The Debate Over Choice

Why the world has always been terrified of childfree women.

Amidst the overwhelming panic of the pandemic, issues such as a woman’s right to choose and the state of abortion in the United States have flown below the radar for much of the past year, making what normally would have been a hot topic during the election and the start of Biden’s presidency more of an afterthought. One shouldn’t confuse silence with a resolution, however: several states are using the pandemic as a scapegoat to tighten restrictions on access to abortions and planned parenthood services, under the assertion that such medical procedures are elective in nature (Sobel et al., 2020). Now (as light can finally be seen at the end of the hell-hole that is COVID-19) seems like just as good of a time as any to analyze the situation that we–on a global scale–will find ourselves back in regards to women’s rights and, of course, how on God’s green earth we even got here in the first place. Prepare yourself, dear reader, because this dive into history is murkier than most.

The Debate at Hand: A Painter or an Engineer?

Regardless of where the debate is occurring, there seems to be an almost universal topic regarding abortion: are you pro-life or pro-choice? What a person decides will likely involve, on the most basic level, when they believe a human life starts. Someone who is pro-choice often views the process of pregnancy more as a construction than a development, often looking at it from a biological rather than religious standpoint. A useful analogy for this is the construction of a car: at what point in the process can the car be deemed a car rather than a pile of materials? Some could argue it’s when the engine works, or when the frame of the car is in place, or even when the car is capable of movement in any sort of capacity (Johnston, 2007). However, few would deem the piles of metal lying around at the beginning of construction a car, and as such, the argument of when personhood can be assigned can be debated at various stages within the pregnancy.

In contrast, someone who is pro-life/anti-choice sees pregnancy as development instead (Johnston), viewing the process as more like an artist completing a painting. The artist needs time to create their work of art, but it’s technically a work of art throughout, requiring only time to bring it to completion. This is the first major hill that many debates regarding abortion cannot seem to get past: when does human life begin, and where does the immorality lie? Does human life begin at conception and deserve to be protected, as the more religious pro-life proponents claim? Or if life begins then, where do miscarriages or un-implanted zygotes fit in the discussion of abortion, as many pro-choice advocates would argue? The debate over the nature or sanctity of human life can and has gone on for centuries. However, cutting off the conversation there does little to address a big issue encircling the debate over abortion: the bodily autonomy of women and women’s rights as a whole.

A Brief History of Women’s Bodily Rights (Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Great)

Surprisingly, some can argue that women’s bodily autonomy was somewhat equal in pagan times, reaching an all-time low only with the rise of Christianity. The earliest known description of abortion dates from 1550 BCE in Egypt, recorded on the Ebers Papyrus (Head, 2019). It places abortion as one of the world’s oldest medical practices and was seen as a regular procedure, being practiced by the Greeks, Romans, and Persians. We can still see the unequal value of women and their bodily autonomy in some of the laws passed — the Assyrian Code of Assura condemns married women who procure abortions by inhibiting their husband from having a child as a byproduct — but things only took a turn for the worse as Christianity rose to prominence (Head).

Much of the history of Christianity, unfortunately, has been fixated on controlling women’s bodies and using them as a scapegoat for lust and sexual desires, using the tale of the original sin of Eve and pagan mythological creatures as an allegory for the sins of the female form. It was ideas like this regarding the “true nature” of women that often led to brutal retaliation, such as the widespread witch hunts of Europe in the 1400s. While the ways in which these ideas were passed on to the modern-day are complex and multifaceted, there is no denying that they still hold a place in legitimate discussions regarding abortion. It’s no surprise that a woman’s bodily autonomy has hardly ever been taken seriously over the course of human history. How can it be, when women in certain cultures today are still regarded as property, or don’t have the right to vote, or cannot safely receive an education? The debate over whether or not women are deserving of the bare minimum title of “human being” is something that, somehow, the world in many ways is still debating, which makes the pro-life mantra of the sanctity of all life all the more frustrating.

Society’s Biggest Fear is….Childfree Women?

This notion that a woman’s body either must be or deserves to be controlled has obviously seeped into reproductive care in ways that often go unnoticed. This is especially true in regards to whether or not a woman decides to have children at all which, unfortunately, often gets ignored or pushed aside due to the long-held cultural delusion that any “normal” woman would want to conceive.

Consider the following analogy: your help is enlisted by your boss to help plan a big party for a retiring coworker. You’re told that you can pick any task you want or think that you will enjoy, but your boss secretly hopes that you’ll help prepare food, knowing that it’s the most time-consuming task and that you’re one of the few people with the talents to do it. Unaware of this, you pick another task, and while your boss tries to act supportive of this decision, they continue to drop hints as time passes on, making passing comments that not enough people are bringing food, that you must be such a good chef or baker, and that it’s not a big deal anyway. Eventually, your boss demands that you bring food to the party as well, claiming that it’s a crucial part of your job and that your ability to deliver will weigh heavily on whether or not they deem you a fit employee as a whole.

This analogy reflects the absurdity over society’s fear of childless women: that something as minute as to whether or not they decide to conceive children plays such a huge role whether or not society deems them successful and worthy of praise. It’s common to see toys like baby dolls catered to young girls that try to foster the nurturing, sensitive and caring personalities that society expects of women to adopt, all in the name of preparing them for eventual motherhood. Young women who feel that they want to focus on their careers more or are uncertain of whether or not they want to have children are falsely encouraged, with feigned support of their choice to focus on their own lives with the undertone of “you still have plenty of time” coming from multiple social relationships in her life (Brockwell, 2016). As time passes, however, it is clearer that her lifestyle is no longer welcome, with those who opt for a tubal ligation often face countless loopholes and multiple doctors to get the procedure (Abraham, 2016).

So, how can we ever seriously consider discussing abortion without even bothering to take just a glimpse into the vast history of women and their fight for bodily autonomy? There are complicated issues at hand to be sure, ones that challenge our notions of life and death, of biology and religion. But anyone who is incapable of seeing where the true heart of this argument lies may just be conveniently choosing to ignore history. We as human beings don’t know when life begins, and there’s a high probability that we never will. But we all possess the ability to learn, adapt, and grow from the history that lies just behind us, and to not even acknowledge the bad seeds that we’ve planted is just as good as condemning the future to repeat the past.