Abortion hasn't played a big role in the presidential election this time around, despite the high stakes involved. Apparently both sides have decided it's not in their interest to campaign on the topic. Maybe that's because we're all so sick of the debate.
Alexander Sanger is sick of it, too. The grandson of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger is on a mission to change the way we talk about abortion, birth control and childbearing.
"I suggest we throw out this old, tired, bumper sticker, pro-life-versus-pro-choice argument we've been having for the past 30 years," Sanger said to an audience of Planned Parenthood supporters at Meredith College last week. His book, Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century, takes on the ambitious task of breaking the rhetorical patterns on both sides and challenging abortion supporters in particular to develop moral arguments for their position.
"The pro-choice and pro-life arguments have been like two ships passing in the night," Sanger says, "neither wanting to acknowledge the other's arguments and as a result not addressing the deepest concerns that people have."
A Gallup poll taken about three months ago shows the same results as one taken in 1975: Approximately 25 percent of Americans are strongly in favor of abortion rights, and approximately 15 percent are completely opposed to abortion under any circumstances. The remaining 60 percent are morally uncomfortable with abortion rights and believe there should be some restrictions. "I often say this 60 percent think abortion should be legal for rape, for incest and for them," Sanger says.
He sees this as a failure of the pro-choice movement. "My grandmother's greatest victory was to take the shame out of birth control, and that's what we failed to do with abortion," Sanger says.
Conservative politicians are taking advantage of this moral ambivalence by pushing laws that erode access to abortion in a variety of ways--parental notification, banning so-called "partial-birth" abortion (a political term, not a medical term), and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a separate crime to harm a pregnant woman's unborn child by establishing the fetus as a person under the law. The ground around Roe v. Wade is eroding because abortion opponents make moral arguments about protecting life, while abortion's defenders have left life out of it, Sanger says.
"I think what we have failed to do is answer the fundamental question for the American people about why reproductive freedom should exist in the first place. I firmly believe you need a moral answer to that."
Sanger's argument is this: When a woman is able to make decisions about when and under what circumstances she will have children, those children have a better chance of survival. That in turn helps them carry on and have their own children, carrying on the human race. "In order to be biologically pro-life, you have to be politically pro-choice," he says.
This argument becomes clearer when you look at reproductive rights in a global context. "Around the world, and in the Third World, reproduction is a matter of life and death and often that's simultaneous," Sanger says. In Mali there's an expression: "A woman who gives birth opens her own coffin." Half a million women die every year from pregnancy-related causes. And when women die in childbirth, the children they've already given birth to often meet the same fate, because there's no one there to care for them.
Sanger has worked with the United Nations Population Fund for many years; prior to that he was president of Planned Parenthood of New York City and its international arm, the Margaret Sanger Center International. "In order to give the woman the best chance of surviving childbirth and having her children survive, she needs to be able to time and space her children. Women who die in childbirth do so because the pregnancies are spaced too close together, she's too young, she's had too many children already, she's malnourished, she's anemic, high blood-pressure, diabetes." Even in the United States, 40 percent of pregnancies have medical complications.
Sanger says many provocative things in his book: He points out serious problems with the birth control pill, such as new studies that suggest it contributes to higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. He says it's unrealistic to set a goal of entirely eliminating unintended pregnancies, because he believes a lot of them are "subconsciously intended."
Of the many "sexual realities" he discusses, one of the most interesting is the role of men in species survival: Sanger says men's fear of raising children who are not their own leads them to suppress women's freedom of choice and liberty. "I believe the way to get men on the side of reproductive rights, which I believe are in a man's interest just as much as a woman's, is to encourage men to know who their children are."
"I'm a bit contrarian," Sanger admits. "I'm not afraid to take on some of the sacred cows of the pro-choice movement. But I do so with a purpose. I think people are hungry for some new approaches."
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