Choice Language: Abortion Is a Right That Ends in Sorrow. Democratic Rhetoric in the Future Must Acknowledge This Fact

By Blustain, Sarah | The American Prospect, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Choice Language: Abortion Is a Right That Ends in Sorrow. Democratic Rhetoric in the Future Must Acknowledge This Fact


Blustain, Sarah, The American Prospect


OK, I'VE UNLISTED MY PHONE NUMBER, CHANGED MY NAME, and moved to a different (red) state. Now I can safely say it: The Democratic defense of abortion makes me cringe.

It's the stridency, the insistence, the repetition of a "woman's right

to choose." It rubs me the wrong way--and I'm one of those classic 30-something, northeastern, educated, pro-choice women who believes the message. I'm tormented by the idea that even as I support Democratic candidates--and, yes, on this issue--I'm turned off by their abortion rhetoric.

I'm not alone. Poll after poll shows that a majority, albeit a slim one, of Americans favor access to abortion. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from May of this year found that 54 percent of those asked said they thought that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Similarly, 55 percent told a Time/CNN poll in January 2003 that they favored the Supreme Court ruling "that women have the right to have an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy." And yet, as out most recent election made clear, some percentage of those poll respondents obviously support anti abortion candidates. Put more precisely, fully one-third of pro-choice Americans voted for George W. Bush, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. So the question is, how can Democrats soften their rhetoric while maintaining their support for safe, accessible abortion?

As long as I can remember, the tone of the liberal message on abortion has been defiant, sometimes even celebratory, It's an attitude that reflects the victory of legal abortion over back-alley dangers three decades ago--a success that many who remember it still experience with deep emotion. It also reflects a certain well-deserved panic: Due to the rising tide of anti-abortion sentiment, abortions are available in only 13 percent of counties in this country, according to Medical Students for Choice; in his first term, Bush appointed more than 200 new anti-abortion federal judges.

Still, for those of us who came after Roe v. Wade, there is a significantly different reality. The context has changed. Back alleys and coat hangers are not part of our visceral memory. To this generation, the "choice" of a legal abortion is no longer something to celebrate. It is a decision made in crisis, and it is never one made happily. Have you ever talked to a woman who has had an abortion? Even a married, intentionally pregnant woman who has had a "D and C" for a dying or dead embryo? A college student whose birth control failed? I promise you, such a woman does not talk about exercising the "right to choose." You may accuse her--and me--of taking such rights for granted, and maybe you'd be right. But mainly she will tell you how sad she is, how she wished she hadn't had to make that "choice," how unpleasant the procedure was. She is more likely depressed than defiant.

That's why liberalism's vocabulary of "rights" when it comes to abortion rings a little hollow. It's constitutional, intellectual and not nuanced enough to absorb the emotional or even legal complexity. "There is no organizational apparatus for the middle ground," Cynthia Gorney, author of "Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars" and a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, told me. "The way that the advocacy groups have organized them selves ... has been all or nothing." After all, abortion is a right that ends in sorrow, not celebration. It's not like women's suffrage or the equal access to public accommodations, rights whose outcome is emotionally unambiguous. The vocabulary that was so powerful in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s means something different today. The national debates--on welfare, on affirmative action, and, yes, on abortion have un derscored the nuances. The question no longer seems as simple as, "Are you for or against?" We are for. But how are we for, to what extent, and at what cost? …

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