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a problem of empathy

July 9, 2011

As I’ve delved more deeply into the feminist blogosphere these past few weeks, orienting myself to the territory I’ve up and marched right into, I’ve read more than a few things that have made me think carefully about how much trouble the reproductive rights movement has making its case. According to the Guttmacher Institute:

At least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45, and, at current rates, nearly one-third will have had an abortion.

And yet Gallup tells us that 51% of Americans are pro-life (which I take to mean they believe abortion should be illegal). Unlike acceptance of civil rights for gays and lesbians, acceptance of this basic right for women appears to be declining. One blogger theorizes* that this is because the more people come to know the gays and lesbians around them, the more they accept them. But women who have abortions do not publicly identify, nor should they have to. We usually don’t know who is the one-in-three woman around us who has had or will have an abortion.

Because some pro-life people are convinced they don’t know anyone who has had or will have an abortion, possibly they are unable to imagine the circumstances under which they or their friends might be faced with such a decision. But it goes further: a pregnant friend of mine once told me that a pro-life friend of hers recommend she get an abortion if tests showed anything wrong with the fetus. This woman, who on a political level believes abortion should be illegal, did not realize the incongruence of her advice to her friend. Does she believe it should be illegal for some women but not others? If she feels her friend has a right to choose, why can she not feel empathy with other women who are currently having their right to make their own medical decisions taken away from them by state legislators? Why do her political beliefs and voting preferences not match up with her lived values?

Nebraska recently passed a law regulating the things abortion doctors can and should say to their patients. In the name of protecting women’s physical and mental health, the law completely ignores established, taught, and practiced medical standards that already serve that function. Yes, abortion providers do actually take steps to make sure the woman isn’t being coerced. They do encourage women to think carefully about their decisions and even ask them to come back in a few days when they feel more time is warranted to make the choice. All these laws do is make it harder for doctors to practice, which does not mean women will get fewer abortions. It means they will wait until later to do it and/or do it in an unsafe environment, which will threaten their health, not protect it.

(Sidebar: if the people writing these laws actually cared about protecting women’s health, wouldn’t they take the time to learn what measures are already being taken to do so before inventing a new set of regulations? It’s hard to believe that protecting women is their genuine motivation, and we have to wonder what it is that these men really want to regulate.)

But regardless of their motivation in passing the law, would Nebraska lawmakers have been moved to change their minds even if they had sought out or been confronted with this widely available information? My experience having these arguments is that it would not have changed their minds, and I think that’s because understanding something is about more than acknowledging (or refusing to acknowledge) facts. People have to be able to understand imaginatively what it would be like to need an abortion or to be an abortion doctor whose genuine goal is to provide medical care for women. And a lot of people apparently can’t do that.

I believe we should be able to walk imaginatively in someone else’s shoes whether we’ve met them or not. But it is hard, and it does take practice. And empathy is easier if you are empathizing with someone you know. I am all for continuing to try to counter the misinformation machine that is the conservative media, but how can the reproductive rights community also connect not as political enemies but rather on a personal level with pro-lifers? How can we make ourselves known to them as human beings, as opposed to as the caricatures of us being drawn by conservative information sources? And how can we seek out and connect with pro-life women who have had abortions, or encouraged their friends to, but nevertheless believe it should be illegal? How can we encourage them to empathize?

I can hear some people now saying, “But I do empathize. I empathize with the fetus.” I’m sorry, but it’s not actually possible to empathize with something that doesn’t have feelings. A fetus cannot feel grief or fear or regret. Even if it could, I have a hard time understanding how that can override consideration of the thinking and feeling woman faced with this choice. I’m not saying I think pro-life points of view are not rooted in genuine beliefs. They are. But they are not rooted in empathy.

I have to admit I have no story to tell, no way to use my personal experience to bridge this political gap. I have been very successful in using contraception my whole adult life, and not a little lucky that I have never been confronted with the consequences of the ways even that can go wrong. But it’s not hard for me to imagine being a pregnant victim of rape or incest, being a young girl who made a mistake, or a grown woman without the mental, physical or economic resources to take care of a child. I can also imagine being pregnant with a child that I want but that I am told is endangering my health or even my life. And I can imagine that in all of those situations, it is not the legislature or any branch of the government that I would want making my decision for me.

*My apologies, I lost track of where I read this or I would credit the author
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