Reclaiming the term ‘pro-life’

Like most “pro-choice” activists, I value life. I think it’s a travesty that 80,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions in countries where the procedure is illegal or highly regulated. I don’t think women should have to risk their lives in order to terminate a pregnancy. To borrow a phrase from former President Bill Clinton, I want abortion to be safe, legal and rare.

Most Americans would agree with me, even if they don’t identify with the pro-choice position. But a deep divide exists between Americans who identify themselves as pro-life and the organizations that claim to represent them. The major “Right to Life” organizations in this country have hijacked the term “pro-life,” claiming to be compassionate and instead pushing policies that harm women and families. It’s time for pro-choice activists, who actually value the lives of women, men and children, to take back the term “pro-life.”

Your typical person interprets “pro-life” to simply mean “anti-abortion,” and your average pro-lifer probably says that they want to decrease the abortion rate and would never have an abortion. This view can shift, of course, when one is actually faced with an unintended pregnancy: 40 percent of women who have abortions are Catholics or evangelical Christians.

Regardless, even if pro-lifers think abortion should be illegal, they typically support exemptions for victims of rape or incest and for women whose life or health would be endangered by carrying a pregnancy to term. Pro-life individuals believe in, and often use, contraception. Seventy-five percent of sexually active, childbearing-age Catholic women, for example, currently use a form of contraception forbidden by their church. They logically can see that the best way to prevent abortion is to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place.

So-called “pro-life” organizations, on the other hand, are largely anti-contraception and pro-abstinence. Contrary to popular perception, these organizations actually care very little about decreasing the abortion rate or helping families. They are opposed to abortion even in cases of rape or incest, and some have the audacity to claim, without any medical evidence, that abortion is never necessary to save the life or protect the health of a pregnant woman.

These organizations only care about “life” up until the moment of birth. They don’t even try to help women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term. To date, not a single “pro-life” organization has joined with the several pro-choice groups working to secure more federal funding for prenatal care and infant nutrition programs for low-income women. Our “pro-life” president, George W. Bush, has even taken it upon himself to cut funding for these programs.

Their ultimate goal, of course, is to outlaw abortion and all kinds of contraception. But outlawing abortion doesn’t translate into a decreased abortion rate. Brazil, for example, has two to three times the abortion rate of the United States and about 20 times the maternal mortality rate, thanks to illegal procedures. Haiti, where abortion is also illegal, has more than 83 times the maternal mortality rate of the United States.

The response from “pro-life” groups and our “pro-life” president? Limit family planning services and ignore scientific fact. At a recent United Nations conference, the U.S. delegation, led by so-called “pro-family” groups, announced that it would be pushing an abstinence-only policy to decrease HIV rates, complete with claims — again, contrary to all medical and scientific evidence — that condoms don’t work in preventing HIV infection.

This position is hardly pro-life; in fact, it’s practically a death sentence.

Anti-choice groups have also pushed abstinence-only education here in the United States. Under their curriculums, teachers are only allowed to talk about condoms and contraceptives in terms of failure rates — if they are allowed to talk about them at all. If we want to see the effects of this education, there’s no better place to look than Bush’s home state of Texas, which now has the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the country.

It’s pro-choice organizations that work to decrease the abortion rate by promoting comprehensive sex education, affordable birth control, family planning services and HIV-prevention programs that have proven to be effective. Pro-choice groups similarly push for programs that actually help women who choose to have children, programs like prenatal and well-baby care, subsidized day care and aid to low-income women with dependent children.

Organizations that seek to help women and families while lowering the abortion rate are pro-life. Those that dogmatically compromise women’s lives are not. It’s time for a shifting definition of the term “pro-life” for all of us who believe that women’s lives matter. After four years of Bush and more than 30 years of post-Roe reproductive-rights activism, the evidence speaks for itself: Pro-choice is pro-life.

Jill Filipovic, Washington Square News, New York University