Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Abortion War and Communication

What constitutes "abortion?" What constitutes "saving a woman's life?" These seem like rhetorical questions, until you start looking at the miscommunications that arise when both sides aren't using these terms the same way.

When a prolifer refers to "abortion," she means a procedure intended to ensure that a pregnancy ends with a dead fetus instead of a live baby. She does not mean the removal of a hydatidiform mole or a fetus that was dead from other causes before the procedure started. But sometimes, especially in political contexts, abortion advocates use the term "abortion" to refer to these procedures, leading to misunderstanding. Prochoice euphimisms such as "evacuating the uterus," "terminating the pregnancy," and "removing the products of conception" further muddle the issue. These expressions do not address what is being removed from the uterus, and reflect the tunnel vision that many prochoicers maintain: seeing only the woman and not her unborn child.

But the common use of terms such as "removing the products of conception" to avoid the more emotional term "abortion" lead to miscommunications between prolife and prochoice people.

The other misuse of language that muddles the discussion is the way many abortion advocates use "saving the woman's life" as a catch-all phrase to describe any abortion the woman chose to perserve her lifestyle. A high-profile example of this is National Abortion Federation PBA poster child Vicki Wilson, who had a late abortion to kill a dying fetus rather than endure the angst of letting the baby live out her natural life. Vicki referred to this abortion as "the procedure that saved my life," even though she had no medical problems herself that called for ending her pregnancy early.

When a prolife person speaks of an abortion to save the mother's life, she means it literally: the mother very likely, or certainly, would have died had her doctor not ended the pregnancy before the fetus was old enough to survive outside the womb. So when we use the term among ourselves, we know what we mean. But when a prochoice person says that the abortion "saved the mother's life," we tend to blow them off. After all, if Vicki Wilson's abortion "saved her life," then any abortion, no matter how fragile the rationale, "saves the mother's life." All too often, therefore, we don't ask for clarification. We tend to assume that when a prochoice woman says an abortion "saved" her life, that she means it preserved her lifestyle by disposing of an inconvenient fetus.

These differences in meaning led to a major conflict in my old Pro Life Forum at

A prochoice woman I'll call "Janet" would use the examples of her own "abortions" to defend the prochoice position and call into question the validity of the prolife position. She said that her abortions saved her life, and that therefore it was unreasonable to expect her to repent her abortions, or regret them. Many prolife (or anti-abortion) folks blew off the issue of Janet's life being at stake, and admonished her to repent of her two "abortions" lest she imperil her very soul.

I'm guilty, too. I don't recall what I said, but Janet chided me that I knew her story. Did I wish she had just died? I confessed that I didn't recall her story. Maybe I'd never read that post; maybe I was losing track of whose story was whose. So Janet posted the entire sad tale, and I can assure you of this: I'd never read it before. And it reminded me of the importance of remembering always to ask for clarification, to assume the best of others (even "the other side!"), and to speak always in love.

With no further fanfare, here is Janet's story:
I was first diagnosed with cervical cancer at 18, by 19 I was calling fureral homes because I didn't want my mother to have to make the arrangements. Just before my 20th birthday, they decided to do a complete hystorectomy but I said NO! Take out only what is diseased, I might need the rest of it later,(I was thinking I might need those hormones.

I got pregnant before surgery, so I was told, one or the other but not both. And if I chose the wrong one, I would probably die. So I chose abortion.

Now, I was told I couldn't get pregnant, too much scar tissue. But, evidently, they meant I could *carry* to full term cause 16 years later,(last summer), I got pregnant. But I didn't know it. I thought I had a flu I couldn't kick. Then my period started, no problem right? Wrong! In three days I lost so much blood, I couldn't get outta bed, and before that day was out, I bled through my clothes.

Off to the hospital, and suprise! You're miscarrying, we're gonna have to do something to stop the bleeding. Hmmm, well...let's just say, the worse experience of my life. Didn't really give a sh*t if I lived or not,(ya get so weak, you could care less.), got a rock I could crawl under and expire please?

This was also the 3rd time I almost died. And, it caused me to come into touch with my emotions, which I had buried deep ...So I'm really touchy ya know?

So we're seeing a woman who, in a time of monumental stress, on the advice of her doctors, chose a medically-indicated abortion, having been told that she would die otherwise. This is not an elective abortion; it's one of those rare cases where doctors believe the abortion is necessary to save the mother's life.

We can look at the issues around these abortions. We can look at how often doctors may be wrong. We can look at the state of medical knowledge of the time and discuss whether the doctors were basing their prognosis on the best research. We can even discuss moral issues of when an abortion really is justified to save the mother's life. But we can't treat this as an abortion a woman just chose for reasons that pale beside the baby's life.

The second "abortion" Janet described, however, isn't even an abortion. It was a D&C done to remove the tissue remaining after the natural death of the fetus. This was clearly indicated medical treatment to prevent Janet from bleeding to death from retained tissue.

Prolifers, of course, latch onto the word "abortion," knowing it to mean the killing of a live fetus. So when Janet referred to her second "abortion," the idea that her fetus was already dead didn't enter into our minds. We simply don't use the word "abortion" to refer to this kind of procedure.

I can ask prochoicers to stop using the word "abortion" to describe procedures that do not involve causing the death of the fetus. But the abortion advocacy cause has a lot to gain by using the word "abortion" to describe these procedures. These procedures are genuinely necessary to preserve the woman's life and health, and therefore counting them as "abortions" gives them anecdotes to use to try to make it seem as if prolifers are trying to preserve dead fetuses and hydatidiform moles at the expense of the woman. It's dishonest for them to do this, but since expediency is highly valued among abortion proponents, they're not likely to abandon expediency in favor of honesty just to keep women like Janet from being caught in the crossfire of the culture war. Honest prochoice folks who are relying on the abortion advocacy lobby for their information will therefore probably continue to use the word "abortion" to describe procedures that are not abortions, procedures that do not cause a human death.

It falls upon the prolifers, therefore, to always ask for clarification, to not make assumptions, and to let prochoice folks know that these procedures are not abortions and would not be in any way affected by laws governing abortion.

Janet was subjected to a lot of chiding and lecturing that simply didn't apply to a woman in her circumstances, all because of miscommunication. We need to put aside the need to be right, and instead seek to understand before we seek to come out on top in an argument.

Especially when, as in cases like Janet's, there isn't even anything to argue about.

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