Why the Anti-Choice Movement Sees Pregnancy as Women's Punishment

The pro-life movement claims to care first and foremost about the sanctity of unborn life, and at face value, that sounds like a laudable goal. But when we juxtapose this claim with the actual rhetoric from those in the pro-life movement, it becomes far more clear that anti-abortion ideology has much less to do with unborn life than it does with punishing women. Pregnancy as a form of punishment against women is no way to value life. 

We don’t have to venture too far to find deeply offensive anti-choice rhetoric that frames pregnancy as something a woman must endure because of her sinful choice to have sex. Arizona solicitor general David Cole defended Arizona’s now struck-down 20-week abortion ban by dispelling concerns for later-term fetal abnormalities by saying “That’s the woman’s problem. She should have made that decision earlier.” It’s reflected in Virginia State Delegate C. Todd Gilbert’s support for mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds when he said “[Women already made the decision to be] vaginally penetrated when they got pregnant.” House Republican Louie Gohmert horrifically told a woman who had testified to having to terminate her pregnancy at 21 weeks because her fetus’ brain was not functioning that she should have waited to “see if the child can survive before [you] decide to rip him apart.” Outdoing everyone, Virginia State Delegate Robert G. Marshall fictitiously and offensively claimed that disabled children are a punishment for their mothers’ prior abortions, stating that “nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children.” 

Anti-choice rhetoric often centers around the pregnant woman “taking responsibility” for her actions. She chose to have sex so she chose to endure the consequences, the logic follows. This is the same mentality towards which we approach children, castigating them for sneaking cookies before dinner or telling a fib to get out of doing their household chores. Anti-choice rhetoric infantilizes autonomous women as incapable of making responsible reproductive decisions. Our punishment? Forced pregnancy. 

In the face of a potential child for whom you will not be able to provide, or in the case of significant health risks if you endure a pregnancy, or in the various other tragic and complicated circumstances that accompany an unwanted or impossible pregnancy, abortion is a responsible choice. It is a valid choice. It is a pregnant person, taking control of their body and their future, and making the best decision for them and for their current or future family. That is the embodiment of responsibility.

The politics of personal responsibility thrives in conservative and anti-choice rhetoric, and it is so often used to control women’s reproductive lives and shame us for choices make that don’t fit the hegemonic norm of conjugal, marital heterosexuality. That’s what anti-choice ideology is really about: reproductively tying women down to a traditionally feminine role, regardless of her personal wishes. Pregnancy becomes a ball and chain with which to restrict women from maintaining autonomous lives and achieving social, governmental, and culture equality. Pregnancy becomes our punishment for being women. And bearing children should never be a punishment; it should be a celebration.

If the “Right to Life” movement was interested in ending the need for abortion, they would support free contraception and comprehensive sex education in schools. If the “Right to Life” movement was interested in preserving the sanctity of life, they would support health care for everyone, improved education, paid maternity leave, and livable wages. But, by and large, they don’t, because it isn’t about “protecting the unborn” or “the sanctity of life.” It’s about mandating pregnancy. 

In fact, just yesterday, the House Republicans passed a farm bill that, for the first time since 1973, did not include a provision for food stamps. The same party that is going to extraordinary measures to limit access to safe and legal abortion simultaneously voted to strip food assistance from millions of needy Americans, on top of their ongoing crusade against expanding health care access. That same party features politicos like Foster Friess telling women to hold an aspirin “between their knees” to prevent pregnancy and talking heads like Rush Limbaugh that decry women who take birth control as sluts and prostitutes. That same party is home to Tennessee State Senator Stacey Campfield who tried to cut welfare to families whose children receive poor grades. That same party scheduled a vote on an unconstitutional and dead-on-Senate-arrival 20-week abortion ban but simultaneously refuses to vote on or endorse paid parental leave or the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. So much for valuing life.

Pregnancy is not a punishment to endure. The choice to become a parent is just that, a  choice, and it is a life-changing one at that, one that should be entered into consensually and willingly. Women should have not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term as their own scarlet letter. Women should not be forced into pregnancy because they chose to have sex (never mind that we never hear a word from anti-choice legislators about the men who got them pregnant). Sex is not a crime. Consent to sex is not consent to parenthood. Mistakes happen. Accidents happen. Assaults happen. Terrible things happen. 

Pregnancy shouldn’t be one of them.