The sexual politics of choice

I believe that life begins at conception. As a Catholic, I believe in the Immaculate Conception; therefore, I must also believe that is when life begins. Little room for ambiguity exists on that point. I also believe when a woman chooses abortion that just as the physical cells are surgically split from her body, so too is a part of her soul cleaved in two. Yet, I believe in a woman’s right to make that choice.

It is not an easy choice. No woman wakes up and thinks, “Hey, I think I’ll get an abortion today.” It is not like choosing which apples or auto to buy. It is a heart-rending, painful decision, often made when no other alternative seems to exist. It is not a choice that I have ever had to make, and I hope I never have to. Yet, I believe in a woman’s right to make that choice.

I don’t necessarily believe in abortion on demand, though, either. I believe that actions should have consequences. If a woman wakes up from a one-night stand with that “what have I done” question running through her mind, I am not convinced that should qualify her for instant access to drugs that erase those consequences. Yet, I believe in a woman’s right to make that choice.

The Texas legislature wants to limit that choice. It wants to limit the term to 20 weeks and require that abortions be performed only in surgical centers, of which there are only five qualifying clinics in the entire state. Texas is the second largest state in the US in area and population. By 2012 estimates, the population is about 26 million (only slightly higher than Mumbai) with females accounting for just over half that number. More than 25% of all businesses in the state are owned by women. So, the legislature’s decision to limit timeframes and locations affects a significant number of US women. Current qualifying facilities do not exist past San Antonio, effectively cutting off access to half of the state’s female population. That lack of access could have serious economic consequences if women-owned businesses choose to relocate to a more woman-friendly state.

Watching the Facebook fireworks around this topic from India is enlightening. The entire tone of the debate in India is different from the US. When the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was passed in India in 1971, it was done without much debate. Even now, it is considered groundbreaking and sophisticated in its treatment of certain elements, including limits on when and where the procedure could be performed. The law made abortion legal, but limited the term to earlier than 20 weeks and for medical reasons only. Some medical reasons, such as the psychological wellbeing of the mother, could be (and are) broadly interpreted. In some respects, the Texas law seeks to do the same thing, but for a fundamentally different reason. The India law conferred rights where none previously existed. Until 1971, abortion was illegal in India. The Texas law seeks to limit rights that already exist by constraining existing limits on timing and location.

Unlike the US, in India, the debate does not revolve around a woman’s reproductive rights. Instead, in a strange reversal of American feminist thought, limiting a woman’s right to choose to medical necessity protects women in India—unborn ones, that is. India has an abysmal sex ratio of 919 women for every 1000 men. The cultural preferences for males in Indian culture run deep. If given the choice, some women will abort (or be forced to abort) multiple girl children until they have a boy child. Indian legislators had a simple solution to this problem: make it illegal to abort a child for sex selection. The legislature has recently debated whether to include murder charges in the list of charges levied against doctors who perform sex-selective abortions. In the US, we can’t even conceive of a woman choosing to have an abortion because she does not want a girl child. Yet, in India, they had to limit a woman’s right to make that choice.

But, what can the great state of Texas learn from the choices made in India? In his address this week about the US-India Strategic Partnership, US Secretary of State Kerry asked:

…you, India’s youngest citizens, [accept] your responsibility to be engaged, to make sure that your leaders hear your voices, and that you stand up for rights – equal rights – and opportunities, especially for women. That is a responsibility that falls to all of us equally. We must fearlessly stand up for the right of every girl to advance as far, or even further, than her male peers. And that means when inequality or violence seek to stamp out that opportunity, as with the tragic death of Nirbhaya, whose memory I was proud to honor at the State Department recently, we must all stand up and say no, just as so many did in Delhi, by demanding justice.

Today, Texans and their legislators have a choice. Regardless of which side of the debate you are on, be sure that your voice is heard, and your choice is known.







7 thoughts on “The sexual politics of choice

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