Demonizing Pregnancy in the Abortion Debate


I've been keeping tabs on the abortion debate after Dobbs, as well as on new policy moves by the various states. It really is fascinating to see how little consensus there is. It is also really interesting to see what new arguments have come to the fore now in 2022, arguments that weren't there before.

This time around I am seeing an argument I had not seen foregrounded before: that pregnancy is a dangerous, life-threatening condition; a condition carrying greater risks than having an abortion. Ergo, the right to abortion is part of the right to self-defense.

Now, on one level, that is true. Pregnancy can be dangerous, and pregnancy/childbirth can cause death. I myself knew a young woman who died shortly after childbirth due to massive hemorrhage, leaving behind three young children. It was an utter tragedy. I've also been a strong supporter of the Mother's Monument organization, which aims to have a visible public piece of art commemorating the sacrifice made by women who have died incident to pregnancy/childbirth. I've studied maternal mortality statistics across the globe, and I know that the figures are still way too high.

It is also true that every state--even red states--always contain an exception that allows abortion in the case that a woman's life is threatened.

And yet I feel troubled at the turn the discussion is taking. Pregnancy is starting to look like something that no woman in her right mind would ever do, according to this line of argument. I'm very wary of the technological movement towards ectogenesis, which separates women's bodies from gestation and birth. I believe it's profoundly anti-woman. Thus this line of argument seems very suspect to me.

A few days ago I stumbled across this essay by Kat Rosenfield for UnHerd that seems to echo some of the thoughts I've been having about this. She talks about how the previous DNC mantra about abortion--that it should be "safe, legal, and rare"--has actually been changed to "safe, legal, and accessible." I did not know that. The idea that abortion should be "rare" has been jettisoned. Probing into this change, Rosenfield notes:

"It’s hard to overstate the utter self-sabotaging lunacy of this argument, which not only undermined one of the most popular lines of party messaging in decades but is also farcically nonsensical: “safe, legal, and rare” are surely a solid and desirable set of criteria for any medical procedure that is both unpleasant and unplanned, as abortions (but not only abortions) invariably are. And yet, the argument prevailed: by the time Hillary ran for president in 2016, the word “rare” had been excised from the Democratic party platform.

"In its place arose a variety of messages, none nearly as effective, and some deeply strange, even ghoulish. Among the most notable side effects of the argument that abortion need not be rare is an increasingly prevalent notion that perhaps pregnancy should be. In the days following the leak of the draft Supreme Court decision that ultimately overturned Roe v Wade, the very online Left traded horror stories about what it can do to your body. One much-shared Twitter thread from an obstetrician enumerated the risks of pregnancy like a carnival barker marketing a house of horrors: “Hemorrhage from miscarriage or ectopic, sepsis, blood clots, strokes, heart attacks, hyperemesis and intractable vomiting, increased domestic violence, exacerbations of heart disease, lupus and rheumatologic disease, hypertension, seizures, and mental illness, diabetes” — it’s all right here, folks, and that’s before we even get to the torn anal sphincter and urinary incontinence! Step right up, ladies!

"The pro-choice press has only reinforced the horror, by giving us wall-to-wall coverage of the danger of pregnancy and childbirth. Here’s New York Times columnist Pamela Paul with a gut-twisting account of her emergency C-section, which culminated in “being held down by two doctors while my body parts were gathered and reinserted into my torso”. Here’s Kate Manning in the Washington Post talking about urine leakage, blood-covered bedsheets, “cracked nipples and infected breasts”. Here’s Scientific American warning us that “even a seemingly ‘safe’ pregnancy is not without significant risk”. Of course, the intention is only to emphasise that nobody should be forced to go through this — but you would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that not only should abortion be available on demand, but that no woman in her right mind would ever carry a pregnancy to term unless she had some sort of death wish.

"Gone are the days when the Left took pains to emphasise that it was not pro-abortion, but against unwanted pregnancy; instead, this moderate stance has metastasised into a demonisation of pregnancy in general. Some have framed this as a look-what-you-made-me-do position forced by the anti-choice Right: “If there was ever anything beautiful about pregnancy, the anti-abortion movement has devoured it, and spat up something hateful in its place. Pregnancy, for many, will now end dreams, alter futures, maybe even kill,” writes New York Magazine‘s Sarah Jones.

"In a recent essay for The Bulwark, Mona Charen laments that “young women reading these stories may get the impression that pregnancy is a hellscape of pain, disfigurement, and degradation”."

There's something wrong with this--it suggests something about the female body that is anti-woman. It suggests that your body cannot possibly be expected to handle female reproduction, that if you are rational, you should avoid at all costs female reproduction. That, in turn, suggests that women should dissociate from their reproductive biology, and dissociate their body from involvement in reproduction. It's a very weird shift.

There are other interesting rhetorical changes in the abortion debate, as well. The Pro-Choice Caucus--which apparently will now have to change its name--sent out this list of talking points to House Democrats:





















So "choice" is now not the term to use. There are other terms that are now viewed as highly problematic. Rosenfield comments,

"Goodbye, “rare”. Goodbye, “women”. Goodbye, “choice” — the beating heart of the movement, now categorised as “harmful language” — and goodbye to the allies who favoured these terms, now severed and drifting away from the movement like Inuit elders who have outlived their usefulness, cast onto an ice floe to die. Most remarkable is that abortion access is, in fact, an issue with direct bearing on the lives of a vast majority of Americans — not only women, but any man in a heterosexual partnership with one — and yet some of the loudest voices on this issue insist on describing it as anything but. Consider the now-notorious tweet in which the ACLU listed all the groups most impacted by abortion bans. “The LGBTQ community” was second; “women” were not listed at all."

I am sure you have noticed that "women" are now missing in the abortion debate--another sign that there is something deeply misgynist afoot here.

Rosenfield continues,

"The absurd suggestion that abortion access is best understood as an LGBT issue, rather than a woman’s one, isn’t going to help us match the momentum of the Right in a post-Roe world; neither is the imperative to “Shout your abortion” while painting pregnancy as an undesirable, disfiguring disease . . . No woman sets out to have an abortion; nobody wants one on its own merits. Like most medical procedures, abortion is a solution to a problem — either an unwanted pregnancy, or a desired pregnancy gone awry. In an ideal world, abortion would not only be rare, but entirely unnecessary. It is because we don’t live in an ideal world, and never will, that the right to choose must be preserved."

While I view myself as falling into the same camp as the majority of Americans who neither want to see abortion banned nor see it unrestricted, I sense Rosenfield is on to something important here. Current abortion-rights debating points are deeply anti-woman. That's really quite new--and really quite troubling.