Katie Stack is a reproductive justice activist and speaker.
The latest TIME magazine cover story features an expose on the abortion debate, and author Kate Pickert concludes that in the abortion war, the pro-choice side is losing.
While she largely ignores the advances made by women of color and reproductive justice organizations, in many ways she is correct. For while abortion remains legal, it is now harder and more costly to obtain one in most states. Abortion continues to be one of the most contentious political issues, and as such it has remained an easy target for Republican lawmakers. The state-by-state strategy for obliterating abortion access seems to be working much more effectively than the efforts of the legacy organizations of the pro-choice movement – who always seem to be playing defense.
In her analysis, Pickert cites a number of reasons for this – but the one that hit home most was the lack of public support for abortion. Unlike Pickert I think that this lack of support is not because abortion is inherently a controversial topic, but because much of the pro-choice leadership has led us down a path that makes far too many concessions and that fails to assert abortion as ethical and as central to human rights.
While disheartening, this certainly does not mean that we have lost. We can come back. And we can win hearts and minds.
But unfortunately, even the best advocates for reproductive rights willingly roll over on the ethics of abortion, choosing instead to the defer to the idea that without abortion women’s lives would be at risk.
According to a 2012 Gallup poll a mere 38% of Americans find abortion “morally acceptable.” Rarely is abortion publicly defended outright. For generations the motto of the prochoice movement was “safe, legal and rare” – driving home the idea that abortion, though it should be available, was not an ideal outcome.
This did not go unnoticed by the anti-choice movement. In fact, their strategic decision to focus on the fetus (through gestational age limits and ultrasound requirements) evolved due to this weakness in the rhetoric around abortion.
The growing youth militia of the anti-choice movement has been especially well trained in capitalizing on this.
As a young Catholic in the Midwest, I was subjected the hours of pro-life training. The very first thing I was taught was that even pro-choice people wouldn’t support abortion in all cases. That everyone had a point where they were uncomfortable with it; where they were no longer able to defend it. We were assured that it existed somewhere – multiple abortions, abortions at 20 weeks, abortions at 30 weeks, abortion because of disability or deformity. The goal, was to find it and then ask – well, what’s wrong with that abortion?
The weakness of the pro-choice movement has been the inability to answer, “nothing.”
A quick search of “abortion debates” on youtube shows countless reproductive rights advocates gingerly tiptoeing around the “what’s wrong with abortion” question. They posit a number answers. Nothing – until fetal development has progressed to certain point. Nothing – as long as you’re willing to believe that the fetus and woman are the same biological entity. Nothing – until 20 weeks gestation.
Nothing – but only because illegal abortions will kill women.
In whole, their arguments are messy, unclear and dependent on an audience that isn’t swayed by the clarity and simplicity of the anti-abortion talking points. What’s worse, they often draw a line between “acceptable” abortions and “unacceptable” abortions – and it is that kind of thinking that has allowed abortion restrictions to take hold.
To win the fight for reproductive freedom, we must be willing advocate for full reproductive justice for all people – even those whose decisions we may not personally agree with. And to do that, we must advocate for women to have full autonomy over their bodies at all times, without exception.
This is undoubtedly a difficult task. In a world where women are continuously told that their bodies are not their own, publicly advocating for reproductive rights on the basis of bodily autonomy is revolutionary. But it seems like a revolution might be just what we need.