The following post imagines a three-way dialogue between pro-choice talking points Safe, Legal, and Rare.
Legal: Good evening, friends. Thanks for joining this conversation
Safe and Rare: [together] Thank you as well. Glad to be here.
Legal: I hope both of you are OK with my emceeing this thing. It’s mainly for the sake of convenience. Besides, it’s kinda logical, right? Legal is kind of what brings us together in this.
Safe: Absolutely. No worries here.
Rare: I agree it’s logical. I’m fine with it, but I do hope our conversation will be about more than keeping abortion legal.
Legal: Oh, I agree. There are multiple layers to this issue, but my point was that the bottom layer, the thing that keeps our ideas together, is legality. If abortion is illegal there’s no point in talking about how safe or rare it is.
Safe: Hold on right there. Can you clarify what you mean by that last sentence?
Rare: Yes, I’d like to hear more too.
Legal: Well, I’m not sure how much clearer that can be. Do we really have a disagreement over the importance of legality?
Rare: I’m not disputing that keeping abortion legal is important. But I think…
Safe: [interjecting] Right, I wanted though to ask about how you worded that sentence. You said if it abortion is illegal “there’s no point” in talking about safety. To me, though, that plays into the pro-life rhetoric. Our entire point is that keeping abortion legal will keep it regulated and therefore more safe. So in a way, I’d actually say the opposite of what you said. If abortion can’t be safe, who would want to keep it legal?
Rare [interjecting] Hold on. Safe, what did you mean by that just now?
Safe: Which part?
Rare: You said if abortion isn’t safe, why wouldn’t it automatically be rare?
Rare: That’s not the point, though. Most abortions done by licensed professionals ARE safe. Seeking to make abortions safer is important but we need to think about how to make them less of a necessity. If you focus entirely on keeping it legal or safe, you haven’t addressed the underlying issue of why abortions happen.
Legal: Rare, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. I think it’s fine if abortions end up less common, but making that a point of emphasis sends the wrong message. It seems to imply that abortion is a necessary evil. That kind of rhetoric won’t keep abortion an option for women very long. If something is a necessary evil, people will start asking why it is necessary. But that’s not our message. Abortion access is absolutely necessary and it’s a human rights issue to make sure women have that option.
Safe: [interjecting] Real quick, I just want to add that SAFE abortion access is a human right. Can’t forget that word.
Legal: Certainly. Safe abortion access is a huge issue. But I wouldn’t qualify what I said. Abortion should always be a shame-free option for every woman…
Safe: Wait one second. Why are you hesitant to qualify what you said? What’s wrong with trying to keep abortion safe?
Legal: Nothing at all. But I do think it’s possible that talking so much about how to make abortion safer or better timed or whatever can obscure our point about its role in culture. Abortion is a perfectly legitimate expression of reproductive health. You can unintentionally communicate otherwise…
Legal: Well, two good exmaples are parental notification laws and ultrasound requirements. The vast majority of our advocates oppose those measures, for good reason. They place illegitimate barriers between women and reproductive health. But that’s an example how emphasizing “safety” can actually encroach on abortion rights.
Rare: I’m glad you mention those two laws. I understand your concerns about them but it seems to me that if we’re concerned with making abortion less common, those kinds of measures could help with that. There are some practical benefits, I think….
Safe: Agreed, Rare. There’s some value in making sure that people aren’t being coerced or manipulated into abortion, right Legal?
Legal: Sure, but none of that changes my point. Abortion needs to be legal because it is a moral right, not mainly because it can be administered responsibly. Even if it’s not done in a moral way, abortion is still a good thing for society. That’s why laws that obstruct it….
Rare: Wait one moment. Isn’t Kermit Gosnell an example of what happens when you empower abortion beyond the margins of safety and public good?
Legal: Not really. Gosnell, as monstrous as he was, was almost himself a victim. He and his patients suffered under abortion’s social stigma. Without it he probably wouldn’t have been able to do what he did even if he had wanted to.
Safe: Even if you’re right…
Rare: Well I reject that completely. Kermit Gosnell was not a victim. He’s a psychopath. And…
Safe: [interjecting] That explanation doesn’t do much for his victims, or prevent future ones.
Rare: …the reason he got away with it for so long is that we don’t have a culture that encourages alternatives to abortion. We don’t have anything that meets these young girls where they are and gives guidance…
Legal: [interjecting] Ok, now you sound like a pro-lifer.
Legal: Seriously, Safe, explain that to me. How do you recommend preventing those kinds of atrocities.
Safe: Whenever you find someone like Gosnell you’ve found a crack that somebody slipped through. I don’t at all challenge your premise that abortion needs to be available. But the reason for that goes beyond your explanation. Abortion needs to be legal because if it’s not then a black market filled with Gosnells will flood our communities. I trust that’s something we can all agree would be a disaster.
Legal: I agree. But how do you avoid saying that abortion should be regulated the way pro-lifers say it should be if your main goal is to keep it “safe”? If the problem with illegalizing abortion is that people will get hurt by the abortions they get, how do you consistently oppose things like ultrasound laws?
Rare: Are we absolutely sure we’re against those laws?
Legal: I certainly hope so.
Safe: If your goal is to make something safe, then I think you should assume the safer it gets, the more people can and will utilize it. I think that gets to where, Legal, you and I agree.
Legal: OK, but can you answer my question?
Safe: Listen: Keeping abortion legal and keeping it safe don’t contradict each other. We can do both. But we actually have to try. If we can’t keep legal abortion safe, we shouldn’t have it legal either.
Legal: See? That’s the attitude I thought I was hearing. It’s almost an apathy towards legality. If it’s a choice between taking a step down a dangerous road and risking imperfect scenarios, we should choose the latter.
Rare: Ok, one thing about this conversation worries me. Up to this point both of you have assumed that if it were possible to make as many abortions possible as safe as possible, we should do that. I don’t feel that way.
Rare: Because we need to keep abortion rare. Women shouldn’t be forced into a corner.
Legal: Abortion isn’t a corner. It’s legitimate birth control.
Safe: Correction, it doesn’t HAVE to be a corner.
Rare: Wait a minute. So you don’t see anything tragic at all about an unplanned pregnancy? An unwanted child?
Legal: Those are tragic. Abortion is a solution to those tragedies. It’s not itself tragic.
Rare: I really don’t see how you can say that.
Legal: Well let me put it this way. How can we say with a straight face that abortion is both a tragedy and a human right? Are there tragic human rights?
Safe: There are human rights that can turn into tragedies. Freedom of the press is a human right but if done wrong it can ruin lives.
Rare: I don’t understand. I was under the impression we can be both against abortion and for its legality.
Legal: You can do that hypothetically. But when it comes writing policy, you have to prioritize legality. This is why we are for requiring companies to subsidize abortafacient contraceptives in their insurance. If companies didn’t have to do that, we would probably make aborted pregnancies less common, but we would be sending the wrong message.
Rare: But can’t we be honest about the emotional stakes involved with abortion? Shouldn’t we try to prevent the circumstance in the first place? Honestly the “wrong message” stuff sounds silly.
Legal: It sounds silly only because you are playing by pro-life’s rules. If you think abortion is mainly a sad, regrettable thing, then by all means, talk it down and legislate it until it eventually disappears. How safe do you think abortions will be after that happens?
Safe: Not safe. But that doesn’t mean we should regulate its practice.
Rare: You’re making a big logical error, Legal. You seem the think the choice is between infinity abortions and zero abortions. You still haven’t explained why this can’t be both a sad and legal thing?
Legal: Just a question, Rare. Why is abortion sad?
Safe: It’s risky and invasive for one.
Rare: And it’s the loss of something.
Legal: No, you’re wrong. It’s not the loss of anything. We can’t drive within 100 yards of personhood. The minute we do that, we might as well give up.
Safe: I agree with that.
Rare: Me too. But, women do report being affected emotionally by their abortions. It’s not like getting a wart removed.
Legal: Only because we still have a culture that shames reproductive freedom. And our rhetoric has to change that. For every 1 time we say abortion should be rare, we should be saying 5 times that its a perfectly moral option for women. Period.
Rare: I guess I don’t see it that way.
Safe: Nor I.
Legal: Listen, the options are simple: Either people can make their own choices and have control of their own bodies, or, be pro-life. It’s one or the other. That’s why I said at the beginning keeping abortion legal is the central point. And I suppose I assumed there was more agreement about that than there actually is.
Safe: It needs to be legal so it can be safe. Legal harm is still harm.
Rare: It may need to be legal so it can be safe, but it needs to be a small part of our culture.
Safe: I think the one thing we agree on is this: A woman’s body is her body. A woman’s pregnancy is her pregnancy. The question is, how do we honor this autonomy?
Rare: We make abortion rare.
Safe: We make abortion safe.
Legal: We keep abortion legal.
All: At least we agree.