By Joyce Arthur
Copyright December 2002
It’s sometimes said that the abortion issue is like a “war” being waged by two sides. Actually, it’s truer to say that the war is pretty much one-sided. Abortion providers are simply trying to deliver necessary medical services to women, while anti-choicers fight this with the tools of rhetoric, and all too often the weapons of harassment, intimidation, and violence. Regardless, in any war, clever strategies and accurate intelligence are critical. As the saying goes, “Know your enemy.” If you’re ignorant of your enemy’s beliefs and motives, it’s a fair bet that some of your strategies will end up being totally off-base. You could even lose the war.
Since it’s the anti-choicers doing most of the fighting and strategizing, how well do they really know their “enemy”—us pro-choicers?
I belong to one of the largest pro-choice groups in Canada, with a strong presence on the Internet. The Pro-Choice Action Network receives a lot of “feedback” from anti-choice people. We’ve posted most of it on our webpage, with the tongue-in-cheek title: “We Get Fan Mail!” In addition, some of our members have read a ton of anti-choice literature and articles (not while eating, though).
The main thing we get from reading this stuff is the clear realization that anti-choicers really don’t understand pro-choicers. They don’t have a clue. Over and over, we hear a refrain from troubled and angry anti-choicers that goes something like this: “I just don’t understand how anyone can kill babies. You people are evil monsters and I hope you all burn in hell.” Official anti-choice publications tend to put it in slightly more civilized terms, but the same sentiments lurk in the subtext of their writings.
Most people are pro-choice, and it’s probably safe to say that most human beings are not actually evil monsters. So there’s obviously a big disconnect between reality and anti-choicers’ beliefs about us. Why?
First, let me say I think it’s easy for pro-choicers to relate to the so-called “pro-life” position. Abortion is often a sad act, difficult emotionally for the woman involved. We all want pregnancy to be a happy time for a woman. And sympathy for the fetus is natural—it’s a living thing after all, a potential human being. The problem is, anti-choicers can’t see past that. They honestly don’t understand why women have abortions, so they impute all these contemptible motives to women and to abortion providers. The only party they empathize with is the fetus. Their viewpoint is extremely narrow, with no shades of grey.
In my opinion, the “pro-life” viewpoint is really a tiny sub-set of the pro-choice viewpoint—because pro-choicers see a much larger picture, one that encompasses both the woman and her fetus, plus much more. We see how wrong and repugnant it is to force women to be slaves to their bodies and to their reproduction. We have a vision in which women are free to pursue their life goals and participate in the world, apart from being mothers. We want a world where every mother is ready and willing and every child is loved and wanted, but a world where parenthood doesn’t have to be the primary purpose of women, just like it’s not for men. But we also see the complicated and difficult world we live in, where condoms break, women are raped, birth control is scarce, and people make mistakes. We see the 80,000 women who die every year from dangerous illegal abortions and the millions left injured. We know that women will have abortions anyway, even risking their lives when abortion is illegal. We see an overpopulated earth, a threatened environment, and frequent war and bloodshed. We see the hungry, the poor, the enslaved, the displaced, the beaten, and the neglected. We see the world’s children, so many of them suffering, and we see their bleak future. To be pro-choice means having compassion for those living disadvantaged lives. It means valuing quality of life over quantity of life. Access to legal, safe abortion is a blessing, because it benefits women, families, and society. It’s unethical to bring life into the world just for the sake of life alone, and it’s child abuse to force an unwanted child to be born to a life of despair. To choose not to give birth when there’s little foundation for that child’s well-being is a moral and caring act. We simply don’t believe that an embryo or fetus has the same moral claim on us as born children and the women who bear them, or the same capacity to suffer and feel emotions.
Our beliefs are not unreasonable. It’s really not that hard to understand why we hold the position we do. You’d think that with a little effort, anti-choicers would at least be able to comprehend our view. After all, you don’t have to agree with something to understand it. Yet anti-choicers invariably assume we’re a bunch of sadistic ogres. They make no effort to reach beyond their own subjective viewpoint to empathize with a human being whose beliefs differ from their own. Unfortunately, this inability to empathize is what breeds intolerance, hate crimes, and war.
Something else this lack of empathy causes is a serious misreading of pro-choice motives and actions. Anti-choicers apparently believe that pro-choicers are pathological liars, willing to say anything to fulfill our bloodthirsty goal of “slaughtering babies.” They even seem convinced that we know full well (or at least deep down) that what we’re doing is wrong and perverted, but we do it anyway, like evil automatons, completely callous and filled with hate. We’re puppets of the devil, I guess. Now I don’t doubt for a minute that most anti-choicers hold their beliefs sincerely and honestly—virtually all human beings do after all, it’s human nature. So it amazes me that anti-choicers are so superficial that they can’t even see or acknowledge our humanity. It’s troubling that I even have to state the obvious—of course pro-choicers hold our beliefs sincerely, ethically, and passionately. We stand up for what we believe in because we’re convinced it’s true and good, because we genuinely care about women and children, and because we want to improve the lives of everyone.
Because anti-choicers don’t understand the pro-choice position, or why people support it, a lot of things they do end in failure—repeatedly. For example, anti-choicers in Canada have forced many cases into court trying to establish personhood for fetuses. Each time, setting the precedent more and more firmly, the courts have said that fetuses are not persons under the law, and that women have full constitutional rights while fetuses have none. Yet this hasn’t stopped anti-choicers from wasting their time and dwindling their chances ever further by trying over and over again. That’s because they’re so dogmatically convinced that fetuses are persons that they’re unable to comprehend that others might legitimately think they’re not. Anti-choicers are barely willing to even acknowledge this opposing position, let alone address it in any rational way. So they keep losing in the court of public opinion, and not knowing why. Speaking of which, many anti-choicers operate under the delusion that the majority are on their side—or would be, if people really “understood” what abortion was, or took just one look at the aborted fetus posters lovingly displayed by anti-choicers, but which cause most people to dismiss them as repulsive fanatics. A referendum in Switzerland last June resulted in voters overwhelmingly legalizing abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, despite the fact that anti-choicers initiated the referendum themselves so they could place their own strict anti-abortion measure on the ballot. It garnered only 18% of the vote.
I’d like to be candid for a moment, and tell anti-choicers what we really think about you and the things you say about us (and to us). To be perfectly honest, most pro-choicers and abortion providers just ignore what you say and the things you write. It’s all pretty much irrelevant, partly because we’re committed to our own strong beliefs and too busy helping women deal with the realities of their daily lives. But really, your viewpoint is marginal and non-credible, not worth paying much attention to anyway (at least in Canada). When we do hear what you say, it’s pretty easy to dismiss it. Why? Because it’s impossibly narrow, or because you’re missing or twisting so many basic facts, or because you’re hurling insults at us, or because you’re ignoring women completely as if they don’t exist, or because you’re expressing disrespect and contempt for women. To us, your views seem small-minded, uninformed, sexist, and cruel.
We also see that virtually all of you are devout Christians. We’re not stupid. We suspect you’re trying to impose your religious beliefs on everyone through anti-abortion laws. We honestly believe this is wrong, and besides, we can’t take seriously the words of religious fanatics. For one thing, we know that religious fundamentalism is one of the main forces behind the oppression of women today. It’s a force we need to fight, not debate with.
Of course, we also hear the terrible, violent rhetoric of the extremists among you, their harsh words praising the killing of doctors. We don’t think most of you in the mainstream do nearly enough to distance yourselves from the extremists—you even associate with them directly sometimes. And some of the language you use seems to condone or even encourage the violence, such as calling doctors “baby-killers”. Besides, demonizing people and calling them nasty names is not the way to convert them to your side. All that does is alienate pro-choicers and make them fear and distrust you, along with your views.
For all these reasons, we just can’t respect what you say. It’s impossible to take you seriously (and it’s why the mainstream media doesn’t pay much attention to you, either).
That brings me to another common reaction of pro-choicers to the words and strategies of anti-choicers. Laughter and derision. I mentioned our “Fan Mail” webpage earlier. One of the reasons we posted that is for the amusement of pro-choicers. We’ve gotten lots of mail from supporters saying how hilarious they found many of the emails to be. (The effect was unintentional since anti-choicers seem to be dispossessed of a sense of humour—a trait of fanatics, incidentally). Our supporters also expressed shock at how illiterate, ignorant, or cruel many of the emails were. Some positively shriek with hatred—all from “good Christians” of course, setting a shining example of the wonderful benevolence of religion.
But our amusement stems from the way that anti-choicers grossly misunderstand our position and our beliefs, combined with our recognition that they really have no clue and never will. Many anti-choicers are lost causes, making them easy targets for mockery. When they solemnly say things like, “Remember the 12 Commandments,” we just have to giggle. Or how about this howler: “If it wasn’t illegal to utter threats in this country, there would be a lot more writing about abortions in this message. Murderers deserve the death penalty. Please feel free to send me your thoughts on this topic.” Right, like we’re going to send a polite note of thanks to someone who wants to string us up! Excuse me while I roll on the floor.
Last July, a wave of laughter rippled through the Canadian pro-choice community when the national anti-choice group, Campaign Life Coalition, issued a press release calling on clinics and hospitals to establish a moratorium on abortions while the Pope was in Toronto for World Youth Day. Maybe it’s hard for anti-choicers to understand the black humour we got out of this, but what we saw was another reflection of the foolish naïveté of the anti-choice movement. Gee, if only instead, the Pope would issue a moratorium on the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and children every year caused directly by his ban on birth control and abortion! Dream on. At least we know better than to demand the impossible.
Coming back to my main point, it behooves anti-choicers to “know your enemy”. If you really understood and responded to genuine pro-choice views, maybe you wouldn’t be the frequent butt of jokes in the pro-choice community. Maybe we would have to take you seriously for a change. More importantly, you wouldn’t be spreading wrong information based on ignorance and intolerance, or wasting your time with ill-fated strategies drawn from ridiculous ideas about our motives and beliefs.
Thanks for listening!
 A note to the wise: Some pro-choicers might be alarmed that my advice will actually help the anti-choice cause and hurt ours. No worries, mate! As you probably gleaned from my essay, it’s unlikely that anti-choicers will even understand what I said, let alone act on it.