Chris Neal / The Topeka Capital-Journal / AP

Both sides of abortion debate need to talk more honestly

Arguments that focus solely on the fetus or solely on women’s rights are deceptive

April 25, 2015 2:00AM ET

“We should see human life as sacred and recognize its immeasurable worth in every human condition,” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said in his 2015 State of the State address. “Whether at the beginning of life or the end of life, Kansas is the most pro-life state in America. And we are not going back.”

On April 7, he kept his word, signing into law the Unborn Child Protection From Dismemberment Abortion Act, which states that, starting July 1, a person who, “with the purpose of causing the death of a living unborn child,” knowingly dismembers and extracts such an unborn “child, one piece at a time from the uterus,” may be charged with a Class A misdemeanor if it is his or her first violation of the law. Subsequent violations render a person liable for a felony conviction and carry a jail sentence of up to nine months.

The Kansas act is the first state law since Roe v. Wade to block women’s access to a commonly used method — medically known as dilation and extraction — for second-trimester abortions, which account for just under 10 percent of the approximately 1 million abortions performed in the United States each year. It’s an unsurprising development, given Kansas’ track record on abortion regulation and the pattern of state-level abortion legislation in the last 18 months.

The law’s rather striking name garnered national attention for its use of the word “dismemberment.” It gathers its rhetorical power, ironically, from the decision of earlier reproductive-rights advocates to frame the debate not as a morally complex issue but rather as a simple issue of women’s choice. But any argument that focuses just on women’s interests, or alternatively, only on the rights of the fetus, is ultimately misleading.

Selective morality

Why didn’t Kansas choose more neutral language that would have been consistent with some of its other statutes, such as the Pharmacy Practice Act and the Uniform Controlled Substance Act? After all, the vote — 98 for the bill and 26 against it — would not have been significantly different had the bill had a more innocuous name.

A possible reason is that Kansas lawmakers wanted to be brutally honest. Second-trimester abortions performed using the dilation and extraction method do involve removing a fetus in pieces from a uterus. Perhaps those lawmakers thought learning that fact might change some American’s minds about the moral status of abortion (though it would change them by inducing disgust, not by providing additional reasons for thinking that abortion is a morally complex issue).

A less benign but utterly familiar possible reason is to put critics of the bill on their back foot, cast as defenders of the dismemberment of unborn children. Politicians and advocates of all kinds are adept at framing their side of a debate in terms that guarantee the maximum amount of awkwardness for any expression of dissent.

The expression “pro-choice” as a label for supporters of the right to abortion was strategically adopted to counter the rhetorically powerful label “pro-life.” While the term “pro-choice” captured the morally central idea that each of us should be free to decide whether we become parents, it also abetted the gradual but substantial intrusion of state restrictions across the country into Americans’ reproductive lives.

Abortion cannot be described as a morally neutral act akin, as philosopher Mary Anne Warren once suggested, to “cutting one’s hair.” It’s an act that kills a fetus and ends the development of a very young member of our species. Had reproductive-rights activists told the whole moral story about abortion from the beginning, there would have been less rhetorical wind for the sails of legislation such as Kansas’. In other words, full disclosure about the moral dimensions of abortion would have prevented states like Kansas from even appearing to occupy the moral high ground when they enact regulations allegedly designed only to protect unborn children.

Labels that began as pithy slogans expressing moral views have become obstacles to any productive conversation about abortion and abortion policy in the US.

This point applies to both sides; opponents of abortion access have also been quite selective in the moral tale they tell. For if the death of a fetus is morally significant simply because it is human, so too is the well-being of the woman carrying it. If having an abortion is far more serious than having a haircut, then giving birth to a child is an even more morally consequential act for the biological mother as well as for the adult who the child will become. Hence arguments that focus exclusively or primarily on the fetus and ignore the interests of women are dishonest in their own ways.

Time for a linguistic change

Abortion is a horrendously complicated moral issue, so complex that many Americans find it difficult to express a clear view about it. This difficulty is evident in recent polling results that show that while 28 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all circumstances and 50 percent believe that it should be legal in some circumstances, only 47 percent describe themselves as pro-choice.

One diagnosis for what’s going on here is that people acknowledge that both abortion itself (the killing of the fetus) and abortion access are morally significant, because each intimately affects how and whether a human life continues. 

As I have written before, over the past 40 years the terms of the abortion debate have accreted new and unhelpful connotations. “Pro-choice” now connotes the view that abortion is morally permissible under any circumstances and that all that matters is the pregnant woman’s wishes, while “pro-life” connotes an ugly and pernicious view of women and of feminist commitments more generally. Thus linguistic entities that began as pithy slogans expressing moral views no longer perform that function and are in fact obstacles to any productive conversation about abortion and abortion policy in the U.S.

Planned Parenthood belatedly recognized it was time for a linguistic change in 2013 when it produced a YouTube video encouraging people to dispense with the life-versus-choice rhetoric. In its place, the organization recommends returning to the idea that abortion is a “personal decision.” That term, unfortunately, appears to represent an even deeper retreat from moral honesty about abortion. We should agree with Planned Parenthood that elected officials ought not legally prohibit women from acting on their reproductive health care decisions. However, we do not need to deny that abortion kills a biological human being. In suggesting that an individual’s choices fully determine the moral permissibility of her actions, reproductive rights advocates continue to play into the hands of politicians who favor banning abortion.

Women will continue to face unwanted, unintended and life-threatening pregnancies, and according to the Guttmacher Institute, 3 in 10 American women will have at least one abortion by age 45. Even so, most reasonable people agree that reducing the incidence of abortion in America would be a good thing. That will not be achieved by legislation such as the Kansas law, which is little more than a cynical use of language designed to shame and horrify.

People on all sides of this discussion need to step with both feet onto the moral high ground. It will do no good to limp along with just one foot in the truth — on the one hand, that abortion kills human fetuses or, on the other, that women’s freedom of choice is all that matters. Both matter, and the fact that they do demands of us serious personal reflection about how we act as well as compassionate public policy grounded in the real world.

Susan Dwyer is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland. She specializes in areas at the intersection of moral philosophy, constitutional law, feminist theory and moral psychology.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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