Misconceiving Reproductive Rights: The Crucial Difference Between "Pro-Choice" and "Pro-Abortion"

By SHERRY F. COLB
Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2006

However a person feels about abortion, no one disputes that controversy over this issue persists to this day. The Supreme Court has weighed in repeatedly, drawing lines beyond which regulation must not go, but Congress and state legislatures have continued to push on the envelope, and they will likely be doing so for years to come. From parental involvement statutes and resistance to "morning-after-pill" availability, to attempts at outright prohibition of abortion, the battle rages on many fronts, and no one can reliably predict where we will be a decade from now.

A great deal depends on how the public responds to the advocates on either side and how successfully each frames the terms of the debate. At the most basic level, those who support abortion rights call themselves "pro-choice," and those who oppose abortion rights refer to themselves as "pro-life." This difference in nomenclature is significant; the implicit alternative positions are, respectively, "anti-choice" and "pro-death." And sometimes, advocates on each side can be their own worst enemies in conforming their views to the characterizations of their opponents.

This column will take up the question of what distinguishes the person who is truly "pro-choice" from the person who is more accurately described as "pro-death" or, in less inflammatory terms, "pro-abortion."

Is It Contradictory for an Abortion Doctor to Be a Mother?

Two weeks ago, in the New York Times Book Review, reviewer Danielle Trussoni discussed a novel, "The Abortionist's Daughter" by Elisabeth Hyde. In summarizing and assessing the merits of the work, Trussoni focused on the "abortionist" of the title - Diana Duprey - a doctor who had performed abortions and who becomes a victim of murder early in the story. Trussoni said of Dr. Duprey that "[s]he's as contradictory as the abortion debate itself." Why? In part because "[a]lthough [Dr. Duprey] fought for abortion rights, she decided to carry to term her own damaged child, a son she knew would be born retarded."

If the pro-choice side of the abortion conflict is to avoid losing support over time, it must address the confusion that leads some people (including the reviewer above) to conclude erroneously that a doctor who helps others terminate their unwanted pregnancies is somehow living a contradiction if she declines a eugenic abortion for herself,.

A doctor who supports reproductive freedom by performing abortions neither is, nor should be, involved in dictating to patients when they ought to terminate a pregnancy. And, for the same reasons, the doctor's own pregnancy and its destiny must belong equally to her. One might even suppose that it would go without saying that the right to choose to have an abortion is entirely consistent with the right to choose not to. For the fictional "abortionist" to decide to keep her own baby, in other words, no matter what the circumstances might be, in no way discredits her pro-choice credentials.

The view that of all people, the doctor who performs abortions, especially, ought to terminate her own troubled pregnancy is probably not that uncommon. The book reviewer's comment surely resonated with many readers as describing something that was, at a minimum, ironic, or even perverse - like a description of a cancer surgeon who opts not to have his own malignant tumor removed. Yet that view reveals a disturbing tendency to confuse the "pro-choice" position with a very different, if overlapping, agenda -- one that could cast disrepute on the pro-choice movement as a whole.

Eugenic Abortion

When a woman who is trying to conceive learns that she is pregnant, it is a cliché but no less true that her first thought - after delighting in the news - is to hope and pray for a healthy baby. Once assured of health, she might prefer a girl to a boy, or a blonde to a redhead, but health - by which people mean freedom from disease as well as from disability - is the foremost priority in the mind of virtually every mother-to-be.

Though there are few certainties in life, moreover, one can detect some genetic disabilities in advance through an amniocentesis or other diagnostic measure. This is true, for example, in most cases of Down Syndrome, a condition, caused by an extra copy of part or all of the twenty-first chromosome, that results in varying degrees of mental retardation and other health problems (including a shortened average lifespan).

A woman who learns that she is carrying a Down Syndrome baby might choose to terminate her pregnancy. Raising a child who is sick or disabled is unquestionably difficult and often heartbreaking, especially when the disability shortens a person's life and forces his parents to face the loss of a beloved child while they are still on this earth. Accordingly, it should not be hard to understand when a woman confronting this prospect opts for an abortion.

Nonetheless, there are people who make a different choice, perhaps because they love the growing baby within them so much that they prefer not to give him up, even in the face of painful challenges. One could call this feeling "unconditional love." At the same time, many people who suffer from Down Syndrome and other serious disabilities say that they are happy to be alive. The question whether to carry such a pregnancy to term is therefore hardly an easy one.

All that a pro-choice person should say about the decision is simply that it belongs to the pregnant woman. To suggest instead that it is contradictory for a woman to support abortion rights and nonetheless to take a troubled pregnancy to term, is to confuse the position that abortion should be permissible with the notion that a child who will have birth defects ought to be aborted. The latter position, however, represents an embrace of eugenics rather than of reproductive freedom.

To imply that abortion in the case of a Down Syndrome pregnancy is an "easy case" is wrong, in part because it treats abortion as a trivial and morally innocuous event. The flawed but all too common logic of the position is this: Almost any person would prefer for her child to be healthy rather than unhealthy, if she had a choice. Therefore, given the option of terminating an unhealthy one (and of going on to conceive a healthy one later), any sane pro-choice person would grab the chance.

If we acknowledge that terminating the life of a fetus is a morally significant and emotionally wrenching event, however, it is no longer "contradictory" to believe that the choice should remain with the woman and yet simultaneously, as a woman, to choose to stay pregnant. Rather than finding such a choice puzzling or irrational, we might instead view it as admirable.

The Uninterested "Father"

A very different circumstance gives rise to related confusion about what it means to be pro-choice. Every day, men and women who will soon part ways have sex with each other. In some fraction of these couplings, the woman conceives. If she hopes to remain pregnant, then when she tells the man of her situation, she will predictably confront a conflict. Though she wants to keep the baby, her former boyfriend is likely to be strongly opposed.

In one woman's case, which recently came to my attention, the ex-boyfriend said that that if the woman went ahead with her pregnancy, he would have nothing to do with their child. He added that he would offer no financial support at all (a legally unsupportable threat, as I have elaborated in an earlier column). The man remarked too that since his ex-girlfriend thought of herself as very pro-choice, he believed it to be ironic and bizarre that she would consider keeping her baby after the two of them had broken up.

The "irony" here, however, is as imaginary as it was in the Down Syndrome context. The woman in question presumably felt that only a person who is pregnant should get to decide whether to remain that way. That is what made her describe herself - accurately - as "pro-choice." But as a particular pregnant woman under a specific set of circumstances, she wanted to keep her baby - that was her choice. Her ex-boyfriend, by pressuring her to terminate a pregnancy that she wanted to continue, thus violated her freedom of choice, albeit under the ironic banner of being a "pro-choice" man.

Unwanted Abortions: How Pressure Gives Pro-Life Advocates Ammunition

Supporters of legalized abortion come in many stripes. Some are sincerely committed to a woman's freedom to decide whether and when to nurture life inside her body. But others may simply want various abortions to occur. Some perhaps hold the repugnant view that abortion of the disabled or of those who would not be born into a nuclear family, is a good way to improve the vigor of the human race or the "moral character" of our society. And some may be men who simply want sexual access to women without any risk of paternal obligation - that is, men who truly want to use abortion as a form of birth control. Whatever the motive, it is most unfortunate when such people describe themselves as "pro-choice."

The description is not only inaccurate, as I have explained, but it tends to bolster the arguments of those who oppose legal access to abortion. Such opponents claim, often pretextually, that women are not freely choosing their destiny but are instead being pressured into terminating their pregnancies. Indeed, many pro-life websites emphasize this very message.

To sustain the side that gives women the option to go ahead with a pregnancy or terminate, it is crucial that "choice" not become a euphemism for abortion. And when a woman wishes to remain pregnant, in the face of trying and challenging circumstances, she should be not only be allowed to make this decision, but she should be supported as well - even (and just as strongly) if, to paraphrase from the pro-life bumper sticker, she "chooses life."


Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is Professor and Frederick B. Lacey Scholar at Rutgers Law School in Newark. Her other columns may be found in the archive of her work on this site.