Not an Easy Choice
Back when Not an Easy Choice was first published, I was apprehensive about how my colleagues in the pro-choice movement would react to the book’s call to re-examine abortion. There were real fears that it would amount to "washing our dirty linen in public," that bringing these aspects of the debate out into the open would only give ammunition to our opponents. At one conference, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the hero of the abortion rights movement in Canada, came up to me and said he’d heard that from other activists that I’d "gone over to the other side," but after reading the book, he was reassured that wasn’t the case. At the time, I felt it was important for feminists to try to counter the popular perception that we didn’t think about these things, that we were cavalier about something that most people felt was a matter of grave importance. In the end, I think the book helped strengthen the pro-choice movement - by shifting the terms of the public discussion, by opening up new ways of talking about abortion.
What, then, does choice look like in 2003? I stressed in the earlier edition of this book that choice was anything but "pure and simple", but now, in the age of reprotech it is infinitely more complex. Indeed, in many ways it’s like we’re living on a different planet. Back in 1981, amniocentesis was just becoming commonplace, and I was one of the last generation of women not to receive a routine ultrasound during my pregnancy. Now genetic screening and selective abortion for Down Syndrome, as well as a host of other conditions, have become standard procedure. Yet the moral and social problems raised by this trend, especially regarding the rights and value of disabled people in society, remain as knotty and unresolved as ever. Genetic screening may give us more "choice," but it’s also made parents more reluctant to settle for offspring they regard as less-than-perfect.
Another area of contention unforeseen back in the eighties concerns the use of stem cells in the treatment of Parkinson’s and other diseases. Research over the past few decades has demonstrated the remarkable regenerative power of these building-block cells, and the best source of stem cells is human embryos from fertility labs. Given the pro-life view that embryos have full personhood from conception, it’s not surprising that anti-abortion groups have bitterly opposed the medical use of stem cells, and in 2001 they successfully lobbied President Bush to block federal funding for stem cell research. That extreme position aside, there are some very real ethical issues in the stem cell debate. It’s one thing to make use of "leftover" embryos, whose creation is an unavoidable by-product of in vitro fertilization. But what about the ethics of creating embryos specifically for the purpose of harvesting stem cells, which becomes a very real possibility as pressures for these treatments increase? On the other side, advocates for stem cell research make the ethical argument that the new treatments will prevent suffering and save lives. The issue has caused some serious rifts on the Right, most notably former U.S. first lady Nancy Reagan, who has broken with fellow right-wing Republicans to lobby for stem cell research that could lead to a breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, the disease that has afflicted her husband, former president Ronald Reagan, for more than a decade. As so often happens in the swirl of issues surrounding abortion, when the political becomes personal, morality becomes much less hard-and-fast.
There are significant differences in the political climate in the U.S. and Canada that affect the abortion issue. The so-called "family values" agenda that holds such sway in the U.S. is a far more marginal phenomenon in Canada. It’s become fashionable on both sides of the border to poke fun at the stereotype of the ultra-polite, middle-of-the-road Canadian, but in the political arena, at least, Canadians really don’t care for extremes. The reign of the pro-choice (and avowedly centrist) Liberals at the federal level shows every sign of outliving the retirement of longtime Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Even in the unlikely event that the Canadian Alliance, the only far-right party of any consequence at the federal level, came to power, they’d be reluctant to launch a wholesale assault on abortion rights. As right-wing provincial governments (including in my home province of Ontario) have learned, the way to hang onto power in this country is by distancing themselves from "social" conservatism and sticking to hot-button economic issues like tax cuts and welfare reform. In fact, should the U.S. right succeed in overturning Roe vs. Wade, we might be facing a replay of the border scenario from the Vietnam war era - only this time, instead of serving as a haven for draft dodgers and war resisters, Canada would be a haven for women seeking reproductive choice.
The eternal problem with abstract debates about abortion is that they stray too far from day-to-day reality. The fact is that throughout history, humans have struggled to control the number of children they have. When faced with unwanted pregnancy, women in past times turned to herbal abortifacients, primitive surgeries and even more drastic means such as exposure and infanticide. We no longer have to resort to such measures. Medical technology, problematic as it is in so many ways, has helped to free us from necessity and give us choice in childbearing. In 1984 I felt like I was going out on a limb in writing this book, but since then the views expressed in Not an Easy Choice have entered the mainstream. People are still ambivalent about abortion. They know that sometimes it’s straightforward, sometimes messy and complicated, and often sad. They do believe that it’s an issue with moral dimensions. But at the end of the day, they realize that the only reasonable way to deal with an unwanted pregnancy is to leave the choice up to the individual woman.
Copyright Kathleen McDonnell 2003