What the pro-life movement doesn't talk about
I don’t know about you, but recently I have had to mute the news app notifications on my phone. Feeling a buzz, thinking I got a text, and being met with a doomsday headline about the state of women’s bodily autonomy in the US is starting to wear on me. Generally, when we talk about “choice” in a women’s health context, we think of the legality of abortion. Giving women a choice when it comes to their health, specifically their reproductive health, is much more complex than a federal or state law on abortion. And, abortion bans are much more layered than we may think.
What does it mean to be pro-choice? According to Planned Parenthood, “People who identify as pro-choice believe that everyone has the basic human right to decide when and whether to have children.” This is the key piece of the definition: one’s autonomy over their own body to make the choice whether or not they want a child. One of my professors in college explained reproductive justice as “a soda can.” Like on an aluminum can, there are not simply “sides'' to this topic. There are an infinite number of ways to look at it and factors to consider. Reproductive justice is not simply “pro-choice” or “pro-birth” but also giving women who want to have children the bodily autonomy to do so.
Let’s get real about abortion. Whether abortion is legal or illegal, people will still need, seek out, and access abortion. Did you know every year a quarter of pregnancies end in abortion? When abortion is illegal and unregulated, it becomes dangerous and even deadly. According to the WHO, “unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide and lead to an additional five million largely preventable disabilities.” There are many reasons women seek out abortions including medical necessity, financial circumstance, age, health, marital status, and ability to care for children. It is estimated that around 60 percent of people who get abortions already have children.
The reality is that abortion bans disproportionately affect marginalized people. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about half of those seeking abortions live below the poverty line, 75 percent are low income, and over 60 percent are people of color. Many people of color, including a majority of Black Americans, live in the south. Southern states uphold the most restrictive abortion bans. Women living in poverty in those states (reminder: over half of women getting abortions) will struggle to get an abortion without the resources (money) to leave the state.
So, what do abortion bans really look like when enacted? Earlier this month, a Texas appeals court ruled that “Texas hospitals cannot be required to perform emergency abortions to stabilize the life of a patient.” Essentially, Texas will let women die before they grant them an abortion. And this is the pro-life agenda. The irony. TIME details the story of a seventh grader in Mississippi who was raped, got pregnant, and was forced to give birth because of the abortion bans in her state. This child should have been given the choice not to become a pre-teen mother. The pro-life movement proves again to be inherently anti-life.
What is forced sterilization? Abortion bans have risen all over the US, taking away a woman’s right to not have children. But, what about someone’s right to HAVE children. “Forced sterilization is the involuntary or coerced removal of a person’s ability to reproduce.” And the US has a plethora of experience with it.
In 1927 the Supreme Court heard a case known as Buck vs. Bell. In a vote of 8 to 1 they upheld a state’s right to forcibly sterilize a person deemed unfit to procreate. This sparked the eugenics movement. Upwards of one hundred thousand Americans were forcibly sterilized during the 20th century. They were stripped of their reproductive organs for all kinds of reasons like being deaf, blind, diseased, or “mentally deficient.” Unsurprisingly, people of color and the poor were especially targeted.
The 1973 case, Relf vs. Weinberger, tells the story of the 12 and 14-year-old Relf sisters, Black girls who were surgically sterilized against their will by a federally funded clinic in Alabama. “The district court found an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 poor people were sterilized annually under federally funded programs,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, who worked tirelessly on this case. Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf were just children when they were brutally forced to give up their right to have their own children one day. They are not the only ones.
Inexcusably, forced sterilization is not a thing of the past. As of 2021, 31 states plus Washington, D.C., have laws allowing forced sterilization. More than half of states allow the government to non-consensually remove someone's reproductive organs. And yet, this escapes the conversation when it comes to being pro-choice.
We are living in a country where the federal government physically and surgically prevents the disabled from having babies. Our government has historically robbed people of color of the ability to bear children. Today, our government will force a 12-year-old girl, who was raped, to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth. It will also deprive a mother (making $7.25 an hour working 3 jobs to raise her children) of the right to terminate the pregnancy of another child that she cannot care for. Not to mention, our messy foster care and adoption systems. Our government does not give women a choice about their healthcare, their bodies, and in turn, their lives.
Pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion. Pro-CHOICE means giving women a choice. Being pro-choice is intrinsically pro-life: it places value on the lives that already exist on this earth. If you are worried about life in America, consider championing causes that do not strip humans of their bodily autonomy. Please encourage comprehensive sex-ed, support social programs that help mothers in poverty and children in foster care, rally for gun control, and keep abortion legal. Being pro-choice saves lives.