Jan. 22 marks the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal. Even as political battles over legal abortion again heat up, for most people the topic is difficult to discuss.
The language we use amplifies the discomfort. In periodicals I read, from Ms. magazine to the Evangelical Today’s Christian Woman, the vocabulary around abortion seems mired in the ’70s.
Rhetoric from both left and right seems unuanced. The left’s message is that it is a pregnant woman’s right to choose, without consideration of what is developing inside her. From the right comes a narrow focus on the fetus to the exclusion of concern about the woman. Their term "the unborn" sounds like something out of a horror flick and gives a fetus and the pregnant woman equal moral footing. No distinction is made between the status of a few-week old embryo and a full-term baby. Last Sunday I saw a billboard in New Jersey with an infant’s picture on it. Accompanying copy read, "Killed now? Murder. Killed before? Abortion."
At a time when abortion is again coming into political focus, we would be well served to develop a language for discussion that better reflects the complexities of the reality. Because framing it as those who are pro-choice against those who are pro-life just doesn’t cut it.
I support Roe v. Wade but feel uncomfortable with the term pro-choice. Choice seems such a casual word to use when ending a pregnancy rarely is, and ought never be, a casual decision. Those opposed to abortion would call me "pro-abortion," which I am not. I wish that enough public funding were devoted to contraception and education for abortions to become rare.
I’d rather be called "pro-privacy." Because that is the principle on which Roe v. Wade turns: that a woman’s constitutional right to privacy includes the right to make her own reproductive decisions.
And as a Jew, I know that’s an extremely important principle to protect. Because Judaism’s view of when life begins differs from that of the conservative Christians who are working to see the law overturned.
Last summer the Bush administration expanded the list of those eligible for a federally and state-funded children’s health insurance program to include embryos and fetuses, though not pregnant women.
A bill that has passed the House and is expected to soon be taken up by the Senate is called the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and would recognize embryos and fetuses as entities distinct from the women carrying them.
Our religious literature addresses precisely the same issue. The Talmud’s rabbis ruled that if a pregnant woman was injured and miscarried, compensation was due her husband. But not as much as had a person been killed, because the pregnancy is like a limb of the woman, reasoned the rabbis, part of her rather than something with its own legal status.
So I find these efforts to undermine Roe v. Wade, one regulation and statute at a time, a threat to my religious rights.
But there is another element missing from the language used by those in favor of preserving legal abortion, and that is recognition of pregnancy’s inherent holiness. Time magazine recently ran breathtaking photographs of developing embryos and fetuses. But even as technology permits us ever-earlier looks at the process, it cannot tell us why it happens the way it does.
It seems obvious to me that holiness is at play in the way a union of the simple cells of sperm and egg develops into a wondrously unique human being. But holiness is not absolute, and containing holiness does not render something inviolable.
It is not either-or. To say that abortion is a private decision to be made by a pregnant woman and her partner does not mean that it is casual. And to say that pregnancy is a holy thing, imbued with the mystery of God’s power, does not mean that the decision cannot still be made.
As pregnancy develops, I think, so does the holiness within it. The loss or termination of a six-week pregnancy is the end of something holy: but not as much as in the pregnancy ended at 20 weeks.
I hear about women who discover at about 18 weeks gestation, through amniocentesis, that their fetus has severe chromosomal abnormalities. If nature doesn’t spontaneously end the pregnancy, that multiply impaired child will likely live only a few days. Often that woman chooses abortion. Another might choose to continue the pregnancy.
But it is each one’s own decision to make. A private decision, with emotional, psychological and physical ramifications either way. For many it is a spiritual decision. And it is not the government’s job to decide for them.
As the political battle over abortion is fought, we will all be better served if the way we look at it becomes as nuanced, and as complex, as it truly is.