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Abortion is a highly polarizing issue in America, and most people have strong opinions on it. In Abortion & the Politics of Motherhood, Kristin Luker analyzes it as a complex issue related to religious beliefs, attitudes about sexuality, historical context, and gender roles. Some people might think that is everyone could agree on when a life begins, whether its conception, birth, or somewhere in between, the debate would be over, but Luker argues that it wouldn’t end so simply.
To take a deeper look at the issue, Luker analyzes the deeper factors at play. “Why is the debate so bitter, so emotional? Part of the answer is simple: the two sides share almost no common premises and very little common language.” (Luker 2) “When pro-life and pro-choice activists think about abortion, abortion itself it merely ‘the tip of the iceberg.’ Different beliefs about the roles of the sexes, about the meaning of parenthood, and about human nature are all called into play when the issues is abortion.” (Luker 158)
One of the main differences between the movements on an activist level is that the pro-life movement is based mainly in religion, and the pro-choice movement has little to do with religion. “Almost 80 percent of the women active in the pro-life movement at the time are Catholics.” (Luker 196) “In sharp contrast, 63 percent of pro-choice women say that they have no religion.” (Luker 196) These differences in religion result in drastically different worldviews, the main reason that “personhood” really isn’t the end-all, be-all of the abortion debate.
“In the course of our interviewing for this book, we spoke with eleven activists throughout the state who began their public opposition to abortion before the passage of the 1967 Beilenson bill. Of these eleven, nine were Catholic male professionals and one was a housewife active in conjunction with her husband, himself a Catholic male professional.” (Luker 127-128) This also shows that there are most likely more men involved at the activist level on the pro-life side. Pro-life activists are highly religious, and base their entire lives around their religious belief. Thus, they use their religious beliefs for their activism. “Since they believe that these rules originate in a Divine Plan, they see them as transcendent principles, eternally valid regardless of time, cultural setting, and individual belief.” (Luker 174)
Another major factor in the debate is gender roles. Pro-life activists have very old-fashioned gender roles. Most of them believe that women are meant to be mothers and wives before they are to be anything else, whereas pro-life activists believe that motherhood and marriage are only options for women, and they aren’t all there is to life. “Pro-life activists agree that men and women, as a result of these intrinsic differences, have different roles to play: men are best suited to the public world of work, and women are best suited to rear children, manage homes, and love and care for husbands.” (Luker 160) On the contrary, “Pro-choice people agree that women (and men) find children and families to be a satisfying part of life, but they also think it is foolhardy for a woman to believe that this is the only life role they will ever have.” (Luker 176) Pro-choice activists believe that women should be able to support themselves without a husband, but should be able to take on whatever roles in life they find most appealing, be it mothers and wives, workers, or both.
There are also different views on sexuality that effect the abortion argument. Pro-choice activists see sex as not only a necessity for population, but a natural desire for pleasure, and therefore advocate for contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STD’s/STI/s. “More to the point, they argue that belief in the basically procreative nature of sex leads to an oppressive degree of social regulation of sexual behavior, particularly the behavior of women, who must be protected (in their viewpoint, repressed) because free expression of sexual wishes will get them “in trouble” and lead the species to overpopulation.” (Luker 177) To pro-choice activists, restricting abortion is oppressive because it limits their choices in life, and therefore leads to other problems like poverty and less opportunities for education and a career. There’s also a certain factor of alienation for women who are unwed and pregnant as presented by this interview: “The penalty was in effect to be excommunicated. Not literally, because she was still somewhat in touch, but she was removed from the roll of members and became a ‘listener’, as they said, an auditor. She could attend the church, but she would not be a member.” (Luker 177) Pro-choice activists feel that in a situation like this one, where a woman could face social backlash or isolation, an abortion is a valid option.
Meanwhile, pro-life attitudes on sexuality differ. For most, sex is for procreative purposes for a married man and his wife, and is unacceptable in any other instance. They see sex as sacred because it can bring children into the world. “Contraception, premarital sex, and infidelity are wrong not only because of their social consequences, but also because they strip sexual experience of its meaning.” (Luker 164) They feel that any time a married couple has sex, they should be open to the possibility of children, and that things that prevent a potential child from being born are wrong. “Virtually all of them felt very strongly that the pill and IUD are abortifacients (they may cause the death of a very young embryo) and that passage of a human life against abortion would also ban the pill and IUD. Most of them, furthermore, refused to use contraceptives on moral grounds.” (Luker 165)
Another factor in pro-choice and pro-life activists not being able to find common ground is the difference in their social status and interests. Aside from religious differences, there are differences in career standing and financial background. “Among pro-choice women, almost four out of ten had undertaken some graduate work beyond a BA degree.” (Luker 195) “Pro-life women, by comparison, had far less education:10 percent of them had only a high school education or less, and 30 percent had never finished college (in contrast with only 8 percent of the pro-choice women.
Pro-life women are also the least likely to be employed, and when they are, they earn only small amounts of income, but pro-choice women work at much higher rates, and make more money. “Among pro-life married women, for example, only 14 percent report any income at all.” (Luker 195) “An astounding 94 percent of all pro-choice women work, and over half of them have incomes in the top ten percent of working women in this country.” (Luker 195) It seems that these differences in education and employment can be traced back to attitudes about a woman’s place: pro- life women believe their place is taking care of their husband and kids, so education and employment are not important in their lives, but pro-choice women see education and work as equally valuable to family life.
Pro-life and pro-choice women also have differences in family size. Because most pro-life women are opposed to usage of birth control pills, condoms, IUDs, and other forms of contraception, they have more kids. “The average pro-choice family had between one and two children and was more likely to have one; pro-life families averaged between two and three children and were more likely to have three.” (Luker 196) They also have different attitudes on marriage and divorce, with pro-life women being more likely to be married and less likely to be divorced. “23 percent of pro-choice women had never been married, compared with only 16 percent of pro-life women; 14 percent of pro-choice women had been divorced, compared with 5 percent of pro-life women.” (Luker 196) The marriage difference is likely because pro-life women view marriage as one of the most important parts of life, and the difference in divorce rates is likely because the pro-life movement has so many Catholics, who believe that a divorce is a sin.
Luker also develops the “average” pro-choice and pro-life activist through looking at social background data. While for both sides, the average is a forty-four year old woman, that is about all they have in common. “She was married at age twenty-two, has one or two children, and has had some graduate or professional training beyond the B.A. degree. She is married to a professional man, is herself employed in a regular job, and her family income is more than $50,000 a year.” (Luker 197) Meanwhile, the pro-life advocate is almost her opposite. “She married at age seventeen and has three children or more…she has some college education or may have a B.A. degree. She is not employed in the paid labor force and is married to a small businessman or lower level white collar worker; her family income is less than $30,000 a year.” (Luker 197) Luker also adds that the fathers of pro-choice activists were more likely to have a higher education than those of pro-life activists.
Where could all this lead to? Luker feels that it’s unpredictable, because these attitudes and beliefs can change. “It is possible that the pro-life movement may succeed in getting abortion defined-at least on the legal level- as something that is morally wrong. On the other hand, it is just as likely that the pro-choice movement will be able to maintain the definition of abortion as a complicated moral dilemma whose dimensions must be defined by the woman herself.” (Luker 244) Because there are so many activists on both sides, and it’s an issue both sides are passionate about, it’s difficult to tell what else will happen, especially in the current unstable political climate.
To conclude, there are numerous factors involved in the abortion debate besides just “When is an embryo/fetus considered a human life?” or “Is it wrong to end a potential life?”. Most of the other factors at play are religion, beliefs on sexuality, beliefs on gender roles, differences in financial and social background, and different family types. Because of all these differences, it seems unlikely that pro-choice and pro-life activists could ever find any common ground.
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