Choice and female sovereignty

Two weeks ago, the Record published an editorial by Alex Lavy investigating the “demonization” and lack of good faith present on both sides of the abortion debate (“Abortion Debate Polarized,” 2/18/03). While his article should be noted for its attempt to lessen the ideological and moral divides between pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates, I cannot commend it. Lavy’s clearly anti-choice sentiments conflict with his interests in bridging the pro-life/pro-choice gap. His account of pro-choice moral “inconsistency” presents a number of ideological and religious arguments against a woman’s right to choose which I found particularly unsettling, especially when coupled with calls for lessening the “polarization” of the abortion debate.

Nonetheless, I am not particularly interested in refuting Mr. Lavy’s relatively minor attacks on the pro-choice movement. Rather, I would like to assert that – as much as any of us hates to admit it – this debate is one in which the opposing sides are tremendously far from any sort of compromise. The lack of impartiality or sensitivity to pro-choice opinions in Alex Lavy’s article seems to evidence the great challenge of approaching the abortion debate without bias, and without further polarizing the issue. The nature of the abortion issue is one that deals with the basic definitions of life, of the value we attach to life, and the extent to which a woman has sovereignty over her body and her future; these are not values that are compromised easily or dealt with apathetically.

Sadly enough, extremism is evident everywhere within the abortion debate, and seriously threatens the rights of women even thirty years after Roe v. Wade first legalized abortions. Just within Lavy’s argument, I see a great deal of extreme language and argumentation. Invoking a “fallen world” in which people fail to recognize “that the unborn cannot be disposed of for our convenience,” Lavy speaks of a life that is “irreductibly given” and asserts that “abortion itself is a violation of the body.”

These are not words to be taken lightly, nor were the words of Father Walter Quinn, who spoke last Friday night in Griffin about “Abortion and the Twisting of Truth.” A guest lecturer brought by Newman Catholic, St. Patrick’s Church and St. Raphael’s Parish, Father Quinn is a leading member of Priests For Life, an organization that is considered mainstream and quite legitimate by supporters and critics alike; as an activist on this issue, I felt I could anticipate and prepare myself for the arguments he would present against reproductive rights. But what followed was shockingly offensive, and extremely inaccurate.

Father Quinn began by citing a list of ‘life issues,” among which were abortion and euthanasia, but also “homosexual activity posing as normative.” His core assertion seemed to be that we have reversed our value system, so that what appears good is actually evil. He used this assertion to make lengthy and painful comparisons between the right to choose and the Nazi holocaust, terrorism, and slavery. While these comparisons were the core of his argument, he also spoke of the “myth” of population growth, and claimed that the “body parts trade is feeding the abortion movement.”

Not only were Father Quinn’s assertions factually wrong and logically flawed, he used an extremist rhetoric and denial of the truth that was unprofessional and – I would say – unconscionable. Nevertheless, attitudes like this one are everywhere in the abortion debate, and seriously threaten to do away with pro-choice legislation and women’s access to abortions. Abortion providers, activists and patients face serious threats to their lives and liberties every day, while more and more court decisions and legislation are eroding the progress made by Roe v. Wade.

In almost every state, students are lacking in comprehensive sex education, and various barriers block access to the ‘morning-after pill’ or abortions. Even Walmart refuses to carry emergency contraceptives in its pharmacies, and in Georgia and Oklahoma, legislation has been introduced that would require women to obtain a death warrant from the state courts before seeking an abortion. At the moment, Bush is on the verge of appointing Miguel Estrada to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; Estrada is an extremely conservative judge who has refused to disclose his opinions on crucial rights issues. When asked about Roe v. Wade, he said he had not read the briefs or researched the issues. And just last week, the Supreme Court overturned crucial legislation protecting abortion clinics from forcible blockades by anti-choice extremists, further eroding the safety of clinics, and their ability to provide services for their patients.

At present, there are countless ways in which the extremist polarization of the abortion debate is fueled by the widespread arguments of those like Father Quinn; each day, it is opinions like his which undermine a woman’s right to choose. I would argue that this is the real extremism in the abortion debate – a stance rooted in moral-theological value judgments and the violation of a woman’s own body. I believe that the pro-choice argument has always been one that is based upon empirical arguments and factual information, rooted in the well-established legal rights of a woman to control her body and her future, and embedded in moral arguments about the quality of human life.

The pro-life position is extreme because it is so limited and limiting: conversely, the pro-choice position embraces all choices, endowing a woman with the legal right to sovereignty over her body and the power to choose what she does with her future.