Op-Ed: Time For A New Approach To Abortion Rights

As several state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives are consider measures to restrict access to abortions, Frances Kissling, former president for Catholics for Choice, says the abortion rights movement must adjust its tactics to the 21st century.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the opinion page. Since the November elections, both state legislatures and the House of Representatives have considered bills to limit abortion rights. And yesterday, in a piece in The Washington Post Outlook section, Frances Kissling argued that the abortion rights movement needs to adjust its tactics to the 21st century. We can no longer pretend the fetus is invisible, she wrote. And she added, if the choice movement does not change, control of policy on abortion will remain in the hands of those who want it criminalized.

If you support abortion rights, do you think current arguments are outdated? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website and find a link to the op-ed. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Frances Kissling is former president of Catholics for Choice, now a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. And she joins on the line from Mexico City. And nice to have you with us today.

Ms. FRANCES KISSLING (Visiting Scholar, Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania): Nice to be with you. Thank you.

CONAN: And essentially, you argue that those who oppose abortion rights have made considerable ground with tactics that focus on advances in fetal medicine, while your side continues to cling to the arguments that prevailed in Roe v. Wade.

Ms. KISSLING: Right. I think the other thing that I would say about those who are opposed to abortion is that they have also incorporated into the way they argue about the issue, women. And, you know, initially, you had - those who are opposed to abortion talked only about fetuses. And those of us who are in favor about it talked only about women. And now, while I disagree with a lot of what those who are opposed to abortion say about women, the fact is that they are talking about women as well.

I think that, essentially, I think I have the unfortunate proclivity as an activist to believe that people can hold contradictory things and complex values at the same time. And so I think that the movement - that movement which is able to talk both about fetuses and their value and about women is the side that is going to win over the majority of the American people.

CONAN: And it does appear, at least according to the opinion polls you cite in your piece, that your side has been losing.

Ms. KISSLING: We've been - you're right. We - I mean, I think, again, polls are very complicated instruments. But generally speaking, what you now have is a larger percentage of - you have the same number of people pro-choice and pro-life, but you have more people willing to call themselves pro-life than was true 10 or 15 years ago. People still want abortion to be legal, but the pro-life label has become much more attractive than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

CONAN: And you say that it is now useless for abortion rights advocates to argue that an abortion at 26 weeks is the same as an abortion at six weeks.

Ms. KISSLING: Well, I think it's not - I don't think it's useless. I think that it's actually wrong in the sense that at - and I've believe this, you know, all my life, that as fetal life develops for most of us, it takes on more weight. And once a fetus is viable, that is can live outside of the woman's body, abortion becomes a slightly different situation and one in which I think, you know, with those of us who are pro-choice need to recognize these differences.

CONAN: Recognize how? By bargaining away of rights, that...

Ms. KISSLING: I don't think anybody should bargain away anything. I mean, I'm - you know, I don't think these are - for me, these are not -I mean, I think that what gets confused is in this conversation is whether we're talking solely about tactics or whether we're talking about what is an intelligent, rational, value-oriented position on abortion. Is there such a thing?

I believe women have the right to choice to have an abortion. But I think that all rights, almost all rights, have some limits and boundaries. And in the abortion discussion, what we're looking for -both sides are looking for is, what are those limits and boundaries? And I think that those of us who are pro-choice have not paid adequate attention to the concept of limits and boundaries.

I think that - and, you know, I've said this in other places - I think that when a woman has had, essentially, five months to make up her mind about whether she wishes to have an abortion, when the fetus can survive outside of the woman's body, that it is probably time to limit abortion to only the most serious of circumstances.

Not everyone is going to agree with me. I'm not expecting them to. But I don't consider that - that's not, for me, a bargaining position. That's a position that indicates that we, as a society, can both value women's lives and their life project, as well as pay some respect to the value of developing human life.

CONAN: You say these are not compromises or mere strategic concessions. They are a necessary evolution. So, clearly, you argue that these are good tactics, as well.

Ms. KISSLING: I think they are good tactics. I mean, often - once in a while, good tactics and good values coincide in life. I think this is one of - for me, this is one of those situations.

CONAN: It has been, for a lot of people, a black-and-white issue with no ground to give, that those who say where there should never be an abortion under any circumstances...

Ms. KISSLING: Right.

CONAN: ...whatsoever, including rape, incest, the health of the mother. There are those who say the right to an abortion must be absolute.

Ms. KISSLING: That's right. And I think that we, you know, that we live in a society - and the problem, of course, is that the law is not the best instrument for negotiating nuance, and I recognize that. But I also think that we have relied - almost exclusively, as a pro-choice movement - on the law as the way of describing our vision and our values. And this battle over abortion has gone on with increased intensity since it has been made legal.

My approach is a longer-term approach, and that is that we need to have a cultural discussion, a moral discussion about abortion, about women's lives, about the meaning of life. And that's what I'm trying to introduce into our discussion. I'm certainly not the only person who's doing that. But that's certainly my trajectory, is the cultural trajectory, not the legal trajectory.

I - you know, I think that the legal movement, the political movement on the choice side faces, you know, a very tough battle. And I would not -I am not an intimate part of that battle, and I wouldn't deign to suggest how they should handle this in the day-to-day struggle on Capitol Hill. But how we talk about abortion, as a pro-choice movement, is far more a cultural indicator of who we are and of whether people will affiliate with us.

I think when we seem to be single-minded on this issue, when we seem to close our eyes to some of the complexities that people are feeling, when we don't recognize that there might be some limits and that there are some boundaries, we don't look like we take abortion seriously. And when we don't look like we take abortion seriously, people don't want to affiliate with us.

CONAN: We're talking with Frances Kissling about her op-ed that appeared in Sunday's Washington - pro-choice. She's the former president of Catholics for Choice. 800-989-8255. Abortion rights supporters, do tactics need to change? And you could also get to us by email. The address is talk@npr.org.

Now, let's go to Bianca, Bianca with us from Piedmont in California.

BIANCA (Caller): Hello. I couldn't agree more with Ms. Kissling. I think that late-term abortion is absolutely indefensible, unless the mother's life is in danger. And I completely agree that women need to have the right to choose. And so for the first 12 weeks, that seems sensible and it seems right and it seems moral and defensible. And when you got into late-term abortions and viable fetuses, it just no longer seems like it's something that's okay.

And I have friends who are very much in support of women's rights and very democratic in their ideals, and yet it doesn't - this abortion issue doesn't jive well with them in terms of their religious beliefs and their philosophical beliefs. And so they really struggle with it, because while they agree that women should have a right to choose, this late-term issue just needs to be taken off the table. And those of us who are advocating for women's rights need to be willing to look more at the whole picture and not just say that it's only the woman's right any longer.

CONAN: Bianca, - and I'd appreciate hearing from Frances Kissling, as well - as you know, the argument on the other side is that these procedures are very rare, usually made for medical circumstances and not as a late decision, and, indeed, that women's abortion rights activists fear that this is being exploited as a emotional issue to whittle away at fundamental rights.

BIANCA: Be that as it may, the bottom line is that if you ever allow -if you make it so that there's any exception whereby a woman can make the choice after five months and not because her life is in danger, then you're really whittling away at the strength of your argument, I believe.

CONAN: Frances Kissling?

Ms. KISSLING: Well, I think that, yes, late-term procedures are rare and that there definitely should be exceptions for them and that we should really work to ensure that those exceptions are permitted. At the same time, I think that - you know, I think that we can't always - what we tend to do, as a choice movement, is to always frame our arguments in a reactive mode to what those who are opposed to abortion will say or do. And a reactive mode, a defensive mode, is one that - that's not - it's not a way to win.

In order to win on an issue - and I'm not just talking politically, but I mean to win hearts and minds - you have to have a visionary approach to an issue. And for those of us who have been pro-choice, we have been placed - because of the good fortune of its being a constitutional right, we have been placed in the position of always defending, of always being the people who say no. And we have to get ourselves out of that posture of defensiveness and ask a different question. The question we need to be asking is: Given that abortion is a woman's right and has been acknowledged as a constitutional right, what kind of legislation, what kind of regulation, what kind of social policy is best for implementing that right?

And in some cases, that - and by not doing that, what we have done is allowed those who are opposed to abortion to set all of the ground rules to put up all sorts of restrictions, and we've been left with absolutely no room to maneuver in terms of what would be good policy.

How can we help adolescents, for example, make good choices about abortion? We don't deal with that. What we do is we fight against laws that mandate parental involvement - bad laws, but we don't have any good suggestion to make.

CONAN: We're talking with - and Bianca, thanks very much for the phone call - Frances Kissling about her op-ed that appeared yesterday in The Washington Post.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's go next to Jason, Jason with us from Des Moines.

JASON (Caller): Yes, hello. I just wanted to comment, I guess, against what she's saying. As a very pro-choice person myself, I think the idea that you can say after five months or so that the woman's right to her own body is absolute, until a certain point, no longer gives that woman an absolute right to her body.

I see it as a huge concession. And this is exactly the kind of reframing, I think, opponents to abortion do want to see - to deal with, to concede these points so that they can then legislate on those points. I would also like to point out the fact that I heard today that in the last six years in Iowa, only six abortions were documented done after week 20. So this isn't even really an issue.

So I guess I would just like to see how is reframing it in a conciliatory manner any helpful to the pro-choice movement.

Ms. KISSLING: Mm-hmm. Well, I think that the problem in Iowa is that your access to abortion at every stage of pregnancy is extremely limited, and that that's something that we need to deal with.

We need to deal with the limited access in the first trimester and in the second trimester, as well. I also think that, again, you know, the notion that what one is trying to do is be conciliatory to the other side is antithetical, certainly, to my purposes. The other side wants to make abortion illegal in all circumstances. I want us, as a nation, to have a conversation about what good policy would be relative to abortion.

JASON (Caller): Isn't good policy to always have a woman have a right to her body, no matter what? That sounds to me like the only sound constitutional policy. There's not really any modification there.

Ms. KISSLING: Well, I'm not sure that that is good policy. I mean, I think again, that if your only interest - if you think in life and in reproduction that the only value at stake in reproductive decisions is the woman's autonomy, then your policy is exactly right.

I think that there are other values at stake, and I think most Americans think there are other values at stake. I mean, the Supreme Court in the Roe decision itself said that the state has an interest in potential human life, in the fetus, and that that - and that the state does have something to say about that.

I think what - the question that I ask myself about late-term abortions - about all abortions, really, in a sense - is what kind of people do we want to be, and how will abortion policy reflect the kind of people that we want to be?

CONAN: And...

Ms. KISSLING: I want us to be - and I may be in a minority, for all I know - the kind of people who take into consideration all the values that are at stake in any decision that is being made. Reproduction is a unique - one of the unique elements of human life. It is a very private matter, but it has public consequences.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask this email question - we just have a minute left...

Ms. KISSLING: Sure. I'm sorry.

CONAN: ...but Janet emailed to say: Face it. Radical pro-choice advocates lost this battle when ultrasound became common. They can no longer say the fetus is not a living, human being.

Ms. KISSLING: Well, I don't think pro-choice people ever said the fetus is not a living, human being. I mean, I think that there is a lot of confusion about what pro-choice people have said. I think that, you know, there's a, you know, there are many fine distinctions about whether the fetus is a person or not a person, what rights it has, those kinds of questions.

But I think we have acknowledged that it's a human being. And I think it's now time for us to acknowledge that we, too, have a sense that the fetus is valuable - that value is not equal to a woman's life - and that it is indeed a sad reality that abortion does involve the demise of the fetus. It is an essential service. It is a needed service, but there are certain realities that need not be avoided.

CONAN: Frances Kissling, thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Ms. KISSLING: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Frances Kissling joined us on the line from Mexico City. She's former president of Catholics for Choice, a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. There's a link to our Washington Post op-ed at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow: when social media meets shopping. We'll talk about the effects of sites like Groupon and LivingSocial.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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