I was saddened by this week’s issue of the Amherst Student in which I found an article written by a sophomore male student on abortion. The article, “The Principled Position: Defending Life”, examined the abortion debate from the perspective of a Christian conservative in support of the debate’s ‘pro-life’ side.
The content of this piece was nothing new, and therefore not worth fully rehashing. Instead, what I’d like to do is approach this issue from what I hope to be a more analytical perspective, something from which this particular author, in his callous treatment of women’s health issues, life, death, and history itself, could perhaps learn a few things.
For me, what may be the most compelling aspect of abortion issues is language. There are two sides, pro-life and pro-choice. I wonder, though, how often we have examined what those two terms suggest in and of themselves. In deeming the anti-legalization perspective ‘pro-life’, the opposing side is implicitly ‘pro-death’. The pro-choice campaign, however, is not (nor will it ever be) about death, but rather the establishment of rights that do not necessarily mean hundreds of women lining up every day for abortions. Choice means exactly what it says; choice. It is an all-encompassing perspective from which abortion can happen but isn’t a necessity. Ironically, being pro-choice can still mean the same outcome of being ‘pro-life’- having a child, giving it up for adoption, or any other option that the pro-life campaign prefers.
The other linguistic function of this pro-life argument is couched in analogies and historical parallelism. The article compares abortion to the Holocaust, Stalin’s slaughter of civilians, slavery, and virtually any other historical event in which death of any kind maintains a presence. These comparisons draw on and exploit the emotion of historical experience to gain a shocked and bewildered (though ultimately misinformed) following, something that is also a tactic used by politicians to create a fan base. The pain of historical experience is not something to be abused, and it’s a shame that this student not only felt that he had the need but also the right to do so in order to validate his opinion.
“Taking a life is always wrong,” argues the author, “except in war.” This, I believe, is a fascinating point, because in this one, seemingly insignificant statement, the door has been opened into so many other political issues. Still, it was my impression that the pro-life campaign criticized pro-choice for its allegedly selective approach to which lives are worth ending or beginning. How is the argument that murder is wrong except in war logical according to these criticisms? This is the same selectivity pro-life alleges to be a staple in pro-choice. Thus the politicized rhetoric of the abortion debate is sometimes steeped in confusing contradictions: taking life is wrong except under such-and-such conditions, the fetus has rights but the mother does not, and so on.
Lastly, something I’ve also noted in pro-life (and also in pro-choice) rhetoric is the stubborn finality by which opinions are formed and maintained. In the end, this is an issue that will result in little to no agreement between both sides. Everyone does have a right to their opinion, but the freedom to speak and be heard, just like the ability to draw on history to better understand the present, does not provide license to abuse that freedom. When these arguments are used for prescriptive, rather than informative, purposes, they ultimately become hurtful and insensitive. Some aspects of this debate (i.e. its implications for women’s rights and the experience of pregnancy itself) are more important for some than others, and they should not be, as they are in this article, trivialized. Above all, what is needed in the debate is empathy. There is a reason why most women like myself are pro-choice, and that rationale is directly linked to the experience (and often the trauma) of being a woman in a politically male world. It is therefore not surprising that this male student believes pro-life’s implications for women’s rights to be irrelevant, because he is not a woman. Obviously men have every right to form opinions about the matter, but in the end legislation for or against the legalization of abortion does not affect them in the same way it would women.
While I respect this student’s right to his opinion and appreciate his courage in publishing a highly conservative piece for a predominantly liberal campus, I cannot condone his methodology. His argument would have been far less upsetting had he calmly explained his reasoning without steeping his work in abusive historical comparison, hasty invalidation of various other components of the argument that matter to a great deal of people (namely women), and made sweeping assumptions about the ideological tenets of his opponent without doing the necessary research. Belief does not need to be relative. One can say “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t legalize abortion” or “If it were up to me, I would legalize abortion” without unleashing centuries of ideological and political moral judgements. I advise him to next time frame his writing in a way that is just as respectful of alternative opinions as I hope these few paragraphs of my own have been.