Abortion is a nuanced issue that deserves more nuanced treatment than it gets on either end. But there’s an element of reality that both sides seem to overlook. I have a bold suggestion. The Democrats need to insert (no pun intended) sex back into the discourse. Let’s start with the basics: you can’t get pregnant if you don’t have sex. You can’t have an abortion if you don’t get pregnant. Wait, hold on a second. Let’s backpedal to that first point. You can’t get pregnant if you don’t have sex—without birth control. And birth control doesn’t have the same stigma that abortion does.
Having spent a semester abroad in Ireland surrounded by a group of mostly-observant American Catholics, I can assure you that we were on the exact same page when it came to the importance of birth control—whether or not we disagreed on abortion. And the same goes for the morning-after pill. I don’t want to make any sweeping generalizations about anyone’s religion, but instead to say that many young people are frank and pragmatic when it comes to sex, and might not be pleased to hear politicians condemning their behavior (and, more often than not, their favorite subject).
It is indeed our generation’s fixation, and why shouldn’t it be? It’s every young generation’s fixation. We’re young, hormonal, and we’re inundated with sexual imagery everywhere, even as the Establishment shies away from mentioning it. The same culture that brings us “Girls Gone Wild” (a pathetic attempt at porn that savvy Europeans would mock), also brought us Nipplegate at last year’s Superbowl (they’d mock that too). The same culture that prosecuted a president for his sexual affairs printed the details of those affairs in public, making Ken Starr seem as pervy as he is prudish. And the same culture that refuses to give us proper sex education or insurance to cover the Pill gives us the constant threat of an abortion ban. I think we’d prefer something in between.
That vast American paradox, that Puritanism mixed with lasciviousness, is why the Bush-backed abstinence-only movement withers in the face of reality. Although the media obsess over The New Abstinence (as much as they print stories about thirteen year-olds giving blowjobs) few will deny the fact that most young people are curious about sex. Very curious. And that abstinence works, but only for some. And that condoms are so, so, so important.
Therein lies the far right’s hypocrisy on abortion, and that’s where the pro-choice movement has to hit hard. The very same people who say that birth control should not be taught in school, or in many cases, be available at all, the very same people who shooed Jocelyn Elders out of office for suggesting that masturbation was an alternative to sex, the very same people who’d love to get rid of the morning-after pill along with abortion, are the ones who claim to promote a culture of sexual morality.
So what they’re saying is that if everyone good stops having sex outside of marriage and abortion is made illegal, we’ll have no problem, right? All the bad women will have to have their unwanted babies, or go to Sweden (rich), or be killed in a botched abortion attempt (poor). As for the men, whose refusal to wear a condom just might have led to the pregnancy, they can fritter away their existence with absolutely zero consequences to their actions. That doesn’t seem moral at all.
The “pro-life” movement as it stands makes a judgment with which many Americans, when they step back to think about it, will be profoundly uncomfortable. I’d like to see a prominent Democrat dare the anti-abortion leaders to support a widespread revamping of sexual education, to hand out free condoms in high schools, or teach a class on responsible sexual behavior before they picket abortion clinics. And I’d like to see those Dems get up and say that there are worse things facing our country than a two second sight of a woman’s breast—like poverty, health care, and yep, the restriction of reproductive rights.
Unfortunately, the anti-abortion movement has succeeded to a certain extent in making pregnant women look like cold, unfeeling murderers. With its zealous and largely male leadership, the movement remains linked with longstanding fear and hatred towards that great mystery—female sexuality. So while the discourse on abortion continues to ignore the entire spectrum of sexual behavior, social pressures, and poverty that leads to a individual’s decision over whether to have an abortion, we are stuck in a fruitless struggle, one that will continue along the path of demonizing women and framing the act of abortion as inherently bad (a judgment I disagree with, but which is founded largely on personal conviction and can’t be changed).
Attention, Democrats! Don’t talk with the terms the Right wing has given you. Speak to our generation, the one that was supposed to sweep Kerry into office. Grit your teeth and deal with our country’s irrational ban on doing what Salt’n’Pepa so eloquently urged us all to do in the early 90s. Talk about sex, and my guess is people will listen.
Sarah M. Seltzer ’05 is an English concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.