Blog Posts, Past Actions

The law problem

Last Saturday, I had my first long-form interview on the Shared Sacrifice BlogTalkRadio show. It was more than a little nerve-wracking. The great thing about Shared Sacrifice is that guests get a full hour to talk about the issues that are important to them. The difficult thing is — guests get a full hour to talk about the issues that are important to them! I'm very much an introvert, so it's rare for me to talk to anyone for an hour straight about anything. It went pretty well, with one exception. The question of legal policy came up, as it always does, and I had a lot of trouble with it. It's very hard to answer. I know what's wrong. It's wrong that unborn human beings have no status in law. It's wrong for the destruction of one of our daughters or sons before birth to be considered the equivalent of an appendectomy. It's also wrong that Amalia in Nicaragua can't be treated for cancer because she's pregnant. It's wrong that a woman who has a miscarriage could face prosecution in Utah. It's wrong that Christine Taylor could fall down a flight of stairs and then be arrested for attempted feticide after she went to the emergency room to see if she and her baby were OK. I know what I want. I want social and legal recognition that in every pregnancy, there are two (or more) lives whose needs and interests we need to balance. What I don't know is how to get there from here. I don't know how to get to the point of balancing two people's interests when we only acknowledge one person's existence. I also don't know how to legally acknowledge the personhood of the unborn, in anything remotely resembling the current political climate, without inviting situations like Amalia's and Christine Taylor's. I know what we can do. We can make the case for the human personhood of both pregnant women and the children they carry. We can urge people to consider that when they have sex, they are responsible for the well-being not only of themselves and their partners, but of any children they might conceive as well. We can work for women's freedom to make all nonviolent choices regarding sexuality and reproduction. We can work for laws that directly benefit both mother and child, such as the expansion of prenatal care in Nebraska. Beyond that … I'm just not sure. I would very much like to hear the thoughts of readers and my co-bloggers. What laws can pro-balance people favor to bring about justice for women and children without contributing to the further oppression of either party?

9 thoughts on “The law problem”

  1. This is a really tough one, Jen. In the course of my own prolife feminist journey–not to mention living through worth it but truly hellish pregnancies–I have moved away from supporting most legislation against abortion, especially in the first trimester, because of the bodily integrity of the woman in whose body the baby lives. I think the most important things are to provide full access to family planning, universal healthcare, just workplace treatment of mothers, strictly enforce child support, fight disabilism, etc.–including getting conservative churches to stop furthering the abortions they deplore by slut-shaming girls who conceive and, in some cases, demonizing family planning. So many abortions are not freely chosen and if we could get rid of all those, working in coalition with prochoicers whenever possible, we would solve a lot of the problem.

    Yet I cannot come to the prochoice position of opposing any and every piece of legislation that limits abortion in any way, because that does say that fetal life, up till the day or hour before birth, has no value whatsoever….And at some point the balance tips so that the hardship on the mother does not justify ending the child’s life. And, even if there is an absolute right to an empty womb, this does not equate to the right to a dead feturs. For instance, partial birth abortion in the third trimester is pretty horrific, and virtually never necessary to save the mother’s life or health–the old practice of hysterotomy (C-section) would suffice for this and the baby could receive the care any other baby would get, and fostering/adoption if viable–which should be publicly provided if necessary since sometimes financial liability for care pushes this choice. If not viable at least it could receive comfort care. The point of the D and X procedure instead is simply to ensure that the baby is born dead. And I read a distressing account by a mother who went to Kansas at 36 weeks, essentially full term, to ensure the abortion of a disabled baby. Again, at this point I could see saying “carry the baby a few more weeks and let it be adopted or fostered” or even “have an induction that will birth the baby alive” as a reasonable legal solution.

    As a parent of a thirteen year old boy I am also horrified that, in some states, if he were a girl he could get an abortion without his father’s and my permission–needed for all other forms of medical care, and when he got his ear pierced, or to get ibuprofen from the school nurse…And that in my home state of CA the school could transport girls to the abortion clinic and back w/o parental knowledge–but it’s the parents who then have to care for a child who may be emotionally and physically traumatized, without all the data to make that possible. Parental consent laws, with careful exceptions for possible abuse, seem perfectly reasonable. And the abuse issue, come to think of that, is worrisome in itself…If a girl is truly at risk for abuse because of a pregnancy she is in danger in that home and needs intervention or removal already, not just a quiet abortion to end that issue. Kind of like sterilizing mentally handicapped girls w/o consent in case they are raped–apparently that is fine with advocates, as long as they don’t get pregnant.

  2. In the US especially, prolifers and prochoicers alike are too caught up in defining themselves and their agendas according to the legal/illegal question, to the point of neglecting the deeper, more decisive question of what we could all be doing to prevent and ease unintended pregnancies and their aftermaths.

    My own focus is upon alleviating the root causes of abortion. Because whatever legal status abortion itself has, it will happen as long as the oppressive conditions which give rise to it remain in place.

  3. Marysia, I agree with you in that my activism is not about legal/illegal. I’m against abortions, not just legal ones. However, the subject always comes up — it’s the only thing people in the chat room during the Shared Sacrifice show asked about.

    I also think that even for ourselves, we do need to address the philosophical question of whether we should legally treat abortion the same way we treat other forms of lifetaking, and if not, why not. I think that the unique aspects of abortion do dictate a different approach, and it would be worthwhile to articulate that. Keeps us intellectually honest.

  4. Hmm–thought I commented last night but now it’s not showing up.

    To recap: as I have traveled my prolife feminist journey I have become more and more chary of legal solutions, especially in the first trimester, due to the bodily integrity of the woman in whom the child dwells. But, as you point out, if the hardcore prochoice insistence on the legality of every abortion, including viable fetuses at full or very near full term, prevails, that makes a statement about the lack of any worth or dignity for unborn children.

    Even if there is an absolute right to an empty womb, this is very different from the absolute right to a dead fetus. In third trimester situations the partial birth/D and X procedure is rarely necessary for the mother’s life or health. A simple induction or C-section would remove the baby which could be fostered or adopted if viable and the parents did not choose to raise it, or at least receive comfort care if non-viable. The only point of D and X is to ensure that it is instead delivered dead. There could be explicit provision made for financial protection for the parents if this is a reason driving the desire for that result. I was distressed to read a first person account of a woman who went to Kansas to abort a disabled baby at 36 weeks, essentially full term. Surely in that case we could say that the minimal restriction on the mother’s freedom of waiting another couple weeks, or even an immediate procedure which spared the baby’s life, is outweighed by the child’s life and dignity?

    As the parent of a 13 year old I also believe in parental consent laws for minors, perhaps with some form of judicial bypass for older ones….It is bizarre to require this for ear piercing and not for a serious surgical procedure which can lead to physical harm or emotional trauma which the parents will need to help the daughter through without full data….And if a girl is truly at risk for abuse because of pregnancy she is already in serious danger and needs intervention or removal from the situation, not just an abortion to end that situation….Kind of like people who advocate non-consensual sterilization of mentally handicapped girls in case they are raped. Better to ensure safe living situations and protection rather than accept rape as long as it doesn’t lead to conception.

  5. Oh, now it looks like last night’s did show up. Sorry for repeating myself!

    Marysia I agree with you that we need to focus on all the things that drive abortions more than legality/illegality….but also agree that Jen that we need to have an answer to both conventional prolife and prochoice inquisitors about whether we agree with any legal restrictions, which ones, and why. Part of my present disillusion with FFLA (beyond the contraception issue) is that they tend to, in practice, be as eager as NRLC to endorse any and every legal restriction on the procedure….In the case of health care reform, IIRC, sounding as ready as the Catholic bishops to let it die if the slightest abortion liberty were included.

  6. (from Marysia)

    Of course people are going to ask about legal restrictions on abortion itself. But do we really need to have an answer for that question?

    Or is trying to answer that question simply playing into the conventional debate and all the distractions and problems that render it incapable of solving human problems–instead of moving forward into a newer and better paradigm altogther?

    I suspect we're damned if we try to give an answer, damned if we don't.

    But I always come back to this: alleviate the root causes of abortion, that's what will really make the most and best difference.

    After all cigarettes take so many lives, but their use has been cut dramatically through means other than legal bans on smoking itself. 

  7. I have to apologize, Jen, that I haven't yet listened to your talk so it's possible that this has already come up: We have laws that are meant to protect born children, such as requiring teachers, medical professionals, etc. to report suspected abuse. Yet laws like this fairly routinely impact poor, single-parent, and minority families more than they do wealthy white ones. It's possible that under the stress of poverty these families are more likely to abuse their children but it's more likely that discrimination causes poor people to come under more scrutiny and suspicion. Poor people are something like 15 times more likely that middle-income people to have their children taken away from them by the state on the grounds of abuse or neglect, and I have a difficult time believing that poor parents are really 15 times more abusive than wealthier ones. (And I apologize again that I can't back this up statistically at the moment–I remember it from an article in Harper's several years ago.)

    The answer is not to get rid of laws intended to prevent child abuse; it's to make sure that these laws are applied equally and sensibly. The same thing applies to laws that protect unborn children: the problem is not that they exist but that they are more likely to impact poor women unfairly. (I'm willing to bet that if Christine Taylor were 30 years old and had a college degree and had gone to the hospital with a supportive husband by her side, no one would have called the police.)

  8. Oops–just wanted to add that the above post was from me, Sarah B. Hi, Marysia and Jen!

  9. Sorry, I didn't see your comments — I've now installed a module that lets us get comment notifications emailed to us.  That should help.  🙂

    You make a very good point wrt the intersection of class issues with the enforcement of laws against abortion (or anything else). I guess a big part of my problem is that *for the most part*, the people who are currently pushing for anti-abortion laws are not people I trust on issues of class, race, etc. either.

Comments are closed.