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Beneath the Surface: Starting the Conversation about Women’s Reproductive Health

April 27, 2017

If there is one political issue that our country has rarely been able to discuss productively, it’s women’s reproductive health rights.

I’ve watched as people from opposite ends of the political spectrum try to hold a conversation while ignoring each other’s efforts to use their own rhetorically useful term, whether “zygote” or “baby,” more emphatically than the other. I’ve witnessed attempted discussions jump from policy to accusations of endorsing murder or misogyny within moments. None of this is an effective way to address the very real issues surrounding women’s reproductive health. Despite what we may hope, no one leaves converted or enlightened.

The huge divide seems to stem from a difference in belief that is more philosophical than anything else—the problem of when life begins. And for a question like that, wrapped in heavy implications of both science and faith, arguing can do little.

But whether or not we believe that life begins at conception or birth, we should all be able to agree that the social realities leading women to consider terminating their pregnancies are damaging and traumatic. If we can’t have calm conversations about abortion itself, perhaps we can at least talk about rape culture, access to contraceptives and family planning resources, sex education, socioeconomic disparities, maternity and paternity leave, and the stigma surrounding young pregnancies—and that is far from an exhaustive list. Because where these topics are concerned, life has already begun.

Many pro-choice arguments center around empathy and consideration for the complicated nature of pregnant women’s situations, from threats to their lives or the fetus’ ability to live, to the trauma associated with sexual assault, to lack of means to provide for a child and unsafe family environments. If we can address these problems, we’ve done some good, regardless of your opinion on whether the problems justify abortion. A society with less sexual assault, more trustworthy and effective foster care and adoption systems, wider support programs for new parents, and less taboo surrounding young women’s sexuality would benefit everyone. And, as a byproduct, that society might have fewer unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

Considering the inherent complexity of anyone’s decision to terminate a pregnancy, even those who oppose abortion often have difficulty forming a blanket position on when terminating a pregnancy is allowable. With so many variables, and especially with the knowledge that intent and motive are two of the hardest and most subjective elements to establish in any legal case, legislation is not the most effective way to address abortion even for a pro-life advocate (and allowing male senators to sweepingly dictate such decisions for women is not the most ethical way). Besides, when focusing on the underlying issues like sexual assault and adoption reform, both sides can form a more united front and therefore gather more momentum to make real change.

I am going to say something that scares me, a little: I don’t think the words “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are mutually exclusive, though the prevalent rhetoric of their movements often is. It’s possible to believe that both fetuses and mothers are fully human, as long as you back up that belief with action. Holding that life begins at birth shouldn’t prevent anyone from acknowledging that pregnancies can be terminated for flippant or discriminatory reasons. And holding that life begins at conception should not prevent anyone from caring about or defending everyone’s right to life even after birth. That includes defending against the violence and danger of racism, homophobia, transphobia, nationalism, and poverty; it includes respecting women who choose to have abortions—they, too, were once the fetus the movement swears so strongly to protect.

This sort of thinking can apply to other religiously contentious issues, such as divorce, too. Those who discourage divorce, for religious reasons or otherwise, can seek to widen their approach to preventing marriages from ending by addressing why marriages may be a challenge from the start. In a similar vein, that includes increased sex and relationship education, fighting the stigma around pregnancy outside of marriage and around remaining unmarried in general—and paying more attention to the way we represent healthy relationships in our media (for example, acknowledging shows like The Big Bang Theory‘s implications that women should settle for men who contribute much less emotional labor to the partnership than they do).  Sometimes an effective way to handle an issue, whether its problematic nature is objective or personal, is to go directly to the underlying factors.

If, as a country, we ever want to improve the situation regarding women’s reproductive health, we need to make progress on the many problems that contribute to the discussion of unwanted pregnancy termination in the first place. Because so many of the issues, from economic inequality to a lack of common understanding of female sexuality, are dangerous on their own, finding solutions has the potential to strengthen our communities in areas far beyond reproductive health.

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