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Building the Progressive Culture of Life

April 21, 2005
By Katherine Brengle

Many of us on the left have been discussing the real meaning of a "culture of life" and what it would truly mean to embrace this ideal for the past few weeks. We've argued about Social Security, and Medicare, and stem-cell research. But it's time to get real.

The right wing's culture of life rests on, currently, two main issues: abortion and, because of the Terri Schiavo debacle, end of life decisions. Because the right also opposes comprehensive sex education, a universal single-payer healthcare system, welfare that actually keeps people well, and same-sex marriage and adoption, we have the ability to reframe this debate, if we're willing.

Recently, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced a landmark piece of legislation called the Prevention First Act. Senator Reid is a pro-life Democrat and wants to approach the abortion rights debate with common sense and reasonable expectations.

The Prevention First Act basically aims to reduce unintended pregnancies by giving women easier access to birth control. It's as simple as that. The major pro-choice organizations are supporting Senator Reid's proposal, and so should you. However, this legislation should only be considered the first step in creating a new dialogue about reproductive rights and choice.

In order to create a culture of life, and prevent unwanted pregnancies, we must first provide our children with comprehensive sex education, while stressing abstinence as the safest option, at a fairly young age. We need to remove the mystery from sexual exploration, teach our kids to value themselves and their bodies, and show them how to protect themselves when they falter. Simultaneously, we need to make a conscious effort to foster our kids' talents and give them every opportunity to focus their energies on activities that will enrich their lives - energies that might otherwise be misdirected into sexual activities that could be harmful to them.

Parents have an obligation to talk frankly with their children about sex. In order to instill the values we want our children to have, we need to be honest: sex is a natural, beautiful thing, but it must be entered into responsibly. By ignoring the natural curiosity of our children about their bodies and their sexuality, we are putting them in grave danger. If our daughters feel that we will be ashamed of them if they get pregnant, they will be more likely to have abortions, and no one wants their child to go through that. One thing we can all certainly agree on - abortion is not a good thing. It's ugly and sad, and no one should feel they have to endure it. But in order to make abortion obsolete, we need to enable women and girls to make better choices.

Women and girls need to be empowered from a very young age to make the best choices for themselves. We need positive reinforcement of our intelligence, our beauty, our ability to make great lives for ourselves from the day we make our entrance into the world. Unfortunately, there is still a violent undercurrent of sexism in our society that infiltrates even our families and our schools. We can't simply want our daughters to wait until marriage to have sex: we absolutely must teach them to love themselves and all of the potential they possess. We cannot ignore any of their interests, any of their worries, any of their insecurities. These insecurities grow as our little girls grow, and have the capacity to be horribly destructive.

Education and support are paramount. But these are still just building blocks: we can do more.

We must build up a healthcare system that can provide reproductive services to every woman who wants them. The system needs to provide women who cannot afford it with access to doctors and birth control, to prevent unintended pregnancy. Birth control cannot be a financial burden for low-income women if we want to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Gynecological visits cannot be a financial burden if we want women to value their bodies and their health. Financial instability is the most oft cited reason women choose abortion. No woman should feel compelled to have an abortion because she cannot afford to take care of her baby.

Financial assistance has to be available for low-income women and girls who become pregnant, so they have the option of keeping, raising, and loving their babies. Welfare "reform" has made this much more difficult. We must embrace real welfare reform that provides for the wellness of women, girls, and their babies. Child support orders need to be strictly enforced: men cannot simply be allowed to walk away from babies they have fathered. However, our society, by ignoring this huge problem, is making it harder for women to feel financially secure when they become pregnant outside of marriage. Pregnancy is stressful for a woman, even when she desperately wants her baby. By making it more difficult for her to feel secure when she becomes pregnant, we instantly limit her options.

Pregnancy is an incredible event in a woman's life. Holding a new life inside of your body is a feeling like no other I have ever felt in my life. It's wonderful and miserable and stressful and joyful. Your mind is constantly running in circles: what will she look like, what will I look like, will she be healthy, why do I have heartburn, what will it feel like to give birth, how am I going to take care of her, I can't wait to take care of her, will I be a good mother, and on and on and on.

As a society, we have an obligation to not only support pregnant women, but to treat them like the amazing givers of life that they are. We haven't learned yet to celebrate every pregnancy, every child, and every mother. If that mother is a high school student, we need to celebrate her pregnancy: there's no turning back, and there is no excuse for shaming her. If that mother is a 35-year-old corporate lawyer, we need to celebrate her impending motherhood, and so does her employer. Among higher-income women, job security is often the major concern that leads to the choice of abortion. Programs need to be instituted to sanction employers who discriminate against pregnant women and mothers and who discourage pregnancy.

The key to making abortion obsolete is to educate our children and expand the options we give to women and girls concerning their reproductive health. One of the options embraced by the right-to-life movement is adoption. Adoption is a wonderful option for women who don't feel they can raise their babies, but don't want to have abortions. It is an incredible gift for couples who want children but are unable to have their own. Unfortunately, there are thousands of babies every year who are given up for adoption but are never adopted, and instead float from foster home to foster home until they turn 18 and have to begin fending for themselves.

Sadly, there are also thousands of same-sex couples who want desperately to adopt, raise, and love these babies. By opposing same-sex marriage and adoption, the right is leaving these children to live within a system that is psychologically destructive to them when they could be part of loving, stable families.

Providing reproductive education and viable alternative options is key to ending abortion. Taking away a woman's right to make her own reproductive decisions and turning those decisions over to the government is not a solution. Lacking better options and support, women have been forced into abortion by society for thousands of years, legal or not, and our culture of life needs to provide alternatives, not make abortion illegal and put more women's lives in danger.

Katherine Brengle is a 23-year old mother, writer, peace activist, and host of the Bristol County Democracy for America Meetup in Fall River, MA. She can be reached at katherinebrengle@aol.com.

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