Criminalizing Abortion Prevents Compassionate Choices | Sojourners

Criminalizing Abortion Prevents Compassionate Choices

Image credit: Milo Weiler.
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Essential political debate about abortion rights occurs in the shadow of the deeply personal, vulnerable, and life-or-death nature of questions surrounding pregnancy and abortion. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, abortion rights conversations have become more important than ever. The court’s ruling denied a pregnant person’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. I believe the best way to approach the ethical questions surrounding the termination of pregnancy is through concrete, non-judgmental support of pregnant people to make the most compassionate possible choice in their own situation. Beyond simply supporting someone’s “right to choose,” it is also necessary to create communities and political systems that help people make more authentic and compassionate choices. This approach offers ethical frameworks that have pro-choice policy implications but also engage the insights of certain pro-life activists, such as those practicing meaningful, ongoing support for pregnant people.

The pro-life movement, at its best, takes the form of activists forming real relationships and engaging in mutual aid to meet the needs of pregnant people, who may then decide against abortions. I also value the commitment of groups like Rehumanize International — a group that advocates for a “consistent life ethic” — which emphasizes the principle that “no one is disposable.” My own view that people are not disposable also informs my opposition to prisons and punishment! Positively speaking, my commitment to the sacredness of life causes me to imagine a society that invests in care and well-being, including disability justice, rather than policing and prisons (to borrow the language of #8ToAbolition), and that provides meaningful pathways that avoid punishment and emphasize accountability when harm is done.

Another group I believe is committed to the preservation of life and the non-disposability of persons, from a pro-choice perspective, is the Jewish activist organization the National Council of Jewish Women, who show their commitment to the sacredness of life by taking seriously the importance of bodily autonomy. The National Council of Jewish Women understands that pregnancy poses unique risks to pregnant people and advocates for access to abortion when needed. There are times where abortion is needed due to medical complications that arise during pregnancy. In those times, the role of the community in supporting compassionate choices should be this: ensuring a pregnant person can obtain all necessary medical care and providing emotional support for what can be a painful decision.

Opposing “disposability” with respect to human beings, in other words, requires flexibility in addressing abortion. Addressing abortion with flexibility is impossible when people fear being criminalized for making difficult decisions.

This flexibility is not found within the rigidity of U.S. abortion laws. Our legislation around abortion does not honor individual stories or provide supportive communities to help deepen people’s understanding of what it means to be free to choose. What I mean by “free to choose” is developing the greatest possible capacity to make a decision that reflects one’s authentic values and self — not one driven by external constraints such as the legality or illegality of abortion, poverty, an unsafe living situation, lack of health care, or by internal constraints such as fear, shame, ableism, or unaddressed trauma.

I am not saying that pregnant people only choose abortions because of circumstances that can be changed. I believe abortion can be the most compassionate choice in a given situation. What I am saying is that taking seriously the gravity of choices around abortion means admitting that it is not always the most compassionate choice; understanding how to choose compassionately requires recognizing and addressing the social, moral, and psychological factors that affect the choices we make.

Communally-supported decision making

Our societal response to abortion should be grounded in a framework that helps people make compassionate choices. Compassionate choices are dependent on a person’s access to supportive communities as well as the ability to meet their material needs. Supporting a greater capacity to make authentic and compassionate choices will require us to build support structures for making choices in community.

The truth that we make better choices in community with others is recognized across a variety of contexts — from 12-Step groups to restorative-justice models like to religious discernment processes that rely on circle processes, such as Quaker “clearness committees.” Trustworthy and nonjudgmental spaces for exploring our own values help us develop the capacity to make more authentic choices. The reality that we are interdependent — a reality recognized both by pro-life Catholics and disability justice advocates — means that our choices affect each other. We honor such interconnection when we understand choice as a communal action and build communal spaces of support for compassionate choice-making.

Ultimately, I am opposed to criminalizing abortion because criminalization gets in the way of the communal support that is necessary to aid people in making decisions on the serious question of whether to terminate a pregnancy. Criminalizing abortions only forces those seeking abortions into carrying out the procedure in secrecy. For those looking to have honest and transparent conversations about terminating a pregnancy, criminalization prevents these conversations, which impedes compassionate decision-making.

Fear and shame reduce our capacity to make free choices. For example, we’ve seen how criminalizing drug use increases stigma, secrecy, and shame. Choices made out of fear or shame are not choices made from authentic moral reasoning. If breaking the law is required in order for pregnant people to exercise their agency in making a choice, they will be unable to access the support systems and resources necessary for making the most compassionate choice.

Therefore, we must oppose policies and practices that make it harder to make informed and supported choices, including any laws restricting or criminalizing abortion, as well as laws requiring physicians to give inaccurate information to people seeking abortions. Policies like this reduce access to abortion or information about abortion. Specifically, when it comes to people in poverty who are considering abortion, both access to abortion and access to services that might help the parent raise the child are out of reach.

When a lack of resources drives the choice to terminate a pregnancy, that choice is not a free, compassionate choice. This is well expressed by the “reproductive justice” movement, a Black-led movement that seeks to protect “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” This holistic perspective emphasizes “access, not choice” and “centers the most marginalized.” The emphasis on access in reproductive justice recognizes that “choice” is not sufficient without addressing the restrictive circumstances that make authentic or free choices impossible. Whether the restrictions that undermine compassionate decision-making are imposed by law or systemic inequalities such as poverty, the moral imperative to support careful, compassionate decision-making should drive public policy away from any such restrictions.

Support, not prohibition

Seeking an abortion due to fear of parenting a disabled child is neither a compassionate choice nor a free choice. While ableism can sometimes drive a decision to terminate a pregnancy, other times a person seeks an abortion if they know the child will be disabled because they feel ill-equipped to raise that child. Again, support, rather than prohibition, is necessary to promote compassionate decision-making. As disability rights advocates Alexa Kolbi-Molinas and Susan Mizner argue, prohibition of abortions based on prenatal diagnoses of disability “does not ensure that pregnant people are given information, resources, and support to raise their children — including children with Down syndrome (or any other disability) — with dignity.” The two note that prohibition does not address discrimination or provide necessary services and accommodations.

A framework of compassionate decision-making offers opportunities for pro-choice and pro-life people to find practical common ground. Pro-choice and pro-life advocates can work together to promote a culture of care and equity by addressing barriers to parenting — such as poverty, lack of safe housing and health care, and failures of systems of care and accessibility for disabled people — and by encouraging honest and non-judgmental conversations about abortion. This will help pregnant people make compassionate choices.

How can we build intentional spaces where pregnant people considering abortion can find supportive, nonjudgmental community to help them process their fears, trauma, hopes, dreams, and difficult decisions? How can we build spaces and cultures where people can find support to be accountable for their own choices, which includes being empowered to make choices and take responsibility for their effects? I believe such spaces are a moral necessity; for Christians I believe that building these spaces is a part of provoking “one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). This is not done by rules, guilt or shame, but through non-judgmental support.

Ultimately, policies that enforce criminalization, inequity, secrecy, and shame around abortion degrade human life even as they seek to protect it. Building communities that encourage transparency, support, empowerment, and responsibility around making compassionate choices in pregnancy offers a way forward that honors human dignity.

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