What follows is a post that, unlike many of my posts, is not any way playful or joking. It is completely serious and I put incredible thought and effort into writing it. If, after reading the first paragraph or two, you decide that you would rather not read the rest, I understand and would only ask that you scroll down to the section labeled "Choice in my own life" and read that.
Today, January 22, 2006, I’m going to do something that will surprise some of you. It may shock some of you. It certainly has the potential to disappoint, offend and even upset some of you. While I will be sorry if you are disappointed, I hope that you won’t stop reading this blog entirely. I also hope you will respect what I have to say.
Today marks the 33rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. As an avid reader of Feministing.com, when I saw the open call for bloggers to participate in their Blog for Choice Day, I knew it was time.
Today I am “coming out,” as it were, as a person who supports the Pro-Choice Movement. You should understand that it has taken me a very, very long time to come to this conclusion. I wrestled with conflicting feelings about morality and social justice for many years because I was a person who would never want to have an abortion, and who would never counsel my friends and/or loved ones to do so unless absolutely necessary.
I know what many of you who know me must be thinking…how could I, who am now 7 months pregnant…how could I feel this way? I can assure you that it has been with significant consideration, research and introspection that I have reached this position. Let me explain.
Where I work, we see women every day who live in situations ranging from unfortunate and disadvantaged to truly desperate and terrible. Some of these women have been sexually and/or physically abused, sometimes repeatedly throughout their lives, often by the individuals they should have been able to trust most. Some of them are inescapably poor with no education, no job and no prospects. Some of them abuse drugs and/or alcohol. Some of them are young, still in school and still children themselves. They have upset and disappointed their families who then abandoned them just as the father of the child has abandoned them, leaving them to face pregnancy and motherhood virtually all alone. Many of these women believe they are in no shape physically, socially or mentally to carry or parent a child. It is my firm belief that we must respect the fact that they understand their own situations and personal limitations better than we do. As free citizens of this county, we must respect them as capable, decision-making adults, even if it means giving them the benefit of the doubt sometimes.
It is a common misconception that “pro-choice” is synonymous with “pro-abortion.” I have never in my life heard of anybody who was pro-abortion or who got pregnant just so she could have one. Nobody wants to have an abortion. Nobody. Nobody is proud to have had one. Make no mistake: whether or not to have an abortion is an awful choice to have to make. Nobody wants to make it. People who choose it view it as the better alternative for themselves. What does that tell us about their other options?
Some people would say that having an abortion is “taking the easy way out.” I disagree. People who choose abortion have almost always made an incredibly difficult decision. Many of them will live with sorrow and regret for the rest of their lives. Many of them will never, ever forget the day they put their decision into action and many of them will observe the child’s would-be birthday for the rest of their lives. I fail to understand how this could ever, in any way, be construed as “easy.” Clearly, people who claim this to be the “easy way” have no understanding of the complexities these women face in their life situations. Rather, they sit in judgment, seeing the world from only their own perspective. I’m not sure whether that’s fortunate or sad for them.
I would gladly cheer the day when abortion was no longer a necessary alternative in our society. That day, however, is a long way off. Before we can even consider eliminating abortion as an option, we must first give women better options. If we provided women with better alternatives to abortion, there would be no need to outlaw it. For me, being pro-choice means that I support giving women as many positive, healthy choices as possible. If we gave women several good alternatives, they wouldn’t need to look to tragic alternatives such as abortion. There are numerous improvements our society must make in order to put in place better options for women carrying unwanted pregnancies. It is my unwavering belief that, by choosing to simply condemn women as selfish and immoral instead of making these societal changes and putting the social programs in place to help them, our society takes the easy way out. These changes include, but are not limited to, the following:
Scientifically based, accurate sex education:
It is fundamentally unfair for our society to first deny young women (and men) the opportunity to learn the entire, scientific truth about sex and then castigate or condemn them for not understanding or planning for the consequences of it. The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy of any country in the developed world. Experts say that restriction to sex-ed, contraception, and condoms fuel this rate, while in European countries (who have less than half of the amount of teen pregnancies) teens are educated about and given confidential access to contraceptives. Government funding of abstinence-only programs has existed for well over 20 years. This past year, the Bush administration provided nearly $170 million to fund groups that teach abstinence only.
Recent studies compiled by the U.S. Congress report that not only are abstinence-only programs not giving students the whole truth, they are giving them boatloads of untruths. Many students participating in federally funded abstinence-only programs have been told outright lies, such as that abortion can lead to sterility and suicide, that half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus, and that touching a person's genitals can result in pregnancy. Though these programs are heavily subsidized by the federal government, the information given to students often directly contradicts the findings of government scientists.
Teens who learn about sex in abstinence-only programs refrain from having sex by an average of only two weeks longer than those who learn in comprehensive programs. In addition, 88% of teens who have taken “virginity pledges” still end up having pre-marital sex. The major problem, however, is that when these teens do have sex, they often fail to use safe contraceptives because they haven’t been taught about them. They are also more than twice as likely as conventionally educated students to experiment with “non-intercourse” forms of sex, such as oral and anal sex.
Though parents, education administrators, politicians and conservative interest groups claim that sex education encourages kids to have sex, studies have found that students in a comprehensive, scientifically-based sex-ed classroom do not become sexually active more often or earlier, and they use contraception more consistently, giving them better protection from both pregnancy and STDs. The simple truth is that we make tremendous efforts to keep students ignorant about sex and contraceptives and then condemn them when they become pregnant and choose not to deal with it how we might like them to.
One final thought: if these kids don’t learn about contraceptives at home, and they don’t learn about them in school, where can we expect them to learn about them?
Enforcement of paternity and child support:
It is far too easy in this country for a young woman to get pregnant and for the male who helped to get her that way to just disappear. Even “intelligent design” supporters acknowledge that human beings are made up of two sets of thirteen chromosomes and that half of those come from the “father.” Without his contribution, there would be no baby. And yet, all too often, because of the biological determination that females bear offspring, the father is able to simply walk away while the mother is left to handle the consequences alone. Too often, by the time the child is born, the father disappears, escaping his fair share of the consequences of their actions. I see absolutely no reason why, in this technological day and age, the responsibilities of paternity (such as paying child support) should be allowed to evaporate into the air. It is widely acknowledged that our current system is over-stressed, proof that the problem is enormous. It is categorically unfair to hold only the female partner responsible for the results of a mutual sexual encounter. It is far, far more unfair to hold a survivor of rape, abuse and/or incest responsible for a child when she was given no choice in the creation of the child. In fact, she is pregnant because of one of the most intimate and horrific personal violations known to humankind.
Because women are so often left to bear the brunt of child-rearing alone under our current system for enforcing child support, it is also critical that we develop better social programs to support both single moms and women everywhere. Deciding to keep a baby rather than to abort it becomes much easier when the mother can depend on programs that offer decent health care, rent and utilities subsidies and subsidized daycare. We cannot first say that a woman must carry a child to term and then say that she ought not to have chosen to have a child if her life was so challenging. That’s hypocritical.
The state of Michigan has many supports available to both single mothers and families who need assistance and who quality financially. That support, while looking fantastic on paper, is often unavailable to those who need it most because of loopholes in the way the law is written. Recently, I tried an experiment with the electronic Michigan Assistance and Referral Service (MARS) online to see what a typical single mother is able to get via public assistance. Here are my stats for the purpose of this experiment:
Hypothetically, I am a single mother, 28 years old, with a 4 year old dependant male child. We are both on Medicaid and have no disabilities or chronic medical problems. I do not smoke, drink excessively or have any social life to speak of. If I made minimum wage, that would be less than $11,000 per year…a sum I think we can all agree is ridiculous. So let’s say I make above minimum wage and am able to bring home $15,000 per year (A little over $7 per hour) before taxes. Since I have lost contact with the father of my child and his child support payments are not currently being enforced, I have no other supplemental income. I pay $600 per month for an apartment that includes heat, water, cooking fuel and trash removal. Because my child is 4 years old and not yet in school, I pay $25 per day for daycare. (This is the rate for the daycare owned by the nonprofit I work at.) That’s about $500 per month (or $6,000 per year).
According to MARS, my child is eligible for WIC (food vouchers) and that is all. I am not eligible for WIC, childcare subsidy or any kind of rent/utility assistance. I now have $1,250 per month to pay for rent ($600), daycare ($500), other utilities (phone, maybe cable TV), food and household items, my car and car insurance payment (so I can get to work), and basic needs for myself and my child such as clothing.
You may have caught on that my rent and daycare alone totaled $1,100…leaving only $150 for the entire month to pay for telephone; food for myself and for what WIC does not provide for my son; toiletries and basic cleaning items; and incidentals such as sheets, towels and clothing. I probably cannot afford my car – I will have to bum rides to work from friends and co-workers and hope that I can make it on time and don’t get fired for being late or absent. And I cannot afford things like books or toys for my child. (Click here to try MARS for yourself)
Explain to me how we can unequivocally state that, for this woman, this was the better choice. We do not live her life. We do not walk in her shoes. Most of us don’t know what it feels like to spend 40+ hours per week doing jobs that the rest of the country consider beneath them. We cannot know how difficult this life is for her. And yet we tell her that she should choose it as the better alternative. How do we know? The truth is that we don’t know…we just presume to.
Choice in my own life:
I’m sure many of you never knew this, but I have faced making a decision about abortion in my own life. About 10 months ago, Owen and I had all but given up on ever having a child of our own and were looking towards adoption. We’d just had devastating information from a reproductive endocrinologist, informing us that we would never conceive without the aid of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Because of the cost of the procedure (anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000) we knew that, at best, we would only be able to try it once. The success rate for IVF is poor; many people must try more than once or twice for it to work.
Even as I dealt with the crushing likelihood that I would never biological children of my own, had you asked me I would have told you that it was neither my place nor my right to force any woman to carry a child in a situation she did not believe to be the best for either her or the child. Even though it would have been women who carried an unwanted baby to term and then placed it up for adoption who could give me the family I wanted for myself, I still would have told you that it would have been undeniably selfish of me to require that of her.
My mom, bless her heart, advised us to seek a second opinion about our situation, which we did. The new doctor explained to us that there was another option that we could try before IVF. We could try an aggressive form of treatment that involved hyper-stimulation with injectible fertility drugs. The upside was that, compared to IVF, it was much less expensive and almost entirely covered by my insurance. The down side was that, because of my condition, we were at a very high risk of what doctors call “high-order multiples,” meaning 3 or more babies. Before he would agree to treat us, the doctor required that Owen and I make a determination about how we felt about what is called “selective reduction” or abortion of fetuses if there were too many. Would we want to try to carry 3, 4, 5 or even more babies to term? Or would we want to “selectively reduce” down to one or two? The issue was incredibly complicated. Carrying them all would mean severe risks not only to my health, but also to that of the babies. High-order multiples are often born with multiple severe health problems. Many times, one or more of them do not survive. Selectively reducing the number, however, would allow the remaining babies to grow bigger and healthier and would give them a much better chance of survival and a healthy life. It would also be risky in the short run, endangering the lives of all the babies. I would also be better for me and the surviving babies in the long run.
There I was, desperate for any baby, given my first glimpse of hope in a long time, and I was supposed to decide in the midst of that desperation if I could abort some of them – some of my babies – if there were too many. It was a decision we wrestled with for weeks. I can honestly tell you that, though Owen tells me we did technically come to a decision, I can’t remember what it was. It doesn’t matter. Like so many women who face the possibility of abortion, there was no good choice…no positively right answer. All we could do is hope for the best...hope that we would never have to act on our decision. I was very, very lucky. Thanks to the very close supervision of my doctors, I conceived only one baby and never had put any choice into action.
That is how I can sit at this computer 7 months pregnant with a child I consider to be a medical miracle and tell you that I am, in fact, pro choice. I have faced the very real possibility of having to make that choice. I recognize and am thankful every day for the incredible luxury life affords me, and that so many of us take for granted. I am educated, I have a supportive husband, I live in a nice house, I work at a job that pays decently and am surrounded by a family that loves and supports me. And yet, none of that made my choice the least bit better or easier. I cannot imagine facing a similar decision under worse circumstances.
I am blessed with the ability to have this child and to know that I will be able to take care of him and give him the things he needs. I also consider myself blessed because I can recognize how lucky I am. I truly pity those who cannot see beyond the limitations of their own privilege to acknowledge and attempt to understand the lives and lack of good choices so many Americans have to choose from every single day.
I also thought I would mention that Owen also posted a blog entry in participation with today's "Blog for Choice." Click here to read it.