Op-ed Submission: Conversion in Bear’s Den
Abortion and empathy
Under the tab labeled “Converts,” many of the videos follow the same pattern. A student describes their discussion with a pro-choice peer, who, by the end of the interaction, renounces their former position. In many of the videos, the “conversion” takes this form: A student who formerly believed that abortion should be legal in the case of rape concludes that they were mistaken, that a woman whose pregnancy is the result of sexual assault should be legally required to carry the fetus to term. Sometimes, the convert goes on to join the campus’ pro-life club. The video’s speaker, the converter, concludes with a smile.
The website belongs to the so-called Abortion Dialogue Academy (ADA), a national organization dedicated to training college students to convince their peers that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. They are responsible for the students you may have seen tabling in Bear’s Den with a sign that reads, “Should Abortion Remain Legal?”; they equip the students with thought experiments and responses to every liberal claim, even preparing them with a card game that simulates a discussion with a pro-choice student. When they convince a student that, say, a woman who has been raped should be denied abortion access, they recount their experience in a gleeful video and sometimes post it to the ADA website.
The problem with the tabling effort in Bear’s Den and the Abortion Dialogue Academy in particular is the implication of the casual and indifferent discussion of rape. The students exhibit the utmost nonchalance and sometimes even celebration as they express their preference for a society that would inflict tremendous suffering on many survivors and countless other women. This indifference illuminates the unsettling truth that rests just below the surface of the conversations in Bear’s Den and the efforts of the ADA: the neglect of the humanity of women, the reduction of their complex human experiences to thought experiments and diagrams.
Undoubtedly, the ADA does not believe that it neglects the humanity of women. One example it presents in response to that criticism is that if a pregnancy would result in the death of both the fetus and the mother, an abortion would be justified so that one life might be lost instead of two. But inputting the mother’s life into this detached calculus is not the same as looking at a woman as a person, as someone who is capable of making difficult choices, who might face a violent situation if she does not abort, who might confront discrimination in gaining access to health care services, who might live with post-traumatic stress disorder after a sexual assault or other mental illness that makes a healthy pregnancy impossible or who, for whatever reason, is not in a position to carry her fetus to term. Abortion is intensely personal. It should not be the burden of the pregnant woman to justify her choice to us. It is our burden to look closely at our world and investigate the forces that shape who we see as human—whose rights move our consciences and rouse us to action and whose don’t.
This is a question about empathy. To approach it, we need to examine all the ways that we have been taught to strip women of power and autonomy, undermining our ability to see them as full humans. We must question why the rights of a fetus might move us while the story of a pregnant rape survivor who sought an abortion does not. The burden of answering these questions belongs to all of us. I won’t descend into the realm of thought experiments and fetal diagrams in which the ADA resides; I only ask that we inspect the historical and personal forces that determine whose stories compel us to act and whose suffering elicits our activism.
Forcing a sexually assaulted woman to carry a fetus to term against her will is an act of violence. I am pro-choice because I want to live in a world where these stories outrage us, where we entrust women and female-bodied people with the power to make an intimately personal decision. Or better, I am pro-choice because I want to live in a world where these stories don’t happen because we have relinquished the belief that women’s bodies are not their own. In part, this means empowering women and female-bodied people with abortion access. This is a power that we deserve because we are human and to dismiss it casually is to deny our humanity.