A Woman’s Right to Choose

Now that is a compelling phrase!

But what does it call to mind for you?:

  • A high concept of natural empowerment?
  • A sense of contentious struggle for liberation from injustice?
  • Images of aborted fetuses?
  • A sense that you’ve ventured into dangerous territory?

How you react to the phrase says something about you, certainly, but it says even more about the state of social dialogue.

Getting the Obvious Out of the Way

Yes, of course a woman does have a right to choose. As does a man. Choice is not so much a right as it is a fact. We all choose, all the time. It’s probably the only thing we can’t choose not to do. Trite but true.

And our choices have consequences. We may not know in advance where they will lead or what their consequences will be, but our choices are still our choices. One way or another, we do make them, even if sometimes compulsively or unconsciously.

And once my car is in the air, with my passengers and me plunging towards death on the canyon floor, 1000 ft. below, is it really relevant that I didn’t MEAN for my drunk driving to cause tragedy? That actually could have been me. But I was lucky, at least on that score. My teenage adventures with driving under the influence left me and my friends largely unscathed. Choices have consequences we can’t always predict. Sometimes we’re lucky . . . and sometimes we’re not.

Choice and Abortion

“A woman’s right to choose”: It is such a powerful phrase in the context of abortion. After all, how can anyone oppose a woman’s right to choose? Choice implies freedom and, in the West especially, individual freedom is something we protect with passion–and blood, even.

On the other hand, who can argue against “the defense of innocent life”? Obviously, that’s an undeniable virtue.

. . . And so the battle rages on.

But how can these two concepts really be in conflict? How can two obvious virtues be directly opposed to one another? What are we not seeing?

The Bigger Picture

Let’s zoom out a bit and see the parts of the picture that are almost always left off to the side, out of frame.

We usually enter the debate over “a woman’s right to choose” by arguing about when life really begins. Well, let’s start there. When does life begin in all fullness?

  • Is it at conception?
  • How about after the first trimester? Seems a bit arbitrary, but maybe.
  • Maybe when there’s a heartbeat?
  • Perhaps once the fetus could be viable outside the womb, even though it hasn’t been born yet?
  • Birth itself? Hard to argue, but . . .
  • Maybe after weaning, when there’s an obvious, clearly separate personality to contend with?
  • Puberty is a candidate. Able to reproduce and eager go through the motions.
  • Adulthood and independence? Certainly by then.
  • But doesn’t life really begin with retirement?

The first five are the usual contenders, but why stop there?

Joking aside, shouldn’t we be able to broaden the frame and find a point that absolutely everybody can agree on? That would be the best place to step off from, wouldn’t it?

Hm . . . Can we not agree that before conception there can be no question about whether or not a new lifeform exists? That should be a point of universal agreement, I should think. Even if conception is not “where life really begins,” it is the start of something that will become alive, and then eventually die. It is the first unquestionable step in that direction. Before conception: no rational debate is possible. After conception: opinions diverge. And passionate disagreements are inevitable over when it is okay to take overt action to stop that lifecycle from continuing.

The Even Bigger Picture

Waiting until after pregnancy to start thinking about “a woman’s right to choose” does a terrible disservice to everyone, especially women. What other choices determine how close to that cliff-edge sex partners may be venturing? Aren’t there a lot of choices made before their luck even becomes a factor? While these questions apply to men and women equally, it is the woman who bears–literally bears–the direct consequence of conception. The impact of pregnancy is much more profound for her. Should that fact have any weight in her choices before pregnancy?

And his choices? We don’t seem to talk much about “a man’s right to choose.” Can we seriously talk about her right to choose without also talking about his? Does he have a say in what happens after an unintended pregnancy, as well as before?

Where is the first fork in the road?

Unless both players are trying to start (or at least willing to be responsible for starting) a new cycle of life, it’s clear that voluntarily risking pregnancy can be the moral equivalent of driving while intoxicated, skirting the canyon’s edge for the thrill of the ride. There is birth control, but even that fails from time to time. Feeling lucky boys and girls?

Choice and Entanglements

From the perspective of individual choice, a woman who gets pregnant as the result of rape has an unassailable argument for choosing an abortion. If she had no voluntary part in beginning the pregnancy, her decision to not forward the genetic line of a rapist is really hard to argue with. To keep or abort would be her first choice regarding the pregnancy, not her last. Same in reverse. Though much less common, a man can be raped or sperm-jacked. Must he be held responsible for a pregnancy that’s an outright violation of his choice?

But those are edge cases. How about when it’s all voluntary, as with unintended pregnancies resulting from casual sex? Isn’t an unintended pregnancy the consequence of the choices by both the woman and the man? Should the man have a say about whether the pregnancy progresses to become his offspring or not? What if they disagree?

Really gets complicated, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the point.


I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not taking an absolute stand here on whether abortion should be legal or illegal, supported or fought, encouraged or demonized. Rational people can have disagreements about exactly where to draw those lines. But, in order to be those rational people, we must be honest and really look at the bigger picture. This subject is too fogged up with conflicting emotions and bad arguments on all sides to do otherwise.

When weighing matters of life or death, nurturing or killing, aren’t we obliged to stand back and take account of the whole scene, not just a snapshot out of context?

Choice and consequence: Rationality and civilization depend on embracing both.