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Chalk wars for life or choice?

| Thursday, October 29, 2015

Editor’s Note: Several uses of “pro-choice” have been revised to “pro-abortion” to more closely align with the author’s original phrasing.

Saint Mary’s sidewalks were more controversial than usual this week. SMC Right to Life Club covered them with quotes from popes, messages supporting life and their signature statement: “Respect Women, Respect Children, Respect Life.” By Tuesday, most of the sidewalk messages had been amended or partnered with messages promoting the right to choose, encouraging women to empower other women’s choices, declaring that lives of minorities and women — “not just fetuses” — need defending.

I guess I’m grimly supportive of the “pro-life”/“pro-choice” debate working its way into the mainstream campus conversation — we are a women’s college, after all — but also annoyed to tread upon the women’s movement’s biggest weakness just to get to class. The split between “life” and “choice,” terms that exude punch over any real meaning, has divided what could otherwise be a colossal force in the face of discrimination and inequality. Both “sides” — in creating “sides” at all, in sweeping themselves into the polarizing cesspool of the American political arena — miss the point. Yes, we need to talk — and chalk — about it. But we write the same old arguments onto our sidewalks, convincing no one, listening to no one. The conversation hasn’t just stalled; it’s stopped altogether, with neither side giving any more thought to their own ideas than to the other.

The Saint Mary’s chalk exchange sadly demonstrates this stalemate. Forums for expressing ideas — like sidewalks — have become soapbox battlegrounds, while meaningful discussion between friends, peers, family members and classmates has ceased. The reminders that “every life is precious” were clearly not meant to spark a debate, but when confronted with impassioned replies of “women should empower each other’s choices,” neither side could make any headway with the other. Of course every life is precious. Of course women should empower each other. Affirmations are not arguments. Anti-abortion activists are not trying to limit or disenfranchise women. Pro-abortion activists are not wanton killers. Instead of spewing verses, quotes and aphorisms, we need to reignite real discourse, a true give-and-take of opinion and information about “life” and “choice,” so these terms can have meanings again, meanings that don’t pit two necessities against each other.

If the anti-abortion community wants a real discussion, it needs to abandon the same rhetoric that has long fallen on deaf ears. Like it or not, quoting celibate men who in turn quote Christian Scripture — or quoting men from privileged backgrounds who have no concept of the difficulties of unplanned pregnancy — isn’t effective. Quote women, quote mothers and fathers, quote doctors and scientists. Appeal to logic over emotion. There are plenty of biological, philosophical and sociopolitical bases for an anti-abortion stance that don’t require subscribing to a certain spirituality or belonging to a certain demographic. And before you call yourself “pro-life,” consider what else besides abortion you need to oppose to deserve that title: capital punishment, poverty, hunger, gun violence, sexual violence, ableism, racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia — intolerance of all kinds. Only then can “anti-abortion” become truly “pro-life.”

Those in support of the abortion option, likewise, need to reexamine their arguments. Abortion isn’t a question of equal rights. There is no male equivalent to the right to abortion that women are denied. Using “equality” as a pro-abortion platform overshadows the actual inequalities facing women: the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling as well as underrepresentation in government positions, STEM careers, literature, art, theatre and film.

Lumping all issues concerning women into one abortion-stamped package — that every feminist must support or be kicked out of the club — does not empower women to make their own choices at all. Those who are anti-abortion are not anti-feminist, and abortion is not a cure-all for women’s rights violations in this country. Emblazoning “abortion” at the top of every list of injustices against women implies that — like generations of patriarchal societies before us — society cares more about the female reproductive system than the female mind, heart or spirit. We are reduced to walking wombs, with no thought or care for anything else. To be “pro-choice” over “pro-abortion” demands respecting choices and opinions that are at odds with your own.

So, Saint Mary’s chalkers, I agree with what you’ve written. All of you. Because “women empowering women” means respecting each other enough to find the common ground that always exists. It means seeing the wisdom and worth of your opponents even if you don’t agree with their stance. I don’t believe that protecting life and defending liberty are so diametrically opposed that we must stand up and dismiss instead of sitting down to discuss. Surely we can agree that every life is precious. Surely we can agree that women should support each other. And surely we can agree that we don’t need to agree in order to be respected, welcomed and heeded.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Charlie Ducey

    “Lumping all issues concerning women into one abortion-stamped package — that every feminist must support or be kicked out of the club — does not empower women to make their own choices at all.”
    Y’all should be taking notes on this one, readers.

  • gibbousone

    Jennifer that was an excellent essay. One that I feel is good enough that St. Mary’s and Notre Dame educators should consider making it required reading.