Thursday, December 1, 2011

Women's Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights

There likely has been no more divisive issue in American politics in the past half-century than abortion. Both sides have demonized each other for nearly as long as there has been a debate about the subject, and Roe v. Wade cleaved a divide between citizens in this country the likes we haven't seen since the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

While I believe that there are many similarities between racism and the denial of a woman's right to choose -- in that both are about controlling or keeping down a specific population within the wider American population -- there is one substantial difference: racism has no moral, ethical, legal, or other basis, period. It is wrong, and more than that, it is as self-defeating and non-productive as any knuckleheaded idea can be, where as a woman's right to choose what she does with her body is an issue with valid moral arguments on both sides. This is not a simple matter, and regardless which side you fall on, the other side's concerns can not be easily dismissed.

Having just said that, I'm going to draw a line that simplifies the issue, for me at least. When you take religion out of the equation -- as we are obliged to do under our constitution -- the matter becomes clearer but not utterly solved. If Christians want to declare, as they already have, that God considers abortion murder, well then, fine, it's murder for you Christians. I'm sorry to hear that, but that's for Christian women to choose. But as an American citizen in the 21st century, it's not my problem. Since I don't believe in God, I'm not obliged to consider His opinion, and, by the way, neither are the courts, the legislature, or the executive branch of this country.

Before going on further with the moral arguments in the matter, let me draw another, and final, line on the issue. We have no right, as individuals or as a society, to tell a woman what she has to do with her body, including what to do with the reproductive process she's been assigned by birth. It's her call.

Now, that's the heart of the issue for Christians: who controls a woman's body. Not only do they make the case for abortion as murder, they make the case that the Bible tells a woman to be subservient to her husband. I believe that, more than the moral component, men want to dominate women and believe it's been ordained by God to be their right. Sorry, guys, but that's hooey. The Christian fairy tale of male dominance is more than superstition, it's caveman values: me BIG, me reproduce with you!

I can't find a logical place to draw the line when it comes to women's rights. Is it fine to allow women to control every function of their lives except reproduction? (As if it's anyone's place to "allow" women anything, except themselves.) No, women's rights include reproductive rights because the ramifications are so huge. If I buy a car, I can use it up, or I can sell it and get another one. If a woman has a baby, it's pretty much for life.

This is the part I hate -- and I think most men hate -- the idea that it's not our decision. If I impregnate a woman, in a real sense it's also my child. True. But her body is not my body, and I can't tell her what to do with it. Her womb in not my child-making factory, it's hers. She runs it, she decides the production schedule. I might not like that -- and it is a major heartache, to be sure -- but that's too bad. I don't get it both ways: I don't get to run my heart and hers. Just mine.

I view this personally because I see this as a personal struggle. It's personal for me, as a man who has some say in the matter. It's personal for the woman, as it's her body. Ideally -- and I know from experience -- a couple looks at the situation and makes a decision together that both can live with. Barring that, the woman has the final say.

Let's look at the "murder" angle. First, some statistics:
  • 15-20% of all known pregnancies end in miscarriages. Another accepted term for this is "spontaneous abortion."
  • An estimated half of all fertilized eggs spontaneously abort.
  • The process of in vitro fertization -- in which eggs are fertilized outside the body and then placed in a woman's uterus, where it is hoped the pregnancy is carried to term -- has a success rate lower that 50%. As an example, the rate is 35% in Canada. Age affects the success rate with younger women more successful (42%) and older women less so (22%). Therefore, beyond the embryos that are discarded and never used, the vast majority of in vitro fertilized eggs don't make it.
These statistics tell me that most attempts at creating life are spontaneously aborted. If I applied a religious test, I'd say that God is not obsessed with the idea that life begins at conception and that all life is precious. Some of it is, I guess, and God pulls the plug on the rest. Christians would say that's God's business.

Americans, who respect the individual freedoms accorded to us by our citizenship and our constitution, would grant that, beyond the randomness of life, it's women's business.

And part of women's business are her birth-control choices. Any healthy way a woman can use to choose the time and place for her to enter motherhood are hers to decide, along with a partner who's a willing participant in that process. Of course, men have choices, too, such as using a condom or avoiding sex. Someday, there will be pharmaceutical choices for men, and then they'll be front and center in these decisions, too. All of these choices should be supported by any healthcare plan, whether public or private.

Not all of this is happy talk. It's deep, complicated, and often painful, requiring a lot of soul-searching on the part of both partners in these matters. It can be happy if a decision is made to have a baby, and it's successful. It can be neutral if a decision is wisely made that now is not the right time. It can be sad if the decision is a hard or divisive one.

I should know. I had to decide with a woman once long ago to abort a fetus. It's complicated, but let's just say that the doctor, who was Catholic and anti-abortion, actually recommended it because the chance that the baby could be carried to term was slim to none, and even it it was, the results were very likely to be tragic. We made the decision to abort. I for one was glad we had that right, even though it was with great sadness that the right was invoked. To this day, it's a heartache, one that awakens from time to time.

In the best cases, the decision can be made, as it was that time, together. Nevertheless, the woman holds sway here, and for good reason: it's her body, no one else's.

I'm stating my belief here, but let's be clear: my belief in a woman's right to choose is not the foundation of this right. This right is possessed a priori by all women before I even open my mouth.

A final thought: I remember going back to the deep South about 25 years ago, a region I hadn't seen since my childhood, when I spent a few years in Georgia. In this case it was Mobile, Alabama, and as I drove around I could see from the black sections of town and the rednecks riding around with confederate flags on the bumpers of their pick-up trucks that things hadn't changed as much as I had imagined. My girlfriend, who was from Mobile and was the reason we were visiting there, said to me, "Yep, not much has changed. And it's stupid, too, because the blacks are such a wasted resource." She went on to say, "Imagine the energy it takes to keep 40% of the population down and the lost value that population could have provided. Dumb, dumb, dumb."

She was so right. Men should welcome women getting everything they deserve. Men win when women are as free and as valued as men. Beyond the logic, the morality, and the ethics, equality is a big winner for everyone involved.

Women's reproductive rights are a core piece of the human rights continuum, one that men and women must fight for and cherish.

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