Lifelong feminist though I am, I failed to see abortion as an important feminist issue until the past couple of years. Abortion doesn't seem like an issue for relatively privileged types like me because we have every weapon at our disposal to control our fertility. As a well-read young girl, I entered adolescence with fairly accurate knowledge about birth control, knowledge which was supplemented by even more specific information in the biology class at my private high school. I had enough confidence to demand condom use, even when my somewhat older new boyfriend scoffed at me and insisted that there was "no risk at this time of the month." I was able to go to my college infirmary and obtain a prescription for a birth control pill, without any judgment or second guessing by my doctor. I also had enough money to fill my prescription every month and a pharmacy that was willing to fill it.
I thought about the worst that could happen -- an unwanted pregnancy -- but I just kind of assumed that I could carry the child to term, and possibly give him or her up for adoption. I didn't know too much about what pregnancy entailed, but all the pregnant women I'd known made it seem easy. But, of course, I never got pregnant and, as far as I know, neither did anyone else in my relatively affluent and well-educated circle of peers.
When I consider all the things I used to take for granted, it's embarrassing. It didn't occur to me how many girls out there don't know the foggiest thing about how to prevent pregnancy. It certainly never crossed my mind when I was a teenager that adults might actually want to prevent teenagers from knowing about reliable means of contraception. I also didn't think about the fact that the people-pleasing, and even mousiness, so often ingrained in girls might make it hard for many of us to stand up to a boy who is intent on having sex without a condom. Nor did I ponder that it might not be so easy for poorer or younger women than I to gain access to some of the most reliable means of birth control or to pay for it. And certainly, when this first became an issue for me more than fifteen years ago, I could never have imagined the possibility of a pharmacy refusing to dispense oral contraception or that some groups would try to define oral contraception as an "abortifacient" (an issue I have discussed here).
I knew that there were some risks of an unwanted pregnancy, even on the birth control pill (although I had never heard before today that my birth control was unreliable at times when I was on antibiotics or had the stomach flu). But I was sanguine about the possibility of pregnancy. I am not old enough to remember the terrible stigma that unwed mothers used to face (although even now, the stigma still exists). I didn't have abusive parents or boyfriend who would make my life a living hell if I wound up pregnant, and I had sufficient medical insurance to see me through the medical aspects of pregnancy. I didn't know about all the risks of pregnancy, which are said to significantly outweigh the risks of abortion, and I hadn't yet read Redneck Mother's post detailing the burdens of undergoing four miscarriages and two other pregnancies. I never thought that the laws of my country might make it difficult for me to get an abortion should I have an emergency need for it, and I naively trusted my lawmakers not to be cavalier about my basic health needs. I also didn't consider the fact that giving up a baby for adoption mightn't be so easy, especially if the baby were disabled or not white.
My older self is much more informed, mainly through reading, about the enormous problems faced by countless pregnant women. And those myriad problems highlight the most significant problem of all with the anti-choice movement. The burdens of pregnancy on a woman are enormous -- significant enough to derail the chosen course of her life or to wreck her health or to even deprive her of her life. And yet, a significant portion of this country views the unborn embryo or fetus as more important than the pregnant woman's dignity, autonomy, aspirations, and health. I know the debate over when human life begins can turn into one of those endless go-arounds of people not being able to see any common ground -- but, my goodness, there really isn't much to a developing fetus for quite some time after conception. I know pro-life groups see the development of the fetus as a recognizable human form as their greatest weapon in ending abortion. But a fetus is nothing more than a clump of cells for the first few weeks. The nervous system only just begins to develop at 23 days, and by 32 days, the fetus is still an extremely primitive bug-like form. At 54 days, elements of the brain are in place but there is still no cognitive function. (Source: Time Magazine, photos available only with a subscription number).
And yet significant segments of our society exalt the interest of this primitive lifeform with no cognitive or neural ability above the hopes, dreams, self-determination, and health of full-grown, sentient girls and women. Somehow, even in the first week before implantation of what is only an undeveloping clump of cells, many view the fertilized egg as taking precendence over the woman having to cope with all the enormous burdens I have described. That is why feminists decry the pro-life movement as reducing women to mere baby-making vessels. That is why abortion is a feminist issue.