I’m going to step into an endless debate with absolutely no pretensions that I will in any way have an impact. That debate is the one over abortion in this country. I feel that the definitions and the arguments of this debate are almost entirely framed by one side and inadequately elucidated by the other. Hopefully I can shed some light on this that might help to clarify, if not the debate itself, then maybe the parameters of the debate.
I believe that the anti-abortion crowd owns the talking points of the debate. I say this because it is they who have presented and promoted the terms used to discuss and understand the debate itself.
A term like “prolife”, instead of the more accurate “anti-abortion” isn’t just a way for those people to self identify, but rather is used even by most abortion rights supporters to describe them. The flip side of the prolife identifier has come to be popularly defined as “prochoice.” This sobriquet is used by those supporting abortion rights, as well as by those opposing it, and even those who straddle the fence. These terms then, have become the definition of the debate itself.
These terms have arisen through their insertion into our culture by those who are anti-abortion. And these terms promote the anti-abortion viewpoint to a much greater degree than they do the abortion rights viewpoint. That the general population uses these terms to simply identify the argument is troublesome, for definition too often comes to create or destroy a debate itself.
By this I mean, who among us is not “prolife?” That is, who would take the antithetical title of “antilife?” That, after all, is the implication that is allowed to exist when using the prolife terminology. Oh, the abortion rights advocate certainly doesn’t think of themselves as antilife when they speak of their debate opponents as prolife, but that’s what the other side hears, and many in the general public hear some form of this as well.
Abortion rights people usually call themselves “prochoice”, therefore they are identified that way by almost all others. Prochoice certainly does not contain within itself the clarity of identity afforded the term “prolife.” Life, after all, is a much more critical condition to the human being than is choice. While “prochoice” does not imply by its exact definition, “antilife,” it does not adequately make that distinction to those not strongly engaged in the debate.
I guess what really bothers me about this is that the Roe v. Wade decision that is seen as the turning point for abortion rights in this country never identified choice as the rationale for lifting the most stringent obstacles to that right. For an abortion rights supporter to call themselves “prochoice” is to admit to a misunderstanding of the decision itself. If the abortion rights advocate does not understand this salient point, what chance does the general public have to understand what is really at stake, and how they identify with issues at hand?
The majority decision by the Supreme Court that overturned Texas’ anti-abortion law was based, not in the right to choose, but in the individual right to privacy. The right to choose is not sacrosanct in our Constitution, and implies an individual right to be fickle. To pick one pair of shoes over another, or to choose one item from a menu over another one.
The right to privacy, however, is easily interpreted from the Constitution as a right, not of a fickle or capricious manner, but as basic to the human being, physically, as well as, psychologically. It is implied as a basic human right within the First Amendment, and a recognized and enumerated right in the Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments, though the words “right to privacy” don’t occur.
Justice Blackmun, in his written majority opinion, stated that Texas statutes covering this issue were unconstitutionally vague, and that they abridged Roe’s right to personal privacy in the case at hand. Blackmun laid out the history of anti-abortion laws in this country and elsewhere, and recognized that they were of relatively recent vintage at the time of the decision. He recognized that they were initially enacted, ostensibly, to protect the lives of mothers, in an era of pre-antiseptic surgery and medical procedures. With the improved state of medical technique, antisepsis, and access to facilities, this was no longer a valid argument, certainly not when weighed against the right of individual privacy as the Court interpreted.
The Court found that since all anti-abortion laws in this country came into effect during a period of time from mid-19th century to early 20th century, abortion was apparently viewed with less disfavor at the time of the adoption of our Constitution in the 18th century. Therefore, they felt, a woman enjoyed a substantially broader right to terminate a pregnancy then than she did at the time of their decision. Thus it was recognized that there was an implied right to privacy at the time of the Constitution being adopted that had since been abrogated.
The decision also waded into the waters of the debate about when life begins, which the Texas statute recognized as conception. This is a definition still used by many anti-abortion people today.
While the written decision does not define when life begins, leaving that question to be answered by science, theology, and ethics, it did make a telling point that is still valid today. The Court found that within every statute in the United States at that time, which included all fifty states, there were provisions to allow an abortion if certain conditions existed, usually a threat to the life of the mother. The Court decided that in the case of Texas, as incumbent in Roe v. Wade, such a caveat existed, and that such an exception indicated that the claim of life beginning at conception was not valid. Otherwise the State of Texas was authorizing the taking of a human life, thus condoning murder, and losing the force of their own argument as to when life might begin.
They also denied the argument that the unborn fetus had the same right to privacy as that granted the mother. They did so by citing the definition of person as implied by the Constitution and past Court decisions. That is, that all of the uses of terms of personhood referred to the postnatal condition.
The Court did not throw open the flood gates by allowing unrestricted abortion on demand, in spite of the rhetoric espoused by the anti-abortion radicals. While the Court recognized a woman’s right to privacy, they did not recognize the right to choose without regard to other legal parameters that they recognized.
The Court recognized the right of the states to regulate certain areas of the decision, mostly so as to protect health by way of maintaining and regulating medical standards. They, therefore, rejected the absolute right to abortion. The decision found that a woman in her first trimester still largely could maintain the cloak of privacy regarding a pregnancy, in that she was not likely to be obviously pregnant, so it would still be private at her discretion. They also noted that abortion during the first trimester was statistically safer than delivering a child to term, thus the state would not be able to claim to be protecting the health of the mother. As they stated, “This means, on the other hand, that, for the period of pregnancy prior to this ‘compelling’ point, the attending physician, in consultation with his patient, is free to determine, without regulation by the State, that, in his medical judgment, the patient’s pregnancy should be terminated. If that decision is reached, the judgment may be effectuated by an abortion free of interference by the State.”
Roe v. Wade defined the legality of abortion, not as a choice, and not as an absolute right, but rather as a right to privacy issue with certain rights still available to the state to regulate the procedure and access to it, mostly after the first trimester of pregnancy. That this debate has been predicated upon such terms as “choice”, “abortion on demand,” and the like has fostered the climate that now exists within the parameters of the debate to the point that both sides are arguing over the wrong issues.
If someone is pro-life, absolutely, no exceptions, they do not understand this debate. In fact, they have no place in this debate, for, by implication, they would not abort a fetus even if incest or rape were involved. They would also, by implication, choose to carry to term a fetus who might be known to be malformed in such a way as to inflict horrible suffering upon the child carried to full term, therefore choosing one moral outcome over another.
If they are pro-life with some exceptions, then they are not truly pro-life, but rather pro-choice, for by whatever exceptions they find tenable, they are choosing to make those exceptions.
If one self-identifies as pro-choice, they too do not understand the issue. It was never about choice. It was, and is, about rights. A right to privacy, not a right to choose. Though the right to privacy may allow one the luxury of making a choice, it is not, and never was, about the choice itself.
The sooner both sides come to grips with facts and stop flaggelating themselves and each other over improper terminology, semantic, and descriptions, the better for all concerned.