Choice, Empathy, and HR 36

On Oct. 3, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 36— a 20-week abortion ban— and all I felt was unmitigated, boiling rage. At heart, I’m a wonk—I like to discuss science, policy details, facts. But let’s leave all those aside for today. The politics of those on both sides of the pro-life/pro-choice divide are so intractable that discussing the substance of policy feels fruitless. Apparently, we really are living in a post-truth era, and facts are no longer convincing. So even though the Supreme Court found abortion access to be constitutionally protected; even though 98 percent of abortions occur prior to 20 weeks; even though most “late-term” abortions are necessitated by a lethal birth defect, a risk to the mother’s health, or some other unimaginably terrible circumstance; even though we know abortions are safe, and restricting legal abortion procedures makes them less so, let’s leave aside those facts for a moment.

Whenever (predominantly white, male, upper-middle class) congressmen attempt to legislate away women’s autonomy, I marvel at their complete lack of empathy and compassion. To me, it seems the abortion debate is as much philosophical as it is moral or political. I’d like to pose a question rhetorically, but also sincerely: Why did we give women the right to vote? Was it not because we believed they were as competent, as smart, as autonomous and as entitled to a civic voice as men? Women are endowed—whether by their Creator, by the Universe, by the government, whomever—with certain inalienable rights. It seems no right could be more fundamental to a woman’s autonomy and civic equality than the right to make decisions about her own body.

In a society where womanhood is so inextricably tied to motherhood (for better or worse), a woman’s right to decide, for herself, free of duress, free of government interference whether and when to become a mother is absolutely fundamental to her liberty and to her humanity. Some women may decide never to have children; others may decide that abortion under any circumstance would not be an option for them. Either of those decisions, and myriad others, are entirely valid. But to take away choices—to presume that anyone knows a woman’s particular situation in life better than that woman, to impose unreasonable facilities requirements, to legislate arbitrary cutoff points—is cruel.

HR 36 enrages me because it is dehumanizing. It makes me feel that my potential for motherhood is paramount—more important even than my personhood. It says to me that women are not actually equal—that they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions regarding their reproductive health, or anything else.

Women seek abortions for any number of reasons, and to try to rank the “rightness” or validity of any of those motivations is callous and unproductive. But plenty of careful, conscientious, smart women end up facing unintended pregnancies. Any woman who has experienced a pregnancy scare knows the sheer terror that it brings. Maybe she believes she’s too young to be a mother. Maybe she doesn’t have the resources—economic or otherwise—to support a child. Maybe she has no desire to have children. Maybe she’s in an unsafe relationship. Maybe having a baby would threaten her physical or mental  health. Maybe a pregnancy would derail her career or her interpersonal relationships. No woman deserves to face the fear— a fear which hollows her stomach, which makes her feel trapped and alone and desperate—of being forced into motherhood.

I am astounded and furious that our legislators, our nation’s highest-ranking leaders, fail to understand that.