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Feminism and Abortion

MacKinnon also cites the poet Adrienne Rich’s comment, “The child that I carry for nine months can be defined neither as me nor as not-me.”

By ignoring the unique character of the relationship between a pregnant woman and her fetus, by neglecting the mother’s perspective and assimilating her situation to that of a landlord or a woman strapped to a violinist, the privacy claim obscures, in particular, the special creative role of a women in pregnancy. Her fetus, MacKinnon argues, is not merely “in her” as an inanimate object might be, or something alive but alien that has been transplanted into her body. It is “of her and is hers more than anyone’s” because it is, more than anyone else’s, her creation and her responsibility; it is alive because she has made it come alive; she already has an intense physical and emotional investment in it unlike that which any other person, even its father, has. Because of these physical and emotional connections it is as wrong to say that the fetus is separate from her as to say that it is not.

All these aspects of a pregnant woman’s experience—everything special, complex, ironic, and tragic about pregnancy and abortion—are neglected in the liberal explanation that women have a right to abortion because they are entitled to sovereignty over personal decisions, an explanation that would apply with equal force to a woman’s right to choose her own clothing.

The most characteristic and fundamental feminist claim is that women’s sexual subordination must be made a central feature of the abortion debate. MacKinnon puts the point in a particularly striking way: If women were truly equal with men, she says, the political status of a fetus would be different from what it is now. That seems paradoxical: How can the inequality of women, however unjustified, doom fetuses—half of whom are female—to a lower status, and a lesser right to live, than they would otherwise have? This objection to MacKinnon’s argument, like so much else in the public and philosophical debate about abortion, presupposes that the pivotal issue is whether a fetus is a person with interests and rights of its own. The objection would be sound if that were the central issue—if the debate were about a fetus’s status in that sense. But MacKinnon’s point becomes not only sensible but powerful if we take her to be discussing a fetus’s status in the sense I have just discussed—as a creative achievement and responsibility. Then the crucial question is whether and when abortion is an unjustifiable waste of something of intrinsic creative importance, and MacKinnon’s point is the arresting one that the intrinsic importance of a new human life may well depend on the meaning and freedom of the act that created it.

If women were free and equal to men in their sexual relationships, feminists say—if they had a more genuinely equal role in forming the moral, cultural, and economic environment in which children are conceived and raised—then the status of a fetus would be different because it would be more genuinely and unambiguously the woman’s own intended and wanted creation rather than something imposed upon her. Abortion would then more plainly be, as many women now think it is, a kind of self-destruction, a woman destroying something into which she had mixed herself. Women cannot take that view of abortion now, some feminists argue, because too often sexual intercourse is, to some degree, rape, and pregnancy is too often the result not of creative achievement but of uncreative subordination, and also because the costs of an unwanted pregnancy are so unfairly distributed, falling so heavily and disproportionately on them.

This argument, at least put in the way I have put it here, may be over-stated. It takes no notice of the creative function of the father, for example, and though it shows what is objectionable in relying wholly on the concept of privacy to defend a woman’s right to an abortion, it does not prove that the Supreme Court was misguided in relying on that concept in deciding the constitutional issue in Roe v. Wade. After all, appealing to privacy does not deny the ways in which pregnancy is a unique relationship or the ambivalent and complex character of many pregnant women’s attitudes toward the fetuses they carry. In fact, the best argument for applying the constitutional right of privacy to abortion emphasizes the special psychic as well as physical costs of unwanted pregnancies. I do not believe, finally, that even a great and general improvement in equality between men and women in the United States would either undercut the argument that women have a constitutional right to abortion or obviate the need for such a right.

In spite of these important reservations, the feminist arguments of MacKinnon and others have added a very important dimension to the abortion debate. It is true that many women’s attitudes toward abortion are affected by a contradictory sense of both identification with and oppression by their pregnancies, and that the sexual, economic, and social subordination of women contributes to that undermining sense of oppression. In a better society, in which child rearing was supported as enthusiastically as abortion was discouraged, the status of a fetus probably would change, because women’s sense of pregnancy and motherhood as creative activities would be more genuine and less compromised, and the inherent value of their own lives less threatened. The feminist arguments reveal another way, then, in which our understanding is cramped and our experience distorted by the one-dimensional idea that the abortion controversy turns only on whether a fetus is a person from the moment of conception. Most feminists do not hold that a fetus is a person with moral rights of its own, but they do insist that it is a creature of moral consequence. They emphasize not the woman’s right suggested by the rhetoric of privacy, but a woman’s responsibility to make a complex decision that she is best placed to make.

That is explicitly the message of another prominent feminist lawyer, Professor Robin West, who argues that if the Supreme Court one day overrules Roe v. Wade, and the battle over abortion shifts from courtrooms to legislatures, women will not succeed in defending abortion rights if they emphasize privacy, which suggests selfish, willful decisions taken behind a veil of immunity from public censure. Instead, she says, women should emphasize responsibility, and she offers what she calls a responsibility-based argument to supplement the right-based claims of Roe.

Women need the freedom to make reproductive decisions not merely to vindicate a right to be left alone, but often to strengthen their ties to others: to plan responsibly and have a family for which they can provide, to pursue professional or work commitments made to the outside world, or to continue supporting their families or communities. At other times the decision to abort is necessitated, not by a murderous urge to end life, but by the harsh reality of a financially irresponsible partner, a society indifferent to the care of children, and a workplace incapable of accommodating or supporting the needs of working parents…. Whatever the reason, the decision to abort is almost invariably made within a web of interlocking, competing, and often irreconcilable responsibilities and commitments. 2

West is obviously assuming that the audience to which this argument is addressed has firmly rejected the view that a fetus is a person. If her claims were interpreted as proposing that a woman may murder another person in order to “strengthen her ties to others,” or because her husband is financially irresponsible, or because society does not mandate maternity leave, these claims would be politically suicidal for the feminist cause. West assumes what I have been arguing, that most people recognize, even when their rhetoric does not, that the real argument against abortion is that it is irresponsible to waste human life without a justification of appropriate importance.

West and other feminists often refer to the research of the sociologist Professor Carol Gilligan of Harvard University. In a much-cited study, Gilligan argued that, at least in American society, women characteristically think about moral issues in ways different from men.3 Women who are faced with difficult moral decisions, she said, pay less attention to abstract moral principles than men do, but feel a greater responsibility to care for and nurture others, and to prevent hurt or pain. She relied on, among other research studies, interviews with twenty-nine women contemplating abortion who had been referred to her research program by counseling services. These women were not typical of all women considering abortion; although twenty-one of them did have abortions following the discussions (of the others, four had their babies, two miscarried, and two could not be reached to learn of their decision), they were all at least willing to discuss their decisions with a stranger and to delay their abortions to do so.

One feature of the responses is particularly striking. Though many of the twenty-nine women in the study were in considerable doubt about what was the right decision to make, and agonized over it, none of them, apparently, traced that doubt to any uncertainty or perplexity over the question of whether a fetus is a person with a right to live. At least one—a twenty-nine-year-old Catholic nurse—said she believed in the principle that a fetus is a person and that abortion is murder, but it is doubtful that she really did believe that, since she also said that she had come to think that abortion might sometimes be justified because it fell into “a ‘gray’ area,” just as she now thought, on the basis of her nursing experience, that euthanasia might sometimes be justified in spite of her church’s teaching to the contrary. In any case, even she worried, like the others, not about the meta-physical status of the fetus but about a conflict of responsibilities she believed she owed to family, to others, and to herself.

The women in the study did not see this conflict as one between simple self-interest and their responsibilities to others but rather as a conflict between genuine responsibilities on both sides, of having to decide—as a twenty-five-year-old who had already had one abortion put it—how to act in a “decent, human kind of way, one that leaves maybe a slightly shaken but not totally destroyed person.” Some of them said that the selfish choice would be to have their babies. One nineteen-year-old felt that “it is a choice of hurting myself [by an abortion] or hurting other people around me. What is more important?” Or, as a seventeen-year-old put it, “What I want to do is to have the baby, but what I feel I should do, which is what I need to do, is have an abortion right now, because sometimes what you want isn’t right.” When she wanted the child, she said, she wasn’t thinking of the responsibilities that go with it, and that was selfish.

All of Gilligan’s subjects talked and wondered about responsibility, and not about murder. They sometimes talked of responsibility to the child, but they meant the future hypothetical child, not the existing embryo—they meant that it would be wrong to have a child one could not care for properly. They also worried about other people who would be affected by their decision. One, in her late twenties, said that a right decision depends on awareness of “what it will do to your relationship with the father or how it will affect him emotionally.” They talked of responsibility to themselves, but they had in mind not their pleasure, or doing what they wanted now, but their responsibilities to make something of their own lives. One adolescent said, “Abortion, if you do it for the right reasons, is helping you to start over and do different things.” A musician in her late twenties said that her choice for abortion was selfish because it was for her “survival,” but she meant surviving in her work, which, she said, was “where I derive the meaning of what I am.”

Gilligan says, in summary, “Here the conventional feminine voice emerges with great clarity, defining the self and proclaiming its worth on the basis of the ability to care for and protect others.” But her subjects talked of another, more abstract, kind of responsibility as well: responsibility to what they called “the world.” One said, “I don’t need to pay off my imaginary debts to the world through this child, and I don’t think that it is right to bring a child into the world and use it for that purpose.” Another said that it would be selfish for her to decide to have an abortion because it denied “the survival of the child, another human being,” but she did not mean that abortion was murder or that it violated any fetal rights. She put it in very different, more impersonal, and abstract terms: “Once a certain life has begun, it shouldn’t be stopped artificially.”

This is a brief but careful and accurate statement of what, beneath all the screaming rhetoric about rights and murder, most people think is the real moral defect in abortion. Abortion wastes the intrinsic value—the sanctity, the inviolability—of a human life and is therefore a grave moral wrong unless the intrinsic value of other human lives would be wasted in a decision against abortion. Each of Gilligan’s subjects was exploring and reacting to that terrible conflict. Each was trying, above all, to take the measure of her responsibility for the intrinsic value of her own life, to locate the awful decision she had to make in that context, to see the decisions about whether to cut off a new life, with its own intrinsic value, as part of a larger challenge to show respect for all life by living well and responsibly herself. Deciding about abortion is not a unique problem, disconnected from all other decisions, but rather a dramatic and intensely lit example of choices people must make throughout their lives, all of which express convictions about the value of life and the meaning of death.

  1. 2

    Robin West, “Taking Freedom Seriously,” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 104, No. 1 (November 1990), pp. 84–85.

  2. 3

    Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Harvard University Press, 1982).

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