When President Obama appeared last week at Notre Dame, he called for greater understanding on both sides of the abortion divide. While his nuanced approach deserves appreciation, what bothers me about the continued dissection of this issue is that it is not honest at its root.
The decision to "choose life" is simply a false choice. The recent Gallup Poll, for example, asked people if they were pro-life or pro-choice. But such a dichotomy is not only polarizing -- it offers "choice-less" options. As a mother, grandmother, and advocate of women's issues, I refuse to be labeled "pro-choice" or "pro-life." I am both, and I suspect the same of the majority of Americans. Let's not parse words; to be pro-choice is also to be pro-life -- it's just a matter of which life you're discussing: the fetus in the womb or the woman carrying it.
Being pro-choice or pro-life is a false distinction created by fear, and it is not founded on the moral high ground it clams to hold. Instead, the division of the abortion issue into two divergent camps is based on cultural anxieties regarding motherhood.
Before we go any further, allow me to offer my mothering bonafides: I have five children, including an adopted son, and seven grandkids. I cut my teeth in the '70s and '80s working on the issues of childcare and early childhood education. As it turned out, one of our children had special needs, and I became a Montessori teacher so I could take him to a school that would enhance his potential.
The most important issue for me has always been how women and men participate in work, family, and community. I have always believed that to be "for women" is to be for families -- including men -- no matter how often conservatives paint feminists as anti-male.
Nothing has validated my feelings on this issue more than my experience in the past decade working to get more women into leadership alongside men (an avenue, by the way, which will transform our nation by bringing all of our resources to the table). Connie Buchanan, the former Associate Dean of Harvard Divinity School, was the most influential voice to me on this topic. As she wrote in her book, Choosing to Lead, despite the enormous gains we have made in the last twenty-five years, "the cultural ideal of women in America is that of wife and mother."
I have personally witnessed this "cultural ideal" keeping women out of power, from the political landscape to the corporate arena. As co-founder of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, I heard over and over the same question from girls visiting the workplace: " Can I have a family and work here, too?" In my current role at The White House Project, as we train thousands of women to lead in civic and political life in America, I hear the same tune again as women continue to question female politicians about work and family.
So what does this have to do with being pro-life or pro-choice? Essentially, it forms the crux of the entire abortion debate.
As Kristen Luker said in her 1984 book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, real concern about abortion has to do with whether women will stop choosing motherhood if we have other choices. Although the mantra of the pro-choice movement is prevention and not abortion, and though focus has been on the myriad ways women and men can use contraception, the rabid opposition to abortion continues. Interestingly, during the Clinton administration, abortions decreased, while under George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, both "pro-life" presidents, abortions increased.
What if the immense amount of energy and money, the anger and divisiveness that go into the "pro-life" movement were to go toward movements that help men choose fatherhood, and help communities support families through abundant childcare? As a former preschool teacher, I know children prefer being with groups of other children and learning together, and that working with children alongside other adults (what amounts to tribal ways of raising children) is far superior to isolated nuclear families.
Fortunately, this is the direction Obama took in his address at Notre Dame. He encouraged respectful dialogue and policies that care for and support women and their children. When hecklers in the audience stood and shouted hateful epithets, the audience drowned them out, retorting with Obama's campaign slogan, "Yes, we can."
That is what it truly means to "choose life."
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