An authentic pro-choice movement

By Emily Alpert

If life were hewed to a legal definition, the abortion debate might be easier. But human development does not submit easily to the taxonomy of legal categories. Defining adulthood at age 18, for instance, is a matter of convenience, not science; clearly, people aren’t transformed from dependents into consenting, fully rational agents at the stroke of midnight on their 18th birthdays. Law, however, deals in discrete, unflinching categories. Where nature offers the chrysalis, law defines the caterpillar and the butterfly; where nature offers the teenager, law distinguishes the minor and the adult.

The question of when people become people at all is all the more complex, and messy. Unlike the distinction between minors and adults, which, though arbitrary, is bolstered by the structure of the American educational system (and by general consensus), the distinction between life and non-life has no societal support. To impose a governmental definition upon it, by which human behavior is limited, is by nature an unsteady enterprise. The beginning of life is neither a scientific nor a political question: it’s a religious and moral one with which we ought to grapple seriously and at length, not assign to a clumsy bureaucracy to be taken up in committee.

Taking a pro-choice stance should not mean that the question of abortion, and its morality, is closed. On the contrary, standing for choice should entail standing for freedom of information, and freedom to debate and to dissent about the issue of abortion. Too often, pro-choice advocacy has taken the form of defending abortion, a stance that leaves me morally queasy. I have enough difficulty knowing when my classes begin, let alone when life begins, and I am not prepared to define at what point a zygote comprises a child—or whether it always does, or never does. The pro-choice movement should not fall into the trap of crafting its own definition of life and prodding the government to adopt it; rather, an authentically pro-choice movement should resist government attempts at such definition on the whole.

In tandem with such aims, it’s crucial that pro-choice movements truly work for freedom to choose, rather than freedom to choose an abortion. The freedom to choose childbirth should be equally valid, and lobbied for with equal zeal. No woman’s choice is genuinely free so long as child rearing creates unmanageable strain for low-income single mothers. Integral to a genuine pro-choice movement must be support for women who choose childbirth, as well as those who choose abortion: for subsidized childcare, for Head Start, for child-safe public housing and for strong public schools, in which comprehensive—not abstinence-only—sexed is taught.

Of course, the vast majority of pro-choice citizens support such programs; the one-issue, anti-family choice activist is largely a straw man for the right. However, in public forums, choice advocates have allowed pro-lifers to narrow the debate to abortion, forcing pro-choicers to take a defensive stance that, in its most reactionary form, has little to do with choice. To create a stronger and broader choice movement, choice proponents must resist being pigeonholed as abortion activists, broadening the discussion to issues of motherhood as well. Only by expanding the debate can we reclaim it.