What Jim Wallis Hears When You Say “Reduce the Need for Abortion”

Anti-abortion liberals
taking credit for the pro-woman Democratic party platform
— the irony just thickens. Pastor Dan recently
Christian Jim Wallis making what Wallis no doubt thinks of as a "pro-woman"
argument that is, in reality, condescending to a degree that causes the reader to think that Wallis is talking about pregnant houseplants instead of thinking women.

    Support for women caught
    up in difficult situations and tragic choices is a better path than
    coercion for really reducing the abortion rate. Yes, I agree there is
    never a "need" for abortion except in the case where the health
    of the mother is threatened. But until we can reach out to women who
    "feel" the need for abortion and support them in alternative
    choices, we will never change the shameful abortion rate that both sides
    seem content to live with while they just attack each other. It is time
    to move from symbols to solutions.

If Wallis thinks that women
who choose abortion only perceive a need that’s so clearly not a need
that it requires scare quotes, then I’m going to vow here and now
to call Wallis a "liberal" and a "progressive" only in scare
quotes. Or just "scatter" scare quotes "about" recklessly
when "writing" about "Wallis," so that "you" perceive that
"something" isn’t quite right about "his" views.

This is paternalism at its
finest. Jim Wallis knows better than you whether or not you really
want to terminate a pregnancy, even though he doesn’t know your name,
address, financial situation, number of children, relationship issues,
career issues, or desire to have more children than you have already.
All he needs to know about you is that you have a womb that’s got
a zygote in it, and the "right" decision is made. Any actual
information about your life is just a distraction from the "right"
decision about whether or not you should have a child — the decision
is yes. Your feelings don’t matter. The contents of your
womb are the only thing that really matters. The technical reluctance
to engage in coercion doesn’t rescue him from accusations of sexism,
since he clearly agrees strongly with the right about women’s lack
of intelligence and decision-making abilities.

The GOP platform takes this
belief in women’s lack of intelligence to its logical conclusion and
supports the very mandatory
childbirth that Wallis claims to reject.

It makes more sense to swallow the unpleasant coercion, based on Wallis’s
beliefs that a) there is only one right decision for all women, regardless
of circumstances and b) women can be assumed to lack the decision-making
abilities necessary to take responsibility for their own bodies. Once you remove women’s
intentions and responsibilities from the equation, and reduce their
proper choices to a single choice, then why not force them? There’s
only one side of the road for all Americans to drive on, and believe
me, they aren’t handing out cookies to people for driving on the right
hand side. They’re issuing tickets for driving on the left hand
side. When only one choice is acceptable, only one form of enforcement
starts to make sense.

Wallis’s statements are the
sort of things that pro-choicers worry about when we embrace the idea
that "reducing the abortion rate" should be a goal, a middle ground
everyone could agree on. Turns out that not everyone really agrees
on this. Different people hear different things when you say "reducing
the abortion rate." A pro-choicer like myself hears "reducing
the number of unplanned pregnancies." But someone like Wallis
hears, "convincing the slow-witted women out there that they don’t
really want what they think they want." And of course, hardline
anti-choicers hear, "hide abortion away from everyone but the medical
staff working the septic abortion wards."

This paternalistic view of
women as minors who need to be firmly guided because they can’t make
the "right" decision is why the hardline anti-choicers kept disrupting the DNC. Well, it was partially because
they are starved for attention, but it’s also because they hear rumblings
from people like Wallis. The hardcore anti-choicers realize that
it’s not much of a leap from arguing that women have second rate minds
to arguing that women should be second class citizens with second rate
rights. If women don’t know what they really want, then the
discussion about whether to coax or force the right decision out of
them is purely an academic exercise, and force will eventually win out
because it wins on simplicity.

A better idea: instead of focusing
on a certain choice as a particular horror, let’s lament that women
have to be put in this stressful situation of making choices where all
the available ones are unpleasant at all. For instance, as lamentable
as the media frenzy on Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter’s pregnancy
can be, the occasion is a good chance to highlight how unintended pregnancy
should be the focus of our collective efforts, not pushing women around
about their choices after the unintended pregnancy is a fact.
For a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy, all choices have major drawbacks.
Luckily, we can, with a focus on prevention, help women avoid that situation.

Let’s quit confusing Jim
Wallis with this talk about "reducing abortion," which feeds right
into a paternalistic view of women as second class citizens. How
about "reducing unintended pregnancy," which forefronts women and
their intentions, desires, and lives? What’s so wrong about
making women’s intentions the central question? Let’s assume
women aren’t stupid as a class and that they can make up their own
minds about what they want, and build policy around the idea that society
should support women’s intentions and give women the tools to take

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  • invalid-0

    I felt a “need” to have an abortion because I did not then and still don’t believe in embryonic personhood and I did not want to be pregnant or give birth. No amount of “support” from the “spiritual” types on the “left” or “right” would have changed that. As I ponder the fact that if I had given birth I would be a really rich Mill Valley wife with a handsome hubby right now, (as opposed to a lower middle class working woman), I still do not regret my decision to not bear a child for myself or any other rich white couple that I could have “arranged a lucrative adoption” with, if I really wanted some “support”.

    Wallis has so much in common with James Dobson. Kindly old “well meaning” father figure wannabe that he is. He just can’t help it if he thinks he knows more than he does and views himself as far more important that he is. Some guys are just wired that way. They often refer to themselves “spiritual leaders”. Buyer beware!

  • invalid-0

    Although I bristle at anyone suggesting that I may not really know what I need, I disagree with the assertion in a previous post that Wallis is in the same ballpark as James Dobson. Dobson is a hard-core idealogue who makes an enormous amount of money for his hard-line stances through his books, etc. I believe that there are a lot of Wallises out there, who may be capable of honest dialogue and possibly of change.

    We do need a real National dialogue about this issue, and we would do well to be more observant and inclusive of all the gradations of pro-choice that are out there. I fear that taking a hard-line “either you’re with us or against us” attitude only gets people to shut up, not reflect and reconsider.

    There are many out there, and I know a number personally, that feel that abortion is wrong for ethical or moral or religious reasons, but still feel it is not in the government’s sphere to decide for any woman whether she should have an abortion or make another choice.

    I visited the Holocaust Museum this past weekend and read the text at every exhibit. Besides feeling outraged and profoundly saddened by what I saw, I came away with a renewed repugnance for any government exerting its will on and silencing any group.

    It is not so simple as the hard-line stances on either side of the argument would have us believe. Adoption is, of course, a wonderful choice, but it is definitely not the whole answer. There are thousands of kids already in the system who need adoption, will most likely never be adopted, and it is a lengthy, very expensive process. I know this personally: because of fertitlity issues and my advancing age,we adopted our two kids when they were babies; we cut our spending, second-mortgaged and raided insurance policies to pay for them. We would not be able to afford an adoption at all at today’s prices. It is also a very wrenching decision for a mother to place her child for adoption. I am endlessly grateful to the birthmothers of our two kids.

    Besides my personal experiences, I was a social worker for nearly 20 years, and my clients taught me many things.

    I have a special disgust for anyone who denies a woman the right to emergency contraception or a later abortion if she has been raped. I have personally known women who were forced to carry these pregnancies to term and to raise the children that resulted. One in particular stands out: a beautiful, bright woman who was raped at thirteen. She tried desperately to love her daughter, who resembled her rapist physically and intellectually, and certainly did her honest best in trying to raise her. But she and therefore her daughter were caught in a cycle of grinding poverty. The daughter became delinquent, and the mother became a grandmother at age 27. The mother should have finished school, certainly could have gone to college. Instead, she did menial jobs on the side to supplement her meager welfare checks.

    I have also seen firsthand the dynamics of incestuous families. Forcing a pregnancy is a ruthless show of power on the perpetrator’s part. Anybody who rhapsodizes about the sanctity of the family in making decisions for their minor daughters is thinking about some other family, some cozy TV show group, not these.

    Girls in these situations need a real source of support in deliberating whatever choice they need to make. They do not need hard-liners on either side proseletyzing for the superiority of their own world views.

    It really is our own bodies, and it is really scary for the government to tell us what we may do with them. It is imperative to understand the range of viewpoints that are out there. That means that we need to listen to a lot of shades of pro-choice.

  • invalid-0


    You had to seriously tarnish an intelligently written article with your claim that Miss Palin did not intend her pregnancy. If your goal is intelligence, and it certainly seems that you want it to be, than do not present your private speculation as objective fact.

  • amanda-marcotte

    You demonstrate how far out of the mainstream the anti-choice movement is.  To normal people, teenage pregnancy is, at best, a manageable situation.  Fair or not, most people think it’s tragic.  Realistically, it’s an accident 99.9% of the time, even if it ends up well.  The press release from the Palin family indicated that it’s an accident, as does the hastily arranged post-conception wedding. The father indicated on his MySpace page that he didn’t want children.  So it’s a safe bet and not speculation to say that this wasn’t planned. 


    Your attitude betrays the anti-choice belief that the only thing women are good for is breeding, and so starting ’em young and keeping ’em barefoot and pregnant is just fine.  That’s completely out of the mainstream.  I hope more people see the cheers for teenage pregnancy coming from your camp and realize what fanatics you are.

  • invalid-0

    Why does talk of reducing abortion mean we treat women as second class citizens? Where do you garner this amazing confidence that every woman will make good moral decisions in her reproductive life and shouldn’t be questioned? Aren’t some women, like men, bad or possibly evil? Even a tiny few?

    I think most people want to reduce abortion because it is a bad thing. According to most polls a clear majority of Americans (%73 in the 2006 Pew Poll) believe abortion is nearly always or sometimes morally wrong.


    My question to you: “Is there anything at all bad about killing fetuses and embryos?” “Do they have any value?” If you are afraid to consider the idea of reducing the abortion rate because it could compromise your pro-choice position let me offer an example as maybe some genuine common ground.

    In Judith Jarvis Thompson’s famous defense of abortion she likened unintended pregnancy to having your kidney’s being hooked up to a violinist without your consent.


    One may have a right to not be a “Good Samaritan” and unplug oneself from the violinist, thus killing him. Some women may have no qualms about unplugging themselves, while others may be saddened or seriously grieve killing this violinist they could not care for, even if they had a legal right to unplug themselves (just like women who regret having an abortion).

    Surely we could agree for the violinist’s sake and the women’s sakes that reducing the number of instances where violinists are killed (abortions) would be a good thing.
    You may retort that we should prevent women from being hooked up to these violinists in the first place (i.e. prevent unintended pregnancy), I agree, and comprehensive sex-education is a good start for that.

    But I suspect one reason many people want to prevent unintended pregnancy is because 1 out of 3 (not sure of the stat) of these pregnancies ends with the intentional death of a fetus or embryo, which many people with good reason find to be, well, bad. Why else would people describe abortion as a “difficult” or “tragic” choice?

    Of course if you think human life before birth has no value than my points are moot. But if you do think that, I think you are a little detached from the rest of us.

  • harry834

    I read that too in ethics. The violinist was a good thought scenario.

    The main point is that reproductive rights advocates are not trying to tell people how to value the embryo or fetus. What we’re trying to advocate is that regardless of your values you deserve to be informed of ALL your options – medically, interpersonally, scientifically, and spiritually – with regard to whatever choices you the individual may want to make with respect to when you want to have sex, how you want sex to be for you, what resources you want in the face of pregnancy, and how to choose a decision that works best for you, regardless opf what others want for you. The goal is to empower the individual to make choices for himself/herself and for the life s/he wants to lead in their sexual/reproductive aspect of their life.

    We all have a sexual and reproductive aspect to our lives. How we live these lives is tied to the various values and beliefs that each person can have.

    Palin wants that for her daughter and her family. We only wish she would allow us the same freedom. She does not do that with such positions like "no abortion even in rape" or "abstinence, celebacy, or nothing" education policies.

  • invalid-0


    I respect and honor your right for transcendence.