College Student Is "Pro-choice," But Not Really "Pro-abortion"

"Though we call ourselves "pro-choice," our views are grayer than the label suggests," says Sarah Zaman

Pro-choice? Yes. Pro-abortion? Not really.

This isn't just a question of terminology -- this is how some college kids feel. We've inherited black-or-white labels, but though we call ourselves "pro-choice," our views are grayer than the label suggests.

We believe legal abortion is necessary, but we don't rejoice in the procedure. We can't imagine returning to coat hangers in back alleys, but we cringe when hardliners compare fetuses to benign tumors. We'd rather see adoptions than abortions, but we don't see people rushing to adopt babies with genetic diseases and drug defects. We defend the right to choose, while hoping we'll never need to exercise it. We hope against hope that President Bush appoints moderate Supreme Court Justices, because we believe "Roe v Wade" was a much-needed victory that should not be overturned. Yet abortion itself seems a cause for soul-searching, not celebration.

Pro-choice rhetoric doesn't acknowledge these misgivings, as though we can't betray any respect for fetuses without sliding down a slippery slope toward pro-life views. There is a tension between what we say and what we feel, and if the pro-choice movement wants to regain support, it needs to resolve that tension. Instead of constantly proclaiming and celebrating the right to choose, pro-choice leaders need to emphasize the moral gravity of the choice itself. Instead of defiantly insisting that there's nothing wrong with abortion, they should recognize the anguish that having an abortion entails. By acknowledging that most women would rather not choose to have abortions, pro-choice leaders would humanize both mothers who do abort and the pro-choice movement itself.

Such a shift in rhetoric demands a closer look at the fetus. Believing that the fetus is not yet a person is central to the pro-choice argument, but believing fetuses lack all moral value is not. Back when Dr. Jocelyn Elders declared, "We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus," she alienated all of us who consider abortion ethically possible but emotionally terrifying. To us, the fetus is neither a person to be privileged over a mother, nor ordinary tissue to be casually thrown aside -- and pro-choice arguments need to account for this.  Though pro-choice advocates don't view abortion as murder, we could at least recognize that abortions end the potential for human life.

If the fetus is neither "person" nor "discardable cell mass," perhaps pro-choice arguments could treat the fetus as a third entity, more like an essential organ. The law, for example, allows a woman to drink until her liver fails, yet society will discourage her, remind her about the reality of her actions and attempt to provide alternatives. Society recognizes the moral gravity in allowing a woman to end her life by abusing her liver, yet it protects her right to make an educated choice. Similarly, perhaps the pro-choice movement could defend a woman's right to choose, while recognizing the moral gravity in allowing her to prevent potential life by aborting her fetus. Though we would always ensure her access to safe abortion clinics, we could also offer counseling and help her consider adoption whenever possible. By allowing the fetus to be a sort of "in-between" entity, we could advocate protecting both the fetus and its mother's rights, and maternal and fetal interests would once more be intertwined.

By redefining the fetus as something more than a discardable cell mass, the pro-choice movement could redefine itself. Like President Clinton, we could call for abortions to be "safe, legal and rare" -- and in the process, the pro-choice argument would grow nuanced and moderate enough to attract broader support. If there is middle ground in the abortion debate, I think more and more of my generation is standing on it. And if the pro-choice movement wants us to walk over and stay in its camp, it needs to reconsider its rhetoric.