Why Feminists Ought to Be Pro-life
In ancient Greek mythology, Cassandra, a daughter of Priam, was so loved by Apollo that he gave her a great gift: the gift of prophecy. Cassandra did not return Apollo's love, however, and the spurned god was enraged. No gift, once given by the gods, can ever be taken back, and so Apollo could not take away Cassandra's vision of the future. Instead, he cruelly twisted it: yes, Cassandra would always have knowledge of what was inevitably to come, but whenever she might try to share this knowledge with fellow human beings, they would disbelieve her. With all of her foresight, Cassandra would be impotent, spurned and laughed at by the very people she would desperately try to save.
In the late twentieth century, we find ourselves in the frustrating and even terrifying situation of Cassandra--seeing so clearly the disastrous consequences of the current abortion ethic, consequences disastrous not just for the unborn women, who are aborted in far greater numbers than unborn men, not just for the women who abort, but consequences disastrous for all of society: all women, all children, all men. When we try to point out what awaits us ahead, we are usually ignored, sometimes laughed at, while our feminist credentials are questioned.
The term "feminist" refers to anyone who is dedicated to the idea that men and women although possessed of different sexual natures (and thus, as we shall see, of differing ways of relating to reality), have equally valuable and valid contributions to make to the world, and therefore ought to have equality of opportunity. Furthermore, to be a feminist is to be wholly committed to making this world into one wherein both women and men are equally valued and respected.
The term "pro-life" refers to the position that human life is intrinsically valuable; in other words, human life ought to "count" in society, regardless of whether it is useful, convenient, or pleasant.
Some women's rights advocates react with incredulity, even anger, when pro-life people dare to call themselves feminists. At a "woman-to-woman" conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, fifteen years ago, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-editor at the time of Ms. Magazine, told the organizers of a Feminists for Life booth to pack up and go home because they did not belong at a convention dedicated to helping women. What is sorely needed in such situations is an explanation of feminist--of why, in fact, a correct understanding of feminism demands that we are both.
Abortion advocates such as Carol Gilligan and Beverly Harrison argue on two basic fronts: First, they claim that women have an absolute, fundamental right to abortion because that have a basic right to control their reproductive lives. Without such control, these authors argue, there can never be social equality for women. On the other front, they argue that abortion is proscribed only because we still inhabit a patriarchal society which seeks to elevate men at the expense of women, and anyone who opposes abortion is either a perpetrator or a victim of this patriarchal ideal. Witness the following: "Many women who espouse the pro-life position do so, at least in part, because they have internalized patriarchal values and depend on the sense of identity and worth that comes from having accepted "women's place in society."
Entwined in the discussion of these points is usually the conviction (a correct one, I think) that men and women approach reality from two different ethical perspectives: that men tend to focus on the principles involved in making choices, whereas women tend to view such choices in terms of the persons involved.
I believe (1) that the demand for abortion rights as a necessary prerequisite for a woman's reproductive freedom, for a woman's control over her own body, betrays a decidedly patriarchal rather than feminist understanding of both "freedom" and "control"; (2) that whereas our society is, in many ways, constructed on a model that erects and sustains patriarchal values at the expense of feminine values, the solution to this patriarchal bias does not lie in an abortion ethic, and in fact, an abortion ethic feeds rather thatn destroys this bias; and finally (3) that while men and women do approach reality from different ethical perspectives, one focused on principles and the other on persons, these are not always conflicting perspectives, and an abortion ethic destroys both of them.
In calling for abortion rights as the ultimate guarantee that women can control their own bodies, abortion advocates are viewing a woman's body as a kind of territory to be subdued, interfered with, dominated. This is not a feminist perspective, regardless of how many people maintain that it is.
Abortion, if it is an act of control, is a violent act of control. When a woman is pregnant, be it six days or six months, her body has become inextricably wedded to the body of another living being; the only way out of that relationship for a woman who does not want to be pregnant is a violent one, an act that destroys the fetus and invades the body (and often the mind) of his or her mother. Traditionally, it has always been women who have realized that violence solves nothing and usually begets more violence, that violent solutions often wound the perpetrator as well as the victim. That is why women have historically been opposed to war, to capital punishment, to the rape and destruction of the environment. Why should women's traditional (and quite wise) abhorrence of violence stop at the threshold of their own bodies?
In the male-dominated world we have all inhabited for the past 2500 years, unfortunately power (thus, "control") has been accorded only to those strong enough to seize it, or at least demand it. Furthermore, it has historically been those in power who have set the standard for who gets to "count" as persons. For far too many of those 2500 years, it has been men who have been in power and women who have not "counted." It is, therefore, particularly chilling to read arguments such as those of theologian Marjorie Reilly MaGuire, who says that in order for a fetus to count as valuable, the pregnant woman must confer value upon it; as she puts it: "The personhood (of the fetus) begins when the bearer of life, the mother, makes a covenant of love with the developing life within her to bring it to birth.... The moment when personhood begins, then, is the moment when the mother accepts the pregnancy."
The fetus, according to such argumentation, is a person if and only if the pregnant woman decides to invest it with value. How, we ask, does this differ from the long entrenched patriarchal ideal that it is the powerful who determine the value of other human life?
The notions of control and power at work in the abortion ethic, then, are the ones that surely ought to give any feminist pause. It is indeed unconsciable that women have, for so many thousands of years, been dominated and victimized by men, whose hold on power was reinforced by the patriarchal structure of society. Thus, it is especially disorienting to hear the argument that the only road away from such victimization is to victimize, in turn, another group of human beings--their completely powerless and voiceless offspring. Their very powerlessness makes them the ideal victims: the question which all women must ask themselves is whether the path away from victimization really lies in joining the victimizers, whether the road to freedom must really be littered with the dead bodies of their unborn children.
In the "March on Washington" in the spring of 1989, women of all colors and walks of life forcefully proclaimed their commitment to the tenet that women will never be truly free or equal to men until they can walk away from their sexual encounters just as men have always been able to do. The feminists who were not marching that day wonder whether the March on Washington was not a march down the wrong road, a road fraught with danger.
Men and women are different, not just in their biological characteristics, but in their sexual natures as well. There are exceptions, of course, but throughout history men have traditionally approached sex differently than women have. No one can deny that women have always had a higher biological investment in sexual union; abortion seeks to undo that tie. Is the ideal to be pursued a world wherein sex can (and often will be) commitment-free? Leaving abortion aside for just a moment, even most forms of contraception invade the woman's body, not the man's--and in more cases than we want to admit, scar and irrevocably damage those bodies. (Even condoms, the one "male" form of contraception, usually end up being the woman's responsibility--survey after survey shows that it is invariably women, not men, who are responsible for purchasing condoms.)
One of the points on which all feminists agree is that women need to build their self-confidence and self-esteem. In a sexist culture, this can be hard to do. As Carol Heilbrun pointed out in a talk given to the Modern Language Association, a man's traditional experience of selfhood can be summed up in a line from the poet Walt Whitman: "I celebrate myself and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume," whereas poet Emily Dickinson best sums up how women, for too long, experienced selfhood: "I'm nobody." Does abortion build a woman's self-esteem? The point is to question whether abortion on demand can ever bring about the feminine perspective being valued as much as the male, or whether, in fact, abortion ultimately robs women of their self-confidence and self-esteem.
Those who acquiesce to the conviction that pregnancy is a form of enslavement and child-bearing a burden, are adding weight to, not destroying, the yoke of patriarchy. They are letting men be the arbiters of what is valuable, and fighting hard for the "right" to have their own bodies invaded and their children destroyed so that they can get it.
What feminists, all feminists, should be doing is working to achieve a world in which the power to bear children is viewed as a gift to be protected rather than a burden to be relieved. That means working for fundamental changes in the structure of society, including, but not limited to, far greater flexibility in the workplace for both mothers and fathers, better pre- and postnatal care for impoverished women, and much more stringent enforcement of male responsibility for child support. Such changes would be a true feminization of society. They will occur only when we insist upon them, however, and abortion on demand precludes such insistence. When abortion is easily accessible, society no longer has to take pregnancy seriously. Once a woman decides to continue her pregnancy, society is under no obligation to help her: it is, after all, her choice, her responsibility.
In militating for the right to abortion on demand, abortion advocates are trying to win their game on the same old gameboard--the patriarchal worldview that denigrates what is unique to women as unimportant, trivial, not to be taken seriously.
They are embracing a kind of freedom that uses the female body as an object to be invaded and, if need be, subdued. Feminists who are pro-life see that this can lead only to disaster for women and for their unborn children--yet our voices still go unheard and unheeded.
Cassandra's fate was to see the future.
And be disbelieved.Anne M. Maloney is a former treasurer of Feminists for Life of Minnesota, and Professor of Philosophy at St. Catherine's College, St. Paul.
Reprinted from SisterLife, Fall 1990