Speaking of Women's Rights: Pro Choice? Pro Life? Both? Why Not?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pro Choice? Pro Life? Both? Why Not?

As has been the case for the 20 years or so that I have been involved with Legal Voice, I am intrigued, frustrated, bewildered and resolute as I ponder what ‘the public’ thinks about abortion, reproductive rights and health, contraception, and other issues related to women’s autonomy, rights and liberty. In the last week – before, during and after President Obama’s commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame – we saw news stories, polls, opinion pieces, letters to the editor (holy cow! Public discourse: what a concept) from all sides of the debate.

The most prominent were a Gallup poll allegedly revealing that for the first time in history more Americans are “pro-life” than “pro-choice,” and refutations from various sources of that finding. But few of the analyses (I use the word advisedly, if charitably) truly delved into what underlies the results of the Gallup poll or a CNN poll in April that found 68% of Americans would not overturn Roe v Wade.

So where’s the truth, or at least the kernel of truth, in all this? (Setting aside the “it depends on how you ask the question” issue.) First, consider that a much larger recent poll found that those who think abortion should be legal in most cases outnumber those who think it should be illegal in most cases 52%-41%. And that hasn’t changed in more than 30 years.

Then, there’s the more basic response to the pro-choice-pro-life wordplay: DUH. We at Legal Voice have known for years that many if not most people identify themselves as both pro-choice and pro-life, and that they don’t have cognitive dissonance about it. We conducted polls in 2003 and 2005 in central and eastern Washington, which are popularly believed to be more conservative and less likely to support women’s rights than western Washington (or at least Seattle), about people’s attitudes toward choice. We found that most people -- more than 65% -- self-identified as pro-choice and pro-life. Notwithstanding that apparent duality, they also strongly supported a woman’s right to choose, just as most people in this country do.

From our perspective, the supposed polarity on the issue is, at least to some extent, imposed by the media and by ‘the movements’, all of which need – or at least rely upon – sound bites and catch phrases to sell their stories and make their cases. Nuanced approaches just don’t get the right headlines or permit the automatic, unreflective responses to which we’ve become accustomed.

But the real story isn’t how people label themselves. It’s about the philosophy underlying the labels and catch phrases, and the back-story we all think we know when we hear those phrases. And for those of us who call ourselves pro-choice, that back-story has to do with respect for women, and with the belief that women make the very best decisions they can, and that they think about those decisions carefully. The false dichotomy created by the anti-woman movement, pitting women against children, overlooks a simple truth: most children have a relationship with a mother. Not all, of course, but most. So you just can’t talk about them separately, at least not if you want there to be any relation to reality.

To impose that separation is to buy into the ‘women are selfish and make bad decisions’ back-story, which might make a facile sound bite (is that redundant?), but doesn’t sound like most women I know. I bet it also doesn’t sound like most women you know.

So yes, we need to preserve women’s right to make decisions about whether, when and how to bear children. And yes, most Americans agree with that proposition. And definitely yes, we need a new Supreme Court justice who understands that at the most fundamental level. But what we don’t need is to let our heads snap back and forth in response to the competing stories and polls. We need to think about real women and their real partners and families, and we need to acknowledge the intelligence, thoughtfulness, and morality of women.