“Pro-life” Rhetoric and Coercion

I’ve learned a lot today about “pro-life” arguments. It started when I read this interesting post at Siris, responding to our discussion of the video asking befuddled anti-abortion protesters what penalties they think women should suffer for having abortions. Here’s what Siris says:

I’m inclined to think it overlooks an obvious feature of the dispute — namely, that whereas pro-choice rhetoric tends to portray abortion as something women do, pro-life rhetoric tends to portray abortion as something doctors do. Given that it’s common in pro-life discourse to talk about most women as being bullied or pressured into abortion — whether by boyfriends, husbands, parents, or pro-choice groups — I’m not sure why it would be surprising that they’re vague about what penalties the women should get if abortion is criminalized.     

To me (a life-long pro-choice feminist) this feature was far from obvious. And it seems to me it’s important for pro-choicers to be aware of the fact that this argument is being made by “pro-lifers”: after all, we all oppose *coerced* abortion, which is absolutely antithetical to reproductive freedom. Now, my first reaction to the claim that women who have abortions are generally coerced was that this is extremely insulting to women’s autonomy. It’s a form of infantilization, and it shows “pro-lifers” who make this argument to be anti-feminist. But then I realized that merely claiming that many women who take themselves to be free are really victims of coercion is not enough to make one anti-feminist. After all, this is what MacKinnon says about sex workers, about women who enjoy pornography, and so on. And even though I don’t agree with MacKinnon on this, I don’t doubt that she’s a feminist.But other things about the argument struck me as well:

    The claim that the pro-choice lobby is coercing women into having abortions. What possible reason could a political movement have for doing this? Are we supposed to be baby-haters who want to prevent their birth?   There are also some suggestions here that there’s an immensely profitable abortion industry that doctors go into for the big bucks.  Oh, yeah– they chose abortion over radiology because they want the money and the cozy lifestyle.
    Many “pro-lifers” also support things like harsh penalties for drug addicts.  This suggests that they don’t take lack of free choice seriously as a defense.  So what’s going on in the case of abortion?
    Pro-choicers are also concerned with the lack of viable choices for some pregnant women.  There are, after all, women who abort who would prefer not to if they could afford to have and raise a child.  On the pro-reproductive rights side, this leads to advocacy for healthcare, a living wage, and so on.  From what I can tell, there isn’t a lot of discussion of this amongst “pro-lifers”, but maybe there are some less-heard-from groups who do discuss this.

Anyway, I’ve found this very educational.

8 thoughts on ““Pro-life” Rhetoric and Coercion

  1. I agree – that is some very interesting information.

    However, I have been convinced over the last several years that viewing the so-called pro-life movement through the lens of patriarchy (i.e. it’s really about maintaining control over women) manages to make a lot of this stuff far more clear.

    That, and that you can’t expect intellectual consistency from the pro-life movement as a whole any more than you can expect perfect ideological consistency from the feminist movement writ large.

  2. I find claims regarding what amovement is “really about” v. interesting and tricky. There are several ways they might go. Here are a couple: (1) When we say a movement is e.g. really about women having less control over their lives, we’re making a claim about what the consequences would be if their goals were realised. And it’s certainly true that women would have a lot less control over their lives if the goals of the “pro-life” movement were realised. (2) When we say a movement is really about maintaining control over women, we’re making a claim about what the people in the movement really want. And here things are trickier. Some “pro-lifers” certainly do want women to have less control over their lives. But others may well not want this. They may genuinely think that their working to free women from the coercion of the pro-choice movement. And it’s important to realise that there is this internal diversity in the “pro-life” movement. Because the people who *don’t* want women to have less control over their lives might well change their minds when we point out the consequecnes of what they’ve working for.

  3. Interesting discussion.

    Re: Many “pro-lifers” also support things like harsh penalties for drug addicts. This suggests that they don’t take lack of free choice seriously as a defense.

    However, one thing we often here from social conservatives (including anti-choicers) is the notion that addicts and drug dealers ‘prey’ on young teens or children to make them become addicted. In this light, it looks like anti-choicers would place established addicts in the same category as abortion providers (predator) and then place pregnant women quite often in the same category as the children or young teens (innocent, not necessarily capable of distinguishing right from wrong). Which generally fits with a fetishization of innocence and virginity we often see amongst the so-cons.

  4. Findlaw’s Sherry Colb posted a column yesterday about the pro-life stand against prosecuting women who had an abortion here http://writ.news.findlaw.com/colb/20070822.html

    I found her previous articles — about the underlying assumptions in exemptions for rape and incest — to be pretty insightful, even though they are analyzed from a legal and not purely philosophical standpoint:

  5. When pro-lifers would rather punish abortion doctors than the women who have abortions, I really think that says something more about the instinctual compassion many pro-lifers have for post-abortive women. While I recognize that women can make informed decisions, abortion advocates “hide the ball” when it comes to full disclosure such as when they tell women that abortion simply removes a “blob of tissue.”

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    And to be more consistent, maybe laws against abortion should punish women similarly to those who intentionally commit child abuse, infanticide, or murder.

    You may find a good pro-life discussion of some of the other points mentioned in your post above here: http://oldfordroad.wordpress.com/2007/04/07/why-are-you-pro-life/

    Jay @ Old Ford Road

  6. […] It seems that Ms. Colb, a pro-choice advocate, is willing to “up the ante” of the pro-life movement in calling for us to advocate criminal laws against women (not just doctors) if we truly believe abortion should be generally illegal.  While that may be consistent in some circumstances, I rather believe that indeed most women are victimized by abortion providers and the deceptions of the pro-choice movement.  But don’t tell the pro-choice feminists that because it just patronizes women.   […]

  7. Abortion providers put up SO much crap from the protesters in order to offer a service that is LEGAL. They get stalked, their lives disrupted by protests in their neighborhood. Sometimes their children and spouse get harrassed. But some of them press on despite the hardship in order to help women retain autonomy over their own family planning, their own bodies.

    What is the incentive?

    Moral courage! And that is what us medical students need to be taught at medical schools.
    After all, why would any of us go into such a dangerous medical profession, when we could become a cosmetic dermatologist and make 3 times the money, without the danger?

  8. Moral courage is recognizing that innocent human life should be protected–not destroyed! Not by slapping a “choice” label on in utero homocide. Only cowards kill the unborn.

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