When we hear defenses of abortion, the examples often involve difficult circumstances. Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator and Democratic candidate for governor, made national news last year for an 11-hour filibuster against a law that would have restricted abortion access. In her recently released memoir, Forgetting to Be Afraid, Davis details her own abortion history. She had ended two pregnancies: the first, because her life was in danger, the second, because the baby had an acute brain abnormality.
In an op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled, “This Is What An Abortion Looks Like,” Merritt Tierce admires Davis’s courage to talk openly about abortion, but she calls Davis’s stories “politically safe.”
“Abortions like [Davis’s] represent the basic currency of the debate,” writes Tierce. “These are… the standard against which all other abortion stories must be gauged…. No rational person could be anything but sympathetic.”
Tierce concludes that abortion need not be justified by tragic stories and trauma. Having twice elected to abort, she describes the banality of those decisions: “You do things you regret or don’t understand and then you make other choices because life keeps going forward. Or you do something out of love and then, through biology or accident, it goes inexplicably wrong, and you do what you can to cope.”
If health risks and poverty—and in more troubling cases, rape and incest—make for sympathetic headlines in the moral debate over terminating pregnancy, Tierce argues that they do not ultimately decide the ethics of abortion. “We [must] grant to each woman the right to make and do with her body what she will. Regardless of whether or not a compelling story is on offer.”
As it turns out, her unabashed defense of abortion works as well against it. If stories—and sympathy—are unnecessary for defending abortion, they may be equally as unnecessary for denouncing it.
While I do not support abortion, I feel compassion for the stories of many women who choose abortion—stories that could have easily been mine. I was 15 when I started having sex, and contraception was often an afterthought. Had our episodic love and love-making made a real-life baby, what would my boyfriend and I have done? Scraped together a wad of cash from our respective jobs at the dry cleaners and grocery store and driven to a clinic? What would our parents have advised, had we told them, especially after his dad had been the one to slip him the condom? Would we have kept the baby, married at 16? One narrative twist, and a story can end so differently.
Like most Americans, I lament the situational realities behind “choice.” Twenty-eight percent of Americans think abortion should be legal under any circumstance (and 21% illegal); half support the legality of abortion “only under certain circumstances.” To my surprise, according to Gallup, these numbers have not substantially shifted from 1975, when 54 percent of Americans supported abortion “only under certain circumstances.” When it comes to abortion, we have been and continue to be a people of conflicted conscience.
If Americans struggle with the fundamental morality of abortion, we are sympathetically moved by the stories of struggling women who elect to terminate their pregnancies. In a recent article in The Atlantic, studies show that rates of abortion among Hispanic and African American women are significantly higher than the national average.
“There are a multitude of reasons, and we don’t understand what’s going on,” explained Christine Dehlendorf, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “But ultimately I think it’s about structural determinants—economic reasons, issues related to racism, differences in opportunities, differences in social and historical context.”
Dehlendorf points to systemic injustices as a driving factor in abortion rates. As a Christian, that’s something I can’t ignore. It reminds me of a story a friend told me several years back. She and her husband live and work in an impoverished, African American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. One summer, at a neighborhood event, my friend learned that a middle-aged woman up the street was pregnant with twins. Later that fall, the two women ran into each other again, and it was obvious to my friend that her neighbor was no longer pregnant. When my friend inquired after what had happened, the women (a believer) confessed she’d had an abortion. Two more mouths to feed had seemed to her and her husband too daunting a reality.
If the poor and the marginalized are choosing abortion at higher rates than the rest of the country, isn’t opposition to abortion decidedly unsympathetic, even cruel? Pro-life supporters are often meant to feel this way. Yet this is the clarity that Tierce has really achieved in her piece, as startling as her logic originally seems. It is not the stories of abortion that must necessarily decide the ethics of abortion. For the Christian, belief in the value of every human life—and the moral imperative to defend it—is derived biblically. There are limits to human sympathy, and we cannot make all of our moral decisions anecdotally.
If the stories are heartbreaking, then let our hearts break. The God we serve did not remain indifferent to an unjust world but incarnated himself and entered it. We are the “little Christs,” whose response to suffering is to wordlessly weep, even to lament the god-forsakenness of reality as we know it. This much we know: the brokenness behind abortion—abuse, victimization, poverty, racial discrimination, sin—matters to the Trinitarian God. It cost him his life.
And though we can and should sympathize with the broken stories behind abortion, though we will love the women who choose to terminate a pregnancy, it can yet still be possible to oppose abortion. This is not calloused, and it is not elitist. Rather, it’s as consistent as Tierce, a fierce advocate of abortion rights, has asked us to be.
Stories may move us—but sympathy doesn’t have to decide our final position in the moral conversation regarding abortion.
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