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Anne Donahue

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Eric Metaxas, author of Seven Women and the Secret of Their Greatness, in 2015, said, “Each era has the fatal hubris to believe that it has once and for all climbed to the top of the mountain and can see everything as it is, from the highest and most objective vantage point possible.” We have been certain in the past: It was a norm to take land and slaughter its people, to sell people, to sterilize those we believed should not be procreating.

None of those actions were taken in the belief of doing wrong. They were in accord with society’s values at that time.

Now, as Vermonters, we have adopted an amendment to our constitution that has established that personal reproductive autonomy supersedes giving weight to whether another human right is also at stake.

Some are touting this victory as a historic gain. History should give us a cautionary lesson. How sure should we be that we have climbed to the top of the mountain and can see everything as it is?

Perhaps now is a safe opportunity to reflect more deeply on the profound issues at stake. Our human race, worldwide and for centuries, has been wrestling with the issues of women’s rights and abortion. Is it exclusively a right of health care and autonomy? Is a developing embryo or fetus also a person who, therefore, also has rights deserving of protection by society? The history of humankind is deeply engrained with the stain of dividing between fit and unfit, those deemed less than fully human.

Our founding fathers allowed black slave lives to be counted as three-fifths the value of a white life. Those lives were not recognized as having equivalent value or humanity. Slaves could be hunted down and killed because individual property rights were at stake.

Colonialism and the massacre of indigenous people were not recognized as wrong because conquerors had the right to claim new lands and new property rights and to kill for that purpose. Less than 100 years ago, the Supreme Court allowed “unfit lives” — black, poor, indigenous, sexually different, disabled — to be denied the right to procreate, upholding eugenic sterilization. Respected citizens did not recognize eugenics as wrong because people unfit to reproduce did not have equal value, and society had a right to prevent unwanted children from becoming a burden on society.

Planned Parenthood removed the name of Margaret Sanger, a eugenics supporter, from its New York affiliate building in 2020 with an acknowledgment that it was “both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood’s contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color.”

In other words, the planning of parenthood was part of an agenda to curtail the growth of unwanted groups of people, persons of lesser value.

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We have always used different labels to distinguish the wanted and the unwanted. Likewise, with how we talk about whether there is independent life in the womb. When a wanted pregnancy ends in a miscarriage, we say, “she lost her baby,” not her embryo or her fetus; pharmaceutical companies warn us about risks to “an unborn baby.”

When parents share pictures of their baby in the womb, they don’t say, “look at our fetus,” — yet many people recoil at the thought of requiring someone to look at the same photo before deciding to abort. We don’t want that humanity to be visible if it is unwanted.

The criteria for being wanted or not are not defined through being a fetus or a human baby. It does not seem very different from deeming unwanted indigenous people or Black people or Jewish people, or poor people as being less fully human in order to assuage consciences over adopting the priorities of society at the time.

Refusing to recognize that there may be both autonomy rights of a person carrying a baby and a right of protection once that new life is in development demeans the value of that life in favor of a societal priority of personal control over pregnancy.

We all voted on November 8 with the intent of doing the right thing — to protect human rights. We simply saw those human rights under very different lenses. That intent should be recognized on both sides, not vilified.

Good people, however, have in the past made grievous mistakes that violated human rights. For the prevailing side of Article 22, the question should be asked: What will time tell us about decisions we make in our era? What might we need to apologize for, be forgiven for, and be asked to make reparations for?

What we should not do is have that fatal hubris to believe that we have once and for all climbed to the top of the mountain and can see everything as it is from the highest and most objective vantage point. The way any of us see things is not necessarily everything there is.

Whether perceived as victory or loss, let each of us have the humility to consider our votes with a slight bit less certainty that our perspective will stand the judgment of time.

Anne Donahue was recently re-elected as state representative for the Washington-1 House district and was a spokesperson for Vermonters for Good Government lobbying against the passage of Article 22. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.


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