When I was much younger, and the way people made babies was truly sinking in, I was staunchly anti-abortion. If you were responsible enough to have sex, I reasoned haughtily and rather judgmentally, you were responsible enough to have a baby. Then I started actually having sex, and my views relaxed considerably.
Now that I have had a child, I must admit that I’m back to being uncomfortable with abortion. I believe that life, or the potential for it, begins at conception. I’m not sure that I see a difference between this early life and it being merely “potential”, because won’t its journey to become a baby only be derailed if something goes wrong? I’m not sure, but what I am sure of is that my personal misgivings don’t stop me from being adamantly pro-choice.
I am pro-choice because I understand that I am privileged enough to have always had the financial and family support to have a baby at any age, if a partner and I had found ourselves in that position. A baby would not have limited my life choices. I understand that even if a clump of cells is, for me, already a life, it does not have more rights than the mother. It is not only her mental and physical well being that are factors, but also what she considers to be the right choice for her, for any reason. As I will never walk in her shoes, I cannot judge. Her reproductive choices are none of my business, but I can stand up for her right to make those choices privately and safely.
All this is why it is so important that the term “abortion” was finally said at a major political convention this week. The Democratic convention to nominate Hillary for president prominently featured abortion on its agenda. Speakers included Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List.
Creating headlines across the political world, Richards was the first person to say the word “abortion”, not euphemisms such as “pro-choice” or “termination”, in a convention speech touting HRC’s commitment to defending reproductive rights. She was also strategically seated with Bill Clinton, highlighting the future First Couple’s willingness to be publicly and personally linked to the cause. Last night, the divide between Republican and Democratic policies was even more stark as Ilyse Hogue took to the stage to speak about her own abortion.
Hogue was brave. While women in political life have spoken about ending their pregnancies before, it has generally been due to medical complications. The fetus was non-viable, or the woman’s health was at risk. Hogue said that her pregnancy occurred during graduate school, and it simply wasn’t the right time. She has gone on to have two children when the timing was right for her and her family. Importantly, she tried to break the false dichotomy that “bad girls have abortions and good girls have families.” Women who are already mothers may have an abortion, career women, students, unemployed; for financial reasons, emotional reasons, or simply because she doesn’t want a child. Whereas the Republican Party has sought to demonize and – according to a since-modified statement by their Presidential Nominee Trump – punish abortion-seekers and their doctors, the speakers at the Democratic Convention have sought to humanize them.
How tragic that in 2016, we still need to humanize women.
Many may find her revelation to be in poor taste, and inappropriate for the political stage. They are wrong. Reproductive rights remain hugely important, and are constantly under attack. Even though Roe v Wade decided the issue decades ago, lawmakers, and particularly Republican lawmakers, are still trying to figure out ways to make safe, legal abortions extremely difficult to access, if not impossible.
While some more right-wing publications are decrying the Democrats’ “celebration” of abortion, it is much more nuanced than that. Tim Kaine, Hillary’s Vice Presidential pick, is a practicing Catholic. He is on the record as saying that he follows the dogma of his church, and is personally opposed to abortion. However, he also recognizes that Roe v Wade is the law of the land and respects its implementation. Crucially, he goes further than merely abiding by the law, saying that he believes in individual liberty, and does not wish to make personal decisions on behalf of half the population. He demonstrates in his evolving record on abortion that a politician can be personally pro-life, while respecting the right of his constituents to make the choice that’s right for them.
Kaine’s position is fundamental in the exhausting, never-ending discussion about abortion (seriously, when will we move on?). Publicly pro-choice women like Richards and Hogue should be applauded for their stance and their courage to speak out in an era where activists are still on the receiving end of death threats and worse. But they are professionally pro-choice women, and this is expected of them. To have someone as high profile as a Vice Presidential nominee say that they are privately opposed, but recognize that their views shouldn’t be applied to others, is a great step forward. Further, he is a man taking a supportive stance on what is too often seen as a women’s issue.
The key word here is “supportive”. Powerful men have long been vocal about opposing abortion rights, as if women get pregnant all by themselves, or all men would be 100% committed and happy to financially and emotionally support all children they have a hand in producing. Their speeches have shades of the “honor” culture sometimes found in other cultures, where a man’s reputation is rooted in the chastity of his daughters or sisters. They seek to control; women are not entities in their own right, but an extension of their men. In this context, the Democratic convention agenda emphasizes that while an individual woman’s right to choose is no one else’s business, collectively it is everyone’s business. Abortion is not just a women’s issue, and having Tim Kaine go on the record to support it is important.
The Democrat’s choice of VP and their convention as a whole has been a great step forward in the continuing conversation about reproductive rights. With their choice of speakers, they have highlighted the continuing need to fight for access to safe, legal abortion, and that the party is willing to make this fight a central issue. With their choice of Tim Kaine, Democrats have demonstrated that you can support their position while being personally uncomfortable with the procedure. That’s what choice means.
The next step will be for politicians to stop talking about abortion, because it is universally acknowledged as a private issue, a safe and legal decision to be made only by those directly affected.