As we walk along the main streets of any town, USA, someone is likely to hand us literature, asking us to sign a petition, or to invite us into a conversation about protecting “women’s reproductive freedom.”
The efforts are opportunities to engage our beliefs and values in the public square; they suggest that some of our central beliefs and values, such as the freedom to reproduce, are being threatened.
How do we respond to the invitations? We can ignore them and continue walking. However, the conversation might be worth engaging; inalienable rights, including reproductive freedom, deserve protection. We don’t want a society in which pregnancies can become unauthorized or illegal.
However, the conversation will soon provoke a clash of values: reproductive freedom is a frame for abortion. The conversation implies that the freedom of women to reproduce clashes with the right of children to be born.
As the conversation continues, it is vulnerable to becoming a verbal sparring match, using one argument to counter another argument. One person says, “The exercise of reproductive freedom does not justify the decision to terminate the life of an unborn child.” The other person might deny that “fetal tissue” is a person or that the unborn child is a life worth sacrificing.
The conversation is more likely to reinforce existing views than to change them. When people hear value statements with which they disagree, they might listen with the intent to learn, but they are more likely to dialogue in order to defeat, listening with the intent of finding reasons to reinforce their initial beliefs and values, discounting the validity of opposing views. The result is that people will either fight for one position or flee from the conversation. However, either/or outcomes are rarely effective in influencing public policy; the challenge of protecting women’s reproductive rights with the rights of children to be born requires a third way.
Of course, the struggle with searching for a third way in a discussion concerning reproductive rights is the child will either be born or not; there seems to be no compromise. A third way is not about compromise; it is about finding alternatives beyond either/or choices, believing that people have the moral creativity to find more than two solutions to any problem.
A third way to resolve the tension between women’s reproductive rights and the right of children to be born is exploring ways to protect and transform the layers of beliefs, values, rights, and interests that serve as the foundation of the decision.
About 75 percent of the abortions in the United States result from women fearing that motherhood will interfere with some of the central beliefs and values of their lives, such as their education, their social, economic and professional interests, and their emotional and psychological welfare.
Abortion is a decision to protect these values at the cost of the life of her unborn child. Some of these values deserve protection; others should be modified or discarded, and a few can be expressed in alternative ways. The question is whether people have communities, especially churches, that have the moral capacity to explore alternative expressions to the prevailing ways in which we express these values.
For example, community is a major value of our lives, but many women find pregnancies to be lonely and isolating experiences; pregnancies remove women from their communities and from the support their communities once provided. That support needs to be reestablished because the values it provided are central to all of our lives. Another example is the economic distress an unplanned pregnancy puts on women. Though it is illegal for employers to discriminate based on pregnancy, it still occurs. Unpaid maternity leave causes financial and emotional hardship. Daycare costs range from $4,591 a year in Mississippi (25.8% of income) to $14,009 a year in New York (54.2% of income). The daily expenses and one-time expenses to take care of a child can cripple an already tight budget. These are real challenges facing real women. Both sides of the debate should endorse laws, programs, and centers that provide protection and support for women who choose life.
As we consider these values, the conversation with the person who is distributing literature on the street to protect women’s reproductive rights is a conversation about some basic beliefs and values of our lives. We might even consider them to be the central rights of our nation: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The challenge of public discourse is not debating whether or not the child will be born, but exploring ways to protect the inalienable rights of mothers and extending these rights to unborn children.