Responding to Digby’s post here, Ezra (who admits he’s “about as anxious to enter the abortion debate as Tom Cruise's agent is to talk about Thetans”—ha) suggests:

[I]t seems to me that the whole method we use to understand the conflict is flawed. Efforts to conceptualize the conflicting positions tend to push supporters onto a binary choice: either you do believe the fetus is a life (0), or you don't (1). From there, Digby's point makes perfect sense. Murder is wrong, even when the life is caused by rape or incest, so if you profess to be a 0 but support exceptions for assault or familial relations, you're probably a liar, and your real agenda is probably rather ugly. True that.

But my guess is that most folks fall midway on that scale -- .2's, .4's, .6's and so forth…
I agree that a black and white scale of measurement on the issue is flawed, but I believe it has less to do with any sense of "quasihumannness" and more to do with truths that no one likes to talk about. Truths like women who don't want to be pregnant will do just about anything to get un-pregnant. Truths like weighing the "life" of an unwanted fetus against one's own life is not some abstract theoretical to a woman with an unwanted pregnancy; it pits a potential life against an existing one, which may be forever changed. and that doesn't make for much of a contest.

The whole argument, in some way, reminds me of how we regard soldiers and their wartime actions. We don’t consider them murderers when they kill an enemy combatant—we recognize that the decision was rational and calculated, made out of self-preservation, and to, in some cases, protect us as well. And when we hear about how they are trained to dehumanize the enemy to make killing easier, we nod sagely; we don’t judge, because we can’t truly imagine what it’s like to be in that situation.

Faced with the decision to terminate a potential life, or sacrifice her life as she knows it, a woman with an unwanted pregnancy may make a similarly calculated and rational decision in the interest of self-preservation. For women who have other children to care for, or an elderly parent, or anyone who depends on her income and/or availability (including herself), she, too, may be protecting others as well. Part of that decision may be dependent on dehumanizing the potential life inside her, and yet, in this case, we find that somehow repellent.

And it’s in no small part because we expect “more” of women; we expect women to be the givers and sanctifiers of life. We rely on their long-heralded nurturing natures to counterbalance the men who take life, the soldiers. The two situations are, in a very real way, mirror images of one another*, indicative of how we expect men and women to behave. Men are the rational actors; when women assume the same stance, they betray our expectations, even to this day.

Humans put into a situation where they must choose between one life and their own will regularly choose their own—on a battlefield, during a home invasion…in desperate circumstances, adults have thrown children out of lifeboats to save themselves. All of these are existing lives ended in the pursuit of self-preservation, not a potential life whose prospects are snuffed out. But a woman who terminates a pregnancy is viewed as delivering the ultimate betrayal—ending the life of her own child. Sacrificing oneself for one’s child is one of the few circumstances in which humans can be expected to act against the interest of self-preservation, so it seems inconceivable. But such disbelief is predicated on the assumption that a women carrying an unwanted fetus still views it as her child, and the fact that she simply may not, perhaps out of necessity to do what needs to be done rather than callousness, is yet another truth about which we don’t like to talk.

Some soldiers who kill on the battlefield later feel regret, even if they know it was the only way to protect themselves. Some don’t. We don’t expect them to; pragmatism is a response we understand from soldiers. We don’t understand, or accept, pragmatic women, women who have abortions and stand by their decision, rather than collapsing into a fit of unshakable grief. Worst yet are those who dare to respond to the outraged, “It was a life you ended!” with an acknowledgement that it is the truth. “Yes, I did. But I did it to save my own.”


* The argument is made that the life terminated via abortion is an “innocent life.” And for those who believe that enemies in war have a personal interest in killing another soldier, they will never be swayed by the comparative argument. Surely this is true in guerrilla wars; in traditional warfare, however, soldiers are a tool of governments who use men to fight their battles, and conscripted men in an enemy army may have no love of their government’s policies and fight instead because they must. Guilt by association, perhaps, but in the sense he would never pick up a gun to kill a man of his own volition, a soldier is not without his innocence, even when a designated enemy. This is all very All Quiet on the Western Front, I know, but true nonetheless.

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