A younger version of myself would have been elated. In his eyes, this was a dream scenario, a climactic moment of ultimate victory on one of the key battlefields of the culture war for America’s soul.
But the present version of myself couldn’t celebrate. I couldn’t even muster a half-hearted smile. When the Supreme Court announced its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, all I felt was an uneasy sense of heaviness and gloom.
What had happened to me? How could a once-fervent believer in the pro-life movement now fail to find joy in the most significant pro-life legal victory of our generation?
In the process of unpacking those questions and processing my feelings about this new American reality, one thing is clear: I’m not in the same place I used to be. Gone is the hard-and-fast, militantly anti-abortion mindset of my youth. Gone is the urgent belief that the most important thing our country can do is terminate Roe v. Wade. Something has shifted. There’s a reason I’m troubled by what the Supreme Court has done.
But the surprising thing is, I’ve never had a decisive change of mind. There has been no dramatic conversion experience or sharp about-face. In fact, I’d still consider myself to be broadlly pro-life.
The change I’ve experienced is something more subtle. And as I’ve reflected on it, I’ve realized it’s the result of a few key factors that have gradually shaped–and ultimately transformed–the way I think about this issue. Each of these factors might be relatively insignificant on its own, but collectively they have served to nudge me toward a new perspective. It has taken years for them to do their work, and I suspect the work is still ongoing. But these seven factors are why I’m not popping the champagne in the aftermath of last month’s news.
1. Openness: Learning from those who see it differently
One of the most problematic features of our current abortion debate is our collective failure to understand that both sides are arguing for positions that are perfectly consistent with the premises they each hold. On the pro-life side, the foundational premise is that full human personhood begins at conception. Given this starting point, it’s morally impossible to advocate for anything other than a strict anti-abortion position. But the problem is that pro-choice folks don’t share that same premise. In their view, the fetus is no more of a human person than an egg is a chicken. It’s only natural, therefore, that they would reach entirely different conclusions about abortion. They’re simply being consistent with their foundational beliefs.
Having been immersed primarily in pro-life circles for most of my life, I’ve grown accustomed to rhetoric that paints abortion rights advocates as baby-killers and monsters. But that sort of cheap and inflammatory language helps no one. It only serves to demonize perfectly moral and reasonable people on the basis of a highly subjective conviction they’ve never claimed to hold. This realization has allowed me to escape the polarizing vitriol and instead respect each camp for faithfully following through on what it believes.
2. Awareness: Recognizing the complexity of the issue
During the course of my gradual ideological evolution, I’ve slowly grown in appreciation for the many different facets of the abortion debate. This isn’t just about people wanting to have unlimited sex without consequences (as the conservative culture warriors made me believe). For many Americans, this is about legitimate medical emergencies in which abortion is the only reasonable option, about preteen girls facing the devastating aftermath of a violent rape, about people who fear they simply cannot provide the physical and emotional resources a child would need.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions about whether or not an abortion is justified in these situations. But for me, becoming more aware of the many different ways that people are affected by the laws in our country has made it impossible for me to celebrate the removal of their reproductive rights. How can I cheer in the face of a woman with a life-threatening pregnancy who may die because she can’t get an abortion? There’s nothing “pro-life” about that.
3. Privilege: Accepting the limitations of my perspective
I’ve grown increasingly convinced that abortion rights advocates are justified in their complaints about governing organizations made up mostly of (old, rich, white) men determining what rights a woman does or doesn’t get to have with her body. It reeks of domination and control, and it takes the decision-making power out of the hands of those most qualified to wield it.
As it turns out, I’m not a senator or a Supreme Court justice. But I do happen to be a man who’s not capable of getting pregnant, and as such, I’ll never find myself wrestling with the implications of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. While that fact in and of itself doesn’t preclude me from having an opinion, maybe it does preclude me from forcing my opinions on others. In this debate, I can afford to be comfortably detached. Recognizing this inherent privilege has led me to take more of a back seat while letting those more qualified–and more at stake–take the wheel.
4. Integrity: Refusing to let the end justify the means
If there’s one thing that has soured me on pro-life politics in America, it’s the tactics of those in charge. From the organized harassment of women entering abortion clinics to the shameless commandeering of religious voters, the pro-life movement hasn’t exactly been winsome in its approach. All too often it has been harsh, manipulative, duplicitous, and narrow-minded. (Oh, and let’s not forget its highly troubling origin story rooted in segregation and racism!)
The recent Supreme Court decision is a perfect example of this fact. In 2016, a massive number of single-issue conservative voters decided to compromise nearly every principle of morality and decency in exchange for a presidential candidate who promised to deliver the Supreme Court into their hands. And sadly, it worked. Conservatives got exactly what they wanted, and frankly it makes me want to vomit. Perhaps the main reason I’m so jaded about last month’s decision is because it reinforces the narrative that selling out to Donald Trump was worth it. But here’s the thing: when you win the wrong way, you still end up losing.
5. Practicality: Supporting solutions that actually work
I suppose only time will tell how the Supreme Court’s decision will affect the overall number of abortions in this country. But what I find particularly frustrating is that for years, the pro-life political machine has repeatedly ignored reasonable compromises that would have already been reducing the need for abortions, regardless of their legality. Why is it that the same people who told me as a teenager that abortion was murder also told me that it was demonic for my school to provide students with sex education and information about contraceptives? That’s just ridiculous, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
For quite some time now, measures to reduce abortions have energized me more than measures to ban them: putting financial resources in the hands of would-be-mothers in underserved communities, ensuring that affordable maternity care is readily available to all who need it, protecting pregnant employees from losing their jobs. The opportunities have been there all along, and from my vantage point, they seem far more promising (and reasonable) than criminalizing something that half the population views as a basic feature of healthcare. When I started to see that the most effective way to reduce the number of abortions is to prevent the need for them in the first place, my pro-life advocacy started to look vastly different from what I inherited from the religious right.
6. Consistency: Prioritizing life in all of its stages
You couldn’t draw up a more ironic plot twist: On the day before it ruled that Americans have no rights to an abortion, the very same Supreme Court ruled that Americans have every right to own all the firearms they damn well please. It sounds absurd, almost like a satirical headline from The Onion. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was to follow that timeline, but apparently, the moral of the story is this: life is sacred when it’s manifested as a fetus in the womb, but life is totally expendable when it’s manifested as a first-grader in her classroom or a grandmother at the grocery store.
For me, being pro-life means limiting gun ownership. It means abolishing the death penalty. It means addressing climate change. It means giving everyone access to healthcare. It means creating space for immigrants and refugees. It means reducing wealth inequality. It means ending police brutality. At the end of the day, it’s hard for me to get excited about legislation that protects the unborn if the same people behind it are actively creating a society that will devour those children as soon as they’re out of the womb.
7. Humility: Knowing how little I actually know
This is the heart of the matter. I simply don’t know when human personhood begins. At conception? At birth? Sometime in between? It would be nice to have access to that information, but I don’t. And I don’t think it’s going to arrive anytime soon. So how does lack of clarity inform my perspective on abortion?
At the personal level, it leads me to err on the side of caution. If I don’t know whether a fetus has achieved human personhood at 10 weeks (or 20 or 30), then my own choice would be to avoid abortion if at all possible. I suppose it’s the classic “better safe than sorry” mindset. In that sense, I guess I’m pro-life.
But at the political level, humility demands that I not hold others to my own personal convictions, nor judge them if they make choices that differ from my own. Once again, we’re dealing with highly subjective and ambiguous considerations here. The question of human personhood is a philosophical (or religious) one; it can’t presently be answered with absolute scientific certainty. This means that opinions will differ from one person to the next, and perhaps the best policy is to let each individual decide the matter for themselves. I guess in that sense, I’m also pro-choice. Given the complexity of the issue and the diversity of public opinion, I simply don’t think it’s right to legislate as if we have access to a level of certainty we don’t. Which appears to be precisely where we’re headed as a country.
Driving by pro-life activists jubilantly gathered outside our county courthouse in the days following the decision, I found myself looking the other way and cringing with discomfort. There was a time when I might have been out there right alongside them, cheering as loudly as anybody.
But somewhere there’s a woman with no money, no housing, no healthcare, no family support, and a positive pregnancy test in her hands. She has an excruciatingly difficult decision on the horizon, and I’m not about to applaud the fact that her government has already made it for her.
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