I’ve said before that I want to be positive towards all human life. There are all sorts of ethical and scientific arguments to be made about when a foetus becomes a person, and much of the abortion debate has centred on this issue. We hear a great deal about the rights of the unborn versus women’s rights, and whether these are equal in significance. My sense is that where we are unsure about medical ethics, we ought to err on the side of caution. But none of these discussions take into account that our society is inhospitable to women, those who carry and bear children. I want to ask what it would look like if we were hospitable towards all human life.
Take the experiences of the women in this article, for example. They did not make cavalier decisions about having an abortion. Sure, they made a choice, but not in a vacuum or away from a stack of other factors. For example, for each of them the attitude of their partner played a big part in their decision, whether he expressed an opinion or was completely ambivalent. From what I read here, fear played a huge role in these women getting an abortion. Pregnancy is scary at the best of times (yes, exciting, but also scary!) and it takes tremendous courage to withstand this kind of interpersonal pressure. Counselling services may help ease this sort of pressure, but let’s take a step back to ask about the sort of world women live in. What are the subtle stresses that make it harder to go through with a pregnancy?
I ask this question because the Christian voice against abortion so often comes across as hypocritical. Christians see themselves as full of compassion for those who are weak, powerless and vulnerable, yet we are perceived as not caring about women and guilting those who are already in very difficult situations.
We need to grow in empathy.
There are many reasons women may have an abortion, but perhaps the most stark and, in the popular conservative caricature, the most selfish, is the woman who has an abortion because she doesn’t want to set her career back — the abortion of ‘convenience’. Let’s take a moment to think about this from her perspective.
- First, the physicality of pregnancy undermines her credibility in the workplace — she may be late because of (morning) sickness, more tired than she used to be, distracted because a stack of strange things are happening to her body. Then there are the stereotypes of ‘baby brain’ — during my pregnancy, I remember being put into a lower capability group in a language seminar because it was assumed I couldn’t keep up intellectually with Arthur! Later on, a woman becomes big and unwieldy and her femininity (and thus vulnerability) is on view to all.
- Second, she may be resented if she takes paid maternity leave. That can cause tension in relationships at work and hamper advancement, especially if it’s deemed likely that she will have subsequent children.
- Third, if she does come back to work, there’s the recovery from the birth (sometimes months) and the sleepless nights while trying to do full-time work. Statistics suggest she will also bear the brunt of the housework at home, even if she’s in an egalitarian marriage.
- Fourth, there’s the guilt targeted at mums who choose to work, especially when their child is less than a year old.
I’m not advocating this lifestyle. (It’s not one that I have chosen.) But I’d like to ask a lot of men whether they would be willing to be discredited for nine months in their workplace, go through a physical ordeal that takes several weeks’ recovery, take some months off work to care for someone else round the clock, experience negative labels and discussion about their choices, and still expect that their career would advance in the same way! My point is not that men and women should occupy identical spaces in society, or that being a career woman is the ideal, but to give us all the opportunity for empathy. Even if you’re one of the people who advocates carrying the pregnancy through and then putting the child up for adoption, can you see how much even just the pregnancy affects a woman’s life (let alone the stigma associated with not keeping her child)? How would you feel in a similar situation?
And of course, this is the most stark of all possible scenarios. Plenty of women, like the ones in the article above, have an abortion not out of a desire for career advancement, but because of family, economic or social factors. There are powerful and unseen forces which contribute to abortions and for many women, their ‘choice’ is determined by the limits set on them by others.
We need to work out that abortion is our issue
We’re good at saying that abortion is everyone’s issue because we have a responsibility towards human life and abortion is about murdering babies (an inflammatory phrase, by the way, and one that is indicative of the Christian failure to engage rather than pontificate.) What we’re less good at considering is how each of us contributes to abortion rates. Our society is inhospitable to women: we only approve of mothers working if they can also shoulder the lion’s share of duties at home, we place unrealistic expectations on women’s bodies, we commentate unceasingly on parenting. And then we turn around and spend the vast majority of our abortion discussion on what is ‘morally right’, as if these aforesaid pressures had no bearing on the discussion.
Yes, we need more empathy, but we need to see the role each of us plays in abortion — our own morally reprehensible actions. It is not morally right to remain silent about the sexualisation of women. It is not morally right for women to shoulder the ‘blame’ for becoming pregnant. It is not morally right for women to be isolated or bullied in a relationship. It is not morally right that women experience sexism in the workplace. It is not morally right that some men look first to their own comfort before serving others.
The abortion discussion needs to be completely reframed in light of our own contribution to a society that is inhospitable to women. This requires more than a few concluding remarks about caring for pregnant women in a sermon. Repentance is a good place for many of us to start. It calls for self-examination and a deliberate change in attitude and action. Where is the condemnation of blokes who do not support their pregnant girlfriends? How are we actively teaching young men to be responsible for their own reproduction? How are you involved in a collective shout against harmful images of women in the media? What do you say when someone in your workplace comments on a woman’s body? If you mourn the loss of unborn life, do you also grieve your complicity in the structures that contribute to abortion?
These questions are especially important for Christian blokes because for too long the male voice has spoken on behalf of the unborn while continuing to be party to the subtle oppression of women in western society. All of us can participate in changing the way our society treats women. You ought to do it because you recognise the personhood of women, but if abortion in particular is your focus, do it because that which affects women affects the unborn as well.
Being pro-life isn’t just about legislating against abortion or providing counselling or caring for unwed mothers. It’s also about creating a society which is a better place for women. Creating a society which is more hospitable to women and their bodies may well go a long way to making us all more hospitable towards the unborn! This is what it means to be ‘pro-life’: to care for women as well as the unborn because the two are linked.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.