Just occasionally, the cold-heartedness of anti-choice rhetoric can take your breath away. In his State of the World address on Monday, Pope Francis (remember, he’s the “nice” one) offered a shining example of this, situating abortion within the context of a Daily Mail-esque “throwaway culture”:
Unfortunately, what is thrown away is not only food and dispensable objects, but often human beings themselves, who are discarded as unnecessary
Blink and you’ll miss the sheer cruelty in words such as these. You might think it’s some abstract reflection on the selfish modern zeitgeist. What fools we are, discarding unwanted foetuses in the much same way that we’d cast aside last season’s shoes or yesterday’s leftovers! How little thought goes into terminating a pregnancy! If only we had more glib homilies, wagging fingers and disapproval, then we’d be okay.
That the Pope should feel obliged to express opposition to abortion is no surprise. Nonetheless, that he should do so in a way that is a slap in the face to any woman who has had or contemplated having an abortion is, I think, dismaying. It’s a reminder of the way in which during discussions of the rights of those not yet born, snappy sound bites take the place of nuance and empathy. “Throwaway culture” engages with neither the reality of pregnancy nor the humanity of those who seek terminations. An off-the-peg criticism of all things modern, it is simplistic, judgmental and utterly dehumanising.
It should not need reiterating, but bearing children you do not want is not like doing the recycling, or deciding you don’t really need that car, or giving the money you would spend on clothes to charity. It is exhausting, dangerous, bloody and violent. It involves sacrifice, albeit a mundane, everyday sacrifice that most of us barely notice. Pregnancy transgresses the boundaries of your own body. However difficult it is to think of something so commonplace as sacred and personal, that is what it is. Every pregnancy is a unique experience, in a body that is no one else’s, within the context of a life that no one else can live. To give of yourself to give life to another, whatever the consequences, must always be a decision made freely. The biggest lie of the anti-choice movement is that they are the ones who deal in harsh realities. For them the harshest reality of all is that pregnant women and girls are people, too (the whole debate would be so much more straightforward if they weren’t).
Women choose to end pregnancies for all sorts of reasons: financial, social, physical, psychological, a mixture of all of these and none. The alternative to abortion is not a new life in the abstract, but the experience of pregnancy and labour, and a lifetime of consequences that will be experienced in hugely variant social and economic settings. If we valued pregnancy and birth as greatly as we claim to, we would recognise the importance of allowing those faced with unwanted pregnancies to make their own decisions. However, there is a point at which anti-choice rhetoric cuts loose from any engagement with women’s lives at all. Ironically, it’s often at this point that those who support reproductive freedoms find themselves floundering. How do you counter arguments that have no basis in human experience? If someone truly believes that continuing with an unwanted pregnancy is no more physically, mentally or morally taxing than throwing away yesterday’s mashed potatoes, what can you possibly say? You’re dealing with an argument that dances on the sidelines of debate, untainted by the blood and guts of human experience. It is pure, perfect and meaningless.
I am pro-choice and I am willing to live with blood on my hands if it means all women have the choices I expect for myself. I don’t want perfection, I want humanity. Life is more than a flickering heartbeat on a black and white screen. Empathy should extend, not just to those who “will never see the light of day,” but to those who have bodies and lives that outside observers can neither idealise nor share.
I’ve never feared a loss of reproductive rights for myself, for the simple reason that I’m not poor. I’d find money for an abortion if ever I needed to. That’s heartless consumer culture at its worst, creating a situation in which I can buy my own bodily autonomy while millions of other women can’t buy theirs. We cannot have a sustainable, humane society without at the very least respecting each person’s right to own themselves.