The XX Factor

What If You Weren’t Ever Conceived?

Rachael , it is true that I think abortion rights are an important subject in a country where one-third of American women will get an abortion in her lifetime. But I also think it’s important as a cultural touchstone for the reasons Ellen Willis singled out back in 1980 , when she noted that the extremist anti-choice movement was the cutting edge of the scary right wing. Before global warming denialists cut their teeth, there were anti-choice fanatics spreading scientific misinformation about the dangers of abortion and contraception. Before tea partiers were shouting down representatives at town halls, anti-choicers perfected the politics of scary confrontation at clinics passed off as “protest.” And let’s not even talk about how anti-abortion terrorism predated and predicted the larger militia movement and domestic terrorism like the Oklahoma federal building bombing.

As a wise reproductive rights activist once told me over dinner, “You’re dealing with where more people come from. It doesn’t get more serious than that.”

As for the question of the narcissism of the “What if you were aborted?” question, well, I don’t think that everyone who responds to that gambit is necessarily a huge narcissist. But I do think that the link I provided is a pretty good example of shocking egocentrism. Specifically, Tom Coburn said that we should not allow rape victims to have abortions, because his own great-grandmother was raped and had the baby, and that’s why we’re all blessed to have Tom Coburn on hand to ask Elena Kagan stupid questions. Yes, I find that unbelievably narcissistic and cold-hearted, to breeze right past a horrible crime and the trauma it can cause like that. I’m reminded of Sharron Angle telling rape victims that their rape was part of God’s plan, and that’s why they can’t have abortions. Of course, I might point out that it could be God’s plan to have reproductive choice available so that the potential in already existing women can be expressed.

The question you ask about potential-your belief that the potential life that is stopped by an abortion-is something we can take in many directions. Indeed, it’s why anti-contraception advocates oppose contraception, because it also stops potential lives from forming. Of course, they also advocate abstinence, and that also stops potential lives. My mother married this man and not that; do I weep at night for the babies not made instead of me? Our very existence depends on this sperm swimming faster than that, our parents having sex on this night and not that. Some people’s existence depends on abortion, even! Many women have babies down the road that they wouldn’t have had if they hadn’t had an abortion earlier in life. Do those babies down the road have more or less right to exist? It’s a rabbit hole that you fall down when you start arguing that potential is the same thing as existence.

I choose to be pro-choice because it seems smarter to me to invest in the people that are already here instead of dwell on the infinite possibilities. Women also have potential, and we can see it in them, unlike that of an embryo’s that might just be miscarried anyway. They have hopes and dreams and ideas, all of which are real and can be thwarted or even ruined by forced childbearing. And women themselves know this, which is why banning abortion has rarely done much to stop abortion.

As for the specific “you could have been aborted” thing: I was also an oops baby. I’m much happier that I was born after legal abortion, because it makes me feel like I was chosen instead of forced on my mother. But if she felt she had to choose otherwise, well … I have to say that my love for my mother is such that forcing childbirth on her is a repulsive idea to me. And if she hadn’t had me, I would no more regret that than all the thousands of potential children that any woman could have regret that they were never conceived or born.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.