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Debating Choice at TCD

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A strange and unusual thing happened last week. I popped along to check out TCD’s debate on whether “This House Believes Abortion Is A Woman’s Choice“. In all honesty, my expectations were pretty low going in- I was mainly showing up to see Feministe’s Jill Filipovic in action. From the debate, I expected the usual suspects and more of the same- accusations flying from all sides, a lack of common ground so extreme that it’s surprising that we’re all technically speaking the same language.

I was pleasantly surprised.

I am, by the way, a dyed-in-the-wool pro-choicer. I believe fervently that our bodies and our lives are our own. We should not be punished for our sexualities. We should not be forced to give up decades of our lives for the sake of someone else’s principle. While as a good skeptic I cannot deny the possibility of changing my mind, I consider that possibility remote.

Before I talk about the arguments I found useful and interesting on the part of the pro-life speakers, however, I’d like to take a moment to discuss those which were neither. These arguments were based on essentialist and demeaning ideas of gender. They’re getting a TW for transphobia and misogyny, so I’ll clearly mark when I’m done talking about them if you’d like to scroll past them.

The Bad Stuff- TW for transphobia, extreme sex-negativity, misogyny, and discussion of sexual assault.

“The ability to give birth to children is the essence of what makes a woman a woman”

According to this speaker, what makes a woman a woman is the ability to bear children. That is it. That is all. The sheer degree to which this dismisses those who cannot or do not have children- infertile women, trans women, many queer women, childless/childfree women- is difficult to exaggerate. Are these women not women? Are we really going to determine our entire identities by the presence or absence of a functioning uterus? How incredibly insulting is that to the women in the audience who are unable to have children? Who do not wish to have children? To adoptive parents, to non-birth mothers in same-sex couples, to women whose children were born through surrogates? And what about the many trans men out there who have given birth? Or the women who have given birth to the children they raise, who consider themselves to be women above and beyond their role as mothers? This statement is not only insulting to all of the above people. It is also, quite simply, wildly inaccurate. It’s just plain wrong.

“Abortion is not a woman’s choice but a thing that men make women do.. abortion leads to men treating women like objects and doing whatever they want with them”

I find it difficult to imagine how allowing women a choice makes other people do “whatever they want with them” in a way that taking her choice away does not.

Listen. I wish we lived in a world free of sexual coercion. I really do. If banning abortion led to a world where women were not objectified, where we were not sexually assaulted and abused? In that world, us pro-choicers would have a lot of explaining to do. However, we don’t live in that world. Women are objectified. Women are overwhelmingly more likely than men to be the victims of sexual coercion and abuse. These things happen whether or not abortion is legal. Legal abortion, however, gives women one small area of choice within this. It lets us have one small space of sovereignty over our own bodies.

“Abortion disenfranchises half of the people in the pregnancy”

In case you’re unsure, this person was talking about men, not fetuses. Women having abortions without their partners’ agreement hurts men’s feelings, you see. There are two people in every pregnancy, and those are the two people who brought the pregnancy about.

I’m sorry, but no. Yes, there are generally two people involved in bringing about a pregnancy- assuming that nobody is being sexually assaulted or raped at the time. Which happens. But even in a situation where a person gets pregnant through a consensual act, there are not two people in that pregnancy.

Men’s feelings have the potential to be hurt- deeply- if a woman aborts a fetus who could have become their child without their agreement. This is absolutely true. Emotional hurt is no small thing. However, women’s feelings as well as our bodies and our rights to bodily integrity all will be hurt, permanently altered and disenfranchised if we are forced to carry to term and to give birth without our consent.

“If a woman did not use contraception or early abortion, she should not have the right to later abortions”

In an ideal world, this might be an argument. In a world where there was no stigma around pregnancy, where everyone had access to clear and comprehensive education around bodies, sexuality, consent and contraception. In a world where people’s circumstances never changed dramatically and unexpectedly. In a world where nobody learned well into a pregnancy that their fetus’s life was inevitably going to be agonising and short. In a world where nobody developed medical conditions in pregnancy which threatened their own life, health, or well-being. In a world where nobody was in an abusive relationship, family or living situation which threatened their ability to exercise their own free choices.

In that world, maybe this would be reasonable. But we don’t live in that world.

Now for something a little more interesting

Fortunately for those of us at the debate, the tired old arguments above were not the only things the pro-life side of the debate had to say. One argument in particular impressed me. Here’s the gist:

Legal abortion creates a false sense of choice for women. Our choices are not only to give birth or not to do so- these choices do not and can not exist in a vacuum. Where we have a situation where women do not have access to all the supports they need to be mothers as well as engaging fully in other areas of their lives, where women are forced for economic reasons to not be mothers, their choices cannot be free. Legal abortion, by giving women an easy ‘out’ from motherhood, also gives employers, other institutions, and the state an easy ‘out’ from providing for the needs of women who are mothers as it allows them to deem women to have a made a free choice to not participate fully in these.

That there?

That is a frackin’ point. Women are often forced to choose between careers and motherhood. Women who are mothers are excluded from many areas of life by the assumption that they will take on the majority of caring responsibilities. Women are forced not to be mothers by their economic situations. Women’s lives are stunted by this lack of support for mothers- for parents! This is a major, major issue.

Of course, none of this means that using women as pawns to force the hand of wider institutions in providing for the needs of parents is a reason to remove legal abortion from women. But when we speak of reproductive choice, it is incredibly important to do so with an awareness of all of the factors- social and economic as well as legal- that get in the way of women’s choice. The reproductive rights movement, and those of us who are pro-choice, need to be sure that we’re fighting for women’s rights to choose freely, to be supported in the choices we make, and to not face marginalisation or crushing poverty for those choices. And- let’s face it- the lack of legal abortion as an option in Ireland hasn’t resulted in employers falling over themselves to offer better maternity and paternity benefits and leave.

From the pro-choice side

I’m not going to spend as much time on these arguments as the pro-life side- mainly because all I could add to the conversation would be thumbs up and enthusiastic nods of agreement. But here’s a taste of what people had to say:

“If you really love a woman, how could you want to subjugate her body for nine months? If we tried to control the bodies of men for nine months, we would see violence in the street”

“For every woman who wants to work when she’s pregnant, there’s another who simply doesn’t want a kid”

“Why should women have to pay for the violation of their own bodies, with their own bodies? Even if you have sex and end up pregnant, you should be able to walk away with your body intact and not be labeled a slut and a whore. Gender equality is impossible in any real sense if women live under constant threat of having their bodies taken from them.”

“Its time to remove the idea that women deserve to be punished for having sex. This debate does NOT happen in the abstract, and the women most affected by this are those whose bodies have never been given the real credit of belonging to themselves”

One more thing..

This was from the closing speech of the speaker who made the economic argument against abortion above. Again, I may not agree with her about abortion, but lady has a point.

“How can we come together on our shared goals and stop driving ourselves into corners? …What about violence against women, pregnancy at work, listening to women who had abortions and adoptive birth mothers?”

Yep. That. Let’s do that.

About Aoife

Nitpicker extraordinaire, wielder of the Eyebrow of Scepticism, and world-class consumer of tea. I write about skepticism, feminism, pro-choice issues, LGBTQ stuff, cooking, knitting, roller skating and whatever takes my fancy, from an Irish perspective.

5 responses »

  1. Maybe I’m just more cynical than you Aoife, but I see this as the anti-choicers co-opting the language of the left and of feminism in order to use our own arguments against us. It’s a clever strategy on their part but I’m not convinced about their sincerity – economic justice isn’t exactly very high on the agenda of a lot of them.

    Obviously I don’t know anything about the particular speaker you’ve quoted, but that’s the general rule.

    • I agree with you as a general rule. However, this speaker was also talking about things like sexuality education and education around and access to contraception as things to work toward. Not things I’ve heard before from an anti-choicer.

  2. Pingback: New FeministIre post: Debating Abortion in TCD « Consider the Tea Cosy

  3. Heh, this is usually the arguments I try to “give” anti-choicers, like, I try to be like, let’s at least agree that we should try to PREVENT the pregnancy from happening in the first place (by giving free access to contraceptives). Let’s at least agree that we should give women the economic FOUNDATION to freely make the choice to have or not to have a baby.

    Sadly most anti-choicers care more about the “unborn fetus” than they do about the real flesh-and-blood woman.

  4. Pingback: New FeministIre post: Debating Abortion in TCD

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