When I begin to question my stance on abortion, I tend to reassure myself by putting the issue in the context of my own feminism. Access to abortion is good for women. I sincerely believe that: The ability to terminate a pregnancy puts women in control of their own bodies. But what matters more than what I believe is what the women in my life have taught me about abortion; what the female intellectuals and thought-leaders I respect have explained to me: Access to safe abortions is a vital right afforded to all people with uteruses. It really doesn’t matter what I think about abortion. If women believe abortion is good for women, then that’s that: It’s entirely their decision. Women decide what is good for women. I do not.
That belief has led me to talk about abortion a lot less: As a dude who has never had a uterus, I don’t really see the point of me joining the debate about whether or not abortion is good for (cis-gendered) women. I have no valuable perspective to offer when it comes to discussing how people with vaginas make decisions about their own reproductive health: Obviously, I have no personal experience with the maintenance of that particular set of baby-making equipment. So, when it comes to abortion, I’ve been pretty sure what my job is as a non-female feminist: It is sitting down, shutting up, and listening.
Keeping my mouth shut on the issue has been fine with me. Honestly, I’ve never been a big fan of discussing the “A”-word—many members of my family regard my opinion on the matter as a moral aberration, so I’ve traditionally avoided announcing the fact that I am pro-choice. I won’t deny it if asked directly—but when we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, or when I join members of my family for Christmas Mass, I avoid broaching the subject. And, over the years, I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping my pro-choice status on the DL.
But a few years back, extended-family members started friending me on Facebook. And it’s gotten a bit harder to stay low-key, cause I’m one of those annoying people who shares news articles and columns every day—and the vehement pro-choice supporter Jessica Valenti happens to be one of my favorite columnists. Whoops.
When they find out I’m pro-choice, my pro-life family members inevitably want to understand why I’m okay with abortion. And because I care deeply about what my loved ones think of me (weird, right?) I feel obligated to break my self-imposed silence on the issue.
“Listen,” I tell them. “At all the schools I’ve attended, it turns out a lot of the people who have uteruses also happen to be smarter than I am. And they’ve helped me understand why abortion is good for women: They’ve got pretty damn convincing evidence.” Then I send them a link to a Valenti column, sit back in my chair, and expect to have converted my cous-uncl-aun-grandp-grandm-whoever into a pro-choicer.
Believe it or not, I haven’t had much success. They get back to me and say how they don’t understand how being pro-life makes them anti-woman.
I know how I’m supposed to respond: I’m supposed to show them examples of pro-life people making terrible decisions about women’s health. There are plenty of instances: Congress pro-lifers’ bone-headed attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is just one case of conservatives supporting policies that irreparably harm women.
But I have to be honest: That response is no good. It’s not fair of me to accuse my family members of wanting to prevent women from accessing health care, because my family members aren’t bone-headed congressional Republicans: My family members support women getting the access to the health care they need, and making their own decisions about that care. They just don’t believe that abortion is okay.
“I don’t like how this has been framed as a women’s issue,” one of them told me recently (I’m paraphrasing). “My opposition to abortion doesn’t come from any opposition to women’s liberty. It comes from my belief that a developing baby—a fetus—is a human being, and should not be killed. I wish there was a way for women to decide to stop being pregnant without killing a fetus—I’d support that. But there just isn’t a way.”
That argument got to me. I think my family member really had a point there. And it’s made me think: Maybe the debate about Choice and the debate about Life are really two different arguments. I did some research on the nature of pro-life and pro-choice arguments, and (after scrolling through some pretty upsetting websites) I came across an article by a philosopher I respect: Peter Singer. Singer makes a fair point: “It cannot simply be assumed that a woman’s right to have an abortion is a question of individual liberty, for it must first be established that the aborted foetus [sic] is not a being worthy of protection.”
I’ve thought about these two arguments—Singer’s and my family member’s—and here’s what I’ve walked away with: When explaining why I’m pro-choice, I need to first explain why I think that abortion is okay. Then I can talk about abortion as a woman’s choice.
From the onset, my point with this column may have seemed like a farce, and, in some ways, it is: As a friend reminded me, knowledge of my own privilege doesn’t exempt me from it: If silence is best, then I should stay silent. It doesn’t make sense to explain how it is wrong of me to argue about a woman’s right to choose, and yet go on to write a 900-word column about it.
But that’s precisely my argument here today: My silence and deference on the issue of abortion only makes sense up to a certain point. When we’re discussing whether or not abortion is good for women, my role in that debate is rightfully one of an ally, and a quiet ally. But when family members—or anyone, for that matter—asks me why I’m okay with abortion, they are not asking me why I’m okay with a woman making her own choices: Rather, they’re asking why I think it is okay to kill a fetus. And that’s an argument I can’t resolve by sticking to a feminist framework. It asks for me to speak on my own behalf, and share my own opinions.
So the next time I get asked why I’m pro-choice, here’s how I will answer: I am not just pro-choice: I am pro-abortion. I support access to abortion because I personally believe that that a developing embryo is not a human being, and I do not think that it deserves protection from society. But obviously I’m fallible in that opinion, and I welcome you to debate that with me.
But while I will debate my own opinions with you, I will not pretend I have any right to speak for women, or to share opinions on any woman’s behalf. If you want to ask whether or not abortion is good for women, I’ll politely suggest that you ask someone with a uterus that question: I have nothing else substantive to add.
Contact Jack Herrera at herreraj ‘at’ stanford.edu.