Expanding the dead-end debate over abortion

The abortion debate in Texas—and throughout the country—has dead-ended: pro-life v. pro-choice, saving the unborn child v. protecting the rights of the mother, responsibility v. freedom. Every encounter leaves each side more dug in.

As the Texas Legislature takes up abortion bills in its second special session, we can deepen that debate simply by recognizing the complexity of the issue, which usually is plowed under in the short-term goal of passing or defeating a particular bill. That’s politics, but beneath are deeper questions.

I am a firm supporter of abortion rights for women. So, let’s take that side first. By framing the issue in terms of women’s right to choose, abortion-rights supporters typically minimize or avoid the question of the moral status of the fetus, which can’t be taken lightly. Simply asserting that life begins at conception feels like an inadequate answer, but we can’t we pretend that viability—the ability of the fetus to survive outside the womb—is the obvious point at which a fetus becomes a person. Rather than settling for simplistic answers or ignoring the question, we can recognize the confusion many of us feel in the face of such a vexing problem.

For the anti-abortion side: It is time to recognize that this debate takes place in a male-dominated society in which women are routinely at risk, including at home. Though many think it’s an old-fashioned word, the United States is a patriarchal society, and in patriarchy women are not safe from men’s control and men’s violence. A continuum of domination—from subtle forms of harassment and coercion, to physical assault and rape—means that many women become pregnant under conditions in which meaningful options are severely limited. To further constrain women by limiting access to abortion further entrenches male dominance.

We should recognize that the abortion debate is also a debate—overtly or covertly—about sexual behavior. Abortion opponents often are critical of practices such as premarital or gay/lesbian sex. Abortion supporters typically support an expanded conception of acceptable sexual practices. Again, we routinely get locked into a dead-end debate—“family values” v. “sexual liberation”—and, again, the tendency to caricature the other side can obscure deeper questions.

I am a firm supporter of encouraging healthy sexual exploration for everyone, not limited just to heterosexuals who are married. In short, I’m against patriarchal sexual rules that are harsh and life-denying.

But I am a critic of the way in which the liberal approach to sex has led to an increasingly coarse sexual culture, seen most glaringly in the routine objectification and degradation of women in pornography, stripping, and prostitution. In short, I’m against liberalized sexual norms that also can be harsh and life-denying.

Acknowledging the complexity of the moral question doesn’t automatically mean we should outlaw abortion. Acknowledging the brutality of patriarchy doesn’t mean we cannot consider some limits on abortion. Recognizing that the abortion debate embroils us in equally contentious debates about sexual behavior doesn’t magically clear up the issue.

My political positions are rooted in a feminist analysis that highlights the destructive nature of patriarchy. While I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, I hope it’s possible to disagree more constructively.

The United States is a deeply religious country committed to secular government. No single authority can produce easy answers to problems that are morally and politically complex. My hope is that whichever side “wins” any specific political struggle, all sides can recognize that victory does not put to rest questions that should trouble us all.

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Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue.

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