Musings on Grey

Krista and Lauren point to a thoughtful post by Ayelet Waldman in response to Frances Kissling's essay Is There Life After Roe: How to Think About the Fetus. They both quote this passage:

To be relevant to the contemporary world, to be valid, the pro-choice movement must listen to pregnant women. We must listen to the woman and value her words. A woman who is unwillingly pregnant, whose pregnancy at, say, 10 weeks, is nothing more than a source of desperation, of misery, knows one truth and we must respect it and honor it. A pregnant woman whose 4 month-old fetus has Down’s Syndrome knows another truth, and we must respect that, too. A pregnant woman whose batterer kicks her in the stomach, trying to end her baby's life, knows another truth. Respecting the truths of these pregnant women allows us to deal in shades of grey, to liberate ourselves from the straitjacket of the black and white.

I agree, but these insights raise questions -- no answers here, just questions -- that I'd like to explore. Reading this post reminded me of the debates over Laci and Connor's law; pro-choice feminists struggled with whether or not to support it. Connor Peterson was a wanted child whose death was against his mother's will, and many pro-choice feminists wanted to support the law wholeheartedly, without apologies or qualms, because of that distinction, but were worried that doing so was an admission of the personhood of a fetus, a step back in the fight for reproductive rights. I think this dilemma is another illustration of a truth.

I wonder how shades-of-grey pro-choice rhetoric will look. I wonder if the "moral elite" will see "shades of grey" as some kind of admission of guilt. Waldman says of her second-trimester abortion: "I also believe that to end a pregnancy like mine is to kill a fetus. Kill. I use that word very consciously and specifically." Maybe I've been reading too much Lakoff, but when I saw this, I thought, "pro-life frame." But her feelings toward this fetus were, and still are, very nuanced, a complexity of multiple-truths moral thought of which most pregnant women are capable. She does think of aborting in this case as killing, but chose to have the abortion for several personal reasons. Her decision was "based on [her] own and [her] family’s needs and limitations." She writes, "I did not want to raise a genetically compromised child. I did not want my children to have to contend with the massive diversion of parental attention, and the consequences of being compelled to care for their brother after I died."

I keep coming back to the complexity. Kissling writes: "The relation of value to wantedness is complex and at times troubling. Antiabortionists have countered the “Every child a wanted child” message by pointing out that if wantedness is what gives us value and a right to life, then who among the unwanted will be the next to be declared disposable—the sick, the disabled, the poor or the unemployed?" Sorry, this post is becoming a series of commonplaces. Please bear with me while I lay all this out. Kissling also writes:

It does lead me to believe that we would do well as prochoice people to present abortion as a complex issue that involves loss—and to be saddened by that loss at the same time as we affirm and support women’s decisions to end pregnancies. Is there not a way to simply say, “Yes, it is sad, unfortunate, tragic (or whatever word you are comfortable with) that this life could not come to fruition. It is sad that we live in a world where there is so little social and economic support for families that many women have no choice but to end pregnancies. It is sad that so many women do not have access to contraception. It is sad that this fetus was not healthy enough to survive and it was good that this woman had the right to make this choice for herself and her family, to avoid suffering, and to act on her values and her sense of what her life should be.”

(To this I'd add: It is sad that we live in a world where so many girls and women are victims of rape and incest. It is sad that there are many doctors and hospitals who refuse women access to emergency contraception.) Still, these are the people who have to be convinced (well, maybe not these particular people, but a majority within the institutions these people represent), not pregnant women. How rhetorically effective is it to say, "yes, it's killing (in some cases), but I should have the legal right to do it because I'm acting on my values and my personal truth"? I can already hear chilling, flippant responses from some who lack sympathy for the position, along the lines of the "who among the unwanted will be the next to be declared disposable" line of thinking Kissling cites, only far less sincere: "So I can kill gays and lesbians because to do so is to act on my values? Yay!" And exactly how will such a shades-of-grey pro-choice rhetoric be more "relevant to the contemporary world"? It would certainly be a more accurate reflection of what goes on on the ground, but what specifically makes it a more effective rhetorical strategy, especially to a diverse audience that contains a lot of these folks? I hope these posts prompt some brainstorming about what shades-of-grey pro-choice rhetoric will be.


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unfortunately no 'shades of grey'

I do not believe abortion can be seen in 'shades of grey'. In the first 4 weeks, all major systems and organs begin to form - the neural tube, digestive system, heart and circulatory system. The beginnings of the eyes and ears are developing and tiny limb buds appear. The fetus's heart is beating. If one goes through with an abortion, one is terminating a life. Personally, I do not think I could ever go through with one because of personal beliefs. However, under certain circumstances sometimes I wonder... not as a means of birth control, but in case of rape, severe birth defects, ... It is very much a personal choice, therefore I don't think pushing either 'pro-life' or 'pro-choice' beliefs towards others is the right thing to do.

I agree: no shades of gray

To me, while the morality of the issue is complex for the person going through it, the line is clear: a woman has sovereignty over her own body, and unless the fetus can live outside of the woman's body, it is part of the woman's body.

This is not a "pro-abortion" argument. It's really about who decides what happens in our own bodies. Enforced pregnancy is a kind of slavery.

The bumper sticker version is "US out of my uterus!" I look for other ways to put it, but for me it really captures the essence of the issue.

Listening to Pregnant Women

My impression of Waldman's post and the "listening to pregnant women" argument was that paying attention to the needs and truths of pregnant women would yield a very different pro-choice rhetoric from what we have now. When abusive partners, relatives, etc. assault pregnant women whose fetuses are wanted, for example, and such an assault results in a miscarriage, the grieving pregnant woman -- the exact same one who might have had an abortion of an unwanted fetus three years earlier -- might want the abusive party charged with the murder of her unborn child (If I understand "shades of grey" pro-choice rhetoric correctly, I think it would have to have much more inclusive language to describe fetuses. "Child," "unborn child," and "baby" would be acceptable right along with "fetus.").

If a man is responsible for terminating a wanted pregnancy, then, it's murder. If a woman terminates an unwanted pregnancy (at any stage of the pregnancy, for whatever reason), it's sometimes sad, sometimes even tragic, sometimes thought of as killing even by the pregnant woman herself, morally questionable and arguable, but despite all that, abortion should be legal because it's an issue of free will and control of one's body.

So much of the pro-choice rhetoric hinges on the legal status and personhood of the fetus. The shades of grey pro-choice rhetoric would, for the sake of many pregnant women, confer personhood and legal status onto the fetus so that abusive partners could be prosecuted for murder of the unborn child, but in the case of women who have abortions, the personhood of the fetus would seem to be acknowledged but bracketed at least to some extent so that the woman wouldn't be prosecuted for murder. Is this making sense?

Also interesting in the pro-c

Also interesting in the pro-choice rhetoric, but more commonly seen from those straddling the fence, as Anonymous is above, is the "birth defect" line. Here, not only is the seemingly "defective" fetus devalued, but the implication is that (certain types of?) "disabled" folks are not really human.

I see what you mean

I guess where I'm coming from is that the pregnant woman's desires or intentions or rationales for doing x or y should be truly irrelevant to the legal argument over legality of abortion. If we get into the various justifications for abortion, we're working from the assumption that society has a right to weigh in on what a woman does with her body.

The man in the hypothetical case you offer I believe should be charged with felony assault -- perhaps even attempted murder (of the woman). Of course, that could be a very unsatisfactory legal consequence from the perspective of the woman -- especially when rape, sexual assault and spousal abuse typically are treated lightly by our criminal justice system.

It's an interesting and difficult question, though. I have another one. Would the sire of the fetus also have a claim (if the man doing the assulting is not the sperm donor)? Now we're getting into questions of property.

To avoid these questions, do we condone slavery in the form of enforced pregnancy? That road goes down a slippery slope in terms of governmental control over women ... and, for that matter, the bodies of all people. (If the government can prohibit abortion, can it not also enforce abortion? How much do we want the government running our wombs?)

That takes me right back to the women's self-governance school of thought. Personally I don't think the pregnant woman's perspective would carry much weight with the anti-choice folks. I'd like to learn I'm wrong, because it seems to me they're already not hearing or seeing the women when it comes to this issue. And that leaves me with deep questions as to whether we as a society truly believe that women are equal.

This comment is from a person

This comment is from a person (me) who is Pro-Choice...
Termination of a wanted or unwanted pregnancy, at any stage, for any reason, is....???.
Well, SOCIETY defines the following:
If it is a wanted pregnancy, and the termination is a result of actions other than the pregnant woman's, then it is murder.
If it is an unwanted pregnancy, and the termination is a decision of the woman's, then it is an abortion.

Murder is a very ugly and harsh term. However, by definition, it is a conscious termination of a life. So, given that, i think no matter how you define it - an abortion is a murder, a justified one.

I believe a woman has a every right to chose. Her choice is just very loaded.

more on "shades of gray" pro-choice rhetoric

There’s an discussion going on over at CultureCat, where Clancy has responded to Ayelet Waldman’s essay that both Lauren and I quoted from. I’d be participating if I weren’t up against a deadline. Clancy’s done far more work with pro-choice...

Shades of Grey

So glad to read that others see the complexities of the issue as being central to the abortion argument. I have been frustrated for decades over the polarity and intolerance that I have heard from the two sides, and so I've been quiet about how I feel. I don't think that I could ever have an abortion, but I'm in an economic position to raise a child, so I can't say that everyone should behave as I do. I've never felt that I was in any position to judge a woman who has had an abortion, either. Over the years, I've sought out and supported those groups that either work to prevent unwanted pregnancies or that help pregnant women who need financial or practical assistance.

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