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False Choice

How Abortion Politics Robs Women of the Right to Choose

by Robin Phillips

On January 22, 2014, the White House issued a statement commemorating the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision to legalize abortion. Significantly, President Obama declared that the decision in Roe v. Wade was based on a "guiding principle" to which he wished to "recommit," namely, "that every woman should be able to make her own choices about her body and her health."

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The notion that specific "abortion rights" follow from the more general right of a woman to make decisions concerning her own body is, of course, nothing new. Over the past forty years, abortion supporters have regularly asserted a woman's right to be the sole decision-maker over all choices related to her body. This principle has also been a pillar of second-wave feminism. As Margaret Walters declared in Feminism: A Very Short Introduction (2005), one of "the most urgent concerns of second-wave feminism has been a woman's rights over her own body."

The category "a woman's body" is assumed to automatically include any baby the woman may be carrying. The right to bodily autonomy means that it is up to the pregnant woman, and no one else, to decide whether her fetus should be treated as a person or as just a lump of tissue.

In fact, it is such a truism that abortion defenders stand up for a woman's rights over her own body that few people stop to think about it. The only problem with this truism is that it is false. Indeed, I will show that after 40-plus years of abortion advocacy, supporters of "choice" do not buy into their own arguments and do not really wish to give women full rights over their (and their unborn babies') bodies.

One-Way Right to Choose

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that women should indeed have the right to exercise autonomous control over their own bodies and that, in the case of pregnant women, this right includes control over the child being carried in the womb. In other words, let's assume that a woman's decision to abort her baby is no different in principle from her decision to put nail varnish on her toes or to pierce her ears.

Now, if we grant these assumptions, we would expect certain things to follow. First, if a pregnant woman decides that her unborn child should be treated as a lump of tissue, then the state should respect the validity of that decision and not withhold access to abortion. But second, if a pregnant woman decides that her unborn child should be treated as a person, then the state should respect the validity of that decision as well, and give the child the same rights and privileges it accords other legally recognized persons. For example, the forced miscarriage of such a child should be treated as murder.

But, curiously, while abortion advocates are happy to apply their pro-choice principle to the first case, they are not to the second. Numerous instances can be cited in which they have failed to defend and ratify the decision of a woman who wanted her unborn child to be treated as a human being. For instance, they have consistently opposed the passage of fetal homicide laws. For them, the "right to choose" works in only one direction, toward abortion.

The Peterson Murders

If a pregnant woman is assaulted and her baby dies, abortion advocates want the law to recognize only one victim: the mother. They do not want the homicide of the fetus treated as a murder even if the mother chose to consider her unborn child as a valuable human life. Arguments that ensued in the wake of the brutal murder of Laci Peterson illustrate this.

At the time of her death at the hand of her husband, Scott, in December 2002, Laci was eight months pregnant with a baby boy she had named Conner. Since Conner perished with Laci, Scott was convicted of two murders. The president of the National Organization for Women in New Jersey, a strong supporter of abortion, objected to the double-murder conviction, saying, "There's something about this that bothers me a little bit. If it was unborn, then I can't see charging him with a murder. . . . It sets a kind of precedent." Other abortion supporters also opposed the idea that Scott had murdered two victims, arguing that Conner could not properly be considered a victim since he had not been born prior to his homicide.

But if the dictums "a woman's right to her own body" and "a woman's right to choose" really carried the weight that abortion supporters claim they do, then the difference between a fetal homicide that is murder and a fetal homicide that is abortion depends on only one thing: the orientation of the mother towards the child. Nevertheless, abortion advocates are only willing to follow these dictums when the woman wishes to abort her pregnancy. In cases like Laci Peterson's, when the woman has implicitly conferred personhood on her child (for example, by naming the baby and intending to deliver), they assert that the orientation of the mother is insufficient grounds for considering the fetal homicide to be a murder.

This fatal inconsistency shows that abortion defenders don't really believe their own rhetoric about a woman's right to choose what happens to her own body. But then why have they made it their constant rallying cry? The answer is simple: it resonates with the American people. The notions of inalienable rights and personal liberty run deep in the bloodstream of Americans. Activists have found that by coupling abortion with these cherished concepts, they can wear down the scruples of many Americans who are deeply troubled by abortion and inclined to oppose it. In other words, their appeal to choice is cynical and self-serving.

The Case of Ariel Castro

This state of things was brought into the national limelight again last year by the case of Ariel Castro, who kidnapped three women and held them captive for ten years in a private prison and torture chamber he operated out of his house in Cleveland, Ohio. Among the 977 charges brought against Castro when he was captured in May 2013 were allegations that he had impregnated one of the women, Michelle Knight, multiple times and then forced her to miscarry through beatings and starvation.

No one disputed that Castro was a cold-blooded villain; the question was whether he was a kidnapper, rapist, and murderer, or just a kidnapper and rapist. The former would have resulted in the death penalty; the latter, life imprisonment.

As soon as the court raised the possibility that Castro might be guilty of murder, the antennas of feminists and abortion supporters shot up. This wasn't because they had a soft spot for Castro and wanted to spare him the death penalty; rather, it was because Castro could only be considered a murderer if Knight's unborn children were considered persons. And the feminists couldn't countenance that.

In the headline of a May 10, 2013 article for The Daily Beast, Michelle Goldberg announced that "Castro Captive's Miscarriages Aren't Murder." And in an article posted on Slate the same day, Emily Bazelon offered the following chilling perspective:

For all the suffering he inflicted on the women he held captive, Castro didn't kill them, and we can hope they will live, free from him, for many years to come. The Supreme Court has so far ruled out the death penalty for crimes other than murder. If you think that's the right line to draw—that the state should not take the life of someone who has not killed—then Castro shouldn't be executed. I have to say I'm having some trouble typing those words. But in this case, I think that's the right call.

The problem with this perspective is that Castro did kill a number of victims. But since those victims were unborn, Bazelon disregarded them and calmly announced that Castro wasn't a killer.

If the choice to abort or deliver really did rest entirely with the mother, as pro-abortion pundits claim, then taking away that choice by killing a fetus without the mother's consent would be as much an assault on choice as prohibiting an abortion. Law professor Sherry F. Colb, whom Bazelon quotes in her piece, admits as much. Therefore, in assessing whether or not Castro was a murderer, these feminists should have been keen to ascertain whether Knight had chosen to consider her unborn children as persons. Their failure to do so shows that, to them, choice is only a principle worth appealing to when the choice is to abort.

Even Gosnell Evokes No Change in Attitude

Most American states do in fact recognize forced miscarriage as murder. But this has come about in spite of the abortion lobby, not because of it. If abortion advocates had their way, unborn children would never be treated as persons, not even when their mothers (exercising their "right to choose") expressly desired it. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which was introduced in wake of the Laci Peterson case, had to overcome attempts by abortion supporters to block it before it was finally passed and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2004.

Similar attempts were made to block the passage of various state and federal laws designed to protect babies who survive an abortion attempt. In his fascinating book Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, Hadley Arkes chronicles the opposition to these laws and shows how the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act was passed in 2002 only after penalties were dropped against doctors who killed babies marked for abortion. Supporters of abortion (including Barack Obama) feared that laws granting legal personhood to abortion survivors would erode the principle of "choice."

This is something the public seems to have forgotten following the Kermit Gosnell scandal. Gosnell, a notorious Philadelphia abortionist who was finally brought to justice in 2013, was easy to hate, and no abortion supporter wanted to appear to downplay the seriousness of what had occurred for decades in his "house of horrors." Even so, in March 2013, representatives from Planned Parenthood testified against a Florida bill that would have offered medical protection to any baby who survived an abortion procedure.

During testimony, one of the PP representatives was asked: "If a baby is born on a table as a result of a botched abortion, what would Planned Parenthood want to have happen to that child that is struggling for life?" Her answer was not unexpected: "We believe that any decision that's made should be left up to the woman, her family, and the physician." But if the decision of what to do with a baby who survives an abortion should be "left up to the woman, her family, and the physician," then why was Gosnell so bad?

Cynical Slogans to Sway Opinion

The fact that pro-choice philosophy cannot be coherent, let alone consistent, should not surprise us when we review a little history. In his book The Marketing of Evil, David Kupelian shows that such notions as "Women must have control over their own bodies" and "Who decides? YOU decide!" were devised as marketing slogans by cynical abortion activists in order to divert attention away from the core issue to a web of newly created artificial issues.

Kupelian quotes Bernard Nathanson, M.D., co-founder of the abortion vanguard group NARAL, who, after his pro-life conversion, reminisced about the early days of the abortion movement. "I remember laughing when we made those slogans up," he said. "We were looking for some sexy, catchy slogans to capture public opinion. They were very cynical slogans then, just as all of these slogans today are very, very cynical."

These catchy slogans certainly did capture public opinion, as evidenced by President Obama's January 22nd announcement. Unfortunately, they will continue to exert enormous influence on the American public unless we start asking some difficult questions about what exactly "choice" means in practice.

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