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Who/What Should be the Focus of the Abortion Debate?

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I arrived on the promise to write more about criminal justice, but it seems like there’s been a lot of straight up repro freedom news these days. I wrote the other day about Melinda Henneberger’s truly atrocious NY Times Op-Ed. (Side note: later that very same day I received an email offering me a free copy of the book to review. Funny, eh?)

Yesterday the Times published the Letters to the Editor in response to the piece. Predictably, there was the letter from the “pro-life feminist” (who calls those who support repro freedom “bleeding heart liberals”), the letter from the person proclaiming that Henneberger is right on point (who calls on the “warriors of the women’s rights movement” to change their priorities). And then there’s the good stuff — a letter from Nancy Northup, head of the Center for Reproductive Rights, and – most interestingly – a letter from National Advocates for Pregnant Women founder and exec. director Lynn M. Paltrow (full disclosure: a friend and mentor of mine). Here’s why Lynn’s letter stands out: it’s not about how wrong Henneberger is (though she is indeed) but about how wrong the rhetoric on the reproductive rights side can be. She writes:

Melinda Henneberger notes that opponents of abortion have made progress by making abortion a “human rights issue comparable to slavery.” The real problem, though, is that pro-choice advocates have defended abortion rather than the women subjected to such outrageous analogies.

Sixty-one percent of women who have abortions are already mothers, and another 24 percent will go on to become mothers. Eighty-five percent of all women bring life into this world and provide the majority of care for the lives of those around them. Individual pregnant women, whether seeking to end a pregnancy or to go to term, are certainly not the same as governments that use state power to enslave particular groups of people.

Failing to defend pregnant women — mothers and caregivers — against such comparisons is what is bad for pro-choice advocates, Democrats and Republicans alike.

The slavery point is worth noting, if only because BOTH sides of the abortion debate have compared it to slavery — on the abortion rights side, it’s the forced pregnancy that compels a woman into servitude; on the anti-freedom side, it’s the fetus whose personhood is not acknowledged (hence the “Dred Scott” secret phrase). But what really piqued my interest here is that Paltrow takes this is an opportunity to obliquely criticize Henneberger, but to blatantly take much of the mainstream pro-choice movement to task. And she’s got a point. By focusing on the abortion procedure itself, we (reproductive justice activists and advocates) buy into the antis’ trap — we put a procedure about which many people feel uncomfortable in the spotlight. How might it change the conversation if we stopped talking about abortion itself and started talking more about the women — many of them already mothers, as Paltrow points out — who have abortions?

Many people are going to say this won’t work — talking about women’s autonomy wasn’t successful before Roe and hasn’t been successful since. But this strategy is not about intangible concepts like freedom and autonomy. It’s about actual women and their real lives. I think it’s a pretty compelling turn of phrase.

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