The abortion debates is the last place I would have looked for inspiration in methods of handling the major political and social problems of the world. Politically I’ve always thought of abortion — the topic of abortion, that is — as part of a fraud. A so-called democracy is limited to two political parties, both of which serve corporate monopolies, both of which invest primarily in war preparations, both of which cavalierly sacrifice the future habitability of the planet as well as the immediate survival of numerous species, both of which advance income inequality, both of which strip away our civil liberties — and yet, the two of which are depicted as diametrically opposed, supposedly offering us a world of difference at the polling place. And how is this done? Easy, one of them is pro- and the other anti- abortion! I can’t count how many people have listed everything they oppose about a presidential candidate and then begged me to vote for that same candidate in order to determine the abortion issue in the U.S. Supreme Court.
So, Aspen Baker’s book, Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight, comes as a pleasant surprise. To begin with, this book causes me to recognize another reason I’ve had a distaste for the abortion debate. I don’t mean that there’s not really any clearly desirable position to take on it; I already realized that. I mean that the abortion debate is exceptionally simplistic, dishonestly so. And the reason for this, brought out I think by Baker, is that people who have abortions do not talk about them. There is such a stigma attached to it, that the experience of having an abortion, including the decision making process gone through, including the days and years after the abortion, including the impact on other people involved, is basically unknown. And that vacuum is filled by slogans dedicated toward legislative ends.
One result of keeping abortion shameful and secret is isolation and suffering for those who have abortions. One goal of creating telephone talk-lines and websites and media coverage, as Baker’s group Exhale has done, is to bring human friendship and compassion to people isolated by politics and treated as political tools by two opposing groups. Now, if you are fervently dedicated to the “pro-life” or “pro-choice” position, then the emotional state of women who have abortions may seem secondary, and how it’s addressed may seem worth judging primarily in terms of how it advances or impedes another goal. But what if, without hurting your pro-choice or pro-life goal, a pro-voice approach began to create a little reconciliation between the two camps, and what if that began to create some new goals?
I began reading this book skeptically. I found myself asking why a book-length account of the value of telling specific stories didn’t instead just tell a few of those stories. Eventually it did, at least in excerpt form. And what happened around those stories began to seem important as well. Exhale created greeting cards for people who’d had abortions, something now also done for queer and poor families and single moms. Creating understanding and acceptance of women who’ve had abortions, regardless of your view of abortion, is a valuable contribution to a discussion, a negotiation. Do you view abortion as murder? Well, murderers too should be treated as human beings, and some day we may advance our understanding that far as well.
Baker claims to have influenced the discourse so much that conservative groups have reduced their talk about “postabortive women” and “postabortion syndrome,” choosing, Baker writes, to speak about “healing from grief and loss, rather than seeking forgiveness for a sin.” And organizations have arisen to help women that include both pro-choice and pro-life staff people. In fact, Baker writes, most Americans are both pro-choice and pro-life. When Exhale advised an MTV program featuring three women’s stories, the result was positive reviews both from serious feminists and from Fox News commentators. “It was not a cavalier decision she made,” commented one Fox News host on one of the women featured by the MTV show, noting in effect that the woman’s experience resembled reality more than common caricature.
What if we all read stories like these? What if the conversation became an open one? We should, I think, all have enough confidence in our political agendas to believe they would succeed in the light of day with full information. And in fact they might. The horrendously bad aspects of abortion could be made known in a real and credible way — much more persuasive than pro-life myths. The overwhelming moral justifications for abortion in many cases, could be more widely understood.
And what if those who shout from one side or the other then began talking with each other?
And what if reading the stories of women struggling through difficulties resulted in some political awareness of the extent and nature of those difficulties and how they impact each other? Women lacking access to good education, jobs, income security, healthcare, and so on (part of only a small fraction of the stories, which really come in infinite variety — though perhaps a larger fraction among the stories that never reach the internet) — those are women in need of more than just common human decency. But common human decency sure is a good place to start.