Nearly 50 years since the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, the annual January March for Life continues, along with the annual offering of bills in the Utah Legislature aimed at incrementally eradicating abortion. After almost five decades, it seems long past time to begin a more productive discussion about abortion that might lead to positive change for all women.
Since the 1973 decision, pro-life advocates nationwide have sought to support life in the womb through legislation and the courts. While some states have been receptive to legal changes designed to render abortion rare, history clearly indicates that laws banning abortion do not stop it from happening. This doesn’t mean legal challenges aren’t valid, but it should be abundantly clear by now that legal bans alone will never end abortion.
The pro-life movement needs to expand the dialogue from the medical procedure to addressing the bigger questions of why women seek abortions, and how we better serve women so that they don’t feel compelled to end their baby’s life in the first place.
On this March for Life weekend, I would propose that instead of constantly seeking increasingly esoteric legal roadblocks, we begin by challenging the women’s movements’ insistence that women can do anything men can. The truth is women can do something extraordinary that no man can ever accomplish. Women are the only gender capable of pregnancy and birth. Laws that protect pregnant women are critically important, but equally important is the recognition that pregnancy is unique and this singular ability of women deserves recognition, respect and reinforcement.
The first step is admitting that claiming abortion is just a medical procedure to remove a cluster of cells denigrates women. That collection of cells can only ever be one thing — a human life. That life is nurtured within a woman for nine months, during which she is utterly responsible for its health and well-being. This is the most intimate and fundamental relationship and should be recognized as such, so that no woman is forced to decide whether to continue the relationship because of monetary concerns or a lack of support from loved ones or lack of health care or other forces a civilized society could, with some investment in women, adjust to ensure mom and baby are able to live and thrive.
Recognition of women’s unique role in sustaining the future of humanity and respect for the work her body and mind must do to bring life to fruition must be reinforced through policies and practices that ensure a woman has access to the basic needs required to give birth and raise a child, such as health care, housing, a living wage, childcare, education, and safe and healthy food and water.
This isn’t a role solely for government. Work environments need to move beyond grudgingly “accommodating” a pregnant woman or new mother. The gender pay gap needs to be taken seriously and remedied. Faith and other communities need to do a better job recognizing and responding to moms who feel overwhelmed and unsupported, including working mothers.
The first step isn’t a law. It is to seek out and listen to women who are struggling. We need to listen to women who have children and live deep in poverty or suffer from depression, or just can’t imagine how they will care for one more child. We need to stop the rhetoric about women who have had abortions or who choose to remain childless and start talking with them to better understand what led to their choices.
Once we start to hear women, we may find that far too many women choose abortion, or remain childless, under economic or emotional duress. Understanding those reasons enables us to do far more to not only help pregnant women choose life, but to also ensure a more secure childhood and motherhood for better long-term outcomes for moms and their children, and therefore for society as a whole.
Jean Hill is the director of the Office of Life, Justice & Peace at the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.