A note on wording: you may notice that I use language like “people experiencing pregnancy” and “parent” instead of “mothers” and “women” when I talk about abortion. This is not because I don’t believe abortion is not a women’s rights issue; of course it is. Anti-abortion legislation can be as robust as it is because of misogyny, and women are by an overwhelming majority the people who suffer because of it. However, it must be acknowledged that there are in fact men and nonbinary people who can and do experience pregnancy. This does not make this less of a women’s rights issue, and “women’s rights issue” also doesn’t mean all women experience pregnancy. Transgender healthcare is a serious battle in Canada and around the world, so to exclude trans people from a discussion of rights in healthcare would be a mistake.
We need to talk about abortion. The fight to challenge the recent slew of anti-abortion legislation in the south of the US – which seems to be spreading like a wildfire and threatens vulnerable people living with a pregnancy – is the battle on the front lines and our most urgent priority, and we need to put as much of our weight as we can behind it. But the same resistant arguments keep coming up when individuals or organizations try to stand up for reproductive freedom, so although these are things we should have been unpacking before the stakes were so high, we have new allies to gain by honestly engaging with the topic.
Firstly, this is not something that is only relevant in the United States. A coworker here at the Carillon told me this weekend that their day was interrupted by a vocal Pro-Life gathering downtown here in Regina. Legislation and wide-reaching political conversations have real effects on communities miles away, inspiring people to be louder and bolder. Rationalizing that “here in Canada things are different” will not protect us from how much this matters. Anti-abortion laws have already spread through a handful of states and, if left unchallenged, they will reach us. So, whether you support abortion or not, you need to be listening.
I hope that people who do oppose abortion will read this, because I don’t think that it’s impossible for us to have a conversation, and the Pro-Life movement often makes me wonder if they have been listening at all. I like to think I understand where the resistance to abortion comes from; the idea of killing and the thought that it could be legislated as acceptable upsets me too. I went vegetarian when I was ten years old because of my belief that life was sacred—the Hebrew name I chose for myself, Chaya, comes from the word for life. Many people who support abortion aren’t religious or otherwise don’t think it’s relevant where a human life begins and ends – and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – but I actually do care, quite a bit. I don’t think those beliefs are at odds.
I agree that it always matters when a life ends, whether that life is a fully formed person or an animal or just a few cells trying to grow, and I agree that it’s good for people to feel compassion for things had the potential to live. I don’t think that the “pro-life/pro-choice” debate is actually about whether human life is valuable, though. Maybe not everyone has the same opinion about that, but that’s not what we should be arguing about. When I talk about abortion and the need for it to be safe and legal, I’m actually also advocating for a human life and, in addition, for human dignity, human safety – things that (in a religious context or not) I believe human life is necessarily connected with.
If we are talking about loving and caring for all life, we need to talk about legalizing abortion. It is time to face an urgent reality: that people who really, really want and need abortions are going to get them one way or another. Some people cannot be pregnant. They can’t even talk about being pregnant – they can’t even think about it. And for people who are impoverished, for people who have been sexually assaulted, for people who risk serious abuse in their living situation or unemployment, even if medically we can’t be sure that a pregnancy will result in death, it’s highly possible that giving birth will kill both parent and child through some means. We can think about helping people like this through adoption programs, but that isn’t going to be possible in every case when we consider the barriers marginalized people have to accessing care. These people will have abortions in an attempt to save their lives, and before abortion was legalized for the first time, those unsafe abortions were the only option.
In developing countries this still kills; according to the World Health Organization, over 22,000 a year die from unsafe abortions, and those who don’t die suffer long-term health complications. The huge, systemic issues surrounding those abortions cannot be solved short-term. Providing safe abortions is the only way to literally save lives in those cases.
Even if a pregnant person’s life is not in danger, forcing a person to give birth to a baby they do not want (especially one formed by sexual assault) is tantamount to torture. As someone who very much does not want to be pregnant or give birth, the thought of doing so without my consent is sickening. There is nothing about doing that to another person that respects or honours human rights and dignity. I know that these arguments should not always be about our spiritual beliefs, but if you believe the human body is a divine creation, I cannot defend treating it like an emotionless breeding ground. Of course we can grieve lives that never got to be – I know that many people who have abortions do – but we cannot allow this kind of treatment to be legal. This only scratches the surface of what fully formed people, with families and livelihoods, might have to endure if we do not change our priorities now.