December marks the anniversary of the modern human rights movement, which began in the wake of World War II to advocate for the fundamental rights and freedoms of every person. Today, it’s no secret that one human right I have long taken for granted is now at risk in this country, and that legal protections of great consequence to me and many others may soon wither. The international human rights community has long considered restrictive abortion laws a form of discrimination against women, recognizing that denying access to abortion can violate the rights to health, privacy and even the right to be free of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. The right of a woman or girl “to make autonomous decisions about her own body and reproductive functions is at the very core of her fundamental right to equality and privacy, involving intimate matters of physical and psychological integrity, and is a precondition for the enjoyment of other rights.” Across the globe, countless women die preventable deaths from unsafe abortions in countries where abortion is severely restricted.
As a 60-something woman who graduated high school the year Roe v. Wade was decided, I’ve never spent a year of adulthood without the assurance that I controlled the ultimate decisions about my own body. And I’ve always understood that, while my decisions might not have been those traditionally expected of women, they would be honored as fully mine to make. Unlike my two sisters, who raised my eight beautiful nieces and nephews, I knew from an early age that I never wanted to bear children. As a young woman, and throughout the early years of my 36-year marriage, I was careful to avoid getting pregnant, and I never did. Despite concerns of family and friends at the time, I’ve never regretted the decision, and I’ve lived a life of happiness and peace of mind notwithstanding.
I’ve always been tremendously grateful for the right to shape my own life, which I credit to the expansion of women’s rights that took hold as I came of age a half-century ago. Not only did legal protections against discrimination open educational and professional doors for me, but the availability of birth control — first made legal just a few years before Roe — gave me reproductive choices generations of women before me never had. And while I never faced an unwanted pregnancy, I understood that I would not be forced to carry a pregnancy, or bring a child into this world, against my will.
Of course, many of my fellow Americans find the freedoms I have cherished abhorrent — even evil. To them, a fertilized egg in a woman’s womb is a life form as fully human and sacred as the woman herself. I can understand this thinking from a religious standpoint, because I’ve heard some church leaders condemn abortion, at any stage of pregnancy, as a grievous sin. I can understand why religious believers trying to do right by their faith would oppose a practice their clergy identify as wrong.
But what I don’t understand, and never have, is the fervor to force everyone to adhere to such a singular, inherently religious, point of view. I, too, try to follow my conscience and the moral and ethical codes that guide a good life. But I don’t believe that human life, with all its attendant rights and protections, begins at conception. To me, a cluster of cells in a woman’s womb simply isn’t more worthy of legal protection than the woman’s own bodily integrity, health and wellbeing. To me, it’s deeply unethical to force a woman through pregnancy and childbirth by granting an embryo or fetus more control over her life than she has herself.
Yet in a country that exalts individual liberty and freedom of belief, many Americans are willing to dismiss my beliefs and destroy my freedoms. In the recent oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Mississippi’s new 15-week abortion law, Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked why adoption wasn’t a solution to the controversy. I picture myself in my 20s and 30s, well into my career as a lawyer, facing an unwanted pregnancy and being told that I must bear the child and put it up for adoption. Unlike other intimacies of our reproductive lives, which are fundamentally private, pregnancy itself is a very public process. Unless I leave town, as women were expected to do in the past, everyone I know and interact with will be fully aware of my condition. And unless I take the bold step of announcing otherwise, everyone will assume I mean to keep the child, and act accordingly. For nine months I will face the inevitable comments and encouragements, and the societal expectations, that pregnancy brings. Then, after childbirth, I’ll face the inevitable questions and judgments of everyone in my world when I relinquish the baby and remain childless. I can’t imagine a worse invasion of my privacy, a more punitive humiliation, or a crueler shattering of my personal dignity.
Justice Barrett also casually suggested that the “infringement on bodily autonomy” entailed in a forced pregnancy occurs “in other contexts, like vaccines.” Really? The enormous physical, mental and spiritual commitment of nine months of pregnancy and childbirth can be compared to getting a shot? Regardless of how each of us views the abortion debate, it’s a fact that pregnancy and childbirth can be dangerous and life-threatening for many women. Women die every day of complications like severe bleeding and infections, and the U.S., tragically, has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed country. For me, carrying the weight of a pregnancy would have exacerbated a lifelong spinal condition in addition to the mental and spiritual toll. For others, a long list of personal and medical factors would make the potential harms too great to face. Ignoring these realities perpetuates the damaging falsehood that nine months of forced pregnancy is not the burden, sacrifice and risk it inescapably is.
Further, it’s important to remind ourselves that a strong majority of Americans, 59%, support keeping abortion legal in all or most cases, with strong pluralities of support even among the religiously affiliated. Alaskans support abortion rights by an even higher margin, 63%. A half-century ago, before the Roe v. Wade decision and before abortion became the deeply partisan issue it is today, Alaska’s Legislature enacted a law granting access to abortion, and Alaska’s citizens approved a privacy amendment to Alaska’s constitution that has protected reproductive freedom ever since. The frontier spirit we’ve embraced recognizes that not everyone fits the same mold, and certain decisions are best left to those most affected by them.
Every year in the U.S., hundreds of thousands of women choose to end their pregnancies. Opponents of abortion see this as a tremendous loss of life. I see it as a testament to living: to women claiming their fundamental human right to live their best lives, according to their own consciences; to women being true to their souls. If circumstances in my life had been different, I might have been among these women. I shudder to think what could happen to them now.
Barbara Hood moved to Alaska from Texas a half century ago, and has worked for human rights and social justice for 40 years.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.