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Author discusses stigmatization, narratives of ‘ordinary abortion’

| Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Irish 4 Reproductive Health hosted a conversation with Katie Watson, an associate professor of bioethics and law at Northwestern University and author of “Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law and Politics of Ordinary Abortion” in which she advocated for destigmatizing discussing the subject of abortion in everyday life. April Lidinsky, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Indiana University South Bend, moderated the discussion Tuesday in Corbett Family Hall.

Claire Rafford
Northwestern professor of bioethics and law and author Katie Watson, left, spoke about normalizing public discussion about abortion in a lecture Tuesday.

Watson said her focus on the abortion controversy began when she was teaching a group of medical students about abortion and noticed the everyday stigma surrounding the subject.

“Given that prevalence, that was part of the reason the ethics of the topic was relevant for [the medical students] to understand and discuss, regardless of what specialty they’d be going into, that they were going to be expected to be somewhat of the ‘cocktail party expert’ on all sorts of medical issues — not just with the commonness of this procedure for their patients, but also with their family members, their colleagues and friends — and that they just be able to understand it,” Watson said.

“I just was so struck by this idea that, ‘Why is the fact that abortion is common not common knowledge?” she added.

Watson’s book focuses on “ordinary abortion,” a term she coined herself, which she defined as the reality faced by the vast majority of women who have abortions, rather than the most extreme and tragic cases.

“I meant ordinary and — as I say in the book — not to diminish significance to so many and its importance in our culture, but to juxtapose it and make the point that my observation is in our public debate, we talk about what I call ‘extraordinary abortion,’” she said. “It makes sense that advocates raise up cases that trigger our emotions … and those cases are real and important, but they reflect collectively less than 5 percent of all abortion cases. So the cases we discuss the most are the cases that are heard the least.”

When looking at the abortion issue, Watson said she noticed “master plots” — repeated themes and stories throughout a culture — about the debate that was not reflected in her personal experience.

“I started to notice when I looked at the public abortion conversations that I was starting to see master plots — narratives that just didn’t match what I was hearing from patients or physicians and the social science research that I was reading,” she said. “Master plots serve a really valuable function in cultures. They’re educational, they’re instructive, they’re often about morality — they’re just values and characters. But when they don’t match, again, I’m interested in those gaps.”

One of the most prevalent “master plots,” Watson said, is that the choice to terminate a pregnancy is always a difficult decision for a woman.

“If a woman put a very, very high moral value on the embryo she carried, that would be very difficult if she was feeling like she needed to weigh that against her own interests or concerns or imperatives — that would be a really difficult decision,” Watson said. “If a woman thought the moral value of an embryo was low, it might not be as difficult for her to measure that. Embedded in abortion is always a difficult decision, and it’s really a master plot to say abortion ought to be a difficult decision.”

Watson added that some other “master plots” she noticed were that abortion is a women’s issue, when it also affects men and the families of the patients, since many women who have abortions already have children, she said.

Though the Supreme Court asserted the right to have an abortion in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, Watson said she laments the fact that the conversation seems to have stifled since then.

“I think of abortion as a freedom of conscience issue,” she said. “I think there’s no science that’s going to end this debate. But the constitutional right has become the end of a conversation rather than the beginning of a conversation. [In] every other area in which we have legal freedom, that’s the beginning of the conversation. How would you like to live, how would you like to use that freedom, what is good, what is right, what will keep humans flourishing, what is just — rather than the end of a conversation.”

Watson said she feels it is important to promote public discourse on the abortion controversy.

“I think abortion should remain a constitutional right, that people should be free to define and do that by their conscience, but of course, [people should be] free to try to persuade one another, convince one another, support one another, live by our lights, which I know is difficult,” she said. “It’s just painful and difficult, but that is where I [lie] on so many issues of pluralism.”

One of the issues surrounding the pro-life and pro-choice issues is the great cost to raising a child in the United States, Watson added.

“We are not a family-friendly country,” she said. “We do not help mothers and children, and that’s something I think we can all work towards and that I am deeply committed to. … [Do you] want to lower the abortion rate? Make it economically possible to raise children in this country.”

During the question-and-answer portion of the conversation, Notre Dame history professor Fr. Bill Miscamble asked Watson about how to define when a fetus becomes a person.

“One of the issues that, as I understand it, you look at in this sort of pluralism approach, is you are going to leave it to individuals to determine personhood of the baby,” Miscamble said. “Is there a gradation along that line, or would you say it’s the choice of anyone to destroy that baby one day before birth, and that would be then infanticide one day after birth? [This is] one of the strongest arguments as you listen to the pro-life forces and try to represent them for personhood of the child. It just seems that it’s absurd to say one day before it’s not a person, and one day after it is.”

Watson responded to Miscamble’s question by citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

“I think that the Supreme Court, from a legal perspective, actually did a great job with viability and here’s why,” she said. “It’s actually scientifically inaccurate to say that a one-celled organism has everything it needs to become a person. What it also needs is to live inside a woman’s body for a minimum of six months or else it cannot survive. So, just biologically and scientifically, they cannot be considered as separate from one another. … There’s no debate about her personhood, and so if, by her lights, in that pluralism model, she views before viability as that embryo something that may be destroyed that has not achieved a personhood that prevents that for her, since she’s the one that will have to live with that consequence, I do think that allowing her to make that choice feels morally and ethically and legally appropriate.”

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About Claire Rafford

Claire is a senior from Tempe, Arizona majoring in English and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Business-Economics. She peaked when her team won the Battle of the Books state championship in 2011.

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