Abortion and War

Whose Choice Is It Anyway?
By Angela Bonavoglia (Ms. Magazine March/April 1991)

Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we had the extraordinary opportunity of watching our legislators go about weighing the facts and the ethics of war. There was passionate reasoning on both sides: on the one hand, to stop a ruthless aggressor, liberate Kuwait, preserve the American way of life; on the other, a plea to wait to further negotiate, to do everything possible to prevent the maiming, murder, and shipping home of young men and women in body bags. In the end, it was decided by a majority that death on a grand scale was justified.

We have gone to war. Through all of this debate, I have been struck by the ease, the entitlement, the pride, and the confidence with which men approach the realms of life where they feel they have the right and responsibility to make the ethical choices of who will live and who will die. And I have been equally struck by the arrogance in the position that the one life-and-death decision that women have taken control of making-that is, ending a pregnancy-has been judged time and again to be absolutely wrong. Though we have just marked 18 years of legal abortion in this country and our mortality rate here is low, the World Health Organization estimates that 200,000 women die annually from botched illegal abortions because those in power will not give women the safe medical care they need to make that one ethical choice. And in this country, legislators continue to make it harder for women-particularly those young and poor-to get abortions.

Watching this war unfold, watching primarily male lawmakers consider protecting a territory worlds away from invasion by a foreign aggressor, one can only wonder how they can then turn to a woman and tell her that she has no right to make a choice about the potential life that is developing inside her. It is equally vexing to hear that we "waited five months” for sanctions to work from those same men who think nothing of asking a woman to let an unwelcome potential life occupy her womb for nine months, accepting the physical and emotional costs and the risks attendant upon childbirth. Yet the ultimate irony may have been President Bush's declaration of January 20, four days after the bombing began, as National Sanctity of Human Life Day-no reference to the civilians and soldiers who were dying in the Gulf but an encouragement to the anti-choice forces to press on.

In interviewing people for The Choices We Made (Random House, 1991) on their personal experiences with abortion, I found a surprising thing. Though the highly polarized war over abortion has assumed that pro-choice women who have abortions do so with no awareness of a “life,” in truth, opinions vary. Some, like Whoopi Goldberg, who thinks of the embryo as "stuff coming together,” do not believe there is life in the first few weeks, but others do. Says journalist Linda Ellerbee: "Life in a certain sense probably does begin at conception," perhaps even right before--"the properties of life are in the sperm and they're in the womb." But for such women, that is not the issue. "Abortion might be killing a life," says actress Margot Kidder, who was douched with Lysol and near death from an illegal abortion at the age of 18. "If there is a sin, it is the sin that we adults perpetrate on the children of the earth who truly are innocent and defenseless by bringing those children into the world when they will not be cared for." Byllye Avery of the National Black Women's Health Project believes that abortion does take a potential life: "Women know full well what they're doing-a potential life is not as important as an actual life, and sometimes women have to make that choice." The truth is that men have always felt justified in making life-and-death choices, particularly in war, choosing whether to sacrifice already born, young, healthy, fully developed human beings to a cause. To deprive women of making the choice between themselves and a potential life reveals the argument for what it is really about-control. Proposed constitutional amendments to the contrary, our society does not place an absolute value on human life. Rather, that value is relative-unless, apparently, the life is potential and inside the body of a woman. Then, many believe, there is suddenly no room for choice.