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There’s something missing from our abortion debates

| Tuesday, April 6, 2021

This semester, my Thursday nights are usually entirely forgettable — I have class until 5:10 p.m., so when I get home my brain is completely fried. My roommates are usually at work, so I boil some pasta, change into sweats and watch a few episodes of whatever show I happen to be binging. A few weeks ago, however, I decided to force my brain to work for a little bit longer, and I tuned in to Notre Dame Right to Life club’s abortion debate.

Before I go any further, I want to make a few disclaimers. I am pro-choice, and have been essentially my entire life, so I wasn’t really expecting the debate to change my mind about anything. I’m also not Catholic, so I recognize that my worldview and perspective are different from most people on this campus. I also generally don’t really think there’s much value in engaging in debates about abortion — it’s such a highly emotional issue that leaves little room for compromise. This will not be a column where I try to convince you that my abortion opinions are correct — instead, I want to talk about the way we talk about abortion.

As I was watching the debate, I found one aspect of both debaters’ rhetoric particularly striking: the complete lack of acknowledgement or discussion of the people who get abortions.

If you didn’t tune in, the abortion debate was hosted by ND Right to Life, was limited to conversations about the morality of abortion, not legal or policy solutions, and the debaters were two (very talented and articulate) cisgender men. Yet, in the 90-minute presentation, neither debater devoted any real time to discussing the experiences of people who have received or have considered receiving an abortion.

I will say that while I found this choice to be disappointing for both debaters, I was not particularly surprised by the omission. For starters, both debaters identifying as cisgender men means they’re inherently disconnected — they will never have to worry about making that choice, or carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term. Further, the arguments made sense based on the positions of both debaters. The pro-life movement has, historically, made the decision to avoid talking about people who get abortions in favor of making an emotional appeal about the fetuses they carry. The pro-choice debater, talking at an event sponsored by the Right to Life club with an audience of pro-life people, spent most of the 90 minutes playing defense, discussing bodily autonomy in a sterile, disconnected way. He pulled heavily from Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion,” an essay in which Thomson creates a complex analogy about a violinist to argue that a mother’s bodily autonomy supersedes a fetus’ right to life. At the abortion debate, any discussion of bodily autonomy was strictly limited to convoluted hypotheticals.

Yet, for many people every year, abortion is anything but a hypothetical. According to the Center for Disease Control, around 600,000 people get a legal abortion each year. Depending on where you stand, you likely have your preconceived notions about who those people are. Maybe they’re reckless, sex-crazed women who care about nothing but themselves. Maybe they’re scared, pregnant as a result of a lack of sexual education or access to birth control. Either way, there is one thing we know for sure about those 600,000: They are people, just like you and me.

In fact, many of those people are likely to be your friends, co-workers, colleagues or classmates. Despite declining abortion rates, nearly one in four women in the U.S. will have an abortion by the age of 45. Knowing someone who has received an abortion is actually more likely here at Notre Dame than you might think — 24% of people who get an abortion are Catholic, and a majority identify as religious.

Regardless of your opinions about abortion, the people who get them are real, they are human and they are an important part of the conversation. When we talk about bodily autonomy, we are not talking about it in an abstract sense, easily sorted out through though experiments — we are talking about very real people who deserve compassion. Not only that, by decentering the people who get abortions, it makes it easier to discount their experiences and dehumanize them further.

Beyond the fact that having compassion for people is good, there’s a pretty good argument for both the pro-life and the pro-choice camps that talking more about people who get abortions is a good strategic choice. For people who are pro-choice: Pro-life arguments focus heavily on emotional appeal, and it’s essentially impossible to convince people that you’re right if your argument focuses on laws and statistics and complex metaphors when your opponents can cut through that to talk about the death of innocents. And while the pro-life camp may think that it’s smarter to avoid talking about people who get abortions, that strategy significantly shrinks the amount of people they can convince. As I mentioned before, I’ve always been pro-choice, but I’ve been more open to hearing pro-life arguments since coming to Notre Dame. However, it’s difficult for me to listen to pro-life arguments when they lack any compassion for people who have faced or may someday face that kind of decision, especially as someone who could have an unplanned or unsafe pregnancy in my lifetime.

Debating about abortion is always tricky, and while I commend ND Right to Life and both debaters for opening up a dialogue about it, any discussion of abortion that does not include the people who receive abortions is incomplete and insincere. Whatever your personal opinion is about abortion, it is time for us to approach these conversations from a place of empathy for those faced with this difficult decision. Even if you disagree with them, and wish they had made a different choice, we must center compassion in our debates about abortion, including compassion for people who get abortions.

Ellie Konfrst is a junior majoring in political science, with minors in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service and Civil & Human rights. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited that people will finally be forced to listen to all of her extremely good takes. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

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

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