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Stop justifying abortion

Either you believe abortion should be legal and we need to protect access to safe, compassionate, and confidential abortion services, full stop, or you want to fall right down the slippery slope of moral relativism and directly into the hands of conservatives. You do not need to justify abortion because a pregnancy endangers the life of a patient, because a pregnancy is the result of rape, because you think certain people shouldn’t be allowed to have children, because you think a fetus carries disabilities, or for any other reason.

Every time a progressive justifies abortion, one of those horrid ‘lamenting the preborn killed by pinko commie scum’ websites gets another set of animated sparkling angel wings and a dreadful midi.

Private medical procedures do not require justification. As soon as you act like they do, you open up a line of conversation that is better left closed; you’re creating an opening where there wasn’t one before, and it’s one that directly harms the people who need access to abortion services. As soon as you start talking about why people have abortions, you set up a tiered world of ethically justified abortions versus others. You tell patients getting abortions after rapes, for example, that they will be supported and no one blames them for making a private medical decision, while leaving patients getting abortions for ‘bad’ or ‘selfish’ reasons with the impression that you are judging them.

Abortions don’t come in kinds or flavours, unless you want to talk about specific differences between individual procedures related to the stage of the pregnancy and the best procedure for the patient’s needs. There is no such thing as an ethically justified root canal versus an ethically ambiguous root canal. There’s just a procedure deemed medically neccessary after examination and discussion between doctor and patient, and a decision made on the basis of all available information.

You can talk openly about having a root canal. And you don’t need to justify it. ‘I just wasn’t ready to have a cavity.’ ‘It was causing an infection that could have killed me.’

Abortion must be treated the same way by members of the progressive moment, or they are going to find themselves forever circling around the issue, locking horns with conservatives who will seize any opening they can to undermine access to reproductive rights. As soon as you set up the idea that abortion is something that needs to be justified, you’re creating an opening which suggests that abortion is something bad which requires an excuse, rather than a private medical procedure. And that means that progressives are playing on conservative turf, here.

Everyone knows about homefield advantage, right? Why would you voluntarily walk on to the other team’s playing field and try to go up against them when you can stay on your own ground and argue your points just as well? You’re basically throwing free points to the other team, and believe me, they’re going to run with them, because they take this business every bit as seriously as we do. While their goal is to undermine bodily autonomy and our goal is to protect freedom of choice, both battles shouldn’t revolve around the idea that abortion is bad and requires excuses. We can, should, and must rise above that idea to reposition the ideological standpoints in this debate.

There is a strange squick factor among many progressives when it comes to abortion, and that undermines the very points we are trying to make. People say they’re fine with abortion but would never have one themselves, setting it up, again, as a negative; it’s a tainted medical procedure that they don’t want to associate with. Or they say that they want to see abortion occurring infrequently, implying, again, that it’s a bad thing; while this statement may be rooted in the idea that pregnancy prevention should be our first and foremost priority (and I agree), it’s not usually read that way, and people need to be conscious of how their rhetoric is going to be conceptualised by the other side. Likewise with people who refer to abortion in general as a tragedy; I’d argue it can be when people are forced to abort a wanted pregnancy for a variety of factors, but abortion as a whole? No.

All of these well-meaning progressive framings are ultimately designed to soft-pedal abortion, and that’s a mistake. We don’t need to justify, excuse, or soften abortion in order to make it palatable. People need to understand that it is one among many medical procedures that take place across the United States every day, and that people deserve access to it without judgment or commentary. People don’t need to produce their justified abortion licenses to have a right to speak about abortion, and someone who had a D&C to treat a miscarriage should be treated with the same respect as someone who took RU-486 to terminate an early and unwanted pregnancy.

Progressives often make the mistake of attempting to meet in the middle, to be the moderate ones, justifying this on the grounds that they want to foster a dialogue rather than alienating people. Unfortunately, what it actually means is that they’re ceding ground immediately, before the discussion has even begun. If you open a conversation about abortion with a discussion about justified abortions, you’re immediately setting abortion up as an ethical negative, rather than something that is neutral in nature; if you force conservatives to approach an ethically neutral argument rather than a compromised one, it’s going to be more difficult for them to attack us on ethical grounds. And they’re going to be forced to reveal the real reasons they don’t want patients to be able to access abortion services.

When they can’t hide behind pandering about exceptions for the life of the mother or cases of rape, they’re forced to admit that they just hate abortion. And that is a much easier ideological standpoint to attack, because it’s a hard, clear line. It’s also a much easier line to mobilize their base around; moderate conservatives making decisions at the polls who care about this issue might feel differently about casting their votes if the abortion debate took place with different goalposts and standards because it would force them to probe deeper into how their candidates actually feel.

And for patients, unilateral support for people seeking abortions is critical. There’s a reason even progressives in pro-choice circles are sometimes hesitant to speak out about abortion, and it’s the knowledge that they may be judged and condemned for having ‘the wrong kind’ of abortion, for ‘giving the movement a bad name.’ They’ll be told that people ‘completely respect their choice, but, you know, people like you are what gives conservatives fodder to attack us,’ or they will be openly informed that they’re ethically repugnant. And this needs to stop.

There’s nothing wrong with abortion. And it’s time for progressives to openly say that instead of dancing around the issue.


  1. Muffin MacGuffin wrote:

    This is fantastic. Thank you so much for this post. I am fucking TIRED of us ceding the moral high ground on abortion.

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  2. MHutton wrote:

    Bill of Rights, 4: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
    What could be more “unreasonable” than to seize a woman’s person, her time for 9+ months, and her health future for the benefit of a potential future citizen? If the government is permitted to do this, what will prevent them from forcing any other citizen from donating a kidney or other organ to a needy fellow citizen?
    The most basic property right is ownership of one’s own body.

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  3. 1of42 wrote:

    “And they’re going to be forced to reveal the real reasons they don’t want patients to be able to access abortion services.”

    this doesn’t make sense to me. the conservatives i know who oppose abortion are all very clear about their reasoning: they believe fetuses to meet one or another of the characteristics (in the religious conservatives’ case, a soul) necessary to be human people, and therefore ought to be protected as we protect anyone who is a human person.

    I happily attack the personhood axiom, but past the personhood argument their position is quite logical. I am ardently pro-choice precisely BECAUSE i do not consider fetuses to be people. if i believed the opposite, i would probably be pro-life, because personal healthcare autonomy and privacy doesn’t justify murder.

    “People don’t need to produce their justified abortion licenses to have a right to speak about abortion, and someone who had a D&C to treat a miscarriage should be treated with the same respect as someone who took RU-486 to terminate an early and unwanted pregnancy.”

    of course, you’re picking 2 of the most morally justified cases of abortion. would you show the same level of respect to a woman wishing to abort a fetus post viability? (this is legal in canada.) i suspect you would not. you wish to draw a nice bright line, say that all abortions contained within it are inherently all moral and all equally moral, and cut off any further debate. but that won’t convince anyone on the other side of the argument, and the insightful of us on your side of the argument will immediately sense the arbitrariness of attempting to place some arbitrary anti-moral-arguments firewall around certain procedures and not others.

    i don’t think this is a useful rhetorical strategy, and will likely compromise you in arguments.

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  4. PanPaniscor wrote:

    This is one of the best perspectives on this issue I have ever encountered. It is very difficult for people to divorce emotion from physiology and to deny the omnipresent urge to personify biology, to label physiological truths and necessities as “good” or “bad”. This argument really helps avoid such theoretical traps. And to those that would claim that this approach leeches the humanity from the situation: starting from a basis of physiological necessity does not eliminate the need for counseling and emotional support so important for recovery from so many other health based care decisions. No one puts a stigma on the communication and support that is so critical to successful outcomes after organ transplants. Why would such criticisms be relevant here?

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  5. JM wrote:

    TL;DR: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

    I’ve seen this sentiment echoed throughout the progressive internets of late. It’s as unfortunate as it was predictable – indeed, I’m surprised that the demonization of that great mass of folks who support legal access to abortion services yet are nonetheless unwilling to subordinate their conscience to a catchphrase has only lately reared its head.

    For feminists, “a woman has the right to control her own body” is an argument entire and conclusive of itself. For others, however, it is the mere conclusion of a more nuanced argument, one that considers the fetus as posing a prima facie ethical dilemma that must be resolved, and their support for abortion is predicated on this context. A consequence of this perspective is that as the context changes (e.g. late-term abortion) the answer may change.

    The friction between these groups is a consequence of the fact that the feminist narrative of abortion has managed to secure the support of a great number of people who don’t, at base, believe in it. Indeed, the more contextual support for abortion outlined above bears greater resemblance (in reasoning, not conclusion) to the classical pro-life position. The conclusion: be careful what you wish for. If you’re going to wage war on folks such as I who support legal, publicly funded access to abortion services, publicly funded contraception, comprehensive sex education, and near every other checklist item – and yet who’re unwilling to support e.g. sex-selective abortion (thereby throwing Asia’s women under the bus, both the 160 million ‘missing’ and those who, existing, suffer the consequences in the form of increased sex trafficking, bride buying, child marriage, etc.) then you risk a schism and discovering just how narrow the base of ‘true believers’ actually is.

    There is great irony in all this, and tragedy too. The great progressive mantra for at least the last generation has been to speak for those unspoken for and to consider social context and consequences over and above the worship of narrow individual rights. Curiously, the kinds of folks who usually worship at the altar of the latter (e.g. with respect to capitalism, gun ownership, etc.) are to found on the other side in this instance, and the kinds of folks who usually stress the former are in this case wedded to a fundamentalist interpretation of 18th century ideals. The tragedy lies in the fact that the erosion of all integrity from the ‘pro-choice’ platform is not self-inflicted, but rather reflects the corrosive effects of sustained conflict with equally fundamentalist opposing forces. “And when you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes also into you.”

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  6. Anna wrote:

    “Anti-abortionists tend to assume that without restrictions on abortion, Canadian women are lining up for last-minute abortions during their 9th month of pregnancy, and doctors are obligingly doing them. This irrational claim is insulting to both women and doctors, and has zero basis in fact. The number of abortions after 20 weeks has always been extremely low, as it is in every country with legalized abortion, and that did not change after 1988. According to 2003 statistics, only 0.3% of abortions were performed after 20 weeks. Almost all of these occurred between 20 and 22 weeks, mostly for serious maternal health reasons or fetal anomalies. The number of abortions done after 24 weeks in Canada amounts to a tiny handful, and without exception, all are done for cases of lethal fetal abnormality, where the fetus cannot survive after birth. Perhaps half a dozen doctors in all of Canada are even trained and willing to do abortions after 20 weeks. Further, it’s impossible for any doctor to undertake this more complex operation without a dedicated medical team and the full backing of an institution.”

    From Canada does not need an abortion law.

    But yes, quite frankly, anyone who wants to end their pregnancy at any point is more than welcome to. I don’t care what that person’s reasons or timing are, because I don’t care why that person is getting an abortion. It’s not my business, it’s not my problem, and it’s not yours either.

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  7. Kirsten wrote:

    While I understand the argument prsented, and its well reasoned there are some parts of it I even agree with. I have one problem I wish to address.

    I consider myself a progressive, I vote for liberal candidates and oppose the anti-abortion agenda as a whole. But I am a Christian and according to my beliefs I consider abortion wrong. But I also believe that imposing that belief on the general populous is just as wrong. Where does that leave me? I’m a part of your moral middle ground you so abhor. But there are liberals, and feminists such as myself who hold other beliefs. Such a black and white view is dangerous. Not everyone believes getting an abortion is the same as getting a tooth pulled. Including many women who have actively sought out abortions!

    Many progressives like me believe that ensuring that safe and legal abortions is preferable to the alternative (see Pre Roe v. Wade America) and that the inevitable result should be the reduction of abortions in America.

    Just a thought that perhaps such a black and white attitude and diversionary attitude might separate the ground troops more than unite them.

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink
  8. EQY wrote:

    I am a midwife, and I got my start in women’s health working in an abortion clinic in a politically conservative state. It is still the best job I’ve ever had.One year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, my father, who is a journalist, called me to ask me, “So what would you say is the most common reason women come to your clinic to get an abortion?” I know he wanted to hear something like, The economy is bad, or They’re in school / a bad relationship / a homeless shelter. But what I said was the truth: “Well, pretty much for every single one of them, Right Now is a really bad time to be pregnant.” (And to his credit, I think he really heard me with that.)A lot of people, when hearing that I had decided to become a midwife, made some statement along the lines of “How wonderful that now you will be on the happier side of things.” And I do get why they said that. I do. But a friend of mine, who worked at Planned Parenthood, put it best this way when she said, “People talk like working in abortion is this horrible, tragic thing. Like all day long we are sad and hushed and the whole thing is very tragic. But it’s NOT. We get to give women their lives back. There’s nothing sad about being able to help someone have the future she wants, instead of the future she doesn’t want.”

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Permalink
  9. dz wrote:

    “If you’re going to wage war on folks such as I who support legal, publicly funded access to abortion services, publicly funded contraception, comprehensive sex education, and near every other checklist item – and yet who’re unwilling to support e.g. sex-selective abortion (thereby throwing Asia’s women under the bus, both the 160 million ‘missing’ and those who, existing, suffer the consequences in the form of increased sex trafficking, bride buying, child marriage, etc.)”

    JM, don’t you think that it would be better to address the root causes that lead to sex-selective abortion than to judge women who make that choice? If an individual woman decides to abort a female fetus, you haven’t walked in that woman’s shoes, and I don’t think you should condemn her or say abortion shouldn’t be available to her. These decisions MUST be left to the woman, no matter what. If she’s feeling social pressure to abort a female fetus, that certainly isn’t her fault.

    Also, sex-selective abortion isn’t a thing in the US; it just isn’t. And if it were, we should address its root causes.

    Yes, it’s terrible and very sad that in some places, women’s lives are worth so little that sex-selective abortion becomes a thing. But trying to relate that to the debate in the US is a red herring.

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Permalink
  10. Megpie71 wrote:


    Here’s my thinking on this (context: I’m Australian).

    Birth control overall works on a continuum along the reproductive cycle, with the hormonal birth control methods interfering at the stage of gamete production (tell the ovaries you’re already pregnant, and there’s no egg produced). Timing methods (counting days and similar) and barrier methods, like condoms, diaphragms and similar work to prevent the two gametes meeting. IUDs work to prevent the fertilized zygote from implanting. The “morning after pill” and similar such emergency contraceptive measures work to sabotage the implantation process as well. Abortion removes the implanted foetus – it should, ideally, be a last-ditch contraceptive measure. But if abortion isn’t available, or an abortifacient fails, then there’s one other method which has always been used down the ages to deal with unwanted babies: infanticide – kill the baby once it’s born.

    Also: abortion may be abhorrent to (some varieties of) Christian beliefs, but it’s still better than many of the alternatives. The alternatives, in this case, being things like infanticide, like child abuse, neglect (physical and/or emotional), familial poverty, or just a child growing up knowing they weren’t wanted. Read about the sorts of environments that foster anti-social personality disorder some time – a lot of them read to me like the consequences of parents unwillingly having to live with an unwanted pregnancy.

    Christian doctrine, as given by Christ, says that some of the things Christians are supposed to be doing in order to follow Christ is minister to the poor, help the sick, visit those held in prison, and generally provide aid to their fellow human beings. I’d argue that the long-term social consequences of things like making birth control in general (and abortion in specific) safe and legal are things which are suited to the Christian mission. Working toward making each child a wanted child means reducing the sorts of poverty caused by too many mouths to feed and not enough money to go around. It means a better chance of kids growing up free from abuse, and of formerly abused people being able to make better choices about whether or not they’ll have kids of their own.

    Also, it’s worth noting: women have always attempted to take control of their reproductive capacity, with greater or lesser degrees of success. Throughout history, this has been a strong undercurrent. Making abortion illegal doesn’t make it go away. Making sex illegal and/or immoral outside certain carefully circumscribed circumstances doesn’t make people stop having it. Hells, even when people thought having sex could kill them (for example, the AIDS scare in the 1980s), as the song said, people were still having sex. At heart, I’m a pragmatist: if it’s going to happen or people are going to do it, make it legal, make it safe as possible, and make it economically accessible. If it’s a drug or a product, regulate it and tax it. If it’s a service, license the provision and require certification.

    Women overall are safer reproducing in an environment which accepts that the majority of women want to have a say in when and how often they reproduce, and which provides them with lots of options about how to do this.

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Permalink
  11. Baeraad wrote:

    I quite agree with your position. Fetuses are not human, and that should be obvious to anyone who actually sees what’s in front of zir eyes instead of letting rhetoric conjure up visions of cute little tots standing in some sort of cosmic waiting room, waiting for their bodies to be finished so that they can live. I can understand being squemish about killing a late-term fetus, but only in the same way that I would be squemish to kill… well, just about any living thing, to be honest. If you would eat a hamburger, you have no excuse to be anti-choice.

    Furthermore, and importantly, it doesn’t even exactly matter whether fetuses are human or not, because no one has the duty to lend their body out as a life-support system. No one. Ever. Under any circumstances. To force someone to do so is evil. Monstrous.

    As for any relative moderates complaining about how this rhetoric means that you’re being booted from the cause… oh, relax. Speaking for myself, I count anyone as an ally, in any issue, who is more on my side than on the polar opposite side. Every cause needs moderates, because they are the ones who can actually negotiate with the moderates on the other side and budge the law another inch or two in the right direction at the time. No one is ever going to enact the sort of sweeping changes I would prefer. I accept that.

    That doesn’t mean that everyone has to join you in wringing your hands and talking about how very, very complicated the issue is, though. For a lot of us, the issue is really very simple – and what’s more, you should want us to say that, and say it loudly. Every cause needs extremists, too – we’re the ones that give you some pull to negotiate with. If one side says “it’s all very simple – no abortions, ever!” and the other side says, “it’s all very complicated – some abortions maybe, but we should weep and lament them!”, then what everyone will take from that is that the first side can’t see the second side’s point, but the second side can see the first side’s point, and that must mean that the first side has a point to see but the second side doesn’t.

    We don’t have to agree 100%, is what I’m saying. We can appreciate each other from a purely tactical standpoint.

    Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 1:27 am | Permalink
  12. Jenny wrote:

    Yes, you have a beautiful way of sharing this message. Women need to stand in solidarity and this is a great way to do so!

    Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  13. Katherine wrote:

    I appreciate this post, and definitely think that the abortion debate needs to be framed differently. However, I disagree with it in a variety of places.

    Many conservatives believe that pro-choice people are heartless people who do not care about babies. When we compare abortions to root canals, they believe that we have just proved their point. The ONLY times I have had success talking with a pro-life minded person about abortion are the times when I have admitted that I am totally squicked out by abortion (and I am) and I wish it happened less frequently, and then said something like “but I believe that it should ALWAYS be up to the person carrying the pregnancy and here are some reasons a person might make that choice: ___. However since someone out of the situation can never fully understand the factors at play, the decision should NEVER be up to anyone other than the person carrying the pregnancy.” Admittedly, this does not often work (many people are so focused on defending their own opinion that the discussion is completely irrelevant) but it HAS worked.

    “Abortion must be treated the same way by members of the progressive moment, or they are going to find themselves forever circling around the issue, locking horns with conservatives who will seize any opening they can to undermine access to reproductive rights. ”

    Progressives are likely going to find themselves looking horns with conservatives who will seize any opening they can to undermine access to reproductive rights no matter what they say. Perhaps many people who talk about the justifications for abortion ARE trying to soft pedal, and you know, if you are trying to soft pedal you probably should stop that, but plenty of people of people who bring up the possible REASONS for abortion who are merely discussing our actual opinions and giving examples to illustrate them.

    Wednesday, September 12, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  14. samanthab wrote:

    Kirsten, I’m a Christian myself, and the Bible does not support the argument that a fetus is a life. If you want to say “I believe X, because y,” it needs to be evident that y actually supports x conclusion. I think you’ve actually proved the point, that the goal lines have been shifted to the point of meaninglessness. If you can say you are troubled by abortion simply by virtue of being Christian, even though the Bible states that a baby be considered a life only after one year, then I think you need to reconsider your terms.

    Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  15. eeee wrote:

    SamanthaB, do you have a source for your last sentence, re the Bible stating “that a baby be considered a life only after one year”? A brief google search yielded nothing, but there are so many possible variant terms (and so many sites shilling one-year plans for Bible reading, and Bibles for children) that I think I need more specific search terms.

    I used to try to justify or sanitize abortion in ways similar to what’s mentioned in this article/comments. Then I started working in a field of medical support services that made me waver a bit on my “a fetus is not a life” views, but didn’t change my “abortion should be 100% legal” opinion. I tried to reconcile this in various ways for about two years, before finally realizing that it’s unnecessary. I believe that, at some points, a fetus is not a human life, and at some points it is, and at any/all of those points abortion should always be legal, available, and confidential between the pregnant woman and her healthcare provider. Accepting that I don’t have to tackle the “not a life” argument has made me much more confident in supporting my position.

    Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 4:44 am | Permalink