Credit: Charlotte Cooper

We Must Start Moving Beyond the Politics of Abortion

I know I’m not alone in bemoaning the lack of productive dialogue present in the GOP’s first presidential debate. There was not much beyond inaccuracies spewed by the conservative candidates about women’s healthcare.

Posturing as pro-life supporters was priority number one, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s stammering defense he has always “hated the concept of abortion;” Sen. Marco Rubio’s insistence he would never endorse an abortion ban with a rape or incest exemption; and Gov. Scott Walker touting Wisconsin’s defunding of Planned Parenthood prior to the emergence of misleading undercover videos. Unfortunately, such vitriolic rhetoric about women’s medical decisions—without women—is no detour from the status quo.

States have enacted 231 abortion restrictions in the last four years alone, reports Guttmacher, an institute dedicated to conducting research and education on global sexual and reproductive health. Such restrictions are a “lattice work” crafted by conservative, male-dominated state legislatures aiming to increasingly roll back abortion access granted to women in Roe v. Wade. More than 40 years later, our rights granted under the 14th Amendment have yet to curb the tenacious arguments both for and against abortion.

How women actually feel and think about abortion seemingly dissolves amidst the political warfare surrounding women’s access to reproductive health services. Space that does exist for sharing honestly and openly only lies within the current bifurcated body politic. While activists entrenched in either opinionated camp may invite women to speak about their reproductive history, it’s only when the narrative is most persuasive—if it adds heft and humanism to an argument. Yet, the pressure to share a tailored story robs women of their dignity just as pressure to keep quiet altogether does.

Several months ago, the first-ever TED talk on abortion was given by Aspen Baker, the founder and executive director of the after-abortion talkline, Exhale. Exhale refrains from endorsing an explicit pro-choice or pro-life agenda, insisting these warring factions are unhelpful in advancing women’s health and wellbeing. Rather, the organization aims to foster a safe and nonjudgemental space for women and men to share their experiences with abortion. It fills a critical void in society: an opportunity for a diversity of values and opinions about abortion to be expressed.

In her talk, Aspen encourages us to embrace the gray area, or the “layered, complicated web that makes up our true lives,” in respect to abortion politics. The gray is not perpetual ambivalence, but a place where listening and creative dialogue transpires.

Aspen calls for a reprieve from the polarized rhetoric that leads to shame and stigma around abortion. This detracts from the power of women to own their decision-making. “Instead of personal experience shaping the political landscape,” she says, “now the political landscape defines how women should express their personal selves, raising the question, will women’s self-expression about their abortions help or hurt the cause?”

Abrasive attacks often lead to paralysis and leave even the most fervent and inspired advocates untethered. As activists, it’s in our interests to urge the personal first, and embrace the gray area society’s dominant politics reject. The gray takes the microphone away from the willful ignorance of politicians and pundits and gives a dignified voice to the women it rightly belongs to.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Washington, D.C.

Lauren Kokum researches the intersection of religion and ethics with public policy at a think tank in Washington, D.C. She favors museums, slam poetry, and musings on race, gender, and human rights. | All opinions expressed here are her own.

Lauren Kokum favors museums, slam poetry, and musings on race, gender, religion, and human rights.

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