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The Culture of Choice: An Anthropology of the Pro Choice Movement in the United States

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By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

In the United States, there is no escape from the abortion debate. In the wake of Roe v. Wade (1973), abortion is a hotly contested issue on each end of the political spectrum, yet has somehow become widely accepted within the culture. We are living in the culture of choice. Through an anthropological lens, I decided to ask the question: What is the cultural impact of accepting abortion as a human right or a choice in the United States? After gathering data from 49 participants, I decided to continue my research––excluding religion, theology, and faith––to discover what are the cultural implications of accepting abortion and keeping it legal and a choice for women. After gathering surveys from the larger community of The Catholic University of America, many of the participants identified (74.5%) as “pro-life.” In this research paper, I will incorporate some of those responses; I will, however, focus on those who identified (22.4%) as “pro-choice” for this paper, and will refer to their responses and data collected. I will present my research in the following structure: First, I will present the pro-choice movement based upon the data collected. Then, I will analyze that data, comparing it with scientific facts. Lastly, I will speak about the impact of abortion and the greater pro-choice movement on American civil society and as a result, culture. This research has been inspired by the countless discussions that I have had with individuals of both perspectives. I plan to compare the responses of the pro-choice participants to proven scientific evidence about abortion. I hypothesize that the culture of the pro-choice movement is neither based on science nor facts, but rather upon arguments supported by emotion instead of reason, and a faulty interpretation of freedom and the subsequent inalienable rights that pertain to all humans.

Presenting the Data Collected

My research begins with data collected from women who are between the ages of 18 and 24 who identified as pro-choice; they were 22.4% of the participants from the survey. I will refer to these participants as “they/their” throughout the paper and any use of quotations will not be cited as to remain anonymous. While I did receive responses from various participants, I will present data and responses from only college females. I began by asking their position on the pro-life and pro-choice debate. 80% responded “I am pro-choice (I support abortion for myself and anyone)” and 20% stated that “I am pro-choice, but don’t like abortion.” 100% support first trimester abortions and 90% support second trimester abortions. When it came to third trimester abortions, 20% stated that they supported it without explanation, whereas 20% stated that they only support abortion if there are medical risks or if the “child is deemed a short life expectancy that could be traumatic to it’s family.” 60% stated that they do not support third trimester abortions. Among the 22.4%, 70% stated that the following claim is false: Scientifically (not based on faith), life begins at conception. 10% stated that human development begins at conception, “but the embryo cannot survive outside of the mother’s womb–it is dependent on the mother for life, which resembles a parasitic relationship.” 20% did not respond. 70% responded that the “being” in the womb of the woman is “a human fetus, a human being, a baby.” 30% responded with “a group of cells, a non-human embryo, and a non-human fetus.” These were the following responses for the “being” within the womb for those who did not consider it a human being: “Not fully formed,” “it’s just cells, there is no living baby inside the woman, for a ‘being’ to be human it would have to be born and have taken a breath outside the womb, as the legal courts have defined in certain cases, a fetus is a stage of creation,” and “it can not survive on its own.” 20% did not respond to the previous question.

These were the following responses to the question “What would you call abortion?”: “a basic human right,” “Freedom,” “a human right,” “Termination of a pregnancy,” and “a medical procedure to terminate a pregnancy.” 90% of the participants stated that abortion is still acceptable during the first trimester, despite knowing that human embryo has: a brain and a spinal cord; a beating heart (3 weeks), arms and legs (4 weeks), and ears and eyes (4-5 weeks).[1] 10% responded “I don’t know.” 100% responded that abortion should not be celebrated as a culture. 60% stated that they would not change their mind on their position of abortion, whereas 40% said “maybe” they would change their mind. 90% stated that they would not change their opinions if the foster care system improved and there were more strict laws against sexual assaulters and rapists, whereas 10% stated they would change their mind. As for when human life begins, here were some responses:

  • “I believe at conception/fertilization-that life begins. That is a child from the second it happens. No matter how early you choose to have the abortion you are still killing a human being;”
  • “I think life begins at the same point that it ends, with observable brain activity;”

“[pro-life persons] have religious impact and religion should not play a role in any woman or transgender person’s right to an abortion;”

  • “I disagree because I believe abortion is a personal decision;”
  • “No because the baby can not survive outside the womb until later in the pregnancy, the human life is only a life when it is in the mother’s womb. At fertilization, the being cannot survive outside the mother’s womb, therefore, it is not living. This resembles a parasitic relationship;”
  • “1) Life is more complicated than a beginning and an end 2) you can’t abort the embryo, but you can abort the child (not a joke, child neglect is a major issue) 3) Could you not also say needless suffering is wrong?

            Concluding remarks:

  • Women should be able to do what they want with their bodies;”
  • “It is a women’s choice or transgender person’s choice, what I think should have no factor on what would alter their life permanently;”
  • “Don’t judge anyone until you walk in their shoes;”
  • “If people are truly supportive of life they should put their efforts more toward the currently neglected life since the abortion rates have been steadily decreasing over the past twenty years.”
  • “I would like to include one last comment, as to how the survey was conducted: “I thought the questions were super unbiased which is awesome! Thanks for sharing this form with the class and best of luck with your research!

Analyzing the Data

The United States regards freedom as an important––if not the most important––value to each person. As stated in the Declaration of Independence: Man has “certain unalienable Rights [endowed by their Creator], that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[2] If life is one of the unalienable rights, why then is abortion largely accepted? This is because many pro-choice people do not consider the unborn human in the womb of the woman to be a human; rather, they consider the unborn human in the womb of the woman to be a parasite, fetus/it. This is not true. At the moment of conception, a human being is created, and it continues to grow; life begins at conception. While the unborn human is not yet a child, “embryo” and “fetus” refer to the stages of human development, similarly to other stages such as toddler, teenager, and adult. Furthermore, the pro-choice movement argues that the embryo/fetus/unborn child cannot survive outside of the womb. Questions of viability and location were raised: “embryos cannot survive outside of the mother’s womb–it is dependent on the mother for life, which resembles a parasitic relationship;” “human life is only a life when it is in the mother’s womb. At fertilization, the being cannot survive outside the mother’s womb, therefore, it is not living.” Yes, embryos cannot survive outside of the womb, but that does not mean the “being” in the womb of the woman is not human. One could argue that a newborn child cannot survive on its own without care of another human being. Similarly, location inside or outside the womb does not determine the humanity of the unborn child. If a dog is pregnant, a dog is growing within the womb of a dog-–similarly with cats, horses and other animals; there has never been a dog that has given birth to a cow. It is impossible for a woman to be carrying anything other than a human being in their womb. Additionally, the unborn human in the womb does rely on the mother for various nutrients, but so do children, teenagers, and arguably younger adults (i.e. money, support, food, etc.). This does not mean that the child is parasite because a parasite is “an organism that lives on or in a host organism and gets its food from or at the expense of its host.”[3] A woman, with her organs and body, is designed to support a child, therefore nothing is taken at the expense of the woman.

According to my research, 100% of those who identified as pro-choice said abortion should not be celebrated as a culture, yet it is celebrated in the United States. “Many call abortion “a basic human right, Freedom, a human right.” Abortion, also known as Reproductive Freedom, is celebrated by the Women’s March: “We believe in Reproductive Freedom. We do not accept any federal, state or local rollbacks, cuts or restrictions on our ability to access quality reproductive healthcare services […and] this means open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion…for all people, regardless of income, location or education.”[4] Additionally, in response to the steady decline of abortions in the United States, Planned Parenthood writer Margot Schein declared, “celebrating the drop in abortion rates stigmatizes abortion for everyone, but especially for those who have had one…Abortion, just like insulin and root canals – is medicine. Medicine should be available to those who need it. Not moralized and stigmatized.”[5] Abortion is treated as something that is neutral ground in the political and moral atmosphere. Freedom is understood as the license to do whatever one wishes––despite scientific data, despite basic human rights, and despite its devastating societal repercussions. “This argument [that of women’s bodily autonomy] asserts that because a woman has a right to control her own body, she must therefore have the right to undergo an abortion for any reason she deems fit.”[6] However, based upon my experience and speaking to pro-life advocates, there is a lack of continuity between the pro-choice community’s idea of freedom and the way it is expressed in reality.

While the pro-choice movement encourages women to “[be] able to make [their] own decisions about [her] health, body and sexual life [because it] is a basic human right.”[7] Among these rights, abortion is as equally acceptable as birth control, STD testing, avoiding bullying and discrimination, etc. Abortion is quite different than these other things. The reason why is because of what actually happens during an abortion. A unique, individual human being is created at the moment of conception, therefore anything that prevents this human to come to term, such as a termination of pregnancy or an abortion, it is ending the life of a human being. If abortion were like any other form of healthcare, why would it always have a 100% death rate for the baby and an even higher mortality rate for mothers than pregnancy and birth? Any other medical treatment with the same results would be banned. This is where many pro-life individuals believe that the law should intervene. An example of this is smoking. “Many studies have shown conclusively that a smoker’s habit not only affects his own lungs, but also the lungs of others who choose not to smoke. The smoker’s “secondary smoke” can cause the non-smoker to be ill and quite possibly acquire lung cancer if he is exposed to such smoke over a long period of time. Since the non-smoker has a personal right over his own body,…the smoker’s personal right to smoke …is limited by the non-smoker’s personal right to remain healthy.”[8] Where is the line drawn between allowing a woman complete autonomy over her body, and the rights that the human being has within her womb? Life does in fact begin at conception, and the life in the womb is human. What is the cultural impact of this truth?

Concluding Remarks

I found in my research that out of the participants who identify as pro-choice, 70% of women denied that life begins at conception. From this denial of a scientific fact, the cultural implications are that abortion––and the pro-choice movement––is not based upon science. The consequences of this denial of science seeps into the pro-choice movement, such as radical access to abortion, known as abortion on demand without apology. Furthermore, if science is presented––that being, human life begins at conception––it is ignored, or even sometimes acknowledged and yet still ignored. It is worth sharing that with my survey I sent a video of how abortions (first, second, and third trimesters) are performed.[9] I only sent it to four people, and they said that regardless of how abortions are performed, and how “third trimester abortions [are] fairly horrifying to learn about,” many “felt the same after watching the video.” The cultural impact that the pro-choice movement has had on the larger society has deemed anyone that does not support abortion as anti-woman and oppressive. Even Sidewalk Counselors––who offer women alternative options outside abortion clinics––are not supported, as seen in this statement: “I do not believe in imposing religious beliefs on others and shaming others in hopes of getting a woman to change her mind; They need to get a life; They’re disgusting.” While some counselors have been known to yell at and shame women, many approach women with care and other options. One pro-life participant responded: “Thank goodness they’re there!!! [They] are good at offering resources and alternatives…and focus on letting women know they have an actual choice and organizations [that are] willing to help them through a pregnancy and [the time] with a new baby…Counselors have a difficult time, you get sworn at a lot, and I know people who have been spit on and even punched! But it’s worth it to witness to the fact that abortion kills a human life, and that there are other options.”

I conclude that the culture in the United States that views unborn humans as burdens rather than as people needs to be prepared for the future consequences. Furthermore, my hypothesis was affirmed by the data that was collected. The culture of the pro-choice movement is not based on science nor facts. It is a pathos based movement rife with cognitive dissonance, at once espousing the ideals of freedom while simultaneously violating them at the most basic level. Any movement based on a foundation which denies scientific truth and is allowed to grow with no restraint in society can only negatively impact the culture of American society, and will undoubtedly threaten the true ideals of freedom for generations to come.


[1]CDC’s fetal development chart: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/documents/fasdbrochure_final.pdf

[2] Declaration of Independence; https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

[3]https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/about.html#:~:text=A%20parasite%20is%20an%20organism,protozoa%2C%20helminths%2C%20and%20ectoparasites.

[4] https://womensmarch.com/mission-and-principles

[5]https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/planned-parenthood-votes-south-atlantic/blog/abortion-rates-lets-celebrate-the-right-thing

[6] Personal Bodily Rights, Abortion, and Unplugging the Violinist. Francis J. Beckwith; INTERNATIONAL PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY Vol. XXXII, No.1 Issue No. 125 (March 1992)

[7] https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/my-body-my-rights/

[8] Personal Bodily Rights, Abortion, and Unplugging the Violinist. Francis J. Beckwith; INTERNATIONAL PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY Vol. XXXII, No.1 Issue No. 125 (March 1992)

[9] https://www.abortionprocedures.com/

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