Why so important?
This post by Suzie about the disproportionate impact that illegal abortion would have on the health and lives of women of color is interesting, but I’m not going to tangle with the arguments made in it. It’s more that it, and beginning the book The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court has set me on a tangent. Toobin and Suzie both are refreshingly honest about the fact that legal abortion is a defining political issue of our time, as much as many liberal dudes out there would like to just skip over it, or suggest that feminists who consider it a deal-breaker (or at least something to ride a politician’s ass hard about) are over-reacting. And in a sense, it’s bizarre that abortion looms so large, so large that Toobin claims that it’s the defining issue of judicial appointments, determines where they fall on the left/right scale. Bizarre because while I do believe it’s the most commonly performed surgery, the amount of effort aimed at both banning and keeping it is out of proportion to how common it is. And it’s weird because reasonable people understand that banning abortion would, at best, reduce the abortion rate for a couple of years while the black market kicks in, and then it would re-establish itself because the abortion rate is, like the drug market, driven by demand not supply. The number of women that will die under illegal abortion is unacceptably high, because a single death from banning a natural right is one death too many, but it’s never going to be high, especially not compared to the death and disability that results from car accidents or even gun accidents every year. It’s a major issue in practical terms, but it just doesn’t seem like it should matter as much as it does just strictly by the levels of social impact of legal vs. illegal abortion alone.
But of course, it’s never been just about the practical effects. Abortion looms large because it’s symbolic, specifically about whether or not our nation is going to take women’s equality seriously. Illegal abortion really is a perfect way to signal to women that they are second class citizens and no matter what they do, they’re wrong because they’re women. Let’s face it—abortion as a fallback plan is how women can “cheat” to get out of the conflicting social requirements to be sexually available to men and to be good girls who don’t do it, especially if they’re unmarried.* So if it’s illegal, society is officially shaming women for being women. You are required to be two things that are in direct conflict with each other, and if you can’t magically figure out how to make that happen, but have to “cheat” by relying on abortion, then you should be consigned to skulk in the shadows and consort with criminals in order to do it. I think this especially the right wing view of the issue, because obviously feminists have a more generous view of women’s sexuality and will happily argue that abortion is part of a toolkit of a woman’s right not just to get by in the world, but also to be sexual and to thrive. But even just on the matter of survival, the feminist viewpoint is that women shouldn’t have to lurk in the shadows, ashamed of basic measures they have to take to survive in this world. Legal abortion is an admission by society that women are citizens on par with men, and shouldn’t have to skulk in shadows, feeling guilty about basic survival.
Of course, the enormous guilt trip that anti-choicers have laid on women plus people’s general discomfort with abortion means that even under legal abortion, women still have to skulk. And in case you were going to walk to the clinic with your head held high, then the protesters will be there, reminding you that you should be ashamed of yourself for taking care of yourself. Unashamed self-care is a right extended only to men. Anti-choice protesters are shame vigilantes. If the government won’t make you ashamed by officially making you a second class citizen, they’ll step in. The worst thing about all this is that women are already consigned by biology to have to deal with the unplanned consequences and just maintenance work of sex anyway. If you have to get an abortion, the guy who got you pregnant is constrained by biology to being supportive, but he can’t share the suck of having to get it done with you. And women who have that are lucky, because a lot of guys just wash their hands of it. And that’s just the most extreme example—one part of life that makes men’s and women’s experiences a bit different is that men don’t generally need regular check-ups of their reproductive system just because they’re having hetero sex, especially if they’re monogamous. But the biological needs of women wouldn’t be so bad if our culture didn’t shame us about getting those needs met. But by building this politicization around women’s sexual health care that men will never experience, right wingers can make it clear to women—you’re second class and it’s your very biology that makes you so. And that’s why abortion is such a big deal, because it’s about more than itself. It’s about whether or not we will consider the bodies of half the population excuse enough to give them hell for just trying to exist in this world.
And if you’re skeptical, may I remind you that the birth control pill is next on the chopping block. The birth control pill, which is a mundane part of health maintenance for millions of women. In a sane world, the pill would be no more political than your daily multivitamin.
Update: I want to add that the potential of unnecessary loss is no small thing. Just need to reiterate that, in light of points like these.
When a woman is intent on ending a pregnacy to preserve the family that she already has, there is nothing that she won’t do. My great-grandmother searched high and low for an abortifacient that would work and settled on a method, which is lost in the mists of time, that took her life. Her death left a hole in the family that could never be filled. My great-grandfather re-married twice. The woman who raised my grandmother and her siblings was a cold, emotionally distant woman who expected her grown children still at home to pay room and board before each eventually married. My great-grandfather was a strict disciplinarian who had trouble understanding the difference between necessary discipline and child abuse.
Several years ago, my Auntie gave grandma an old black and white photo similar to the one here. My great-grandmother, who my grandma closely resembles, is holding an infant, my aunt, while her two toddlers stand to her sides. Grandma cried as she told us how much she missed her mother. Her loss is felt even now. Because of limited career choices available to their generation, my grandmother and her sister became nurses and I know that her mother’s death made grandma firmly and unalterably pro-choice. Out of respect for her and the memory of my great-grandmother, I am too.
*I’m setting aside for now the fact that women should be as sexual as they want to be without apologizing to anyone about it. A lot of straight women—gasp!—have sex not just because it’s how to get on with men but because it feels good. Duh.