By Sunsara Taylor
In the weeks leading up to Barack Obama’s delivery of the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, the national eye was drawn once again to the question of women’s right to abortion. Anti-abortion Catholics and Christian fundamentalists, many of whom have been at the heart of some of the most violent tactics against doctors, women and clinics, descended on the campus. They trespassed. They got arrested. They put up billboards. More than 70 bishops condemned Notre Dame’s decision.
However, on March 17, when graduation day finally arrived, Obama received a standing ovation upon entrance, a glowing introduction from the Catholic president of the university, and repeated cheers as he spoke.
In his speech, Obama called for “fair-minded words” on both sides of the abortion issue. He called on people to express their differences but not to demonize those who think differently than themselves. He called for “common ground” and pointed to where he felt this could be found, as well as some of the challenges he sees in achieving it.
To many, these were reasonable words. To many, the response to him by the overwhelming majority of the student body—together with a significant number of prominent Catholic figures—represents motion in a positive direction.
But, when Obama speaks of “common ground” on abortion, he is not standing on some neutral “middle ground”—he is accepting the terms of the anti-abortion movement and adapting aspects of a pro-choice position into that framework while gutting the heart of the abortion-rights position. In so doing, he is legitimizing and strengthening a viciously anti-woman program while both abandoning the much needed fight to expand access to abortion and birth control and giving up the moral and ideological basis on which the pro-choice position stands.
Much of what is wrong with Obama’s approach is concentrated in a few key sentences of Obama’s speech, where he speaks directly to the question of abortion:
“Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions. So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoptions more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term.”
First, and very importantly, abortion is not a “heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make.” A great many women are not conflicted at all about their abortions. Many feel relief and even joy at having their lives and their futures more fully back in their control.
This is as it should be. The simple fact is that a fetus is not a baby, it is a subordinate part of a woman’s body. A woman has no moral obligation to carry a fetus to term simply because she gets pregnant. And a woman who chooses at whatever point and for whatever reason to terminate a pregnancy, should feel fine about doing so and should be able to.
When it comes to abortion, there really is only one moral question: Will women be free to determine their own lives, including whether and when they will bear children, or will women be subjugated to patriarchal male authority and forced to breed against their will?
By denying the experience of the many women who feel positively about their abortions, Obama is undermining the legitimacy of this response and reinforcing all the many voices in society that tell women they should feel heart-wrenched for terminating a pregnancy.
As for the fact that many women do feel conflicted or even deeply guilty about getting an abortion, this doesn’t prove that abortion is a morally complex issue any more than the fact that many women feel guilty or ashamed after being raped makes rape a morally complex issue.
To understand where these feelings of guilt come from, where they do exist, it is necessary to pull back the lens from the individual woman to see the larger culture and forces shaping their responses.
Women have been told—for centuries in every major religion and almost every culture—that the most meaningful thing they will ever do is bear children. Women are conditioned—and expected—to plan their lives around when they will have children, and, once they do, to evaluate every major decision from the framework of how it will affect their children. Women who do not subordinate their own dreams and aspirations to the raising of their children are openly considered selfish and routinely demonized.
On top of this, there have been decades of relentless ideological assault on abortion that has been orchestrated from the highest levels of government and power. Women have been told that they are “murderers” if they choose to abort—by Christian fundamentalists at the doors of women’s clinics across the country, by talking heads on the major media and by blockbuster movies and TV dramas that invariably portray abortion, at “best,” as a desperate and regrettable act. Women have been told there is something wrong with them if they don’t feel guilty.
All this conditions the guilt that women feel, where that is part of their experience. But none of this means that there is anything about abortion that women should feel guilty about.
From here, Obama moves forward, stating that “common ground” can be found by working “together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions” and to “reduce unintended pregnancies.”
But, as I wrote previously, “To talk today of reducing the number of abortions is to talk about strengthening the chains on women. The goal should NOT be to reduce the number of abortions. The goal should be to break down the barriers that still exist in every sphere of society to women’s full and equal participation as emancipated human beings. In this society, right now, that means there will be—and therefore should be—more abortions.
“This is because there are many, many women who want abortions who are unable to get them due to the tremendous legal, social and economic obstacles that have been put in their way. These obstacles include parental notification laws, mandatory waiting periods, anti-abortion fake clinics that disorient and delay women, the fact that 84% of counties have no abortion providers at all, and countless other cruel and humiliating restrictions.”
Right now, as you read, real women’s lives are being foreclosed and degraded due to lack of accessible abortion services.
As for reducing unintended pregnancies, it would be truly wonderful if all young people received frank and scientific education about their bodies, their sexuality, and how to form healthy and mutually respectful emotional and physical relationships. It would be truly wonderful if birth control were widely and easily available and its use was popularized. This would be the best and most effective way to reduce unintended pregnancies. However, this is not something that the forces behind the “pro-life” movement will agree to. The same biblical scripture that drives these forces to try to force women to carry every pregnancy to term, also drives them to oppose birth control. There is not a single “pro-life” organization that supports birth control.
At its core and from its inception the “pro-life” movement has been driven by the biblical mandate that women must leave it up to god to decide how many children they have. This mandate is rooted in the Christian mythology of “original sin” and its repercussions.
As the Bible tells it, “god” created man (Adam) first, and then made a woman (Eve) out of his rib. These two lived in innocent bliss in the “Garden of Eden” until a serpent tempted Eve and Eve tempted Adam to eat the “forbidden fruit.” For this “original sin,” Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise and ever since—so the myth goes—mankind has had an evil nature which has led to all the horrors humankind has inflicted on each other ever since.
Flowing from this—and central to the “right-to-life” movement—a special additional curse is put on women. Right there, in Genesis, the “Lord” is quoted as saying to women, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Later, the Bible articulates that women can only redeem themselves by submitting to men and bearing children: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, providing they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” (1 Timothy 2: 13-15)
There can be no “common ground” with this view, even in the aim of preventing unwanted pregnancies. And, by seeking to find “common ground” here, Obama is just moving the ball further down the court towards enforced motherhood; he is leading pro-choice people away from the fight that needs to be waged for abortion while at the same time setting the stage for another losing battle around sex education and birth control.
What’s perhaps even more outrageous is the fact that Obama—rather than challenging the mandate embedded within the “original sin” mythology that women become obedient breeders—himself cites and legitimates this farcical and very harmful myth. Earlier in his speech, Obama offers a non-explanation as to why “common ground” is often hard to find between, among others, “the soldier and the lawyer” who “both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm” and between “the gay activist and the evangelical pastor” who “both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts.” He says, “part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of men—our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin.”
No. “Common ground” is not hard to find because we demonize those who are fighting to subjugate women, those carrying out torture and war crimes against detainees, or those who want to deny fundamental rights to gay people. “Common ground” is not difficult to find because we have big egos or are too prideful or insecure.
“Common ground” is difficult to find because those who uphold women’s right to abortion are coming from a point of view that is completely antagonistic to those who are trying to take away this right. In the same way, those who condemn torture are coming from a view that is antagonistic to justifying, covering up and continuing that torture. And those who recognize the basic rights and humanity of gay people as well as the need for real education about safe sex are coming from a view that is completely antagonistic to the biblical motivation that sees any sex outside of procreation as an abomination.
As I stated earlier, there is no such thing as a “neutral middle ground” between antagonistic positions. Even the illusion of “common ground” can only be achieved when one side capitulates to the terms of the other side. This is exactly what Obama has done.
When it comes to abortion, the “common ground” Obama is putting forward is one where everyone accepts the notion that there is something morally wrong with abortion and where the legitimacy and the very existence of women who are perfectly okay with their abortions is erased. At a time when abortion is very hard to access for a great many women and the freedom to abort is undermined by the mountain of guilt and shame that is heaped on women for even considering this option, Obama’s “common ground” is one which abandons the fight for abortion access and retreats instead to a rear-guard battle to reduce unintended pregnancies without ever even mentioning birth control.
Finally, Obama tips his hat entirely to the anti-abortion position when he says we can unite to “provide care and support for women who do carry their child to term.” Here, in one phrase he accepts the unscientific, anti-abortion rhetoric that refers to fetuses as children. Flowing from this, a woman who chooses to terminate is killing her “child.”
In many ways, the approach Obama has taken to abortion—and what he mapped out in his speech—could prove even more dangerous to women’s rights and women’s lives than the religious fascists who were gathered at the gate. This is because Obama is dragging along many women and men who ought to know better—who, if there were outright attacks on the legality of abortion very well might be up in arms, but who are being lullabied to sleep by Obama’s calm and reasonable tone as he barters away women’s fundamental rights.
It is imperative that people see this speech, and Obama’s position overall, for what it truly is. It is not a reasonable middle ground, but a step-by-step waltz into a world with fewer and fewer rights for women and less and less ground to stand on to resist. It is urgent that people bring forward a new framework: one that values the lives of women above fetuses, one that sees the positive value in women being enabled to live full social lives including by controlling their own reproduction, one that recognizes that this is good for society as a whole.