Before I explore the cultural differences and similarities that define the abortion choice debate, have you read this short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin? 

Omelas is, quite simply, the happiest city that could ever exist. There is no crime, hate, fear, sorrow, or discontent. Everyone takes care of each other and does good by their fellow man. The only flaw is that this utopian existence depends on a sacrificed child who is kept in every way deprived of human love and all basic rights. To save the child is to give up the sureness of present and future happiness. Every Omelas inhabitant is made aware of the child’s existence when they reach what we might call the age of reason, and everyone makes a choice to either stay in Omelas or leave. Those who walk away, whether as children or as adults, after ruminating for years, are never seen or heard from again. 

Now if you had to fit the choice debate into this story, who would the child represent? 

Anti-abortion advocates would say unborn babies, and pro-abortion advocates would say women. The United States is as divided as ever on abortion, and the divide is widened by factors like functional definitions and exacerbated by problems like extremist violence. The cultural differences between the sides in the choice debate make conversation and subsequent progress difficult. 

To say that abortion and pregnancy are personal and sensitive topics is a massive understatement. I’ve had friends refuse to discuss them with me in any context for fear of damage to our relationship. That fear is palpable and constantly created all around us. The countercultures and media of both the prolife and prochoice movements throw around words like “propaganda,” “control,” and even “antiwoman,” and not fully without reason. Media is not kind, and drama sells. The nuances of the choice debate are often lost in the frenzy. The truth is that opinions on abortion exist on a wide spectrum: the women’s march crowd, “personally” pro-life and publicly pro-choice, anti-anti-abortion, women’s choice all the way, loud Republicans like Donald Trump who claim pro-life beliefs while supporting capital punishment, anti-abortion-pro-lifers, and wholly pro-life people who believe in womb-to-tomb rights and protections (or the consistent life ethic). 

Parties across the spectrum throw around words like propaganda and political agenda. Both sides use the Fourteenth Amendment to support their constitutional arguments. Pro-life advocates say that everyone, even in the earliest stage of human development, has an inalienable right to life protected by the Constitution, as clarified by the  Fourteenth Amendment. Pro-choice advocates up until recently had Roe v Wade to refer to. The case concluded that a woman’s choices regarding her pregnancy were protected by the right to privacy in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Despite popular belief and the widely used “clump of cells” rhetoric, it is well-known and accepted that life begins at conception. There are those on both sides who truly (and perhaps correctly) think that their opponents only care about the affected parties (whether that is women, babies, or both) as political pawns or populations to control. Misguided public support and other problems make changing minds on either side nearly impossible. 

Support from inconsistent public figures and extremist violence are the two greatest detriments to the choice debate. Former US president Donald Trump made history as the first president to speak at the March for Life in 2020. He was frequently called “the most pro-life president” and vowed to protect pro-life legislation. His administration also spearheaded more federal government executions than all the states combined in 2020, a new record. This isn’t a new phenomenon; according to Gallup, as of 2022, 77 percent of Republicans favor the death penalty, and 70 percent of Republicans identify as pro-life. But being pro-life is not just about the earliest stages of life. Those who take being “pro-life” seriously have a “womb-to-tomb” perspective: life begins at conception, the value of that life does not diminish in any way, and one cannot rescind their right to life even by taking the life of another (therefore we are against capital punishment) or by taking their own life (committing suicide, including medical aid in dying). 

Therefore, so-called pro-life advocates who are also pro-capital punishment are not actually pro-life. They are more accurately described as strictly anti-abortion. Hypocrites and many genuinely misguided individuals who lend their faces and voices to one side of this debate do more harm than good because they give the opposition reason to paint the rest of that side with the same brush. 

As for extremist violence, this harm is even more literal because it directly frightens and hurts individuals and groups beyond the women and preborn who are the subjects of debate. So-called pro-life advocates have violently attacked abortion clinics in a multitude of ways over the years, including throwing Molotov cocktails, bombs threats, and threatening employees in the name of saving lives, when to actually be pro-life includes not using lethal force or extreme violence against other people. The same is true of pro-abortion advocates who, right or wrong, believe a woman’s right to choose is inalienable; they have also violently attacked non-abortion pregnancy clinics and assaulted pro-life individuals in the name of protecting women’s rights and autonomy. That violence makes civil discourse difficult to achieve. 

A less public but still effective detriment to the choice debate is the fundamental disagreement on the definition of the word “abortion.” Abortion has historically been defined as a medical procedure to terminate a pregnancy, but it is now also used to refer to miscarriage, which is not about choice.  Planned Parenthood changed their definition to include removing an ectopic pregnancy, and Merriam-Webster’s definition explicitly states that miscarriage is also abortion. Miscarriage is the spontaneous death of a child in utero, not brought about by a parent’s choice. This lack of distinction between a usually elective procedure and life-saving or otherwise medically necessary measures makes for even more highly emotional and decidedly murky talking points. 

Another murky issue here is misconception. Folks believe that the many abortion bans triggered by the Dobbs case include bans on life-saving measures for the mother, therefore endangering the lives of some women and perhaps leaving their lives in the hands of hospital ethics boards. The confusion resulted in the federal government reinforcing national policy on life-saving measures that many thought would be contradictory to some state laws. This is not the case; the states with abortion bans do carve out exceptions for medically necessary and life-saving measures for pregnant women. The extreme confusion added fearful fuel to a popular pro-choice belief, enabling pro-choicers to view pro-lifers as only pro-birth without care for the mother’s life.

Pro-choice. Pro-life. Pro-abortion. Anti-abortion. Whatever the label, both sides of the choice debate can agree that abortion is a human rights issue, but they fundamentally disagree on whose human rights are at stake. Contrary to popular belief, and perhaps even recent Supreme Court decisions, this isn’t a matter of policy; it’s a matter of culture. Policies regarding abortion and access have driven the news in recent months, but should they? Culture affects policy, not the other way around, and the current policies in place do little to promote a true culture of choice. Anti- and pro-abortion are two equally passionate countercultures battling for the popular majority in the United States but both their efforts are tripped up and even stagnated by both outside influences and inside sabotage. Pro-life and pro-choice folks both have a sharp difference of opinion on who is considered to be a protected population, but they also have an overlap of values that is often overlooked. Both sides should be simultaneously clarifying their message and working together on issues where their values overlap, not primarily counterprotesting each other. When the wrong methods or arguments are used in the name of saving lives, society as a whole suffers.



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