David Morris takes on the issue of how we talk about reproductive rights in this country. As he points out, terms like “pro-life” and “pro-abortion” are pretty useless; no one is “anti-life,” few people are really “pro-abortion,” and a lot of people who are “anti-abortion” still don’t think it should be illegal and are actually pro-choice. Then there’s the problem with the representatives of the self-identified “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps. The majority of “pro-life” individuals really don’t fit in ideologically with the leaders of their movement; this is also true (but I would argue less so) for pro-choice people. Indeed, a lot of people who identify as “pro-life” don’t want to see abortion illegalized; they think other women should have reproductive choices; they probably make reproductive choices (like using contraception) that “pro-life” leaders argue are part of our supposed “culture of death” (are you sick of quotation marks yet?).
I personally use the terms anti-choice and pro-choice, because when it comes to even the mainstream reproductive rights/anti-repro rights organizations, that’s what the issue comes down to. The National Right to Life Committee, the Pope, and fundamentatlist Christians don’t believe exclusively in preserving life. If that was the case, we’d see completely different behavior from them. Their MO is more about identifying a single choice as not only ideal, but the only one that women should have. They’re anti-contraception. They tend to harp on “traditional values,” which is basically code for the disempowerment of women. The only way reproduction should happen, in their view, is in a married heterosexual relationship, and it should happen as often as God wants it to, with no interference from the people doing the actual reproducing. And not only do they believe that this is the best way (which, arguably, wouldn’t be that bad), they want to legislate this belief across the board, and legally compel all women to follow it. Hence, anti-choice.
But Morris has a new title: Pro-Sperm.
Let’s begin with sperm. Many “pro-lifers” are really pro-sperm. Basically, they insist that the sperm has an inalienable right to try to get to the egg. Joe Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League once even flatly announced that he thought contraception was “disgusting.”
The Pope and many Christian fundamentalists fall into the pro-sperm category (although as we shall see, only relatively recently did the Catholic Church itself adopt that position). In the 1990s, after 300 out of 1,000 students in one Chicago high school became pregnant and the school established a birth control clinic, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin lashed out at the “contraceptive culture.”
When Judge Bork advocated reversing the 1965 Supreme Court decision overturning state laws that made it illegal for married couples to buy contraceptives, he was clearly pro-sperm.
The vast majority of the U.S. population are not pro-sperm. Despite admonitions about the sinfulness of contraception by the last dozen popes, two-thirds of all American Catholic women now practice birth control.
Then there’s the people who are ok with preventing the sperm from getting to the egg, but have a rather tenuous grasp of biology and medical reality; Morris calls these people “pro-zygote”:
I suspect that most conservatives aren’t pro-sperm, either. They belong in the next chronological category: pro-zygote. They believe that once fertilized, the egg must be protected at all costs. The furor over the morning-after pill has thrust the pro-zygoters onto center stage in the reproductive rights debate.
Last July, when Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney vetoed legislation that would have allowed Plan B, the morning-after pill, to be sold without a prescription, he insisted, “If it only dealt with contraception, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.” In other words, if the morning-after pill prevented fertilization, he would support it. But it doesn’t. Rather, it prevents the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall, or induces bleeding to dislodge it. Romney intervened to protect the zygote.
Those who would invoke the name of the Lord to justify protecting the zygote run up against a challenging reality. Over 50 percent of all fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, washed out before they attach to the womb. Some 15 percent of the attached eggs themselves are aborted spontaneously. It is hard to figure out God’s will in all of this.
He’s right (although in my eyes, these people remain firmly in the anti-choice camp). And then to complicate things more, a lot of self-identified pro-life people are more pro-choice than they think; many don’t want to see Roe overturned, believe in limits on abortion but not in doing away with it entirely, and say that although they would never have an abortion they wouldn’t want to take that right away from the woman next door (although it’s interesting how many self-identified “pro-lifers” — even extremist clinic protesters — change their tune when they get pregnant unintentionally).
Those who think abortion should be legal, and even those who think their moral sensibilities should get to draw the line on where abortion is illegal (i.e., “it should only be legal in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the pregnant woman’s life” or “It should be illegal when it’s done for convenience” — whatever that means — or “Women shouldn’t be allowed to use abortion for birth control”) are still loosely anti-choice in my eyes, they just aren’t batshit crazy extremists. But Morris makes an important distinction, and I think it’s good to separate these people from the legions of batshit crazy sperm fetishists out there: These folks are pro-fetus.
And then, at the end of the continuum, there are the people who are actually pro-baby. Unfortunately, pro-baby ideals aren’t so much reflected by the group that self-identifies as “pro-life”:
Regrettably, many religious conservatives act as if life begins at conception and ends at birth. It is remarkable how closely pro-life and anti-baby policies track one another. A comprehensive review of abortion and child welfare policies in all 50 states found that states with the most restrictive abortion laws spend the least on education, facilitating adoption and nurturing poor babies.
The labels we use should more precisely reflect the complexity of the reproductive rights debate. One way to do this is to abandon the empty term, “pro-life,” and adopt labels that more accurately reflect a person’s values and policies. Pro-sperm. Pro-zygote. Pro-fetus. Pro-baby. Where do you stand?
I’m solidly pro-baby, baby. And pro-woman. Which is what makes me pro-choice.
My only issue with this piece is that he sought to address the languge of reproductive rights, and then didn’t talk about rights at all — he just used the “pro-life” framework that the abortion debate is all about the zygote/fetus and narrowed the terms to be more exact. Which is valuable, but too readily buys into the view that the debate is entirely about what does or does not happen in the woman’s uterus between ejaculation and birth. It’s a little trickier than that.
- Crime, Pregnancy and Civil Rights by Jill October 26, 2006
- Miers: Clues to Views by Lauren October 26, 2005
- Greatest Hits: Why I’m Pro-Choice by Jill August 7, 2007
- Pro-Choice Congressmen More Likely to Have Slutty Daughters by Jill June 18, 2007
- Common Ground by Jill October 15, 2007