. She planned to have an abortion, and then she changed her mind. That child is now a teenager.

She regrets neither choice. She looked at the totality of her life in both cases, and followed her instincts.

I’m 48 years old, and finally have a really wonderful partner. Even knowing that I am way too old to go back to babies, and the track record that both of us have with the other parents of our respective children, I still feel wistful sometimes that we’ll never have children together. If I were to become pregnant I don’t know if I could decide to terminate, even though that would be the smartest thing to do, which is why I have an IUD. My instincts tell me not to tempt fate.

I have never known a woman who didn’t take the possibility of bearing a child seriously, even my friend in junior high school. Not having the developmental capacity to weigh risks related to consistent use of effective birth control does not equate to not understanding the seriousness of bearing a child at thirteen. The remedy to that particular situation would have been addressing the misapprehension of risk, not denying her the right not to carry a pregnancy to term.

I trust women. I trust women to control their own lives. I trust women to hold a potential life other than their own in their hands and to choose whether or not they can nurture both lives at the same time.

What do they tell us when we get on an airplane? If the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling and you are traveling with your child, put your own gas mask on first. Take care of yourself first, so that you can properly and safely care for others.

We trust mothers in the midst of a plane crash to make the right decisions about their life and the lives of others, but we don’t trust them before those self-same children are even born?

At the heart of the controversy, as you say, over women’s right to choose is distrust of women. It is not just a desire to control women’s bodies, but a disbelief that women are capable of making careful, complex, responsible decisions about their lives and the lives of others. It is a belief that women’s instincts can’t be trusted.

I trust women. I trust them to decide when and how to have sex, when and how to utilize birth control, and when or whether to have children. I believe women should have every tool at their disposal to control their reproductive lives, and that with those tools they will make the best decisions for themselves, their families and communities.

It might not be the same decision I would make, but that’s the funny thing about trust. It exists hand-in-hand with freedom.

I trust women to be free.

You mentioned the Democratic Party. I looked up their 2020 party platform, and here’s what it says about “Securing Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice”:

Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice. We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should be able to access high-quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion. We will repeal the Title X domestic gag rule and restore federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides vital preventive and reproductive health care for millions of people, especially low-income people, and people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, including in underserved areas.

Democrats oppose and will fight to overturn federal and state laws that create barriers to reproductive health and rights. We will repeal the Hyde Amendment, and protect and codify the right to reproductive freedom. We condemn acts of violence, harassment, and intimidation of reproductive health providers, patients, and staff. We will address the discrimination and barriers that inhibit meaningful access to reproductive health care services, including those based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, income, disability, geography, and other factors. Democrats oppose restrictions on medication abortion care that are inconsistent with the most recent medical and scientific evidence and that do not protect public health.

We recognize that quality, affordable comprehensive health care; medically accurate, LGBTQ+ inclusive, age-appropriate sex education; and the full range of family planning services are all essential to ensuring that people can decide if, when, and how to start a family. We are proud to be the party of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination in health care on the basis of sex and requires insurers to cover prescription contraceptives at no cost. These efforts have significantly reduced teen and unintended pregnancies by making it easier to decide whether, when, and how to have a child. We believe that a person’s health should always come first. Democrats will protect the rights of all people to make personal health care decisions, and will reject the Trump Administration’s use of broad exemptions to allow medical providers, employers, and others to discriminate.

I took the liberty of bolding all the portions that seem pertinent to the question of “supporting every means available to women prior to termination, so that abortion is safe and rare”. Comprehensive, inclusive sex education makes abortion safe and rare. Preventative health services make abortion safe and rare. Affordable, accessible birth control makes abortion safe and rare. Giving women all the tools they need to control their reproductive lives makes abortion safe and rare.

Trusting women makes abortion safe and rare.

I may not be the best person to advise you on how to talk to people about this issue, because I am not the most patient person with anyone who doesn’t trust women to control their own lives. I mostly just want to stab them in the eye, but retreat to telling them to fuck right off because it’s less likely to get me arrested.

Women have always used whatever tools available to them to control their reproductive lives and, yes, to have abortions when necessary. That will always be true, as it should be. Anyone who cares about abortions being safe and rare should make sure they are legal, affordable, and easily accessible.

They should also be fighting poverty and hunger, advocating for high quality, free public education through college, and Medicare for All. Otherwise, as Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister (a Catholic!) said, you’re just pro-birth, not pro-life:

I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.

I wish you luck in your conversations. Don’t stab anybody in the eye. It’ll get you arrested.

Thanks for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Want to walk further together? A new Walk With Me is published every Wednesday at noon (EST). You can also catch up on recent Walk With Me columns below.

Walk With Me (#7): Teaching Beyond The White Gaze

Walk With Me (#6): Teen Girls And Sex

Walk With Me (#5): Talking About Death Without Heaven

Walk With Me (#4): White Women & Interracial Relationships

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

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