18 October 2017 | by Rebecca Bratten Weiss

When I was a teenager, a friend confided to me that she feared she was pregnant. The relationship was futile, her life unstable; she was terrified at the prospect of bearing a child for nine months in a hostile environment, then bringing that child into an already chaotic existence. I listened as she spoke of her fears, the impossibility of getting any support from the father, her despair – and as I listened, I found that I simply wasn’t sure what to say. What happened in that moment was a collision of realities. I knew what abortion was: I will always remember the dismay I felt when I discovered what the word “abortion” meant. But I couldn’t look away from my friend’s pain, from her sense of being trapped.

As it turned out, my friend wasn’t pregnant, but that moment stays with me, even as I grow older. I later became involved in pro-life activism. I went on marches, prayed outside clinics, organised petitions – but, something about the rhetoric we engaged in kept bothering me. We spoke a lot about the “selfishness” of the women who came to the clinics. We used words like “murder”. We talked of a “holocaust”. The pro-choice activists who opposed us were “feminazis” and “baby-killers”. We were not deliberately malicious.

The caricature of the angry misogynist pro-lifer does not tell the whole story. Most of us were motivated by what we felt to be a genuine care for the women entering the clinics. We prayed that their hearts would be converted, for the sake of their unborn children, but also because we hoped they would turn from what we saw as a path of self-destruction. Many of these same people often worked hard to assist women in getting the shelter and care they needed. In general, I can say: we meant well.

Fast-forward through many ups and downs, including a crisis pregnancy of my own, and I find myself, after nearly 30 years of engaging in the abortion debates, returning to this one, probably over-used quotation: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.”

In the United States, every election year, the same promises are made, the same tired banners flown, over the campaigns of increasingly ludicrous politicians. After more than 40 years of legal abortion in the US, we were told that Donald Trump was the pro-life saviour we had awaited. One image doing the rounds on social media showed a fetus in utero and the caption: “Trump is my best hope to make it out of here alive.” A terrifying thought, for a pregnant woman: that Mr Trump would be coming near her, laying his hands on her, “releasing” her child. As though her womb were a prison. As though a women’s body was a dangerous place for a child.

Next week, Britain will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the act that would make abortion legal. For some, this will be seen as 50 years of infamy; for many women, it will mark 50 years of knowing they have an escape route. Those seeking to make abortion illegal appear to them to be trying to take society back to a time when vulnerable, terrified, pregnant women felt forced to flee to the back alleys. I can see where they are coming from: I don’t want to return to that era, if all I have heard is true – and if all the violation and marginalisation I have seen, and lived myself, continues unchanged.

I believe passionately in the value of unborn human life. I want to live in a society that protects all life, and is particularly tender towards the most vulnerable, the least visible. But I have come to believe that our approach to the issue, well-intentioned as it is, has been on the wrong foot all along. We keep trying to propose bans, to abolish legislation. It’s not happening. And what if it did? What if all abortion was criminalised, as was once the case? Would this eliminate the underlying reasons why women seek a termination?

If the state were to say to women: “No, you may not have an abortion under any circumstances” – and if somehow we were able to prevent recourse to illegal abortions – would we have dealt with one injustice, but failed to addressed the problems from which abortion is seen as an escape? And not just an escape. In some circumstances, it is seen as  the only escape. Scandalously, in the US, sometimes Catholic legislators calling themselves pro-life exacerbate the demand for abortion by slashing funding for social safety nets, shaming single mothers and denying women already economically stretched even the basic medical coverage that they need to carry a child to term.

Even when such measures are in place, women in vulnerable situations face a culture of materialism that only values “production” in a market sense. Women can produce whole new humans, yes, and motherhood is fetishised in many religious circles – but fetishism invariably fails to serve the real interests of an individual person. The abstract ideal of motherhood, upheld as beautiful and inspiring, obscures our understanding of women’s capacities, and the veneration afforded our fertility often disappears the moment our creative power proves inconvenient for our employer’s bottom line. Women who are white, middle class, married, and able are upheld as icons of feminine grace; women who are immigrant, poor, racially other, or disabled rarely feature in the select circle of mother-worship.

Women have always faced violence and violations and erasures. They are written into Western history, from Homer to Hollywood, in which the contemptuous abuse and rape of women is as ordinary as eating, and notable only when it happens to trigger a war between men or involves glamorous film actors. Abortion has been around a long time, too, and, as long as systemic injustice against women endures, it won’t go away. Criminalisation would only drive the abortion industry back underground.

From a Catholic, pro-life perspective, perhaps we need to reconsider our approach. The reality is that holding fast to our demand that women should be denied access to legal and safe abortion from the moment of conception may have been counter-productive. Rather than the tentative building of bridges with those on the other side of the debate, stances are increasingly polarised. Views on abortion are increasingly seen as a “litmus test” for identification with one or other political or ideological faction, which means we grow further sequestered in our bubbles.

We need to evaluate, radically, how we look at abortion, and how we talk about it – in the first place, outside Parliament. A different kind of conversation needs to be started before there can be any realistic possibility even of incremental changes to the current legislation. As long as we see abortion as an act of violence committed by women driven by selfishness, we will keep falling into the trap of “doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result”.

We need to recognise the desperation of the many women who hate the idea of abortion, who have children they love already, who are not escaping their responsibility for the sake of mere convenience. They might be frightened of a violent partner, or struggling to care for the children they already have. They might even be the victim of rape. When we insist on speaking of abortion as “murder”, we place desperate women on a level with the villains of horror films. When we say abortion is the “new holocaust”, we equate them with Nazis. Is it any wonder that so many regard the Church’s leaders and pro-life activists with fury, as bullies who seek to deny women in unbearable situations an escape route?

More is needed than just repeating “abortion hurts women, too”. In my experience, women, mostly, know this. No one goes off to get an abortion just because it happens to be available, the way we might check out a new curry house or massage parlour. The supply exists because of the demand, not vice versa, and the demand exists because we live in a culture that does not truly value or support women, especially disadvantaged women.

Every abortion destroys something precious. Yes, abortion hurts women. But the emphasis of the pro-life movement should be recalibrated, from campaigning for the abolition of legal abortion to creating a society in which no woman will feel that not having an abortion would hurt her more. The change must begin with our capacity to see, to empathise, and to speak to the heart of the matter.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss is the editor of the arts journal Convivium and a co-founder of the New Pro-Life Movement.

This post appears in The Tablet, 21 October, 2017 – published with permission.