Choice is a Progressive Ideal

I was on the train recently when I got a text from a friend:

“Why is access to abortion a progressive ideal?  How does it tie in?”

That’s not exactly a casual question and I stared at the screen for quite some time.  The answer I ended up giving him was long.

First and foremost, it is. Guarding reproductive freedom is a crucial progressive ideal. I have little issue accepting the pro-life morality of others, but I’m also vehemently pro-choice.

To me, being progressive means fighting for the dignity of others; to provide others with options, opportunity, and a measure of equality. I have numerous friends and acquaintances who I think are probably pro-life. I ‘think’ because I’ve never asked; it’s never been an issue. They vote and advocate for people’s dignity and they volunteer and donate time and money. Their politics empower the poor and the struggling. In that context, a moral objection to abortion could be part of a coherent respect for the sanctity of life. But it’s incidental, secondary to the well-being of those around them. It’s that consistency that I understand in them; the real and meaningful compassion. Without that, I no longer get it.

When arguments about abortion come around, I always start by acknowledging that I appreciate objections. The odd thing is that I’ve never once had a pro-life partisan say the same to me. Without that acknowledgment, I have trouble accepting the honesty of the position. It’s a real problem for me.

I know several people who’ve had abortions and in every instance, the decision was gut-wrenching. I can’t imagine going through that, but my heart breaks a million times over for people who have. Every time they mention it, every time I hear others speak of the politics, every time it comes up in the abstract, every time protestors throw rocks at terrified women or call in bomb threats my heart breaks again. It’s visceral and profoundly sad.  

I have patience for those struggling honestly with the morality of the issue, but none for those who can’t sympathize with people who have to make the choice. Our compassion is so often incomplete; so often backward. We think about the issue in reverse and then stop when we get to the beginning.

I can’t ask anyone to ignore their moral objection to abortion but we have to extend our compassion to the people sitting right before us and consider how we’re living out that compassion. We should extend our indignation to a world where something that should be joyful, for a person with insufficient insurance, can be an actual catastrophe. A world where a pregnancy, for a single woman or a couple working at minimum wage or a parent with the wrong recessive gene, can mean pain, unemployment, or poverty. We live in that world. It’s not debatable.

We take away choices constantly – safety nets, assistance, contraception, family planning services, health care and insurance – and create a situation where pregnancy can be terrifying far beyond the prospect of parenthood. We’ve created a world where having a child can be devastating for someone of little means. It’s true and it’s a fucked up thing. It's an injustice and a tragedy. That is what my conscience and moral compass refuse to accept. It’s absurd, there’s no reason for it, and is entirely our fault.

Conservatives are not embattled, clinging to one last shred of religious objection. Women are routinely turned away at the pharmacy counter, denied insurance coverage for cheap and safe reproductive health care, and berated and intimidated at clinics that offer countless other services – all on “moral grounds.”

I’m not sure how anyone concludes with a straight face that women have too many choices (or how it's their concern) and, in good conscience, rationalizes their restriction. Yet many millions of voters do just that while ignoring the most egregious immorality, throwing the contradiction into even sharper relief. A world where appealing to the morality of pro-choice voters is sufficient to paper over sexual assault is one I can’t understand through any moral filter. A world where we shrug off the separation of children from parents and the racism that motivates the policy, but believe the trade-off worth it when Roe reversal is back on the table is one that I look on with nothing but shame. A world where we can’t muster compassion for victims of abuse or heartbreak for those in need is a world where we have no legitimate claim to morality.

We’ve built, sanctioned, and let fester a culture that makes no moral sense. Compounded by the stripping of access to birth control, defunding of sex education, and evisceration of the safety net, the assertion that people should grow up and live with their choices is utter bullshit – a complete and total abdication of our responsibility.  What even is a “choice” for us anymore?

Our politics should let us live out our idea of compassion and facilitate support for those in need.  Our politics should be compatible with our values to a degree. But compassion and morality that don’t extend to the world around us – to those in poverty, those deprived of choices in myriad other aspects of their lives, those struggling with profoundly difficult decisions – is selective and shallow. A morality that doesn’t follow a child into the world or smile on its parents is not morality. It’s cynical in the worst way.

I am pro-choice beyond just that (“vehemently” so), but I don’t pretend that it’s an easy issue for others.  I ask only that we all interrogate the rest of our world with the same moral indignation and compassionate outrage that we unleash on this issue. That we see it not as a narrow, isolated question but as a part of a larger world, rife with problems and injustice.

I don’t think we’re capable of that now, in part because the Right does seem to reflect on this issue the compassion it shows to the wider world; which is to say “almost none.” People may disagree but I’m not sure why I should think any different. What reason is there to think we have any moral compass left? If you’d asked four years ago I would have been cautiously optimistic, but the last few months have broken me.