I enjoy listening to the podcast “The Argument” because it features columnists from both sides of the political spectrum discussing the week’s news in a respectful manner. In a recent episode, the topic was abortion later in pregnancy. As the columnists discussed the issue, I could not help but notice that no one mentioned the woman involved in the situation even once; all the discussion was centered on the unborn baby. While this is not unusual in the abortion debate, I was surprised that within the context of this respectful conversation, no one thought to mention the woman.
Whether we call ourselves pro-life or not, we must consider and respect the life of the person who is carrying the unborn child. The fact that the women involved in the abortion later in pregnancy debate are rarely mentioned reveals not only the bias of anti-abortion activists but the bias within our culture writ large. The misinformation that the anti-abortion proponents spread re-traumatizes the women who undergo this incredibly personal procedure. The idea that women get to their third trimester and suddenly decide that they do not want their baby is demeaning to them. Deciding to have an abortion at any time is an intensely personal decision, and for those who must face the heartbreaking decision later in pregnancy, it is even more so.
When we think of the mother in this situation, there are many ways that some might personalize her dilemma. She might be labeled as loose, confused, irresponsible, or even a murderer. None of these labels take into account the fact that the woman is expected to house another human within her own body and the toll that it takes. The labels do not acknowledge that if the woman carries the baby to term, she might be putting her body and/or life at risk, and she will need to be able to support this human she creates. Given that the United States has the highest death rate for women in childbirth of all developed countries, this is not an unrealistic concern. Beyond the concerns about mortality, the woman’s body will go through many changes, some of which are permanent. Many women who have Cesarean sections end up with chronic pain in their abdomen from adhesions to their scar tissue. Women with full tears to their perineum may become incontinent. Postpartum depression and pelvic pain are common. Additionally, the medical community knows little about how to help women with these postpartum issues that continue for years. There is little research in this area, and doctors do not receive adequate training in how to help women post-birth.
For readers who have not personally experienced a situation where their bodily autonomy was ignored, an analogy might help demonstrate its importance. Imagine that your sister needs a kidney transplant. You get the relevant testing and find out that you are a match. After talking to the doctors and surgeons, you decide to donate one of your kidneys to your sister. You have the operation, everything goes smoothly and you and your sister are able to return to your lives. You have some limitations as a result of the operation, but you went into the process voluntarily and were happy to be able to save your sister’s life. You end up in the newspaper as a hero and your sister is forever grateful to you. You feel great about your decision.
Now imagine that you were not asked whether you would donate your kidney. Instead, the government tells you that because you are the only match for your sister; you must donate your kidney because she has a right to life. You are told that there may be dangers to you up to and including death, but you have no choice and you must undergo the operation and give your kidney to your sister because her life matters. The operation happens, and you make it through, but now your life and your body are forever changed. You have developed high blood pressure as a result of having one kidney. You worry that since your sister needed a kidney, your one functional kidney may fail at some point. You feel resentful and depressed.
Most of us would agree that the second scenario is an egregious affront to the person giving the kidney. The kidney donor’s bodily autonomy is being overridden by the government’s ruling. But in reality, this is not too different from what anti-abortion proponents propose. Anti-abortion proponents demand that women use their bodies for the purpose of growing another human whether they want to or not. Women are expected to give over their bodies for nine months and then face the unpredictability of childbirth and any resulting body injuries or possible death. While many women intentionally go through this process because they want to have children, others do not. When a woman becomes pregnant unintentionally, she is faced with a difficult decision about her body and her future. However, in the discussion about if or when it is appropriate to allow abortion, the woman’s bodily autonomy is rarely discussed. How a woman gets pregnant, whether through failed contraception or rape, is irrelevant. Because it is her body and health involved, she is the only one who can make that decision. Just as if you were presented with the kidney donation situation, you would want your bodily autonomy respected, a woman who discovers that she is pregnant wants hers respected as well.