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Women’s Advocate Parses Pro-Life/Pro-Choice Rhetoric


Lynn Paltrow says the notion of “pro-lives” values everyone involved in a pregnancy.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

The terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” do not adequately capture the wide range of ideas surrounding the issue of abortion in the United States, a nationally known women’s rights advocate said at Fordham.

When set in opposition to each other, the terms create a dichotomy and ignore the complexities that go into deciding whether to carry a fetus to term, according to Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of Na­tional Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Paltrow was the featured speaker at “Is There a Difference Between Being Pro-Life and Pro-Lives?” a symposium on March 2 about the legal, medical and practical implications of fetal rights claims—not only for women who terminate their pregnancies, but for women who carry their pregnancies to term.

Pro-choice advocates use the language of choice and emphasize a woman’s control over her body. But by studying hundreds of letters written to the National Abortion Rights Action League from women who had abortions, Paltrow discovered that the language of choice and autonomy does not speak to the reasons women choose abortions. She said their decisions very often are driven by other responsibilities, such as caring for a dying parent or caring for a living child with a severe disability.

According to Paltrow, one-third of all abortion clinic patients consider them­selves pro-life and against abortion.

Pro-life advocates put an emphasis on the life of the fetus over every living person’s life, she said. At the same time, people who are pro-life are not looking to intentionally ignore pregnant women, their needs or their living families. Most abortions performed today happen to women who are already mothers or will become mothers eventually, so having an abortion is not about devaluing life, but about what is realistic at the time, Paltrow said.

“There is something very attractive to me about being pro-life. I have always felt uncomfortable—given what I do and my particular politics—that I’m kind of excluded from that. I’m not allowed to be pro-life because of my positions and my work around the issue of abortion,” she said.

“I do not think that the ‘pro-life’ word has really captured many of those who define themselves as pro-life, nor do I think the word ‘pro-choice’ captures many of the people who call themselves pro-choice. I have found much more helpful the notion of ‘pro-lives.’”

“Pro-lives,” as Paltrow described it, takes into account all who are involved in or affected by a pregnancy. The fetus is valued, but the term also allows for the pregnant woman, her family and personal situation to be valued as well.

Michael Baur, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of law at Fordham, served as the event’s respondent. Baur focused on the importance of pregnant women and argued that social and legal institutions do not see to the needs of pregnant women as well as they should.

For instance, fear of arrest keeps pregnant women who are drug users from getting help and prenatal care, he said. Baur also pointed out that not all life is valued unconditionally, or else the speed limit would be no higher than 5 miles per hour. He said that just because fetuses are alive does not mean that society should value their lives over the lives of their mothers.

In addition, Baur suggested that pro-life and pro-choice groups look across the abortion divide and understand the good that each side does to help pregnant women, such as providing support systems, child care, medical care and other forms of advocacy for women who are having difficulties.

He also encouraged the audience to remember that just because they think an opposing viewpoint is wrong, that doesn’t mean the people who hold that viewpoint are unreasonable. Knowledge, he said, can be gained by understanding both sides of the debate.


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