Feminism and Abortion

Women who regard themselves as feminists, or as part of the “women’s movement,” do not necessarily all have the same set of convictions, and it is a crude mistake to treat them as if they did. There are serious divisions of opinion within feminism over the strategies for improving the political, economic, and social position of women—for example, over the ethics and the wisdom of censoring literature which some feminists find demeaning to women. Feminists also disagree about deeper questions: about the character and roots of sexual and gender discrimination, about whether women are genetically different from men in moral sensibility or perception, and whether the goal of feminism should be simply to erase formal and informal discrimination or to aim instead at a thoroughly genderless world in which roughly as many fathers as mothers are in primary charge of children, and roughly as many women as men hold top military positions. Feminists even disagree over whether abortion should be permitted: there are “pro-life” feminists. The feminist views I shall discuss here are only those concerned with the special connection between a pregnant woman and the fetus she carries.

In the United States, during the decades before Roe v. Wade, feminists were leaders in the campaigns to repeal anti-abortion laws in various states: they argued, with an urgency and power unmatched by any other group, for the rights that Roe finally recognized. They have since expressed deep disgust with Supreme Court decisions that have allowed states to restrict those rights in various ways, and they have demonstrated in support of their position, risking, in some cases, violent injury at the hands of anti-abortion protesters. Nevertheless, some feminists are among the most savage critics of the arguments Justice Blackmun used in his opinion justifying the Roe decision; they insist that the Court reached the right result but for very much the wrong reason. Some of them suggest that the decision may in the end have worked to the detriment rather than the benefit of women.

Blackmun’s opinion argued that women have a general constitutional right to privacy and that it follows from that general right that they have the right to an abortion before the end of the second trimester of their pregnancy. Some feminists object that the so-called right to privacy is a dangerous illusion and that a woman’s freedom of choice about abortion in contemporary societies, dominated by men, should be defended not by an appeal to privacy but instead as an essential aspect of any genuine attempt to improve sexual equality. It is not surprising that feminists should want to defend abortion rights in as many ways as possible, and certainly not surprising that some should call attention to sexual inequality as part of the reason why women need such rights. But why should they be eager not only to claim an additional argument from equality but actually to reject the right to privacy argument on which the Court had relied? Why shouldn’t …

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