Sunday, July 19, 2009

On Choice: Freedom and Responsibility

Choice. What is it? How much responsibility does someone have (or should someone have) for the choices they make? Which choices should be sanctioned by the government, and which should be illegal? Choice encompasses everything. How we feel, the way we live, what we think. Choice defines who we are. The choices we make ourselves, the consequences of those choices, the way we react to the choices of others, and the consequences of the choices of others, all combine to make up the entirety of the human experience. You choose who you are.
One of the things this country was founded on was the notion that people should be allowed to make choices about their lives with minimal interference from the government. There are, of course, some choices that all or most people can agree are wrong, most obviously the choice to take from others. Whether it's someone's TV or someone's money or even someone's life, most people in a given society can agree that theft is wrong, and thus provide laws laying out stern consequences for anyone making that choice. But other choices - what god to believe in, how to raise one's children, where to live, what career to have, what to buy, whether or not to agree with the politicians in power, what to read, the choices of the day to day, should be made with as little governmental interference as possible. That is the notion around which freedom is based in this country.
You have the freedom to choose, but you also have the responsibility to own up to those choices; responsibility is intrinsically tied to this freedom. You have a responsibility to accept and deal with the consequences of the choices that you make. This concept seems simple, but of course it isn't. People argue, for example, "I have not choice but to have a terrible life, because my mom abandoned me/dad abused me/schools failed me," etc. Others argue that, for example, children, the elderly, and the insane do not have the mental capacity to understand and make choices. How does one determine these things? Should a woman who was abused as a child be held accountable for then abusing her own children? Should a child who murders someone be held as accountable as an adult would be for that same crime? Or, to move things to a less intense but equally relevant topic, should you be held accountable for the way I feel, or do I have to take some responsibility for that? There are no clear answers for any of these questions. Everyone has a different opinion. And I will offer mine on some of these topics at a later date. For now, what I want to talk about is arguably the most well-known, hotly debated topic on choice:

Abortion. Should it be legal? Is it a valid choice, or are people who have abortions murderers? What are the consequences of abortion?
Who has the right to decide if those consequences are acceptable?

Abortion has been in the news a lot lately, sparked by the murder of a doctor who ran an abortion clinic in Kansas, George Tiller. His clinic was one of only three in the nation that would perform late-term abortions. Articles I've read, and discussions I've listened to, have gotten me really thinking hard on my own stance on abortion.
Typically, the two camps are divided into Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. Personally, I hate both terms. I find both to be grossly inaccurate, especially as contrastive terms. It implies that people who are "Pro-Choice" are not pro-life, giving the impression that people who are "Pro-Choice" don't respect life and rather are unfeeling baby killers (and, in fact, the "Pro-Life" nickname for George Tiller was "Tiller the Killer"). It also implies that people who are "Pro-Life" somehow have the ability to take away a woman's ability to make choices about her life. But even if abortion were made illegal, you cannot take away someone's ability to choose - you can make the choices harder, you can make them suckier, certainly, you can discourage someone from making a choice you feel is wrong, but even when options are fewer and less appealing, the choice does not cease to exist. The term "Pro-Life" also bestows a sheen of moral superiority on that faction, because of course all of us want to feel that we respect life, and no one wants to be in the group that opposes life!
But, hate the terms as I do, they are the common terms in our society and I have to live with the linguistic terms I have been given, and so designate myself as "Pro-Choice." However, in being Pro-Choice, that does not mean that I am pro-abortion, an important distinction and one that those of the pro-life camp try to blur as much as possible. I simply think that the issue of abortion is an incredibly complex one, and a deeply personal decision that has to take into account each individual's circumstances, circumstances which are unique to each situation. It is far from black and white. Here are my equally complex feelings on the issue.
I think that the decision about whether or not to have an abortion is a terrible decision to have to make. For some women, it is a decision that haunts them for years afterwards, even those who feel that they made the right call. Whatever the circumstances, it is the kind of decision that you can't take back, and the impact of that decision not only impacts the unborn child and the woman making the choice, it impacts the child's father as well, not to mention the impact it can have on the relationship between all of those involved, including friends and family. The right to choose comes with heavy and sometimes heartbreaking responsibility.
I'm using a "no no" word here in terms of what you might read in a typical "Pro-Choice" essay on the subject. I have noticed that "child" (or "baby") is a term reserved for "Pro-Life" people only. The "Pro-Choice" side seems to prefer "fetus." While fetus isn't inaccurate, I do think that it tends to diminish the gravity of the situation. When thinking about abortion, it's easier to think in terms of "fetus" rather than "child." The fetus, in most peoples' minds, is sort of an amorphous blob until very late in the pregnancy, looking more like some kind of weird alien than a baby. But if you ask any expecting mother what she thinks of the fetus in her womb, there is not a shadow if a doubt in her mind that it is a child. We have an example in pop-culture in the film Juno, where the protagonist of the movie, Juno MacGuff, finds herself pregnant at 16. She initially intends to have an abortion, until outside of the abortion clinic a fellow classmate informs her that the fetus has fingernails, even at this early stage. It is this humanizing characteristic that turns the fetus into a baby for Juno. It is for this same reason that Pro-Life advocates want to pass a law requiring an ultrasound before a woman can have an abortion. The idea is that once you have seen the child, heard its heartbeat, it will be far harder to view it as an abstraction. Pro-Choice advocates argue against the measure for the very same reason.
One of the central questions to the debate is this: Is a fetus alive? Is it a person, thus making abortion murder? Or is it merely another cell within the mother, or something akin to a parasite or a tumor? There are no concrete answers. Science cannot definitively tell us whether or not a fetus is a person. Some people believe it is alive from the moment of conception; others from the first heart heartbeat three to four weeks into the pregnancy; others at the point of viability, i.e. when the fetus might be able to survive outside of the womb; others not until its first breath. Even Thomas Aquinas believed in a concept called 'delayed hominization' wherein a fetus did not have a soul until 40 days after conception (or 90 for girls), and there was a time where the penalties for contraception were harsher than those for abortion before ensoulment.
So. If science cannot tell us, definitively, whether or not a fetus is alive, or at what point it is alive, then we must turn to our own beliefs. Theology. Ensoulment. Personhood. Concepts intrinsically bound up with religion, with faith, with personal conviction. And we're dealing with choice. What do you choose to believe?
So what do I choose to believe? Personally? A fetus is a baby to me. A living being, with all of the promise and potential of a budding life. What proof do I have? My gut. My belief.
In other words? None.
I am lucky enough to live in a country that allows me to choose to believe whatever I like, a country that (at least in theory) believes that the church and the state should be separate entities. If the state has not right to legislate my religion, then how can it legislate my beliefs about something as completely bound up with religion as the personhood of a fetus? And if I do not have the right to force someone to share my religious beliefs (a concept this country was founded on), then how can I have the right to force someone to share my beliefs about the ensoulment of an unborn baby? I have the right to try to persuade them to my way of thinking, to try to talk them out of having an abortion, to make sure they know all of the options as far as having the baby and putting it up for adoption (especially now that something like open adoption is a viable option, and thus adoption no longer means that the biological parents of a child will never see their child again). I have the right to educate people on contraception and safe sex, on the value of being careful until you're ready for kids, to try to minimize the need for abortions. I do not have the right to pass laws making their choice illegal, and forcing people into the awful situation of seeking out dangerous back-alley abortions, or choosing to raise a child they are ill-prepared for, which they are unable to care for.
Because the truth is, making something illegal doesn't take away the choice. It just makes the choice more dangerous; it makes the consequences of that choice more dire.
As to the Pro-Life protesters who scream at women walking into abortion clinics? Or, even worse, who assassinate abortion doctors and bomb women's clinics? What do they really think they're accomplishing? Do they really think that's the way to change someone's mind? I read a story from a friend who told of a friend of hers who was referred to an abortion clinic by a doctor because her unborn baby had died. She was in the midst of absolutely awful, tragic circumstances, and she had to weather judgment and abuse from the protesters standing outside of the clinic, calling her a slut and a murderer. These people have no idea what the circumstances and stories are of the people on whom they are passing judgment, and that is the thing that infuriates me most about these situations.
No one knows your circumstances better than you. No one knows what choices are best for you. And in the incredibly difficult choice of whether or not to keep a baby, that is doubly true. No one can make that choice except the parents of the unborn child, and ultimately, the mother of that child.

I choose to allow others to choose.


  1. I have been thinking a lot about my stance on abortion lately, and your post definitely reminded me about how important it is to give people the right to choose. Thank you for always being so informed and elloquent.

  2. Why do you talk about open adoptions in the same breath as abortions? Like, "I think I'll get an abortion!" "WAIT! did you know you could put it up for adoption and still remain a part of its life forever?" "Well, no, but that's kinda the opposite of what I want..."

    Just seems strange.

  3. Very interesting post. I'd tend to agree with you - abortions are awful, certainly, but sometimes it's gotta be done.

    It all comes down, in my mind, to who you prioritize. In the most extreme cases, which life does one choose - the woman's, or the child's?
    In less extreme cases, does one allow the child to endanger the woman's health by its very existence?

    Who's got the greater say over the body - the person whose body it is, or the person inhabiting it? Was the choice, as I've heard argued, made in the bedroom? I don't think so; that implies a host of things, none of them good, that I don't have time to take apart right now.

    I didn't phrase that well, but can't seem to find a more elegant way to put it. Still, the choice exists, and should exist. This is not something that can be done with a blanket statement. It has to be taken case by case, without applying the shame stick.

  4. It's all about choice, El, and about knowing your options. It used to be the choice was, either have the baby and go through all of the emotion and connection involved with pregnancy and giving birth and then give it away never to be seen again, or end the pregnancy, and a lot of people felt that they could better deal with the emotional fallout of never having the baby than they could with giving it up. Open adoptions add another choice into the mix, wherein you can bond with the child, be involved with the child's life, without having to take on the emotional and financial responsibility of being a parent. Some people getting an abortion are doing so for financial reasons, or because their career doesn't allow them time for being a parent, or any number of reasons having nothing to do with literally just wanting nothing to do with it, but being their child's "favorite aunt" for instance might be something they'd be better suited for. Being a part of their child's life is NOT necessarily the opposite of what someone considering an abortion is looking for. There are so many very complex reasons, you can't just boil it down into cut and dry.

    Some people would choose abortion even with this option still available, for various personal reasons (in the instance of rape, for example), but some people wouldn't.

    It's all about options. People can't choose to have an open adoption if they don't even know it exists.

  5. Sylvia, agreed. That's my whole point - you can't know everyone's story or situation, and so any kind of blanket ban is inappropriate.

  6. *wakes up, looks around* Oh, crap, right. I was gonna respond to this. ><

    So, anyway, good post. A little close to home for me as I have an ex-girlfriend who got unexpectedly pregnant (not by me) and gave her child up for adoption (open, I believe), and I also have a very good friend who I flew out to California for to escort her to the abortion clinic because she didn't feel she could count on anyone else... not even her family. So I've walked along both sides of the fence.
    In both cases, the women in question were satisfied with the choices they made. The former still visits her daughter, the family she's with travels between Japan and America and at 4 the girl spoke both languages and was learning a 3rd. The later was recently pregnant again and in February gave birth to her little daughter. She has shown and spoken of no regret and moves forward with optimism that she can now provide for and protect this child. The important thing to see here is that in both cases, they chose.
    So there is perhaps only one thing I don't agree with in your post. It's purely semantic, but I feel it warrants bringing up anyway as it's something that is quickly, easily, and too often let slide.
    Placing the "Pro-" prefix on something does not automatically imply "Anti-" something else. defines "pro-" as "a prefix indicating favor for some party, system, idea, etc., without identity with the group".
    Both sides of the story ignore this fact and thus propagate the idea that the other side is clearly "anti-" whatever, but this is not the case, has never been the case, and I think that we should all, as educated people, remember this whenever we hear of, or become part of, a "pro-"anything. Unless someone specifically says they are "anti-" something, "pro-"something else does not imply an anti-.

    Um... so... yeah. I think that's everything. I think my point, though, through experience is the same as your point. It's all a choice anyway of what it is that any given person will do.

  7. My point for hating the terms is not that pro- must necessarily imply anti-, but that BECAUSE the two terms are contrastive terms (ie, Pro-Choice advocates are the "opposite" of Pro-Life advocates), each term implies that the other is NOT that. Thus implying that people who are "Pro-Choice" are NOT "Pro-Life" and vice-versa, which I think is a huge contributing factor to the antipathy between the two groups.