Opinion |

What’s So Liberal About Abortions?

Abortion means ending human life; even if it's sometimes a necessary evil, it can't be a liberal and feminist symbol

Irit Linur
Irit Linur
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Demonstrators hold signs while marching towards Trump Tower during the Women's March in New York, U.S., on  Jan. 21, 2017.
Demonstrators hold signs while marching towards Trump Tower during the Women's March in New York, U.S., on Jan. 21, 2017. Credit: Jeenah Moon, Bloomberg
Irit Linur
Irit Linur

An article in last week’s Haaretz Magazine (in Hebrew) bore the dramatic headline, “How the populist right in Europe is threatening women’s basic right to abortion.” As one would expect from such a title, a close connection was implied between abortions and liberalism and freedom. Women’s existential need for abortions was also strongly conveyed – despite the fact that in Western countries, various types of contraception are widely available and abortions necessitated by danger to the mother’s life or suspected congenital defects are legal. But abortion has attained a symbolic status in the enlightened West beyond being necessary for health or as a last resort. Abortion has come to represent freedom, the right to choose and personal physical autonomy. As if there were no more responsible or less traumatic ways to achieve all three of the above – like, for instance, having protected sex.

In this country, public outcries about abortion are not too common. The birth rate in Israel is higher than in the EU countries and the rate of abortions is the lowest, after Croatia. In 2014, approximately 18,000 abortions were performed here, about half among women who became pregnant outside of marriage – i.e., unmarried women, or married women who conceived with a man other than their husband (or so they claimed). One-fifth fell under the category of “danger to the woman’s health,” and less than one-10th of those undergoing the procedure were either minors or older women. (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported similar data.) In other words – women who need an abortion for reasons of age, rape or congenital defects will get it, and with state funding. In Israel, the Health Ministry committees on pregnancy termination approve 98 percent of the requests they receive.

Ministry data from 2010 show that half of the requests came from unmarried women, that half of those who submitted requests had not used contraception, and that for approximately a third of them it was not their first abortion.

In the West, the typical woman getting an abortion is not the extreme case touted by pro-choice advocates – i.e., cases of impoverished 13-year-olds who are raped by their brothers. Nor do the numbers indicate that more than a small proportion of legal abortions are sought as a matter of the baby’s life versus the mother’s death or intolerable existence. Nevertheless, abortion has become a liberal and feminist symbol.

It’s a difficult symbol, because of its association with death. For, even if abortion is sometimes a necessary evil, it’s still evil. In a moral world, terminating a life cannot and should not be considered an essentially good thing. Even if we accept the prevalent medical and philosophical view that a 12-week-old fetus (the stage before which roughly half of abortions are performed) is not a person and therefore does not have human rights – a serious intellectual effort is still required to completely negate its humanity. Pregnant women thrill over their first ultrasound image and show it off like a baby picture. It’s very hard to look at the exact same picture and see only a worthless collection of cells and tissues, because the mother isn’t interested in keeping it.

Maybe a fetus isn’t a person, but it’s also not entirely a non-person, and yet it does not receive sufficient protection from Western feminists. In the Women’s March in Washington that followed Donald Trump’s inauguration, the right to abortion was one of the main topics. One of the speakers even wore a sweatshirt printed with a pattern made up of the word “abortion” and hearts, as if abortion were something one could love on the level of a slogan on a T-shirt.

I don’t want abortion to be outlawed. I’m pro-choice and pro-life, pro-women and pro-babies, but I believe that the human fetus at the very least deserves the kind of serious discussion that is acceptable when it comes to chickens. In 2011, a series of well-known Israeli women (Miki Haimovich, Orna Banai and Yardena Arazi, among others) were photographed with baby chicks to protest the egg industry’s cruel practice of disposing of male chicks in a grinding machine. The participants in these ads were all women, to underscore the connection between chicks and motherhood. The widely covered campaign made a resounding impression, and you didn’t have to be sold on their message to see that the women were aiming to convey compassion and conscience. Had these same women taken part in a campaign against the grinding up of healthy fetuses – would they be ascribed compassion and conscience, or primitiveness and misogyny?

I suspect that even the most enthusiastic abortion advocates know that a human fetus is a lot more of a person than is comfortable for them to admit. Otherwise, they wouldn’t resort to such euphemisms when discussing the subject. They, too, may want to squirm when facing the fact that abortion means ending human life. But the term “pregnancy termination” presents pregnancy and abortion as a female and personal physical condition that has no connection to another human creature. Thus they have to fight against the very existence of pregnancy-termination committees (as Meretz and the Israel Women’s Lobby have been doing), and portray the abortion-seeker as a weakened victim, rather than as an ordinary woman who may have acted irresponsibly, and who may be in distress, and who might even change her mind if offered some assistance and guidance. So they feel compelled to oppose the possibility of offering help and presenting alternatives – even though, rather than diminish women’s autonomy, this would increase it by providing a wider range of choices.

The phrase “a woman’s right to her body” also embodies an attempt to ignore the fetus’ total dependence on the mother’s body for survival. A pregnant woman’s body does not belong just to her. This may seem like outrageous discrimination, but that’s the way it is. This dependence does not grant her an unlimited right to kill the fetus, and most countries do in fact place restrictions on this, primarily after the first trimester. This is humane and appropriate and just, and has nothing to do with coercion but rather with acknowledgment of reality and its practical and moral implications.

While I don’t feel comfortable with abortion, and regret the way it has been turned into a feminist symbol, my aim is not for the government to take control of women’s bodies, but to argue on behalf of the right to life of another human who had the misfortune to be conceived in the womb of a woman who does not want him. You can talk to me about basic human rights all you want, but I’ll never be persuaded that abortion is on a moral and emotional par with the removal of an appendix.

Irit Linur is an Israeli journalist, author and radio host.

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