When Rights Meet Reality

We fight for rights, but not for each other – or even for ourselves.

“Reared on protest marches, I had a NOW poster affixed to my bedroom wall. I was an unwavering believer in the fierce rhetoric of pro-choice. And now: a poster child.” At 22 years old, artist Lisa Selin Davis scheduled her abortion.

At the time, Davis saw her unplanned pregnancy as “an opportunity.” It was “the right I’d marched for… It could provide material for the kinds of film I’d voraciously consumed in college, in which women transformed their most traumatic experiences into emotionally stirring and awareness-raising images… An abortion today, a debut at Sundance tomorrow.” Armed with a video camera and a developing fetus, she hopped into a cab for her appointment at a Park Avenue clinic.

The procedure was never filmed, but she writes about that day. She writes about how the waiting room “wasn’t the liberating environment I’d expected to enter.” She writes how the first thing she thought when she awoke after the procedure was that she’d never be pregnant again, how she couldn’t stop crying.

She reflects, “It was too traumatic for me to make art of… I had been taught that a woman’s right to choose was the most important thing to fight for, but I hadn’t known what a brutal choice it was… I’ll always support [the right to choose], but even all these years later, I wish the motto wasn’t ‘Never again,’ but ‘Avoid this if there’s any way you possibly can, even if it’s legal, because it’s awful.”

This is not the standard narrative of a woman who realizes the right to life after a traumatic abortion experience or of a liberated woman who easily asserts her right to choose. This story reveals a woman who has realized that a fixation on “rights” can be particularly hollow when confronted with the particularity of real human lives.

According to Davis, “The uncomplicated message of those protests led me to think that legal abortion would be light.” She discovered that this message couldn’t be further from the truth. Much of the contemporary debate surrounding abortion would have you believe that abortions are performed on ideological categories, rather than on flesh-and-blood human beings. They turn people into the weaponry of the battle for political and cultural dominance. A singular focus on the “right to life” fails to consider the difficulties that many women face as they attempt to care for unexpected children, and the “right to choose” approach fails to acknowledge the frequent brutality of that decision to the woman who has made that choice. Rights will always fall short of the people who claim them.

An obsession with ‘rights’ (isolated from such concerns as the effects of these rights and the responsibilities that are connected to them) is destructive to justice because it is shallow and misleading. We live in a culture that will take a woman on a march for her rights and then when it’s over, send her back to her life with, as Davis puts it, the “self-esteem of a squashed toad.” A “married 36-year-old sound mixer” took her as the feminist movement had left her: with all of the rights and none of the esteem.

Davis shows how this ‘fight for rights’ can be a shallow and naïve way to address human problems. But she offers no solution. Perhaps she can’t. Realizing the naïveté of pro-choice activism, the best she can hope for is something she doesn’t hope for: “I want my daughters to have the option of safe and legal abortion, of course. I just don’t want them to have to use it.”

Christopher Damian graduated from Notre Dame with a B.A. in philosophy. He is currently pursuing a J.D. and an M.A. in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. He blogs at Spiritual Friendship and Ideas of a University.