What pro-choicers can learn from the Princeton abortion conference.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 17 2010 7:51 AM

Abortion Common Ground: A Pro-Choice Agenda

What pro-choicers can learn from the Princeton abortion conference.

A 3D ultrasound showing a fetus inside the womb.
3D ultrasound of a fetus inside a womb

Yesterday I described highlights of a recent abortion conference at Princeton University. The conference brought together pro-lifers and pro-choicers for an open-minded discussion of their differences and possible areas of collaboration. It illuminated various steps each side could take to advance a common agenda. In yesterday's article, I suggested some lessons for pro-lifers. Today I'll sketch some ideas for pro-choicers.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

1. Admit the value of the fetus. At the conference, several pro-choice speakers conceded truths that have been hard for their allies to admit. Rachel Laser, a pro-choice activist who has worked with pro-lifers on abortion reduction legislation, noted that her colleagues were inching closer to admitting the significance of the fetus. Peter Singer, the philosopher often maligned as an abortion-rights radical, called the fetus a "human being" and "unborn child," and he agreed with pro-lifers that abortion is killing. Robin West, a Georgetown law professor, added:

I have many, many students who are against the criminalization of abortion, who are pro-sex, pro-birth control, and morally opposed to most or many or even all abortions because of their belief in or their commitment regarding the moral status of fetal life. That's a perfectly coherent argument shared by many. It's no longer an unusual position within the pro-life and pro-choice community.

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These pro-life, pro-choice young people are the voice of the future. Listen to them. Speak for them.

2. Embrace abortion reduction. Pro-choice leaders often point out that they're pro-choice, not pro-abortion. Prove it. Show that our high rate of abortion can be sharply reduced within a framework of free choice. At Princeton, Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, explained how: by targeting factors "upstream" from abortions. Brown said of abortions: "I would prefer that we have fewer, not by making it illegal or inaccessible or shameful, but by reducing the incidence of the unplanned, distressing, stressful pregnancies that are behind the vast majority of abortions." Likewise, Dawn Johnsen, an Indiana University law professor who used to represent the National Abortion Rights Action League, called for policies that "reduce abortion through means that help women and their families avoid unintended pregnancy and choose healthy childbearing."

3. Treat contraception as a moral practice. Pro-choicers hate to moralize about sexual behavior. At Princeton, as elsewhere, most of them talked about contraception purely in terms of access: steep co-pays, lack of health insurance, inadequate Medicaid reimbursement. But pro-lifers didn't let them off with these excuses. The Rev. Joseph Tham of Regina Apostolorum University pointed to studies indicating that promotion and availability of contraception haven't reduced the rate of unplanned pregnancies. Terry McKeegan of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute noted that half of unintended pregnancies involve couples who claim to have used contraception.

These challenges forced some pro-choice panelists to admit that contraceptives fail because people don't consistently use them. Brown, in particular, stressed that couples must be "diligent" in using birth control. West proposed "a pro-contraception campaign that emphasizes the moral duty to use birth control." If contraception is going to work, this is the way its proponents must think and talk about it: not just as an option, but as a responsibility.

4. Reclaim stigma. The dirtiest word in the pro-choice lexicon is "stigmatize." Several times at Princeton, pro-choicers fretted that an abortion-reduction campaign might "stigmatize" abortion. One panelist warned that drawing a distinction between abortion and family planning might cause a woman to be labeled "bad" if she "ends up being pregnant when we know she shouldn't have" because she "had these tools available to her." A pro-choice attendee refused to "judge women for making decisions about their reproductive lives that are best for them."

Come on. Just because judgment and stigma have been crudely applied in the past doesn't make them obsolete. They're essential methods of transmitting culture. We judge people and their conduct all the time. Why should sex be exempt? Rape is bad. Infidelity is bad. And, yes, having sex without contraception when you know you can't handle a pregnancy is bad. That goes for both partners. Frances Kissling, one of the conference's organizers, faces this fact squarely in her review of its lessons:

[P]ro-choice folks need to attend to our own house. We could start by not apologizing for or excusing women and girls who are sexually active and do not use contraception. Making babies is serious business, and sex is a pleasurable and meaningful activity with social consequences.