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Equality for women cannot depend on abortion

Braver Angels, an organization dedicated to facilitating discussion on difficult and divisive issues, held a debate on December 2 titled Resolved: Women’s Equality Requires Access to Abortion.

All Our Lives, of course, stands in opposition to this resolution. Although time limits prevented reading it fully, this was co-founder Jen Roth’s statement.

Support for the affirmative position in this debate is more commonly associated with the left. But—and I’m coming at this more from the left side myself—I think there is an inconsistency in this position.

In general, the left is more aware of the economic and social pressures that can constrain decisions that are supposedly free. For instance, economic libertarians argue that minimum wage laws, for instance, are anti-worker because employers would create more jobs if they didn’t have to pay more than they think a job is worth. Thus, they say, these laws actually prevent people who would rather have a $3/hour job than no job from getting them.

But a leftist would argue that the person working in dangerous conditions or for poverty wages isn’t doing that because they’ve made a free choice among multiple viable options. They’re doing it because they need money to live and thus don’t really have much of a choice. That’s why leftists argue for minimum wage laws, worker protections, universal basic income and other measures that mean workers don’t have to make that choice. To someone on the left, never having to make a choice between a bad job and starvation is fundamental to a pro-worker society. I believe that this analysis should also be applied to abortion.

There’s another comparison I could make. Before I start, I would ask participants to remember that, no matter what their own views are, the idea of having an abortion is repugnant to many women because they see it as killing a human being. With that in mind, suppose a woman were required to have sex with her boss or landlord to keep her job or afford her housing. Would we consider justice done if we secured her right to do so? Would anyone be referring to this as economic justice? Of course not, because even if the woman might otherwise be interested in sleeping with that person, it should never be a requirement. I hope we would never say that the right of a woman to participate in society is dependent on whether she can sleep with a person who has power over her. I hope anyone would be enraged at the suggestion that their rights are contingent on that. But we hear over and over that abortion is needed because, for instance, poor women won’t be able to get out of poverty without it—and that’s supposed to be pro-woman.

There’s a reason that major corporations and Hollywood are tripping over themselves to prove how committed they are to abortion, and it’s not because they’re feminist. It’s because it’s a whole lot more money and trouble to pay for parental leave and deal with getting a temporary replacement for a worker on leave and provide for nursing moms and change shooting schedules to accommodate a pregnant actress.

When I hear someone say that equality requires abortion, it doesn’t sound like a call to liberation. It sounds like despair. It sounds like giving up.

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Eugenics never ended

US society talks a good game about the sacredness of motherhood, but there’s a long history in this country of seeing certain women’s fertility as a threat. The women who don’t need to be having any more children because they’re too poor or too disabled or too melanated or just not “us”. The children who will be welfare dependents or “idiots” or criminals or “anchor babies”.

That’s why the news that women in ICE custody have had hysterectomies performed on them against their will, though shocking, wasn’t surprising.

We don’t yet know the full details of what happened. It appears that the doctor who performed the hysterectomies may have been committing insurance fraud. It’s also possible, even likely, that some of them had real uterine health conditions. Either way, had the people given power over these women perceived their fertility to have any value, they would have been treated differently. They would have been informed of their condition, if any, and given treatment options.

But these were just immigrant women, “illegals,” whom the president and his supporters have decided this country doesn’t need any more of. Some people solve that problem with a wall; others, with a scalpel.

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We can’t go on this way

With everything that’s happened in 2020, one thing could not be more obvious: things can’t go on the way they are.

Abortion opponents can’t continue to be focused on electing politicians with no regard for anything except the abortion bills they’ll vote for or the Supreme Court justices they’ll nominate. Divorcing concern for the unborn from concern for everyone else has led us to a point where the term “pro-life” is associated with an authoritarian regime and its apologists.

White society can’t continue to ignore Black lives, including Black maternal and child health. Advocates for the unborn can’t ignore the inequities that make Black women more likely to receive abortions—and we can’t pawn it all off as “Planned Parenthood’s racism” either. We also can’t ignore racism perpetuated by people who are (at least nominally) “on our side.”

We can’t continue to live under an economic system that treats workers as mere units of labor, not human beings with lives and needs. The corporate vision of women’s freedom touts abortion as “economic justice” because it doesn’t challenge their power; it’s cheaper and easier than real economic justice.

“Freedom” can’t continue to mean “I do whatever I want with no regard for how it affects others.” We’re all in this life together, and pretending we’re not so that a few people can indulge their every desire makes everyone else less free.

The only just, sustainable way to create a society that values the lives of the most vulnerable is to create a society that values all of us—even those whose lives others might consider disposable. It’s not OK to let a pandemic go unchecked because most of the people it kills are elderly or disabled. It’s not OK to shrug off a police shooting because the victim may have committed a crime. It’s sure as hell not “pro-life.”

We can’t go on as we’ve been. So now what?

If you believe we need a new movement, one that centers the needs of women facing unplanned pregnancy and racial injustice and poverty and ableism, one that doesn’t ask you to choose between protecting the unborn and respecting everyone else’s lives, join us and let us know how you’d like to help.

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Note to pro-lifers

Regarding a recent blow-up on Twitter:

There is no call to respond to someone raising a point about racial injustice with a lecture about the “real racism” of abortion. None whatsoever.

How does telling Black people they don’t know what racism is help Black babies? It doesn’t. It hurts them by undermining the pro-life cause in the Black community, and it hurts them by perpetuating racism.

You want to talk about the injustices, most definitely including racial injustices, that lead to high rates of abortion among Black women? Great! Attacking a Black man for talking about racism because he doesn’t mention abortion in that tweet is … not that. At all.

Why would anyone listen to you about Black life in the womb unless you have consistently shown yourself to be an ally of Black life outside of it? Seriously, why?

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Equal choices, as long as the choice is abortion

Illinois governor Bruce Rauner has signed a bill into law that, among other provisions, will require Medicaid in the state to cover elective abortions. Governor Rauner issued a statement saying “I understand abortion is a very emotional issue with passionate opinions on both sides. I sincerely respect those who believe abortion is morally wrong. They are good people motivated by principle. But, as I have always said, I believe a woman should have the right to make that choice herself and I do not believe that choice should be determined by income. I do not think it’s fair to deny poor women the choice that wealthy women have.”

To be clear, this bill does not remotely give poor women the choice that wealthy women have. Wealthy women can choose to bear children without having to worry whether they’ll be able to feed them, house them, raise them in safe neighborhoods, and educate them in quality schools. This bill is about giving poor women parity as regards one particular choice, and one only.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 75% of women who sought abortions in 2014 were poor or low-income. Twenty-six percent had incomes of 100–199% of the federal poverty level, and 49% had incomes of less than 100% of the federal poverty level ($15,730 for a family of two). Exactly how free are those choices? How much is that choice “determined by income”?

Rauner’s administration has devastated virtually every other social service for the poor, and now we’re supposed to believe he’s acting out of respect for poor women? Sure–and Hugh Hefner promoted abortion in Playboy because he was all about the feminism.

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All Our Lives statement regarding the Women’s March on Washington

All Our Lives is in full agreement with the vision of the Women’s March on Washington, as expressed on their website:

We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families – recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.

This vision statement, along with the March’s mission and core principles, are beautiful, nonviolent, and inclusive. Last week, however, the organizers released a set of “Unity Principles” that include abortion as a right which must be unrestricted and free for everyone. We cannot unite behind that principle. We believe that abortion is a life-destroying practice we should be working to move past, not embracing.

But we also know that abortion is the fruit of the oppression of women, of rape, of poverty, of racism, of ableism. And we know that the incoming administration, led by a self-confessed assaulter of women, threatens to worsen conditions along all of these axes. So we stand with our sisters to oppose bigotry and discrimination in all of their forms, to reject rape culture, to ensure that all women have affordable and effective family planning, and to work for a decent standard of living for all people.

Can women who oppose abortion march in good conscience? Some will decide that the answer is “no,” because they can’t be seen as endorsing the entirety of the “Unity Principles.” Others (such as All Our Lives members, New Wave Feminists, and Life Matters Journal) will go to stand with our fellow marchers for women’s rights, although we dissent on abortion, because we’re women too. All of us should agree to redouble our efforts to serve women and their children in the days to come.

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Where’s the outrage?

So, last week was fun on Twitter. Just one example of many:

I get the frustration; I really do. Black Lives Matter* activists have expressed the same frustration — how can people be so outraged over the death of an animal (however magnificent) but indifferent to the deaths of human beings?

First, there’s a reason we have that old saying that one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic. It seems cold, but the fact is that we can personally relate to one death in a way that we just can’t with thousands. But I think there’s more going on than that. If deaths happen by the hundreds or thousands or millions as part of everyday life, then maybe everyday life is dependent on those deaths happening. So if they didn’t happen, maybe we’d have to make some real changes. It’s less threatening to say the deaths must be justified in some way.

In the case of abortion, there are some very sharp, personal reasons why people don’t get outraged over the deaths of human beings in the womb. If the death of a child in abortion is something to get outraged over, what will they do if an unintended pregnancy threatens to derail their education? What will they do if they can’t afford to have another kid and still pay the rent? What will they do if the father bails and they have to raise a child alone? What will they do if they get pregnant with an abusive partner and don’t want to be tied to him for life with a child? What will they do if they get raped? If the rapist threatens to sue for custody? Even in more favorable circumstances, what will they do if the birth of a child would drastically alter their life — which of course it will. “Your life will never be the same” are terrifying words!

Furthermore, since everything about American society has to be made to fit into our dismal partisan politics, people think that to be outraged would be to take the side of politicians who think birth control is for sluts, who talk about preserving life and protecting the vulnerable while at the same time voting for more deaths in war and less of a safety net. If your outrage lends support to people who are in many ways working against your interests, maybe you’ll try really hard not to feel it.

So if you’re asking where the outrage is, and you genuinely want to know the answer? Understand that plenty of people don’t think they can afford to be outraged.

*Speaking of Black Lives Matter, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t give a damn about police killings but makes sure to jump in to tell people they should really care about abortions of black babies instead — well, Josh Brahm will tell you in nice, rational words why this is a problem, but I’ll just tell you straight up that you’re being a jackass.

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Practical ways to address the causes of abortion

Rachel Held Evans asks:

So yesterday I complained about feeling stuck in the middle between pro-life idealism and those progressive policies I think are most likely to actually curb the abortion rate. But today I’m thinking about practical solutions. There are a few I’ve been advocating and supporting for a long time, but I want to crowdsource a bit: What are some key initiatives (both domestically and globally) around which conservatives and liberals could rally that would address the underlying causes of abortion: poverty, expensive healthcare, expensive childcare, lack of access to contraception and comprehensive sex education, domestic violence, etc? If I find the time I’ll share the best in a blog post. Thanks for weighing in! (And let’s keep it positive and practical!)

I love talking about ways to address the underlying issues that lead to abortion. There’s so much that we can do to prevent abortions — IF, as an early feminist wrote in The Revolution, “We want prevention, not merely punishment.” My reply:


As other commenters have said, affordable and easy access to contraception is important. The less often people have to go pick up prescription refills, the better — there was a study in L.A. that showed that allowing low-income women to get twelve months’ worth of pills at a time decreased the odds of unintended pregnancy by 30%, and the odds of an abortion by 46%. Even better, IF a woman freely chooses them and can have them removed upon request, are long-acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs and implants that don’t require any action to be taken once they’re in. In general, humans are not great at taking a pill at the same time every day (not just contraceptives). LARCs also can’t be sabotaged by abusive partners.

Speaking of which, we also need to do more to stop rape, and to help women out of abusive relationships. Early research shows that counseling women who come to family planning clinics about reproductive coercion (asking about whether their partners hide their pills, threaten to hurt them or kick them out of the home if they use contraception, etc.) not only reduces unintended pregnancies among women in abusive relationships, it also increases the chance they’ll leave those relationships. Men who father children by rape must not be allowed to have custody or visitation. This is already the case in 35 or so states, but we need to finish the job.

Comprehensive and accurate sex ed, including instruction about how to be safe and responsible about sexual activity if one chooses to use drugs or alcohol.

School and workplace policies that are designed with the idea that workers are human beings who have lives outside of work, not just productivity machines. No more just-in-time scheduling. No more pregnancy discrimination. Paid maternity and paternity leave. Affordable child care.

Nobody should ever be in a position where they don’t feel like they can bear a child because they won’t be able to pay rent or feed their other kids. More power for workers would mean better wages, and a real social safety net (one that’s not premised on the false idea of recipients as moochers who need to be humiliated) would alleviate some of the financial fear that often leads to abortion. Better yet, a guaranteed basic income and/or a child allowance. It’s disgraceful that in a country as rich as ours, hundreds of thousands of abortions happen every year because mothers are afraid they can’t afford to give their children life.


The above comment was dashed off quickly, but I would also add perinatal hospice, so that abortion doesn’t seem like the only option for parents whose children are diagnosed in the womb with fatal conditions. Also, there needs to be community support for parents of children with disabilities. Asking them to go it alone, with all the added stress and expense and work that can be involved, overwhelms many parents. They can’t see themselves handling all that, especially if they also have other kids. They shouldn’t have to handle it without help.

And while it’s not a policy issue, in general we need to foster a sexual ethic that emphasizes care for the health and well-being of oneself, one’s partner, and for any child who might be conceived. Not just safe sex, but caring sex. Wise sex. Sex that acknowledges that we aren’t pleasure-seeking islands, but are connected to — and affect — our fellow human beings.

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Nature, red in tooth and claw; humanity, red in needle and curette

In Glossip v. Gross, the United States Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the use of a lethal injection drug that might not prevent pain violates the Constitutional prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Last week,  Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, found that it doesn’t because hey, lots of people die painful deaths. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Our decisions in this area have been animated in part by the recognition that because it is settled that capital punishment is constitutional, “[i]t necessarily follows that there must be a [constitutional] means of carrying it out.” And because some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution, we have held that the Constitution does not require the avoidance of all risk of pain. After all, while most humans wish to die a painless death, many do not have that good fortune. Holding that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether.

Pro-lifers, does this argument sound familiar? It should. It’s the pro-execution equivalent of “over half of pregnancies end in miscarriage, so who really cares about killing an embryo?” It’s wrong in both instances, for the obvious reason that not everything that happens naturally is OK to do to another person. Everyone dies, one way or another, but we still have a responsibility not to deliberately or recklessly take their lives. Everyone experiences pain, but it’s wrong to be cruel. Everyone’s life ends, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter how.

gavel, law book, scales of justice
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Peggy Young wins at the Supreme Court

In a 5-4 decision today (SCOTUSblog analysis here), the United States Supreme Court ruled that Peggy Young’s employment discrimination lawsuit against UPS could proceed. Young was forced to take leave without pay when she was pregnant due to a 20-pound lifting restriction, even though UPS accommodated other drivers in conditions that were similarly, or even more, restrictive.

Young’s suit claimed that UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that Young couldn’t show that “similarly-situated employees outside the protected class received more favorable treatment” than she did. People who had lost their drivers’ licenses due to DUIs weren’t similarly situated because Young wasn’t legally barred from driving; other workers with physical limitations weren’t similarly situated because they were covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Young wasn’t. She appealed, and the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of the PDA was too narrow.

Young can now go back and make the case that UPS denied her accommodations that were available to other workers who were similar in their ability or inability to work. If she can show that — and in this case, she has — UPS can try to demonstrate that the reasons for not accommodating her were pregnancy-neutral and not based on discrimination. The argument that accommodations would cost money, though technically neutral, can’t be used as a reason not to provide them to pregnant workers.

All in all, this is a victory for pregnant workers and their babies. However, there’s still uncertainty about what accommodations the law requires, and that uncertainty will mean that the only way for many women to get fair treatment is by taking employers to court. That’s why Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), one of the lead sponsors of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, said on Twitter: “While today’s #SCOTUS ruling in #YoungvUPS is a victory for Peggy, it does not create a predictable, simple standard for pregnant workers. Congress should pass my #PWFA, to establish a clear and predictable standard, guaranteeing reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers.” We agree. Pregnant workers shouldn’t have to choose between their jobs on the one hand, and their health and that of their children on the other.