Category Abortion and Woman’s Choice

Conclusion: Feminism and the Conditions of Reproductive Freedom

The right to have or not have children; the right to have both children and a selfhood not dependent on them; these are still being fought for, and this fight threatens every part of the patriarchal system. We cannot afford to settle for individual solutions. The myth that motherhood is "private and personal" is the deadliest myth we have to destroy, and we have to begin by destroying it in ourselves.

adrienne rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence

Xhere are no individual solutions to the dilemmas posed by reproductive politics because "choices" are not merely the product of self-motivated desires but depend on conditions existing in the society. The ultimate di­lemma for those who seek to enhance reproductive and sexual freedom is how to create a sense of collective purpose—of feminist and social so­lutions—concerning matters that seem so intrinsically personal and pri­vate. Since 1970, feminist activism and the right-wing reaction against it have succeeded in deprivatizing the abortion issue and have brought it squarely within the arena of political discourse. Moreover, the prac­tical content of feminist abortion politics has implied social solutions. To demand that the state provide uniform, funded, and high-quality abortion services to all women has been to acknowledge that abortion should be a matter of public responsibility and not of "private choice" alone.

Yet feminist thinking about abortion continues to reflect two as­sumptions that obscure the ways in which abortion is a basic need of

women, which is different from either a "necessity" (unchosen) or a "choice" (unnecessary). These dubious assumptions are, first, that abortion is a "necessary evil" that, with changing conditions, will disappear; and second, that the only available framework for grounding abortion as a right is that of "privacy," or "individual liberty." In what follows, I offer a critical view of both assumptions. 1 then consider areas of future practice for fem­inists concerned with translating reproductive "choices" into social and cultural realities.

1. The need for abortion will not disappear. In writing a book about abor­tion, it was not my intention to inflate its significance. Abortion in itself does not create reproductive freedom. It only makes the burdensome and fatalistic aspects of women’s responsibility for pregnancy less total. It does not socialize that responsibility, empower a woman in her relations with men or society, or assure her of a liberated sexuality. It only allows her the space to move from one point in her life to the next, if she is a het­erosexual woman; to navigate some of the more oppressive patriarchal and institutional forces that are beyond her control. Abortion is but one of many social conditions that encompass women’s education, employment, health, reproductive choice, and economic and sexual self-determination. As such, it is both minimal and indispensable.

Yet, since the late 1970s, a negative view of abortion seems to have penetrated feminist thinking as well as the dominant culture. Typically, it takes this form: "Of course, nobody likes abortion; we just think there should be a choice." Sometimes this defensiveness grows out of a prag­matic concern to win a broad base of support. Even committed feminists in the movement for reproductive rights lament that abortion is "a hard issue to organize people about," one that fails to uplift people’s spirits or generate joyful, proud symbols (the coathanger is seen as a "last resort"). Sometimes feminist ideas themselves absorb and reflect cultural forces that project abortion as a "necessary evil." Thus Adrienne Rich wrote in the mid-1970s: "No free woman, with 100 percent effective, nonharmful birth control readily available, would ‘choose’ abortion"; and "abortion is vio­lence: a deep, desperate violence inflicted by a woman upon, first of all, herself."1

The basis of this victimizing, victim-blaming position is a perspective that reduces women’s condition universally to "male violence." It is also a strain of feminist tradition that idealizes motherhood, implying that the termination of every unwanted pregnancy is somehow a tragedy. Whatever its intention, this view does not accord with the facts. Many, perhaps most, abortions performed today (and, as far as we can tell, through much of history) are not the product of "grim, driven desperation," as Rich calls it, but of women’s sober determination to take hold of their lives and, sometimes, of a sense of enlarged power for being able to do so. That abortion may be painful or unpleasant does not make it "violence against oneself" any more than a painful divorce or a mastectomy is "violence against oneself." My point is not to deny that abortion often involves pain in the experience of individual women, but to understand that experience in social terms.

Nor can we expect that "in a society where women entered sexual intercourse willingly, where adequate contraception was a genuine social priority, there would be no ‘abortion issue/"2 This echoes the view of nineteenth-century feminists that abortion will be "unnecessary in a future world of egalitarian respect and sexual discretion."3 For the reasons dis­cussed in Chapter 5, we cannot assume that there will ever be a "100 percent effective, nonharmful" contraceptive in a human (not merely a technical) sense. While the terms of the need for abortion will change as technology and social conditions change, the "abortion issue" will not go away.

The view of abortion as a necessary evil bom out of desperate cir­cumstances is a liberal accommodation to recent waves of antiabortion (and antifeminist) ideology. It is a clearly mistaken view, since the conditions underlying rising abortion rates in the 1970s and 1980s have on the whole involved a greater expansion of women’s relative power in American so­ciety than at any other time. Indeed, the historical material presented in this book seems to suggest a rough hypothesis: The easing of women’s access to birth control and abortion (which are positively related) coincides with periods of their increased social power and status; while restrictions on that access usually indicate a broad-scale attack on women’s sexual and social autonomy and on feminist movements. Our unnecessarily high rate of abortions in the U. S. relative to other so-called developed countries results not from feminism but from residual conservative influences in the society—influences that inhibit the institutionalization and cultural and moral acceptance of young women as birth control users, and, thus, sexual actors.4

The "necessary evil" concept oddly forgets the spirit of buoyancy in­fusing not only feminists but masses of women after Roe v. Wade. Suddenly the years of terror, of silently fearing pregnancy, of sneaking off to possible sterility or death, and of sex ridden with shame were with a few judicial words going to end. It was a naive faith, for the last several years have shown that deep-rooted ideology and noncompliant administrative and clinical practices were too powerful for a Supreme Court ruling to reverse. The buoyancy was there nonetheless because abortion—easily available, cheap, administered under safe, hygienic conditions early in a pregnancy and in an ambience free of stigma and guilt—is a component (not just a condition) of women’s liberation. What makes abortion "awful" is the shame and guilt caused by two heavily ideological notions that all women in the society still learn to some degree: (1) the association of fetus with "baby" and the aborting woman with "bad mother," and (2) the assump­tion that sex for pleasure is "wrong" (for women) and that women who indulge in it have to pay a price. Leaving aside these timeworn misogynist ideas, the circumstances in which abortion occasions misery and suffering are (1) when it is delayed or illegal and results in serious medical com­plications; or (2) when a pregnancy and child are desired, but social or economic conditions weigh against it. Under the second set of circum­stances and most of the first, the surrounding conditions—those that pre­vent people from having wished-for children securely or from having abor­tions safely—are tragic and impede freedom, not the abortion itself. Along with a heterosexist culture in which a woman feels she must "prove her adequacy as a woman by getting pregnant" or "look for economic security to a man, getting pregnant as a by-product,"5 these are the conditions that a movement for reproductive freedom must seek to transform.

Rather than apologize for abortion, feminists must proclaim loudly— as they did in the late 1960s and early 1970s—that access to safe, funded abortion is a positive social need for all women of childbearing age. Abortion is a necessary, though far from sufficient, condition of women’s essential right and need, not only for bodily health and self-determination, but also for control over their work, their sexuality, and their relations with others— including existing children. From this perspective, abortion conducted under safe, affordable, and stigma-free conditions is neither a necessary evil nor a matter of private choice. Rather, it is a positive benefit that society has an obligation to provide to all who seek it, just as it provides education and health benefits. Put another way, abortion is not simply an "individual right" (civil liberty) or even a "welfare right" (for those "in need") but a "social right."

What does it mean to talk about abortion as a social right or, more accurately, a social need? First, it means that access to abortion (as distinct from the actual experience) is necessary to women’s well-being and self- determination; therefore, it is closer to a "necessary good" than a "nec­essary evil," whatever discomfort it may entail. The farther a society moves toward transforming the oppressive socioeconomic and cultural conditions that encumber the meaning/experience of abortion, the more will abortion become a genuine tool of freedom rather than an occasion of misery. In this regard, it is similar to work or divorce. Second, it means that the need for abortion is universal in the sense that its availability is essential to all women, for it defines the terms and conditions of "womanhood" in the society; and it is specific in the sense that the need grows out of a particular set of problems. Access to safe, legal abortion is a very different kind of need depending on whether a woman is a fifteen-year-old high school student, a single working woman trying to raise one or two children al­ready, a black woman suffering from hypertension or diabetes, or a recent immigrant trying to get an economic foothold in the U. S. Finally, it means embedding the right to abortion in a much broader array of health, social welfare, and sexual needs.

2. The right to abortion rests not only on "privacy" but on solidarity; it is social and individual at the same time. An expansive view of the conditions of reproductive choice typified the feminist movement for reproductive rights that emerged in the 1970s. Many feminists understood reproductive freedom as involving much more than access to safe, legal abortion. The Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CAR – ASA), for example, was formed in 1977 in New York with the idea that the "right to have children," as well as the right to avoid pregnancy, was essential to women’s control over reproduction. It recognized that access to abortion services was the chief problem for some women, but for others, particularly for women of color or disabled women, state policies to restrict their childbearing could be more pressing. Thus CARASA’s organizational principles spelled out the conditions of reproductive freedom in the broad­est terms: "No category of women—poor, young, disabled—should be excluded from reproductive freedom. To really have that freedom, we re­quire: abortion services for all women, regardless of income; safe, well designed birth control; sex education in the schools; good and accessible pre – and post-natal and maternal health care; and the right to conduct our sex lives as we wish and with dignity." CARAS A also called for basic economic and social changes: equal wages for women, decent housing, adequate welfare benefits, reliable child care and good schools, an end to toxic environments that threaten fertility, and an end to government – sponsored sterilization abuse.6

This perspective usefully shifted the focus of abortion debate from individual (moral) choice to social need. In the twelve years between the Hyde Amendment and the Webster decision, however, progress toward a socially oriented feminist politics of reproductive rights has been deflected by three developments: the increasing deployment of technologies for mon­itoring pregnancy; the AIDS and drug epidemics; and the challenge, from both right and left, to the integrity of "rights" discourse of any sort.

As mentioned earlier, both medical techniques and criminal proce­dures have been used with growing frequency in the late 1980s to monitor women’s (chosen) pregnancies. Elsewhere I have written about ultrasound imaging and other techniques for monitoring fetal development in utero as creating a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, in which both "fetal person- hood" and "fetal distress" are the artifacts of the machines designed to measure them.7 In addition, the technologies reinforce a sense on the part of middle-class pregnant women (those with access to high-tech obstetrical services in private hospitals) that a failure to submit to thorough medical surveillance will indeed leave them personally to blame should anything go wrong with the pregnancy. This punitive attitude is strongly verified in the law, in ways that affect poor women most directly. Fetal rights ad­vocates in numerous states and localities have succeeded in getting social welfare, probation, and hospital officials to adopt policies defining "child abuse" in such a way that pregnant women become "legally accountable for the health and safety of the fetuses they carry." These "fetal protection" policies, aimed coercively at the pregnant woman, have taken the form of forced cesarean sections, prosecutions for drug or alcohol use, and ha­rassment by state or medical agents for other behavior deemed detrimental to the fetus.8 The AIDS and drug-addiction epidemics, in a dominant cul­ture that heavily stigmatizes people with those conditions, contribute to the climate of blame. This is particularly the case for pregnant women who are drug-addicted or HTV-infected or both—who in the United States are overwhelmingly poor women of color. These women and their infants are more likely to be screened and tested than are women who use private hospitals; some of these women are also being subjected to government pressures to undergo sterilization or abortion. As a recent report for the New York City Commission on Human Rights observes, "the compelling state interest in fetal survival seems to evaporate when the mother and/ or fetus have been exposed to HIV."9

With the accumulation of state and medical assaults on the autonomy of pregnant women as reproductive decision makers—especially if those women are poor and nonwhite—the need to assert women’s bodily in­tegrity as a privacy right has seemed more urgent than ever. Yet the in­adequacies of this framework become painfully apparent when we consider its relation to the doctrine of individual responsibility of pregnant women for risk or harm to the fetus. This doctrine incorporates in law the ancient patriarchal idea of woman as vessel or carrier of the unborn but additionally imposes on the individual woman criminal responsibility and punishment for her behavior during pregnancy. In other words, fetal rights strategies take the principle of a woman’s individual control over reproduction and invert it with a vengeance: she alone is the agent of the pregnancy’s out­come, she alone is called to account for the fetus’s health and well-being (and her own, although that is of little concern to policy makers). If we go back to the situation of the poor (black, Latina, or white) woman who is addicted to cocaine and pregnant, we begin to see that the liberal in­dividualism underlying both the language of criminal responsibility and the language of "free choice" is inadequate to tell her story. Both languages represent the fiction of her free agency, obscuring a social reality in which no alternative—neither abortion nor childbearing, nor certainly jail—is a free one, much less a means toward health.

Does this mean that liberal rights are bankrupt, that it makes no sense any more to talk about "reproductive rights"? The 1980s found the very concept of rights embattled from all sides. As the Supreme Court made clear in Webster as well as in the affirmative action decisions of 1989, neo­conservatism in the law is committed to undoing constitutionally grounded claims to fundamental rights for women and people of color in the areas of reproduction, sexuality, and employment. Such rights—achieved through political struggles of the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s—foundered against the interventionist prerogatives of the neocon­servative state under Reagan and Bush. But "rights" as such also came under attack during this period from left-wing and feminist quarters. Ac­cording to Foucauldian and postmodernist critics, the notion of a "right" is based on a fiction, since it assumes a coherent, rational, and essentially ahistorical "self" or "person" who is its subject. Subjectivity, or "person- hood," is in this view always historically contingent, always the result of discrete power relations, and thus never a reliable foundation for uni- versalistic claims.10 Similarly, advocates of critical legal studies have pil­loried rights as both incoherent and "indeterminate," since rights discourse (a) can never resolve the tension between pockets of "freedom" for in­dividuals and the need for government restraints to protect those freedoms; and (b) provides no "objective, apolitical basis" for resolving conflicts be­tween different rights claims (for example, between "women’s rights" and "fetal rights").11

Finally, some feminist scholars in the 1980s also challenged liberal concepts of privacy and individual rights, including the notion of a "wom­an’s right to choose" (abortion) and reproductive rights. Echoing feminist advocates of protective legislation in the early twentieth century, writers such as Catherine MacKinnon and Mary Ann Glendon have argued that liberal privacy is a doctrine that leaves women vulnerable to sexual ex­ploitation in a still male-dominated society; that privacy is a "male ide­ology" and Roe v. Wade a "masculine decision," inasmuch as it emphasizes "the separateness, the rights, and the self-determination of individual women" rather than addressing the roots of male (sexual) dominance as such.12 Eschewing rights altogether (like the white male advocates of critical legal studies), these legal writers picture women as unmitigated victims who can be saved from male sexual exploitation only through state – sponsored protections. Indeed, they invoke Rich’s view of abortion as an expression of male domination and "violence against women" rather than of women’s efforts to achieve control over their own sexuality and fertility.13

From the outset, a major purpose of this book has been to push be­yond the boundaries of "a woman’s right to choose"—which means a crit­ical feminist rethinking of the limits of privacy and choice as a framework for reproductive rights theory. Clearly, "liberty" poses serious problems as a basis for such a theory insofar as it pits one abstract rights-bearer against another, without reference to social conditions or context. Its exclusionary, adversarial connotations cannot account for the poor, addicted, or HIV – infected woman for whom pregnancy (at a 50 percent chance the baby may not be infected) offers her best hope in life. Nor, as I have argued repeatedly, do the concepts of "privacy" and "personal choice" include any ground for making positive, affirmative claims on state services. Can we nonetheless retrieve a theory of reproductive rights, or women’s rights to bodily integrity, from the heavy baggage of liberal individualism and ex­clusivity with which it has been encumbered? Can we develop a socially relevant definition of rights that maintains some notion of women’s moral and political agency, both as individuals and as members of collectivities?

The critics of rights, I would argue, commit the fallacy of taking "rights analysis" on its own most liberal terms, as descriptions of competing in­terests belonging to abstract individuals. They then blame rights for failing to encompass a transcendent, objective set of norms above the historical conditions and political claims of real actors. Rights, however, are no more or less than a discursive strategy; they are, in Frances Olsen’s words, "hor­tatory" rather than either "descriptive" or "analytic" and cannot substitute for the vision of a just and democratic community that we need in order to evaluate particular claims. Moreover, the view of women as passive victims of male dominance ignores two hundred years of women’s con­scious activity (documented in this book and elsewhere) on behalf of what they have perceived to be their "right to control their bodies." The urge to create a rhetoric that universalizes women’s claims and connects them to some larger source of validation (human rights, the rights of person – hood) is on some level indispensable for any disenfranchised or margin­alized group seeking recognition as more than just a "competing interest." We have to distinguish the abstract individualism that rhetoric has gen­erated in western liberal, legal, and feminist traditions from the collective, communitarian dimension of rights claims in diverse contexts of political action. In such contexts, rights become one critical discourse through which collective identities are defined, publicly announced, and tentatively achieved in particular historical moments. They are thus part of the nar­rative through which collectivities (women, blacks, gays and lesbians) be­come constituted as public selves and are empowered to engage in political action. In short, we could not abolish "rights talk" without abolishing pol­itics altogether.14

Rather than accepting the dichotomy established by classical liberalism between individual autonomy and social interdependence—including state, or public, intervention—we need to apply the concept of social or communal rights to the areas of reproduction and sexuality. As Jennifer Nedelsky has written, "a tradition which has conceived of the relationship between the individual and the collective primarily in terms of the threat of the latter does not provide an adequate basis for defining individual rights in the context of affirmative responsibilities of the state."15 A social rights perspective would emphasize, rather, the "interactive and com­municative component" of this relationship,16 thereby redefining what we mean by the "right to privacy" or the "right to choose." Applying a state constitutional provision guaranteeing the "right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into [their] private life" to minors seeking abortion is surely a "redefinition of privacy." For it not only transcends the Supreme Court’s deference to patriarchal family values but helps to constitute young women as sexual-political subjects, in a social climate that overwhelmingly rejects that subjectivity.17 But in order for the "right to control our bodies" or the "right to choose" to become truly "a collective assertion of right in the demand for a new ordering of social possibility/’18 it must address itself to the needs of all women. The social conditions of bodily integrity have to become universally available, and that set of trans­formed conditions has to become inherent in how we define reproductive (or any) rights.

Creating equality of conditions for reproductive choice means, first, a wide range of social supports that will make having and raising children, or not doing so, a real alternative for all people: high-quality, publicly funded health, maternal, and child care; the elimination of reproductively hazardous environments; and the provision of adequate jobs, incomes, housing, and education. Above all, changes in the social arrangements of child care and reproductive decision making will have to be accompanied by basic changes in the sexual division of labor in the economy and the state. As long as women work in segregated jobs, for low pay and with subordinate status, and must bear primary responsibility for children, there can be no "equality" in reproduction. Finally, the meaning of "reproductive rights" must include the full range of treatment services for women with HIV and women on drugs and respect for their reproductive choices. As CARASA insisted in the 1970s, women must be free to have children as well as not to have them, and the conditions of racism in the society that prevent this must be confronted in any political agenda for reproductive rights.

Second, the conditions of reproductive freedom will have to include cultural as well as socioeconomic changes, specifically changes in the social and sexual relations of reproduction. "Maternal practices" will have to become contributions that men as well as women not only value but achieve. Such changes go way beyond legal reforms such as parental leave benefits, flex-time, child-care centers staffed by men and women, and the like. They require a revolutionary commitment to a cultural revolution that will take hold of families, schools, the media, and ordinary ways of life, even among those in power. The meanings of sex as well as gender will be called into play in such a revolution. Not only the standards of nur- turance and who shall provide it are at stake but the socially sanctioned expressions of desire. In particular, we shall need to develop a set of stan­dards and practices for a revolutionary "sex education." What should be its goals? What new kinds of knowledge, social more than technical, should it generate? How is the sexuality of teenagers to be allowed space while its specific needs are respected? These questions, which are distinct from questions about gender equality, have barely begun to be asked from a feminist perspective. Nor does the introduction of social reforms (includ­ing child care, birth control, and abortion services) guarantee that they will be.

Even during the most liberal years of teenage access to abortion and contraception, the potentially liberating impact of that access was muffled by the persistence of a male-dominant culture and social relations of sex. The openness and legitimacy of nonmarital heterosexual activity continued to be encumbered with traditional risks and pain for young teenage women, inasmuch as they played for different stakes (commitment, love, romance) than males, and often lost. A clear feminist vision, an alternative culture of sexuality embracing passion and play as well as love, has not penetrated the consciousness of younger generations; indeed, for heter­osexual women, it has not even been articulated. While a lesbian sub­culture has flourished, the cultural forms—the stories, plays, songs, nov­els—feminists have created during the past ten years that might have spoken to younger heterosexual women about a different vision of sex and relations with men have mainly revealed women’s anger over what now exists as "love and romance." Yet, as Alexandra Kollontai understood, a revolution in women’s social place and in the relations of reproduction is impossible without a "new morality" of sex and love.19 I do not know what the content of that morality is, except that it must integrate a broad, ecumenical acceptance of multiple forms of pleasure with the principle of respect for another’s body and well-being (which is not necessarily the same as accommodating any of another’s desires). We have responsibilities to others in sexual relationships, as well as our own desires and needs. We must know much more than this, however, before we can teach a "new morality," a feminist morality, to the young.

Within such a culturally and socially transformed setting, reproductive choices will still occur within institutional frameworks. These institutions— above all, the health-care system—must also undergo sweeping and spe­cific changes before reproductive freedom for all women can exist. Insti­tutionalized reproductive services and their political settings, even at their most expansive, have been monopolized by medical and family planning professionals whose concept of "social need" has often been different from that of feminists or women as reproductive health consumers. To defeat the policies of the New Right simply to reinstall a family planning bu­reaucracy whose priorities are population control and "medically effective" but hazardous contraceptive techniques would be a small victory for fem­inists. But to contest the medical and family planning monopoly over re­productive politics is not to deny that reproduction and abortion are health related.

It is appropriate to encompass "abortion rights" within a broad and expansive definition of women’s health for two reasons. First, pregnancy is a health issue for women—sometimes in dramatically life-changing or life-threatening ways. To affirm this is to say that access to decent health care and the conditions of physical well-being for all people is a moral question; health and morality cannot be dichotomized. Second, the fact that the reproductive and fertility control services to which most women have access are at present contained within medical institutions means that it is within those institutions that we must challenge the quality and availability of the services. This means challenging the modes of organi­zation and authority within the institutions—transforming the medical sys­tem and its dominant ideologies from within.

Abortion is not analogous to tuberculosis inoculations or indeed mas­tectomy; it has to do with women’s sexual and moral autonomy as much as their physical integrity. At the same time, the appeal to an "individual rights" (moral) framework, in the context of the capitalist state and a pri­vatized medical market, is as inadequate as the appeal to a narrow concept of "medical necessity" to satisfy women’s reproductive and abortion needs. Even during the halcyon days of legal, funded, and presumably unre­stricted abortions, medical control over reproductive health services de­termined in practice the extent of the "personal choice" of abortion, es­pecially for poor women. Individual rights in American constitutional law, as the Supreme Court insists on reminding us, guarantee only that the state will erect no "obstacles," no roadblocks, in our path—for example, will not arrest us on the way to the doctor’s office or shut down the (free market) abortion clinics. These rights will not assure us of money to pay for abortions or that state hospitals will provide them, or will provide them in a decent and humane setting; or even that private clinics will be pro­tected from vandals, arsonists, and exploitative hucksters. And they will not be applied in the name of sexual (as opposed to "procreative") au­tonomy, since the state reserves the authority to "protect" young women from the sexual consequences of legal abortion. While arguing for an in­dividual rights position, Willis recognizes its limits when she says:

. . . doctors have always been free to withhold treatment they consider unnecessary or harmful. If there were no abortion laws, doctors and hospitals could still deny women "unnec­essary" abortions, or even argue (as many antiabortionists do) that abortion causes guilt and depression and is therefore bad for women’s emotional health.20

The abortion experience of the past hundred years confirms that re­alizing the right to abortion requires putting an end to privatized, class – divided medicine and socializing medical care. This will mean, first, that health needs become one essential ground for abortion and that medical personnel who fail to provide essential services will be publicly called to account. Second, it will mean that, rather than twist abortion into the restrictive framework of pathology and cure, we will broaden the dominant meanings of "medical" (and consequently standards of reimbursement) to include all aspects of health—preventive, reproductive, and socioeconomic as well as remedial. This expansive approach to a concept of reproductive health will affect public and private financing not only of abortion but of contraception, pregnancy, and prenatal and child care.

The concept of a social approach to reproductive health care requires not only a socialist transformation of the health care system, its standards of care, and its methods of distribution but also a new definition of the meaning of "health," a feminist definition. Returning to the social – contextual concept of Judge Dooling in McRae, we may posit that sexual self-expression is itself a basic human need so allied to a person’s physical and emotional well-being as to constitute an aspect of "health" in the widest sense.21 And, since AIDS, this definition must include safer sex, responsible sex, as part of the meaning of sexual self-expression. Further, the principle of control over one’s body must also be incorporated into an expanded concept of health needs, since if things can be done to my body over which I have no control (e. g., forced pregnancy or involuntary ster­ilization), this impairs my ability to function as a fully responsible (i. e., healthy) human being.

A feminist and socialist approach to reproductive health will transform not only the ideology and methods of medical care in western capitalist societies but their hierarchical structure as well. If "health needs" include those that will save an individual from death or disease and those that refer to basic well-being, then they are the province not only of profes­sionals but of individual "consumers" and social organizations designed to "enforce more uniform—and more liberalized—standards of practice throughout the country."22 These organizations will become part of a larger movement to democratize political control over social welfare programs. The historical conditions in which women may anticipate sharing repro­ductive responsibility with men, or with the "community as a whole," must be those in which democratic principles and processes are built into re­productive (and all) decision making. That is, we will need a radical social democracy in which domination by bureaucrats and medical professionals is not allowed to repress those whose lives are immediately affected by decisions. But feminists will need to be organized politically as advocates of women’s needs even in a society whose institutions formally embrace the equality of women.

Given such a context, we can imagine concrete situations in which collectively organized social intervention into reproduction, or even "pop­ulation" matters in a narrower sense, will be not only legitimate but nec­essary. Society will have to deal with economic and social questions con­cerning the allocation of resources to communal child-care facilities, the mobilization of men on a systematic basis into child-care activity, and, most difficult of all, the relationship between the responsibilities of collective organizations and those of parents or other related adults for children. Indeed, unless we adopt a crude anti-Malthusian position that refuses to acknowledge any such thing as population problems, we will have to deal with certain "quantitative" concerns—for example, the ways that the age structure of the population affects its capacity to provide collective child­care and educational resources.23 The view of reproduction and parenting as essentially social relationships implies not only a commitment to the legitimacy of social regulation of those areas of human activity but also a rejection of the idea that there is a "natural right" to procreate indefinitely or to procreate at all. That idea must be distinguished sharply from the idea of a socially determined need (of both men and women) to participate in the care and rearing of children, as a distinct and special part of human existence. The latter is essential to a feminist and socialist vision of the future. The former is a remnant of biological determinist thinking (akin to "mother-right") that should have no place in feminist thought.

Yet, even in a society where the collective responsibility for repro­duction and childrearing is taken seriously at all levels of public and in­terpersonal life, will there not still be aspects of reproductive and sexual relations that remain a "personal affair"? In particular, will women not still retain a preemptive claim to reproductive autonomy, especially around questions of abortion and childbearing, based on the principle of "control over one’s body"? Even in the context of revolutionary social relations of reproduction, it will never be legitimate to compel a person to have sex or to bear a child, to have an abortion or be sterilized, to express or repress sexuality in some prescribed way, or to undergo surgical or chemical or other bodily intervention for reproductive or contraceptive purposes. A sense of being a person, with personal and bodily integrity, will remain essential to the definition of social participation and responsibility, under any historical conditions I can imagine.

To deny that there will always be a residual conflict between this principle—which is the idea of concrete individuality, or subjective real­ity—and that of a social and socially imposed morality of reproduction seems not only naive but dismissive of an important value. In any society, there will remain a level of individual desire that can never be totally reconciled with social need24 without destroying the individual personalities whose "self-realization" is the ultimate object of social life. Can we imagine such a policy, or a revolution in reproductive technologies, that would not arouse women’s sense of usurpation of a process that belongs to them personally, to their bodies? The provision of adequate, universal child-care services or male sharing in childrearing will eliminate neither the tension between the principles of individual control and collective responsibility over reproduction nor the need to make reproductive choices that are hard. But this very tension may be a source of political vitality for feminism, and for whatever new visions of community the twenty-first century will bring.

[1] When I was growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the local home for unwed mothers was as shrouded in horror and mystery as an asylum or leper colony. Located outside of town in a field off a rural highway, unmistakably "institutional," it drew my fascination by the lifelessness outside its walls and the miserable types I imagined must dwell within. The windows always seemed closed. There were stories of unknown origin that circulated in our high school about a hatchet-wielding killer named "Sparky," a crazy man who haunted the outskirts of town in search of innocent girls or couples who parked on deserted roads to hack to pieces. Somehow the two symbols of lost innocence and the terrors of sex—Sparky and the "home"—became closely connected in the dark shadows in my mind.

Maternal Practice and Reproductive Consciousness

It is frequently overlooked or dismissed in the debate about the "mo­rality" of abortion that the corollary of "fetal personhood" is forced moth­erhood. For all the antiabortionists’ insistence that the fetus is biologically distinct from the woman and not part of her body, the fact remains that human embryos and infants are completely dependent on a primary caretaker, who in most cultures is the biological mother. The fetus has no resources to take care of itself; indeed, its condition of dependence, as mediated by the pregnant woman’s consciousness, illustrates that hu­man biology is always determined in part by social experience. Thus, if the fetus has an automatic and absolute right not to be killed, this implies that "it also has a right to be nurtured by the pregnant woman and raised by her"—a fact that irrevocably changes the course of a woman’s life.38

Maternity, if chosen, is not servitude; it is in many ways pleasant and satisfying, socially as well as personally. But it is at the same time a service that every childbearing woman performs for others, whatever her personal stakes in the matter. Moreover, it is a service that requires an irreducible physical burden: the renunciation of bodily health and well-being for many months, perhaps with permanent physical conse­quences—a demand that under any circumstances other than criminal punishment is seen as absolutely necessitating the person’s voluntary consent.39 On this ground alone—the consequences of pregnancy and childbirth for a woman’s own body and health—her autonomy in regard to the abortion decision is justified. This is the core of what I have identi­fied as the "feminist" basis for abortion. But in popular consciousness the "social consequences" rationale may hold greater sway than this feminist principle at the present time. That is the notion that, as long as women are assigned the major burdens and tasks of children’s care, then women must retain control over the terms and conditions of their birth. There is a long-standing tradition of female, if not feminist, outrage at male claims to know better than they the "duties of motherhood." Echoing the nineteenth-century proponents of "voluntary motherhood," many women today would probably agree that the morality of abortion is women’s business, a kind of knowledge they can lay claim to by virtue of their knowledge of motherhood:

There is nothing moral about giving birth to children we cannot feed and care for. Forced sterilization and genocide aren’t the same thing as choosing to have an abortion. . . . It is precisely because women take lives sacredly—our own as well as our children’s—that some of us choose not to bring into the world those we cannot take care of.40

Speaking out of a similar urge to defend women’s moral integrity, eighteen hundred nuns publicly dissociated themselves from the church’s position on abortion, declaring: "While we continue to oppose abortion, in principle and in practice, we are likewise convinced that the responsibil­ity for decisions in this regard resides primarily with those who are directly and personally involved."41 Noting the irony "that the same leaders who are currently demanding that women bring their babies to term are simul­taneously voting to cut off food stamps, child nutrition programs and related benefits essential for the health and well-being of our children," these nuns put themselves on the side of all women who ground "woman’s choice" in the social realities of children’s care.

From a more theoretical perspective, feminist philosophers have be­gun to explore a concept of motherhood that links women’s consciousness about mothering to the actual knowledge they acquire through practice. It is a concept that restores the centrality of women’s consciousness to decisions about all dimensions of reproductive activity, including abortion and birth control. Sara Ruddick explains "maternal thinking" as a "disci­pline" and a "conception of achievement," involving a coherent logic and particular skills.42 "Maternal practices," from this perspective, corre­spond to certain conscious "demands" and "interests," like any science or art, and have specific standards, particularly an attentiveness to "the real situation," or "the real children" and their needs, rather than some abstract set of rules or extrinsic goals.43 This concept of motherhood is explicitly not a biological one; it focuses on the social and the practical dimensions of maternal activity that arise out of women’s gender-specific socialization. Motherhood, or nurturance, is here seen in its human form, not as an "instinct" but as a craft, a set of traditions and skills that are both learned and transferable. (The implication is, of course, that, given a different socialization, men too could acquire these skills.)44

Ruddick’s concept of maternal thinking provides one philosophical basis, aligned with the felt understandings of many women who do mother or think about mothering, for defending women’s control over the abor­tion decision. The point is not that women’s attentiveness to "real situa­tions" is automatic or that their maternal practices never fail to measure up to the standards of their discipline.45 Authentic maternal thought is not applied scrupulously in all cases. Nevertheless, it exists as a standard and is frequently present in women’s reproductive practices. With respect to abortion, there is reason to believe that, not an "innate" sense of morality, but their social positioning as mothers or potential mothers creates in most women deciding on abortion a sense of moral care. Gilligan found a strong sensitivity to conflict and moral ambiguity among the abortion patients she interviewed. She uses the example of abortion deci­sion making to argue that the cultural gender division that roots women’s perceptions and judgments more deeply than men’s in "contextual" and "relational" concerns may result in "a different social and moral understanding."46 Women’s traditional "concern about hurting others," about the immediate interpersonal and social context, is not necessarily a "lower" stage of moral development than a morality that equates good­ness with abstract laws or with "universal ethical principles." Indeed, women’s tendency to fix on real problems and particular needs in deliber­ating moral questions may be a model for a kind of moral decision making that is more humane, more attentive to people’s well-being and less to their "goodness."47

But there is a real danger for feminism in a position that rests women’s claim to autonomy over abortion decisions on their maternal thinking. To defend women as mothers or reproducers inevitably risks perpetuating the patriarchal ideology and institution of motherhood as exclusively woman’s "sphere," romanticizing or idealizing maternity. That is not what I am advocating. Rather, it is a social principle that says control over decisions ought to be exercised by those whose work and concern have been most consistently involved in the activity in question. We may find an analogy in the application by a few courts of a "primary caretaker presumption" in resolving child custody disputes. This principle assigns custody on the basis of which parent has provided daily nurturance and care—prepared meals, attended to medical and clothing needs, helped with homework, consoled, and so on. As we would expect, that parent is still generally the mother, but there is no reason why the principle should reinforce a traditional gender division of labor. Its thrust could be to encourage fathers to enter more actively into the routine caretaking of their children, since not doing so would assure their loss of custody in the event of a dispute 48

In the case of abortion, the "social reality" principle ought to leave wide latitude for greater involvement of men than currently exists in responsibility for birth control and reproduction. At the same time, as I have argued, the work and service of a woman’s body in pregnancy put her in a special situation regarding abortion that can never be "equally shared." Feminist theory must develop a concept of equality in which special needs are recognized yet not allowed to become the pretext for social liabilities. In this respect, women’s right to autonomy over abortion is similar to the right of disabled persons to barrier-free public spaces; it is a necessary condition of their equality.

A feminist morality of abortion adapts to historical and personal circumstances. In a predominantly patriarchal culture, its point of depar­ture is the lived experience of women as those charged with the bearing and raising of children. This reality constructs a "female consciousness" that connects women’s "right to choose" to their "duty," and practical capacity, to engage in maternal work. But a feminist approach to abortion must contain within it the possibility of transcending and transforming the existing sexual division of labor, at the same time as it recognizes women’s specific situation in reproduction. Ultimately, this means rejecting "mater­nal thinking" as a gender-specific practice while persistently defending abortion as a gender-specific need.

Liberals give many utilitarian reasons for making abortion a matter of women’s individual choice, including the unenforceability of criminal sanctions; the need to limit poverty, population, child abuse, and birth defects; and the idea that the law should not intrude on individual behav­ior that causes no "social harm."49 The reason for feminists, however, has to do with none of these things but with the essentially moral question whether women are to be allowed "authenticity," the power to act with moral freedom, to listen to one’s own voice. I suggested in the Introduction that reproductive freedom is not so much a "right" in the abstract juridical sense as it is a basic human need, a need that is indispensable to being a person. The compression of abortion into "privacy rights" obscures this larger issue, implying a negative or exclusionary principle and the analogy of one’s body to bourgeois property. To be sure, the right to be free from unwanted or forced invasions of one’s body for the purposes of others is an essential component of the need for "control over one’s body" and for personhood. The repugnance of rape, torture, forced sterili­zation, or other involuntary medical intervention makes that very clear.50 But the need goes far beyond one of "self-defense" or proprietary claims, and it even goes beyond "the body."

Control over one’s body—including, for women, control over whether, when, and in what circumstances they shall bear children—is not just a libertarian "right" (i. e., a private space in which I am free to maneuver so long as I do no other person any harm). It is, rather, a positive and necessary enabling condition for full human participation in social and communal life. The principle of "control over one’s body" raises the fundamental issue of the relationship between the body and the self : whether the self (the "person") shall be defined as a disembodied, asexual soul belonging only to God or a bundle of self-replicating genetic information—or rather as a consciousness that is embodied, with its own sensate needs, desires, and history. As such, it establishes a compelling moral claim, insofar as one’s self and one’s body are not separable. If things can be done to my body and its processes over which I have no control, this undermines my sense of integrity as a responsible human being and my ability to act responsibly in regard to others. Sometimes such loss of control is unavoidable, as in the case of chronic debilitating disease. But when it is inflicted on another by human will, it can only be under­stood as a punishment. As long as there is any possibility that I might get pregnant against my will, for whatever reasons, then the denial of access to safe abortion must indeed be regarded as a form of punishment analogous to involuntary servitude; there is no other way to read it.51

The attempt to discredit women’s capacity to make moral judgments about abortion is part of a much broader attack on the terms of moral discourse that feminism (along with other radical and left-wing social movements) represents. That discourse surfaces in ordinary people’s atten­tion to the realities of their situation and to the full range of conflicting human needs that claim their responsibility and their love. Right-wing polemics against "secular humanism" reflect an awareness (a hostile one) of this alternative, subterranean morality. Abortion is wrong, in their view, not only because it "destroys innocent life," but even more because it rests on and validates a principle of morality that assumes that individu­als must make choices for themselves and ought to do so in terms of the concrete situations in which they live. According to "prolife" ideology, whatever a woman’s family and sexual relationships, whatever her age or marital or economic condition, whatever the state of her health or that of the fetus, and whatever the society has (or has not) provided in the way of child care and related benefits, abortion is taboo. Yet these are precisely the conditions that most directly impinge on the meaning of childbearing in the lives of women, who are still the ones mainly responsible for children after they are born. And it is these conditions that, in the last analysis, construct the practical morality, as well as the practice, of abortion.

I am saying, then, that on a fundamental philosophical level, women’s "choice" or control over reproduction is the central issue in the political controversy over abortion. It is an issue, however, not of women as private individuals, but of women as a collectivity, whose common needs, so­cial-sexual position, and consciousness are organized around the relations and tasks of reproduction.52 For it is women collectively whose com­petence to make moral judgments is maligned and whose sexual and maternal practices are circumscribed by and through the state. Women col­lectively, through an organized feminist movement, have to meet this challenge.

Doing and Believing—The Morality of Praxis

Constructing a feminist politics of reproductive freedom, including abortion, requires that we analyze women’s consciousness in relation to the abortion decision. But that is not an easy thing to do. How women act to resolve an unwanted pregnancy is not in itself expressive of their consciousness; we cannot comprehend their reasons and their understand­ings from their actions alone. In sorting through the available evidence of what women who undergo abortions usually think and feel, we have to untangle the frequent contradictions between what women say and what they do, and between different things they say at once. This complex­ity immediately suggests the difficulty in assuming a "reproductive con­sciousness" that is "universal" among women.1 First, no "universal con­sciousness" grows out of the conditions of reproduction, for abortion, pregnancy, and childbearing are different in different social circumstances and consciousness will reflect those differences. Depending on whether or not they already have children, their age, the quality of their sexual relationships, their class and ethnic position, their involvement in work or school, women’s understanding of their abortion or childbearing experi­ence may vary. Class and ethnically divided policies of the state in regard to reproduction may contribute to this varied consciousness—as, for exam­ple, when coercive sterilization and abortion practices arouse resistance among the targeted women; or when racist policies generate an opposi­tional nationalist or ethnic birth campaign among an oppressed ethnic minority and the group’s women comply.2

Even within the same circumstances and the same woman, conscious­ness about abortion is likely to be multilayered or contradictory. The same woman who avers that abortion is "terrible" or "wrong" may also insist on her need or right to have one; at the very least, she will act on that belief, whatever her professed convictions. Escalation of the "right-to-life" propaganda campaign depicting abortion as murder and fetuses as innocent babies has apparently influenced how people feel and talk about abortion, but not what they choose to do about it.3 This disjunction between belief and behavior is evident from recent attitude surveys that indicate "that a much greater proportion of both Catholics and Protestants would have an abortion themselves (or advise their wives to have one) than advocate legal abortion on principle."4 The opinions expressed in these surveys clearly reveal the gap between moral prescrip­tions and real-life perceptions in popular consciousness. There is a striking contrast between the fact that percentages approving abortion in opinion polls have stayed roughly the same or even slightly declined since the initial surge of approval prior to 1975, while abortion rates for American women rose every year during the 1970s. Further, the reasons why most women, especially young unmarried women, get abortions are not usually the dire indications (e. g., life endangerment, health, fetal defect) that most Americans "approve" of verbally, but the more controversial "socio­economic" ones: being too young, too poor, without a job; needing to finish school; wanting "to have a life for herself."

Even in opinion surveys, an apparent confusion about the morality of abortion contrasts sharply with a strong consensus about its legality. Surveying a cross section of more than a thousand American women of varying ages, geographical regions, races, income groups, religions, and political persuasions, a recent Life magazine poll found that "not one major groupings—including the most politically conservative—believes that a woman should be legally denied the right to choose to have an abortion if she determines that the procedure is necessary." While 56 percent of the respondents felt that having an abortion was "morally wrong," 67 percent thought that "any woman who wants an abortion should be permitted to obtain it legally"; this percentage was considerably larger among urban women, women of color, and women living in the western states. A majority (62 percent) of women identifying themselves as conservatives agreed that abortion should be legal. When asked to relate the moral issue to concrete situations, two-thirds of all women interviewed agreed that women they knew who had had abortions had done "the right thing."5 Apparently, what is "right" in real-life circum­stances differs from abstract morality.

The fact that large numbers of Catholics are getting abortions re­inforces the impression of a moral ethos divorced from social reality. Catholic birth control practice is now nearly equivalent to that of the rest of the population, in clear opposition to church teaching. This cultural shift has apparently affected Catholic abortion practice as well. Catholics in the United States get abortions just as frequently as do non-Catholics,6 despite the adamant position of the church; "one of the main effects of religion [is] not to stop abortion but to create problems of conscience."7 Abortion-clinic operators and counselors in the United States confirm this view. Clinics located in areas with heavily Catholic populations report that their clientele is approximately two-thirds Catholic. Clinic operators spec­ulate on the possibility that the church’s prohibitive policy on artificial contraception actually works to increase abortion rates among young Cath­olic women.8 Two abortion counselors working in a Boston clinic report that their predominantly Catholic patients, "when faced by a problem preg­nancy," choose abortion as the lesser evil in a situation where the alternative to guilt is leaving school, lifelong poverty, or shame.9

What this suggests is that different levels of consciousness are operat­ing at once and that people’s understanding of the dictates of morality and their understanding of their own situation and needs are in conflict. Women internalize the dominant ideologies about abortion, blame them­selves and get blamed, even though their economic conditions and other social pressures dictate a different course of action and a conflicting set of values. As one young woman put it, "I am saying that abortion is morally wrong, but the situation is right, and I am going to do it."10 Rather than indicate "selfishness" or moral confusion on the part of indi­vidual women, however, this double-think may be interpreted as strong evidence that the current antiabortion view of morality is disconnected from the needs that people experience in everyday life. Indeed, when we penetrate beneath the conventionally articulated ideas about what is "morally correct," we find another, more popularly understood set of moral values that reflects a sense of immediacy and personal responsibility in ethical decisions and an attentiveness to the practical demands arising out of concrete circumstances.

Building on the work of the late Sarah Eisenstein, I understand con­sciousness as a dynamic process of accommodating the pressures of con­flicting ideologies and values imposed by the dominant culture and various oppositional cultures on one’s own sense of felt need. That sense, in turn, grows out of material and social constraints that may disrupt ideolog­ical preconceptions, constraints rooted in class and life situations and in the unconscious and the body. Consciousness is thus a series of "negotia­tions" back and forth between ideology, social reality, and desire.11 These negotiations result not only in a "decision," a discrete act, but often in an unarticulated morality of situation, of praxis, which incorporates social and individual need into the shifting ground of moral values. There is nothing predetermined about the outcomes of this process; we have to analyze it through the specific situations that construct it, as well as the choices and understandings to which they lead. This chapter suggests that the consciousness of most women who get abortions, far from being amoral or irresponsible, is rooted in the "morality of praxis."

Recent research on "abortion attitudes" among women who undergo abortion provides a basis for analyzing the consciousness of some women about their abortion experience.12 This material refutes certain stereotypes: that abortion patients are "careless" or morally insensitive; or, on the contrary, that they are steeped in guilt and despair. The surveys describe a remarkably wide-ranging mixture of attitudes about the abortion experi­ence: Many women report feeling "fine," others experience various degrees of being "troubled"; some become strong prochoice advocates afterward, others shrink from thinking about it or weep and are solitary and mourn­ful; some find it "very hard," others insist they do not "feel guilty" in the slightest. While many women experience feelings of loss, ambivalence, anxiety, and regret around the time of an abortion, particularly when they are making a decision about it, the majority feel mainly "relief" several months afterward.13 "Clearly," as one researcher concludes, "their abortions resolved a distressing event in their lives which they could not and did not accept casually."14

The first thing that must be said about guilt is that it does not exist in a vacuum but in a context shaped by history, politics, and religious and moral codes. A century of legal and religious condemnation, along with the lived reality of abortion as sinister, secret, dirty, and dangerous, inevitably stamps women’s "moral sense" of abortion as wrong or deviant. For many women who got abortions during the period of early legalization, that image was very vivid and infused their self-judgment. The "shady, back-alley context in which abortion was typically cast," the "cloak of secrecy," and the "butcher with a big knife" created "a subtle yet powerful lens through which most of the women had formed their prior abortion attitudes as well as one through which they were to perceive the events of their own abortion passage."15 The strong moral antagonism toward abortion of many women in black communities may be inseparable from the long experience of dangerous, unhygienic, "quack" methods to which black women were disproportionately exposed; their sense of "wrongness" is imprinted with the reality and the fearful tales of danger and death.

Over a decade after legalization, in a climate of vociferous antiabor­tion propaganda, the legacy of deviance still hangs over women’s heads. It is manifested not so much in what people do about abortion as in what they say, in the apologetic tone that even feminists and liberal "prochoice" advocates adopt in statements supporting legal, funded abor­tion. Thus, an editorial in the New York Times, which has consistently supported abortion as a need and right of all women, characterizes "Ameri­ca’s high abortion rate" as "a national tragedy" and women’s decision to terminate a pregnancy as "a decision they are invariably reluctant to make. "16 This assumption of "reluctance" is a bow by liberal journalism to the ideological power of the right wing and not a reflection of fact. The passage of time and the assimilation of abortion into the routinized and sanitary procedures of the clinic have created a new context that must be helping to structure a new moral consciousness, especially among women too young to remember the "old days." This context makes possi­ble a more subtle analysis of women’s feelings about having an abortion, since those feelings are no longer drowned in terror.

Yet there is no escaping the fact that abortion is frequently a painful experience for the woman; it signifies a loss. What is interesting is that so many women choose it anyway, and are able to separate their feelings from their moral judgment about what is best to do. As with divorce or separation, feelings about an abortion may be in conflict without this spelling a sense of "guilt." The much-discussed "ambivalence" of many women toward the experience of abortion (not the right) is a smokescreen that obscures a dense web of losses and sorrows related to aging and childbearing and the precariousness of sexual relationships, as well as the longings for family ties and emotional commitment that a "baby" may symbolize. These feelings are not necessarily "irrational" but may reflect conscious desires thwarted by harsh realities. Older women follow­ing an abortion may mourn the loss of children growing up as much as the aborted fetus.17 Women whose relationship did not survive the abor­tion may also be mournful, regretting not only the fetus but the whole emotional fabric from which they have separated. Teenage women may "wish" a child—to establish adulthood or have someone of their own to love—but may feel a responsibility to finish school or become self – supporting. Many subjects in abortion studies "want a child" but say that abortion is the necessary and harder choice because of external cir­cumstances.

But conflicted feelings should not be confused with guilt. None of the women surveyed would be likely to confuse her complicated feelings about abortion with her right to get an abortion or the moral justification for her decision. Many if not most women seeking abortions are not reluctant or ambivalent about the abortion and the need for it. If they are "reluctant" about anything, it is the prospect of having a baby, which is why a resurgent pronatalist/promotherhood culture imposes guilt on them. A focus on subjective "attitudes" tends to cloud the central issue in determining moral consciousness: the reasons and objective circum­stances that motivate the decision, often in spite of ambivalent feelings.

Where ambivalence occurs, it may in fact be a perfectly appropriate response to a situation in which parents are unsupportive or condemning, boy friends angry or withdrawn, school peers taunting and stigmatizing.18 It may be a response to conditions in which the genuine desire for a child is thwarted by poverty, inadequate housing, lack of a supportive partner, or the unavailability of child care.19 Yet the decision remains firmly to get the abortion; from the moral standpoint, the oppressiveness of the conditions does not negate the authenticity of the decision. The insinuation that women who get abortions do so out of "self-indulgence" must strike many women as ironic. For they are aware of the truism that one’s own needs, one’s responsibility to self as well as others, may conflict with one’s desires:

What I want to do is 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. Sometimes what is necessary comes before what you want. . . .20

Interviews with women contemplating an abortion provide powerful evidence that the "morality of praxis" guides ordinary women’s abortion decisions. Its center is the "taking of responsibility upon oneself," claiming "the power to choose. . . and [accept] responsibility for choice":

I think you have to think about the people who are involved, including yourself. You have responsibilities to yourself. . . .

To me it is still taking a life. But I have to think of mine, my son’s and my husband’s. … To me it is taking a life, and I am going to take that upon myself, that decision upon myself and I have feelings about it. . . .21

One’s needs exist and have validity along with the needs of significant others to whom one is responsible, in a context of interpersonal relations for which the decision to have an abortion or have a child has irrevocable consequences. Other children, sexual partners, со workers, and kin have claims on one’s time and resources; parents have legitimate expectations that their daughters develop the tools of independence; indeed, a potential child may be thought to have certain rights not to be delivered into an environment that is sure to be unloving, unhealthy, or insecure.

For teenage women, the consequences of early childbearing include sharply heightened risks of maternal morbidity and mortality, as well as an irreparable loss of education and work experience. For their infants, there is a greater risk of low birth weight and developmental as well as economic difficulties in later years.22 I am not arguing the inevitability of these consequences but simply that they are consequences for others. Women perceive them to exist, and that perception affects their conscious­ness of their moral responsibility.

On the other hand, the background to an abortion decision may be a situation, not of accommodating the demands of others, but of conflict between a pregnant woman and those with whom she feels the greatest connection, particularly her sexual partner and her parents (if she is a young teenager). Her immediate social reality may reinforce a strong sense of being alone in her responsibility. As things stand, she is the one whose life will be most drastically affected by an early marriage; she is the one who will be required to care for or separate from the infant; she is the one who will have to undergo a ritual and physical loss and pain, in the abortion process. Small wonder, then, that most women who get abortions would prefer to ensure their control over the decision than to rely on "male responsibility." In one group of abortion patients surveyed, among the unmarried couples it was not the women but predominantly the men who wanted to get married to "legitimate" the pregnancy. More­over, among both married and unmarried couples, it tended to be the women rather than the men who urged the necessity of abortion because of financial problems, the man’s inability to support a family, or because the "time was not right."23 Using traditional criteria, the men were being "responsible," but the women evidently had a different notion of responsi­bility, and they pursued it in spite of the men.

Whatever the circumstances, the evidence suggests that most wom­en’s abortion decisions ultimately get made on the basis, not of received moral or religious doctrine and still less out of sheer "selfishness," but of the social conditions and relations that define their lives. Whether we look at the outcome of an abortion decision or the consciousness of the women making it, the stereotype of that decision as careless, immoral, and selfish is not only false but malicious. In the painful self-searching and deliberation of abortion clients interviewed by Carol Gilligan and others emerges a picture of a moral consciousness that is sensitive to a many-faceted reality and to "the actual consequences" of an action "in the lives of the people involved." Ultimately, the "reconstructed moral understanding" that grows out of attentiveness to concrete reality results in an awareness of the "injustice. . . manifest in the very occurrence of the dilemma."24 In other words, the very situation of a pregnancy that one "wants" but cannot have, or that one does not want and is made to feel guilty for not having, is an unjust one, whose terms and conditions must be refused.

For some women, awareness of the injustice built into the context of abortion may develop slowly, prompted by what Gilligan identifies as the "conventional voice" of "doing good" and "helping others." Indeed, women’s own ways of thinking about the abortion decision may be couched, not in feminist or libertarian terms, but in traditional religious or "feminine" values. There are complex layers through which women negotiate the tensions between a sense of morality (perceived as externally imposed), the pull of external circumstances (necessity), and an acknowl­edgement of responsibility. Reconciling the abortion, the clear decision to do it, with a surrounding (political, familial, or church) climate of moral condemnation is handled by some women, not by agreeing to their own moral worthlessness nor affirming the moral rightness of abortion, but by a strategy of "denying [their] own responsibility." Echoing the woman who thought that "abortion is morally wrong but the situation is right," some abortion patients cast their position in terms of compulsion or nonchoice: "I was being forced to do something. . . that I didn’t want to do"; "It was the only way out, and you have to accept that"; and "I had no choice."25 This denial of responsibility is a tactic intended to accommodate a received view of abortion as immoral and wrong to "the reality of [the woman’s] own participation in the abortion decision." Thus it embodies a contradiction, an evasion.26

But the problem of consciousness is further complicated by the fact that competing moral and cultural values that pervade the dominant cul­ture coexist within an individual woman’s consciousness and may con­tradict one another. Abortion morality is not monolithic. Alongside the right-wing views of abortion as murder and women defined by maternal self-sacrifice and procreation is a liberal view that justifies abortion in the name of "quality over quantity." This is a legacy not only of eugenics but of eighteenth – and nineteenth-century bourgeois morality that pre­scribed a model of childbearing geared to the economics of an expanding consumer market and the idea that "maternal duty" involved rational planning and budgeting, of children as well as household economies. Though seldom recognized as such, the idea that childbearing ought to wait until one is "financially sound" because children have a right to a certain standard of living is a powerful moral doctrine in contemporary American society. Today, not only most family planners but many ordi­nary people agree with John Stuart Mill’s dictum "that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society. . . ,"27

Women clients of contemporary abortion clinics are motivated by a sense of "maternal duty"—or sometimes filial duty. Economic constraints were the "most frequently cited circumstance" necessitating abortion for both married and unmarried women in one study.28 In the concept of "planning" or "timing" that many women internalize, the main compo­nent seemed being able to "afford" a baby. Time and again in interviews this idea was put forward; needing to finish school or improve one’s financial situation was taken to be an unassailable, universally recognized justification for avoiding parenthood even among those who adhere to the view that abortion is "murder."29

Like the idea that "unwanted" children are likely to be abused, the concept of "planned births" is justified in the name of children’s rights, not women’s. What is confusing here is that the notion of "financial necessity" is counterposed to "morality," as a kind of external, almost natural force, rather than understood to be a shorthand for a complicated set of alternative moral values that have been both internalized and occa­sionally transformed by working-class and middle-class women as they contemplate what to do about an unwanted pregnancy. But both streams of the dominant ideology about abortion—the conservative-procreational and the liberal-utilitarian—contain an underlying theme of female self – denial and maternal duty. For the liberal, it is not the woman who gets an abortion who is "selfish" but the one who doesn’t—when she is too young or too poor or too "incompetent." For both, the ethic of maternal responsibility, rather than women’s liberation, constructs abortion moral­ity.

Are we, then, to conclude that the prevailing consciousness that in­forms women’s abortion decisions is one of accommodation to traditional "female" (patriarchal) norms? Are most women who seek abortions really saying: "Rest assured, we are as moral and maternal as ever you wish us to be. Abortion isn’t something we really want; if the ‘circumstances’ were different, we’d choose babies"? If this is the case, it is difficult to reconcile with the social reality we examined earlier, which showed that the background for rising abortions among most women in the past decade was a set of circumstances that improved their lives, making abortion more of a choice than a "desperate measure." It would also seem alien to a feminist consciousness about abortion, insofar as that means an assertion of women’s collective rights and needs, not just a resignation to grim necessity. Can we locate a resistant and transformative moment in wom­en’s consciousness about abortion, one that is not only "female" but feminist,30 that asserts not only an accommodation to what exists but an aspiration toward change?

An analysis of consciousness that attends only to words, ignoring the social situations those words conceal or that give them a specific meaning, will never understand consciousness as more than an accomoda­tion to what exists.31 People’s words in most instances seek to accommo­date the dominant ideology; the language itself reverberates with it. Yet their words may also be strategies for fitting the dominant ideas into a contradictory reality and perception. In assessing women’s consciousness about abortion, it is important to determine how their social circumstances may alter the meanings of words. An idea such as "child spacing" or "responsible motherhood" may originate among bourgeois family plan­ners and social reformers yet have different implications when applied by working-class women to themselves. Similarly, concerns such as finan­cial constraints or "respectability" clearly have a different content for different classes. For a woman deciding on an abortion to say, "I don’t want to bring up a child with nothing,"32 may mean a staunch refusal of her conditions, if she is poor. It may reflect a long-standing tradition of working-class parents to strive to make their children’s lives better, thereby both accommodating bourgeois assumptions about upward mobil­ity and determining to push beyond the limits of their situation. Under cover of a bourgeois ethic that has become so universalized that it is no longer recognizable as "morality," working-class and poor women may be saying: I want a better life; whereas young middle-class women may be simply conforming to the timetables their parents and their class have laid out for them.

For middle-class women, too, the abortion decision may represent a consciousness and a reality that are complex. The language of self – assertion embodied in the themes of "taking control of my life," assuming "a responsibility to myself," and "claiming the power to choose"33 may reflect a distinct class privilege, for the "power to choose" is clearly more accessible to women whose future contains a Radcliffe degree and a career. At the same time, insofar as the dominant patriarchal ideologies about abortion are based on maternal duty and self-denial, then for all women the language of self-assertion contains an oppositional dimension. For a woman of any class to say, in regard to abortion, 7 will decide, based on my needs as well as those of the (living) persons to whom I am immedi­ately responsible," is by definition an act of resistance in the context of a dominant ideology and culture that define her in terms of the needs of others.

Critics on the left as well as the right have identified elements of the ideology of "self-discovery" and "self-duty" as a form of bourgeois individualism packaged through the media and popular psychology, in­cluding their feminist versions.34 Yet, within a bourgeois individualist culture, women generally have been denied their claims to individualism on behalf of a biological or spiritual determinism that relegates them to the realm of nature rather than autonomous will. It is thus not surprising that feminist aspirations tend to take an individualist form.35 We have to recognize such aspirations as expressions of resistance (in a patriarchal context) and their articulation by individual women as expressions of a feminist or prefeminist consciousness. When a woman says, "It is my responsibility and nobody else’s," responsibility begins to edge into a conviction of right. Seen from this perspective, it may be that а f&ninist, or resistant, consciousness emerges as the consequence more than the cause of a decision to get an abortion. This may become increasingly true in a political context where legal abortion has existed for well over a decade yet is increasingly under attack.

It is complicated indeed to sort out the relationship between freedom and necessity in women’s attempts to negotiate the abortion decision. For women of all social classes and age groups, the necessity of abortion is often perceived to be, and is, the result of external conditions—whether economic, social, medical, or interpersonal—they did not choose. From the standpoint of a concept of consciousness as metabolically related to social reality and needs, the act of choosing to deal with those conditions through an abortion is one of self-determination and therefore self-em­powerment. In a culture that still underwrites women’s powerlessness in the face of maternity and moral decision making, it is also in most cases an objective assertion of moral praxis. Let me add, however, that the decision to go ahead with a birth, to decline abortion, in spite of difficulties or the resistance of others, may also express the morality of praxis. It depends on the circumstances and on how the woman assesses her situation and commitments. Only "right-to-lifers" caricature the feminist position as dogmatic "proabortionism" or some crazed baby – hatred. For feminists, it is not the outcome that is at issue, but women’s autonomy over the process of choosing. And I believe that most women, whether or not they call themselves feminists, aspire to that autonomy.

Yet one may have other, less optimistic thoughts on this question. Whether, afterward, a woman understands her decision to get an abortion in accommodationist or oppositional terms; whether she perceives it as a duty ("I had no choice") or a right ("It was my choice") is the issue of consciousness that is hardest to predict, and is most crucial for feminist politics. For, if "the meaning people attach to action… is an integral component of that action and cannot be divorced from it,"36 then women’s own understandings about the justice of abortion will have an important impact less on their willingness to get abortions than on their willingness to fight for them. As feminists are keenly aware, legal changes are fragile indeed without a "revolution in consciousness." On this level, we know little about women’s consciousness regarding abortion because we have not asked the right questions. Opinion polls and survey research frame their questions in terms borrowed from the dominant discourse ("Do you think abortion is moral?" "Is the fetus a ‘person’?" "How did you feel during/after the abortion experience?"), not in feminist terms ("What would it mean to you to be pregnant when you didn’t want to be and not have abortion available?" "Do you think whether you have an abor­tion or bear a child should be up to your husband/boy friend/priest/ parents?"). The absence of feminist questions is part of the cultural force that helps shape women’s consciousness and maintain the continued gap between their actions and their political understanding. Ten years of legal abortion in many states have surely contributed enormously to abortion practice and its cultural legitimacy. But a feminist politics rooted in an explicit feminist morality of abortion has not penetrated popular con­sciousness, which still views abortion as a "necessary evil" rather than a right. In this regard, abortion has not achieved the status of a liberal, much less a radical, demand. Thus Betty Friedan believes she speaks for masses of women when she compares abortion to mastectomy, rather than to, say, education or a living wage.37

If abortion is to be understood as a "social right"—a necessary service that society ought to make available to all women—and not just an indi­vidual right, much less a fatality or a duty, it must be connected to women’s social power. There is a basis for making this connection in popular consciousness by relating the "morality" of abortion to the "mo­rality"—and power—of motherhood as a social practice.

Women’s Consciousness and the Abortion Decision

[Women] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

karl marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

. . . it is not simply that there is a disjunction between what people say they do and what they in fact do. The more cogent point is that the meaning people attach to action. . . is an integral component of that action and cannot be divorced from it in our analysis.


"Is There a Family? New Anthropological Views,"

in Rethinking the Family

Fetal Politics and False Dilemmas

Under the impact of "fetal personhood" ideology, women’s autonomy in pregnancy and decisions related to it has been subjected to new kinds of challenges in workplaces, clinics, and courts. These have included (1) employer actions to exclude women from jobs where there may be sub­stances hazardous to reproductivity, (2) medical "advances" that treat the fetus as "patient" and the pregnant woman as the "maternal environ­ment," and (3) "custody" suits in which the husband or male partner seeks recognition as an equal party in the abortion decision. Employers, doctors, and potential fathers have claimed "relationships" with the fetus that conflict with the pregnant woman’s and preempt her claim to auton­omy. In this effort, they have drawn support from the idea that the fetus is a "separate person" with an existence independent of the pregnant woman. Behind this ideology, what is going on here is a struggle, not over the contents of the womb, but over the meaning of maternity and the competence of adult women to exercise judgment.

Employers in the auto, steel, chemical, and rubber industries, which have traditionally employed primarily men and have been severely af­fected by plant shutdowns and layoffs, began in the late 1970s to adopt a policy of excluding women workers from jobs that involve substances, such as benzene and lead, known to be hazardous to the developing fetus.73 A highly publicized case involved five women chemical workers at an American Cyanamid plant in West Virginia who were sterilized in 1979 when the company’s managers told them their only other alterna­tives were to be transferred to low-paying janitorial jobs or to be fired.74 This and similar cases raised fundamental questions, not only about "choice" or "consent," but also about the relationship between women and pregnancy and the uses of "fetal personhood" ideology to restrict the social mobility of women.

The pretext for excluding all women of childbearing age who are fertile, not just those who are actually pregnant or might expect to be, is an ostensibly "protective" one: that potential harm to the fetus may occur in the early weeks of pregnancy, before a woman knows she is pregnant. General Motors, DuPont, Goodyear, Firestone, and Allied Chemical, among others, have stated two motives for imposing such wholesale (and sex-discriminatory) "protection," both related to the idea that the fetus exists as a "person" independently of the pregnant woman.

One motive is legal, the alleged concern about employer liability for dam­aged offspring and future lawsuits by them or on their behalf. The other is "moral/’ the alleged concern with "protecting the unborn child" from harm.75 Of course, as labor and feminist activists opposed to such exclu­sionary policies have emphasized, the actual motive is to shift the costly burden of reducing workplace hazards from the companies onto the em­ployment status of working women. But it is important to see how this evasion of corporate responsibility to provide a safe and healthy work environment for all workers draws legitimacy from the idea of the fetus as a separate "person" with rights and standing in the courts. Thus, accord­ing to reports in 1971 and 1977 by the National Council on Radiation Protection, a private, nongovernmental organization that helps to set radi­ation exposure levels:

The need to minimize exposure of the embryo and fetus is paramount. It becomes the controlling factor in the occupational exposure of fertile women. . . . For conceptual purposes the chosen dose limit [of radiation] essentially functions to treat the unborn child as a member of the public involuntarily brought into controlled areas.76

Opponents of female-exclusionary "protection" as an approach to the problem of reproductive hazards in workplaces have revealed many arbitrary and discriminatory aspects of the policy. First, it is highly selec­tive, focused on female employment in heavy industry but so far totally unconcerned with the reproductive hazards to women in traditional, often risky occupations (e. g., hospital work, laundries, and clerical work involv­ing radioactive computer terminals).77 This underscores that at least one aim of the policy is to eliminate gains in employment made by women under Title VII in "nontraditional" job sectors and to reinforce sex segrega­tion in production.

Second, the policy ignores the fact that harmful mutagenic and terato­genic agents may be transmitted to the fetus through the male’s sperm, or may render him sterile; thus, as "protection" for the fetus or for repro­duction, sex-exclusive policies are bound to be partly ineffective.78 This too suggests that the main purpose of the policy is to exclude women rather than to protect "the unborn," but there is an additional reason why the effects of reproductive hazards on men as well as women are overlooked in corporate policy. Because of the gender bias built into reproductive biology and medicine, "scientific studies have focused largely upon the placental transmission of harmful substances." The male role in reproduction is treated as though it did not exist; thus there is little "scientific evidence" to show the harmful effects through exposure of male workers.79

Above all, the treatment of all "fertile women" as potentially pregnant and potentially vulnerable both resurrects the patriarchal ideology of women’s destiny as childbearers and constructs the issue of reproductive hazards as one in which women’s employment rights and the "rights of the fetus" are diametrically opposed. That construction is false because it ignores that male workers too may transmit and be damaged by hazard­ous substances; because it disregards various arrangements whereby work­ers (both male and female) and their offspring might be protected without losing their jobs or seniority;80 and because it ignores the fact that most working women at any one time are not pregnant, have no intention of becoming pregnant, and in fact use reliable birth control regularly to make sure that they do not become pregnant. The real issue is that, once again, the woman’s capacity to evaluate risks, make judgments, and exercise care is being maligned; she cannot even be "trusted" to know whether she is likely to be at risk of pregnancy.81 It is worth pointing out that such an assumption is bolstered by a context in which abortion is not considered a ready option; in which full, thorough disclosure of hazards to workers is not a usual practice; and in which some reasonable job transfer or leave in case of pregnancy is not available. The focus on excluding all women from jobs involving harmful exposure evades the reality that no women, and no men, wish to have their offspring or poten­tial offspring exposed to hazardous substances; but neither do they wish to lose decent jobs. It is an untenable dilemma.

The medical profession, along with corporations, has begun to assert a "protective" relationship to the fetus, both clinically and legally. This too is an ambiguous area. For couples who desire a child, the possibility of medical interventions to cure fetal defects in utero may be extremely heartening. What is far more problematic is the use, by doctors or social workers, of child abuse statutes to stop abortions or impose on pregnant women certain forms of prenatal care, and the use of court orders to force women into cesarean sections without their consent "because physi­cians testified that a vaginal delivery would endanger the fetus."82 An article in a 1981 issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology describes the case of a Colorado welfare mother, pregnant with her third child, who refused to undergo a cesarean section. The hospital called in a judge, a psychiatrist, and two lawyers—one to represent the fetus. Under this pressure, the woman finally acquiesced. Defending the hospital’s position, the authors claim

. . . that the state had… a duty to protect the children within its jurisdiction—including an unborn child—notwithstanding the wishes of the parents. . . that the state has an obligation. . . to intervene… to ensure that a child, even while unborn, is given the necessary medical treatment to protect its life over the unreasonable objection of the parents.83

The growing tendency of ob-gyn practitioners to view the fetus as their "patient" independently of the woman who carries it may, like corporate exclusionary policies, reflect fears of potential lawsuits, in this case for malpractice, by or on behalf of deformed children. But one senses that such fears are only part, perhaps an insignificant part, of the story. "Fetal surgery" is clearly becoming a new and heroic frontier of medical conquest, despite its enormous risks and costs. Although to date surgeons have rarely succeeded in saving a defective fetus, intricate techniques for removing the fetus from the uterus, treating it, and replacing it, or for catheterizing or operating on it in utero, are now considered "feasible," and some are widely available. "Any trained obstetrician with an ultra­sound machine and a long hollow needle is entitled to try to treat a fetus."84

These technologies by their very existence seem to "deprivatize" the womb; it is no longer a woman’s "private space," and she is no longer the only or even the main patient in an obstetrical situation.85 The applica­tion of the techniques seems to give concrete reality to the idea of the fetus as "person," even as that idea is used to promote the prestige and heroism of the techniques. But this relationship is a purely symbolic or apparent one. The existence of medical technology that can treat the fetus in utero is no more evidence of the fetus’ "personhood" or "viability" than is the existence of maternity leaves; nor does it tell us when and whether the technology ought to be used and who should decide. Whether it is beneficial or unduly risky in any given case, it is currently being used ideologically to discredit or circumvent the decision-making autonomy of pregnant women, in consultation with doctors, about whether to carry through a pregnancy and through what medical means. It is a pretext for denying women’s capacity to consent and defining them as merely the biological vessels of the "unborn." Here again, women are put into an impossible dilemma: If the damaged fetus can be treated, does that mean it must be? Is the woman guilty of "neglect" if she refuses and complicit in denying her own autonomy if she doesn’t?

Finally, attempts to secure spousal consent and notification require­ments for abortion, and court judgments supporting a "father’s" right to veto his wife’s abortion decision (thus far all unsuccessful), have ex­tended the "fetal protection" banner to individual husbands. In one recent case in Maryland, apparently a test case brought by "prolife" forces, a circuit court judge upheld a husband’s argument that the Maryland Equal Rights Amendment (1972) gave husbands an equal say in decisions to terminate a pregnancy and granted an injunction against the wife’s abortion.86 (The wife in this case got the abortion anyway during a brief period while the injunction was stayed by an appeals court; the case is being heard on appeal.) The idea of the "father’s right to decide," though not definitively granted in the courts, is similar to the recent tendency of judges to apply "sex-neutral" child custody statutes in favor of fathers when custody is disputed.87 In both situations the concept of women’s "equality" is used as a device to reduce women’s control, in a way that is analogous to judicial repudiation of "protective" minimum wage laws for women in the backlash period of the 1920s.88 This is in interesting contrast to the "protective" strategy used in regard to reproductive hazards and women’s employment at the moment, indicating that both "equality" and "protection" can be turned into political weapons to deny women the conditions of autonomy. In both the custody and the abortion situa­tion, the actual inequality in women’s and men’s long-term and socially defined responsibilities for children and in their access to the means of support is disregarded in assigning legal rights.

This is not to say that potential fathers may never have any moral claim to be consulted about an abortion. But under what circumstances does such a claim arise; what makes it valid? It should be evident that a feminist-humanist morality, which opposes biological determinism, can­not support a view that gives the male a legal or a moral right of consent or notification on the basis of his genetic connection to the fetus alone or the biological contribution of his sperm. Nor can the "marriage bond" be the basis for such a claim without implying a kind of ownership of the woman’s body and its procreative capacity inherent in patriarchal authority. The only basis for such a claim to have moral weight is through the social relationship established between the man and the pregnancy—the actual demonstration of care and involvement and responsibility in the situation, or in prior coparenting experiences. For the experiences of everyday life tell us that the potential for further socializing, further humanizing, the pregnancy process and the fetus’ development within it is very large. Some men mourn deeply the loss of a wanted pregnancy in a spontaneous or therapeutic abortion; they may participate in the reciprocal sensory and emotional consciousness I described earlier, feeling the fetus’ move­ments and integrating a sense of its being and potential "personhood" into their own identity. Similarly, they may share, out of their understand­ing of the immediate conditions enveloping a pregnancy, in the moral judgment prompting an abortion decision. That this is so simply confirms that the process of bringing-into-consciousness or selfhood that we call "nurturance" or "maternity" is not mainly a biological but a social one. But the presumed right of the man to be informed or consulted should not override the woman’s right to make the final decision; it should not be exercised as a veto because there remains a biological dimension of this process that is irreducible. Apart from the question of social responsi­bility for children after they are bom, pregnancy is a condition specific to women; the consequences, at least during the period between concep­tion and delivery, and the contingent rights are not and cannot be equal­ized.

If we concede that male partners have certain contingent (but not equal) rights in the pregnancy experience, although those rights cannot preempt the woman’s, can they be legally enforced? Like parental consent and notification rules, those regarding spouses have to be seen in the context of existing social and power relations. A court-enforced system requiring consent or notification of the husband when a woman seeks an abortion would be redundant and unnecessarily invasive in the case of couples who have a cooperative and loving relationship; it would be­come a means of punitive surveillance over women’s sexual behavior in the case of those who do not. In fact, such proposals are intended by their right-wing sponsors as a deterrent to both abortion and "illicit" sex. Paternal claims "to protect the life of the child he has fathered in his wife’s womb" rest not only on the ideological premise of "fetal person – hood"—that the fetus exists and has rights independently of the pregnant woman—but also on a traditional proprietary interest in the wife’s body and its progeny.

Yet there is a troubling problem here. How are men to exercise greater responsibility and care in the processes of reproduction if women insist on exclusionary control? Increasingly, male partners voice complaints about feeling excluded, by both female partners and clinic personnel, from the abortion decision and the procedures surrounding it.89 Mean­while, feminists criticize the gender bias in reproductive health care and its persistent definition as a "woman’s" problem. Responding to these pressures, some abortion and family planning clinics have opened their counseling sessions to male partners and even allowed the male to accom­pany the woman throughout the procedure. But the reality is that this supportive role is not forthcoming from many men.90 Even the nurturant, sharing behavior of some men receives little enforcement from the domi­nant culture and reproductive politics. If women sometimes act to rein­force gender divisions around reproduction, concealing their pregnancies and their abortions and taking on all the responsibility, they do so in a larger social framework in which women are still blamed for both un­wanted pregnancy and abortion. It is a culture in which male support­iveness and shared responsibility in any aspect of maternal work are still considered exceptional and noble rather than a matter of course. Cur­rent legislative and judicial measures challenging women’s "right to choose" in the name of paternal rights are not in the least motivated by a spirit of support for women or shared responsibility but by an adversary posture in which the woman is pitted against the fetus and its "protec­tive father." There is no intention by the right or the state of questioning the existing arrangements whereby primary responsibility for most as­pects of reproduction and the care of children remains with women. Nor is there concern about the implications that involuntary pregnancy and childbearing may have for a woman’s life and that of a prospective child. Perhaps we are left to conclude, then, as Margaret Sanger did in 1920:

In an ideal society, no doubt, birth control would become the concern of the man as well as the woman. The hard, inescapable fact which we encounter today is that man has not only refused such responsibility, but has individually and collectively sought to prevent woman from obtaining knowledge [and resources] by which she could assume this responsibility for herself.91

Again, we return to the principle that morality cannot be separated from the social conditions and concrete situations in which moral judg­ments take place. As long as pregnancies occur in women’s bodies, change their bodies, and restructure their lives, there can be no conditions in which women will not need access to safe abortions and the ultimate right of decision. In a different world, in a different set of social arrange­ments where men’s care and responsibility for children are a matter of customary practice and public policy and women have a full measure of power in the political economy, then a social dialogue about men’s relation to the abortion (and birthing and childrearing) process will have a different and fuller meaning. In the meantime, on the levels of both personal relationships between women and men and public policy, we seem locked into the dilemma with which this book began: How do women negotiate between the social (yet personal) need to extend respon­sibility for reproduction to men and the state and the personal (yet social) need to defend their control over the terms and conditions of reproduc­tion? How do we create radically new arrangements of shared responsibil­ity for children, including the power over whether they are bom, in a world where women still have power over little else?

This arouses in us an awareness of the "injustice in the very occur­rence of the dilemma."92 We must, finally, take a moral stance that is also a political stance: to refuse the terms of the dilemma, to reject being caught between unviable "choices." This is very different from demanding the "right to choose." We are saying that we reject the choices: We reject a system of production in which childbearing and jobs with decent pay are incompatible, and in which workers have no control over the health hazards to which they are subjected. We reject a medical-care system in which it is possible or thinkable for physicians to treat fetuses as separate, and adversary, medical subjects from pregnant women and to evade the woman’s right to informed consent on that ground.93 We reject a dominant sex-gender system in which men assert power over women and children without being obliged to learn the painstaking, ambiguous discipline of "maternal thinking," while women’s practice of that disci­pline, however flawed, is never rewarded with social power (as participa­tion, not domination). In short, making authentic moral judgments about abortion and having choices that are real involve changing the world.

Toward a Feminist Concept of Personhood

The doctrine of fetal personhood is morally offensive from a feminist, socialist, and humanist standpoint because what makes human life distinct is its capacity for consciousness and sociability. To reduce it to genetics, to equate Holocaust victims with aborted fetuses, is to demean human life and the moral value of consciousness. It is, moreover, to demean pregnant women, who are treated in this perspective as the physical vessels for genetic messages rather than responsible moral agents. Motherhood in this sense becomes, not a socially determined relationship, but a physio­logical function, a "fact of life." At the same time, "right-to-life" ideology equates pregnancy with motherhood as it has been defined in modern Western patriarchal culture—as a moral and social duty. Although preg­nant nulliparous women do not usually regard themselves as "mothers," since in their experience there is no "child" with whom they have a relationship, this doctrine tells them they should become instantaneously "motherly" from the moment of conception.

Reducing motherhood to a passive biological state is a way of dehu­manizing it, stripping it of dependence on women’s consciousness. Oddly enough, however, imposing an absolute maternal duty on pregnant women induces the same deadening passivity. Biological determinism and moral absolutism arrive at the same end. The antiabortionists’ charge that women who get abortions are invariably "selfish" and "irresponsible" insults not only women as moral agents but motherhood as a human practice and a conscious, demanding activity. By insisting that the abortion question has only one answer, the "right-to-life" position denies the role of human will and judgment in moral decision making, particularly in decision mak­ing about childbirth and sex. It thus denies the full human personhood of women.

What is necessary to personhood, it would seem, is personality—the existence of a self, which implies a psychological and a social component beyond mere biological integrity or vitalism, involving some degree of self-awareness in relation to others. What it means to be human involves an irreducible social or relational basis without which the very concept of humanity, or persons as actual or developing moral beings, makes no sense. Now, a difficulty we run into here is the tendency of liberal moral philosophers, following in the classical and particularly Kantian tradition, to associate personhood with attributes of developed human beings—not only "consciousness" but "reasoning," "self-motivated activ­ity," even the ability to "judge between right and wrong."52 One problem with this rationalist-individualist concept of personhood, as I suggested earlier, was always its use in the interests of a ruling elite to exclude those considered insufficiently "rational" or "motivated" or "civilized" from the civic or even the moral community: slaves, women, children, the colonized. In this respect, the concerns of some of those who oppose abortion contain a decent, though I believe mistaken, moral impulse. They are concerns shared by many liberals, especially Catholics, who disapprove of abortion, although they do not identify with the conservative politics of the organized "prolife" movement. That impulse is (1) to affirm the Kantian principle of a "person" as one who is a being in and for herself, an end rather than a means; and (2) to deny that this involves a set of intellectual or cognitive prerequisites that would exclude or disqualify a whole range of human beings considered "inferior" or "unfit." These are concerns meant to appeal, not unreasonably, to leftists and especially feminists, sensitive to the political consequences (for women, for blacks) of a "moral" tradition that elevates mind and reason and denigrates the body.53 Antiabortionists frequently raise the prospect of a "slippery slope" (always a polemical device) that leads from fetuses to "euthanasia" among the mentally disabled, the physically disabled, the elderly, and so on. More persuasive perhaps is their argument that the classical definition of personhood leaves no way to distinguish between infants and fetuses and therefore would allow infanticide:

If to be human means to be a person, to be a self-conscious subject of experience, or if it means to be rational, this state of affairs does not come to pass until a long while after the birth of a baby. A human infant acquires its personhood and self-conscious subjective identity through "Thou-I" encounters with other selves; and a child acquires essential rationality even more laboriously. If life must be human in these senses before it has any sanctity and respect or rights due it, infanticide would seem to be justified under any number of conditions.54

What concept of personhood would avoid biological reductionism yet include newborn babies, as well as allowing for the developmental variations in the fetus at different stages; that is, would accord with the common-sense notions about who has a "right to life" and who does not that most people in fact apply in everyday life? While there are practical historical reasons why infanticide has mostly fallen into disuse (not the least of which is access to legal birth control and abortion!), there is a coherent philosophical explanation for why most people treat babies differently from fetuses, and late fetuses differently from early ones. This explanation lies in a theory of personhood whose elements are humanist, socialist, and feminist.

The Kantian principle of treating persons as ends in themselves, with intrinsic value, is an elegant version of the bourgeois myth of atomized individuals; it disregards that the necessary premise for such persons to exist is the prior human world of interrelationships, interdependence— in short, of social life. Philosophers of diverse persuasions have understood that the preformed, self-sufficient monad—of which the fetus as person is a vulgarization—is not only philosophically but socially (and biologically) implausible. The Catholic humanist Jacques Maritain presents a concept of the person that is insistent in its emphasis on not only spirituality but sociability: "The person is a whole, but it is not a closed whole, it is an open whole. … It tends by its very nature to social life and to communion. . . demands an entrance into relationship with other per­sons. To state it rigorously, the person cannot be alone."55 The Marxist humanist Agnes Heller clarifies the necessary interrelationship or "synthe­sis" between "self-consciousness," or "I-consciousness," and conscious­ness of being part of a larger whole, a "species-being" in Marx’s sense: "The Individual is a person who ‘synthesises’ in himself the chance uniqueness of his individuality with the universal generality of the species," who has a consciousness not only of himself/herself as an end but of "his (her) world. Every person forms his world and thus himself too."56 "Personhood" or "humanism" in this view is not static, not a set of physical or even intellectual "properties"; rather, it is a process, a con­tinual coming to consciousness. We become humanized, in a never-ending develop­ment that involves, as consciousness, rational and "moral" faculties but, more primally, feelings, sensations, the body—and always in a context of relationship with others. It is this relationship, this interdependence, that humanizes us; the particular physical, verbal, or intellectual mode of relating is secondary. Seen from this perspective of humanization as a continual process of "movement toward liberation"57 or greater con­sciousness, personhood must inevitably involve some differences of de­gree. Moral philosophy cannot avoid distinguishing "between the human and the ‘truly human/ "58 as for example when we speak of the "inhuman­ity of man." More important, this theoretical perspective on personhood may help us to formulate a more precise philosophical approach to the meaning of fetuses and infants at different stages of development than either the "right-to-life" or the rationalist-individualist position allows.

We begin to see, then, why antiabortionists jump so easily between two apparently contradictory positions—the "ensoulment" argument (that the fetus has a perfectly independent soul from the moment of conception) and the "genetic package" argument (that all we are and can be is perfectly contained in our DNA). Both arguments rest on the false premise of totally isolated, self-sufficient individuals connected only to God or their own biochemical structure. Both explicitly reject any social conception of human beings or humanness; any other person, including the biological mother, becomes inconsequential. But the idea of "persons" as self-con­tained atoms is a fallacy at any stage of human development and certainly at its inception. Without consciousness, awareness of others, or ability to communicate its needs, the fetus cannot be a being "in and for itself" (a person); it is less so even than a mature animal. Its identity as a "human life" is thus all the more inevitably endowed or bound up with contextual meanings; it is the social context and the value placed on the fetus by those immediately concerned in its care that determine to a large extent its value in the world and even its rights.

Nothing could illustrate more clearly the fallacy in "right-to-life" thinking about personhood than the frequently voiced claim that the fetus exhibits "sensitivity to pain" and therefore should be recognized as human. This is equivalent to saying that the fetus "feels bad" when we abort it, which is absurd, since we do not know, nor can we know, what the fetus "feels." Pain as a concept refers only to subjective feelings, not to biological responses that can be measured; sensitivity to touch and reflex actions, on the other hand, can be found in plants and have little to do with pain. It is precisely because the fetus is not a subjectivity and therefore cannot take cognizance of or communicate its "bad" feelings that we cannot recognize it as a person. We can only recognize its value in a context of relationships with others, defined by their subjectivity. For loving "expectant parents," an unwanted abortion is an event occa­sioning mourning and a deep sense of loss because of the social context of longings, care, and expectations that envelop the pregnancy. The scar­city of children available for adoption to infertile couples, or the desires of a potential father or grandparent for a child, may be other circumstances that endow the fetus with value. But those are as extrinsic and utilitarian (i. e., bound to particular interests) as are the pregnant woman’s wants and needs, and cannot be used to argue that the fetus has value in and of itself.

If, however, a relational concept of personhood requires an existent self-awareness, then it becomes difficult indeed to include the newborn infant. Where can we derive any moral principle against killing small babies other than from the subjective reality that babies are nice and responsive and we like them better than fetuses? The problem here results from assumptions about consciousness and the humanization process, shared by Marxists as well as liberals (and all who have not broken fully from the Enlightenment tradition), that focus exclusively on verbal and "rational" modes of communication. To correct these outmoded as­sumptions, we can look at theories of developmental and object relations that psychologists have proposed about the formation of the "self" in the infant; we can even look at the lived experience of pregnant women, which supports those theories.59 They tell us that the emergence of a "self"—the psychological process of individuation in which the child be­gins to acquire a consciousness of itself in relation to, and separate from, others, and thus a consciousness of others—occurs, and can only occur, in an interactive and social context.

The relationship with others constructs the self in a complex and sometimes protracted process of reciprocal perceptual and later emotional cues, so that the "self" could not possibly be a genetic or inborn property. Thus, the antiabortion argument that "I cannot will that my mother should have had an abortion when she was pregnant with me," so I cannot "consistently deny to others the right to life that I claim for myself," is illogical. There was no self, no "me," during my mother’s pregnancy with me, with whom my present self is continuous.60 The fetus has no interest in preserving its body because it has no "self," no consciousness: "… while you have interests regarding your body, your body and its parts have no interest of their own, and in its earliest stages a fetus is only a body and not a self at all. . . ."61 While the self, the person, cannot exist separately from its body and its sensory apparatus, which is the biological precondition for its consciousness, the body predates the self and may survive its extinction (as consciousness).

What, then, of the "preindividuated" infant prior to its development of self-awareness, and of the fetus in its later stages? A social, relational concept of personhood, because it is focused on process rather than some illusory substance or property, allows us the possibility, the only humanist possibility, of encompassing such beings within our moral framework. It gives human content to the otherwise mystical, abstract notion of "po­tentiality." Human pregnancy, like any other human experience, is never raw biology; its biological dimensions are mediated by the social process of coming into relationship, in this case the earliest, most elemental rela­tionship, which is what humanizes it. "Relationship" means, first, that there is interdependence; and, second, that there is consciousness of this, even if that consciousness is one-sided for a time. Willis captures the human reality of pregnancy when she says: "There is no way a pregnant woman can passively let the fetus live; she must create and nurture it with her own body, a symbiosis that is often difficult, sometimes dangerous, uniquely intimate."62 The idea of a "symbiosis," however, can only refer to a social or cultural construct, a learned response. On the level of "biol­ogy alone," the dependence is one-way—the fetus is a parasite.63 Not only is it not a part of the woman’s body, but it contributes nothing to her sustenance. It only draws from her: nutrients, immunological defenses, hormonal secretions, blood, digestive functions, energy. Even the concept of "viability," whenever it may occur, is meaningless—a device to protect doctors against lawsuits and to denigrate the role of the pregnant woman in prenatal nurturing. What does it mean to speak of viability in a society that has no intention of providing care for the children of working moth­ers, much less aborted fetuses? More important, the fetus is never viable insofar as it remains utterly dependent for its survival on the mother or another human caretaker until long after birth.

Yet pregnancy, like all relationships, is characterized by mutual de­pendency in a social and moral sense. For the pregnant woman, whether she wants the fetus or not, is caught up irrevocably in a condition of intimacy with and perhaps longing for it as well. The experience of going through a full-term pregnancy, bearing a child, and giving it up for adop­tion is punitive and traumatic for a woman because the relationship by then is real; it exists. No woman who has ever borne a child needs to be told that its "personality" and certainly its relationship to her begin to emerge well before its birth. It is not surprising that until relatively recently (and perhaps still) the moment of "quickening" was considered by most women the dividing line between the nonexistence and existence of a "child." The movements of the fetus are signs, communications, that denote to the pregnant woman its life and its dependence on and relationship to herself. Certainly up until that time a pregnant woman is in no sense a "mother," for the simple reason that motherhood is a socially constructed relationship, not a biological condition alone (the situa­tion of adoption is an obvious example). She is not yet a mother any more than the man who has inseminated a fertile ovum with his sperm becomes from that moment a "father." With the onset of movement in the uterus, the woman begins to develop her consciousness of interrelated­ness. That consciousness, emerging out of reciprocal sensory activity, marks the beginning of the social relationships that are the necessary and sole basis through which the fetus’ development of a "self/’ its humani­zation, is possible.

The point is not that the fetus now has a "subjective" relationship with this particular "mother" but that it has objectively entered the com­munity of human beings through its social interaction with (and not only its physical dependency on) an other. Its earliest "socialization" oc­curs through its body and the interdependence of its body with a conscious human being. The fact that the (post-"quickening") fetus or the early infant is not yet a "self" does not negate this reciprocal quality. Piaget, for example, discovered that the three-month-old infant, in the process of "assimilating" visual images (a hand) to motor activity and sucking, engages in imitation of the caretaker’s movements, even before there is any recognition "of another’s body and his own body. . . ."64 But of course, the existence of the other and its (her/his) attentive consciousness is the necessary precondition for the imitative activity to occur. What is irreducible and indispensable in this humanization process (the formation of the "person") is the subjectivity of the pregnant woman, her consciousness of existing in a relationship with the fetus. Short of artificial wombs and Brave New World laboratories (which may be the "final solution" "right-to-lifers" have in mind), there is no getting around this, no elimi­nating the pregnant woman as active agent of the fetus’ "personhood." For it is her consciousness that is the condition of its humanization, of its consciousness evolving from the potential to the actual.

In the everyday practices of abortion and childbearing, more clearly than in opinion polls or surveys of attitudes, we can read the social record of a moral sense about abortion that comes close to the one I have just presented. If 1.5 million abortions a year indicate a compelling need and desire for abortion among women, we may also notice that between 92 and 96 percent of those abortions occur within the first trimester, and over half within the first eight weeks.65 These data are significant in understanding popular values about "fetal life." They confirm the sense that most women have, in term pregnancies, of developmental differences that correspond to differences, changes, in their relationship/obligation/ bond to the fetus. This sense determines, too, that a miscarriage often has a different meaning when it occurs in the first or second month of a pregnancy, when it may not even be noticed, than when it occurs in the fifth or sixth month, when it becomes the occasion of mourning— the loss of "someone." Even our ordinary language expresses this. We say, "She had a miscarriage," in the earlier case, and after some hard – to-define but real point later on, "She lost her baby."

Peter Steinfels, editor of Commonweal and a forceful spokesperson for liberal Catholic opposition to abortion, urges liberal Catholics to admit "quite frankly that the moral status of the fetus in its early development is a genuinely difficult problem. . . Steinfels acknowledges that to equate "a disc the size of a period or an embryo one-sixth of an inch long and with barely rudimentary features" with "Albert Einstein and Anne Frank as human beings" is "based on bad biology." He thereby opens up the possibility of different degrees of "life" or "personhood," for such acknowledgment implies that humanization is a developmental process rather than a distinct moment or quality.66

Looking again at the data for 1978-79 regarding the gestational period in which abortions occur, the impression of a kind of implicit moral code among women is strengthened if we break down who are the small number of women who get "late" abortions (after twelve weeks) and why. As we might expect, the 5 to 8 percent of abortions in those years that occurred after the first trimester tended to be among teenagers 67 Delayed abortions among teenagers are mainly the result not of personal attitudes so much as of public policies that (1) create legal and administra­tive obstacles for teenagers who seek abortions, (2) restrict Medicaid fund­ing for abortion, and (3) support a dominant culture and "morality" that punish the sexuality of unmarried young women. In a different sexual culture with unrestricted availability of legal, publicly funded abortion services, nearly all abortions (except in a small number of health-related cases) would occur early in a pregnancy. This would be desirable from the standpoint of women’s health and well-being as well as sensibility to the fetus and its development.

Given this developmental view of pregnancy and its moral implica­tions, what would be a feminist-humanist position on amniocentesis and other forms of prenatal diagnosis? For amniocentesis usually implies an intention to abort if the fetus does not meet certain specifications, and to abort at a relatively late stage of fetal development. (The procedure cannot be performed earlier than at sixteen weeks of gestation.) "Right – to-lifers" have opposed these techniques almost as strongly as abortion, citing them as support of the "slippery slope" argument and inevitable contributing factors to the escalation of abortion. But this has little basis in fact. In the gestational data cited earlier, pregnant women aged 30- 39 had lower percentages of abortions after nine weeks than other age groups, indicating that abortion following amniocentesis is not a frequent occurrence among them.68 In short, amniocentesis would seem to have had a negligible impact on abortion rates. This is not to say that abortion following amniocentesis in the second trimester raises no moral questions or poses no hard dilemmas for women (or prospective parents). It does not follow from the feminist position that holds that only a pregnant woman can decide about abortion that abortion raises no moral issues, or that the fetus makes no moral claims on the pregnant woman.

Here we need to distinguish between the political question—who should decide—and the moral question—whether abortion is right or wrong in a

given instance—and begin to enunciate feminist principles for the latter as well as the former. The situation of prenatal diagnosis followed by a decision to abort is a specific one because it nearly always involves a context in which pregnancy is desired but a particular fetus is rejected for its characteristics. That such choices may be morally ambiguous or even immoral in certain cases seems unquestionable. Choosing to abort solely on the basis of gender preference, whether for male or female, would be grossly sexist and therefore antifeminist and immoral. A differ­ent case is that of Down’s syndrome, one of the most common concerns of women undergoing amniocentesis. Down’s syndrome represents a wide-ranging disorder in terms of its symptoms, although the chromo­somal abnormality detected through amniocentesis is always the same, and one can never know with certainty that one is rejecting a "nonfunc­tional" individual. Similarly, with neural tube defects such as spina bifida, it may turn out that one chooses abortion when surgical correction is possible. And, of course, the question of what is "humanly" functional is a morally laden one.69 A decision to undergo abortion in such cases is probably always made in terms of competing moral claims to those of the fetus: limited family or community resources; obligations to other children; or the pregnant couple’s sense of the limits on their capacity for, and vision of, parenting. It could hardly be otherwise, since pregnan­cies always exist in a context of social relations and moral commitments, not in isolation.70

The other side of the matter is the immeasurable human benefit of a social and medical context in which such a choice exists. For the 5 percent of tested women who receive a positive amniocentesis result, the prospect of ending the pregnancy and undergoing a second-trimester abortion is undoubtedly painful and anguished; some prefer to go through with the pregnancy. But for most, it seems nothing short of miraculous that what used to be a question of ill fate—the responsibility for a child born with severe, incapacitating handicaps—is now subject to human intervention and choice. Like safe, legal abortion, amniocentesis may be an occasion of sorrow at the same time as it is a condition of expanded human freedom and consciousness.71

The point here, then, is not the particular outcome of the decision one way or the other so much as it is that such moral decisions are inevitably hard; they must be approached with the fullest attention and care given toward all their consequences on the part of those immediately involved. This might be called the "ethic of people being allowed to work out their own ethic," to take their own moral judgments seriously.72 In this regard, a feminist morality of abortion cannot totally separate the political question of who decides from the moral question of what decision to make, any more than it can prejudge what is "right" in a particular case by reference to some holy writ. For it is women whom the culture trains in "maternal thinking," to exercise care in regard to questions about life; it is pregnant women themselves whose conscious­ness is closest to the reality of the fetus and the total circumstances in which it exists. In the last analysis, their decisions are most likely to be morally informed. What the antiabortion movement is about is the dis­crediting of women’s moral judgment.

Maternal ReviPalism

Like its view of the fetus, the "right-to-life" view of motherhood is a remarkably Victorian mixture of religious and biological-determinist elements. On the one hand, there is the Augustinian image of woman as ordained by God to procreate; the passive receptacle of the male seed, "selfish" and "sinful" if she evades that destiny and directs her sexuality to nonprocreative ends. Abortion, from this view, is a sin against God in defiance of woman’s nature, for which she is morally culpable. Hence the message communicated in "right-to-life" literature, demonstrations, and harassment of women at abortion clinics. Women who get abortions are "murdering their own children," putting their "selfish desires" before their "own children’s lives," and will suffer terrible guilt. But what if the woman does not feel agony or guilt but, like many women after an abortion, feels mainly relief that a difficult problem has been put behind her? One antihumanist, "prolife" writer insists that the woman’s feelings have nothing to do with whether or not she is guilty, which is determined by her objective relation to the "moral law" and not by "subjective experi­ence." She "ought to feel guilty" because she has in fact committed "an evil of incomprehensible dimensions."42 The fundamentalist doctrine that "man’s nature is wholly corrupt" is opposed here to "the humanist tenet that man is basically good." The very idea of human progress and social or moral development or "enrichment" in history is anathema to this doctrine, which asserts "the wickedness of man" (and, assuredly, of woman) as the source of every human (i. e., social) problem. Hence, "why have mothers, in the name of the liberation of womanhood, demanded the death of their own children?" For the antihumanist "prolifer," the answer is quite simple: "human wickedness."43

The "right-to-life" doctrine of the fetus’ "personhood" and the abort­ing woman’s "selfishness" is akin to the antihumanist philosophy of the New Right. Antihumanism, as professed by the "right-to-life" and "pro – family" movements, pits itself squarely against every intellectual and philosophical tradition that grew out of the Enlightenment and secularism. Marxism and feminism are of course denounced by the right, but so are all philosophies, including radical Christian movements such as libera­tion theology, whose central focus is social change on this earth or even human, as opposed to divine or scriptural, ends. When Weyrich describes the Moral Majority as "a Christian democratic movement rooted in the authentic Gospel, not the social gospel," he is attacking and distinguishing his politics from those Christian movements in the United States and Latin America that ally with the poor to change oppressive social conditions.44 All social movements, including labor movements, peasant uprisings, anticolonial struggles, civil rights, and antinuclear protests, would thus be categorized by the New Right under "materialistic, atheistic humanism," charged with the sin of making human life and human plea­sure on earth the measure of all value. But a particular condemnation is reserved for feminism and the movement for sexual liberation. The New Right associates this branch of humanism most closely with hedo­nism, equated with ”doing whatever feels good," with "moral perversity and total corruption."

By the end of the 1970s, some "right-to-lifers" began to promote the view that women who get abortions are themselves victims—of profi­teering doctors or coercion by Planned Parenthood—and should be offered protection and Christian compassion.45 In this view, abortion is depicted as contrary to women’s true desires and interests as mothers, invariably a source of anguish and "ambivalence." Yet this profession of "compas­sion" and support for pregnant women is simply a more paternalistic version of the idea of an innate maternalism, which abortion violates. In a major "right-to-life" propaganda piece, Francis A. Schaeffer, a funda­mentalist minister, and C. Everett Koop, U. S. surgeon general and head of the National Institutes of Health under Reagan, refer to women who have had abortions as "aborted mothers" and "bereft mothers" filled with bitterness and "sorrow":

With many of the women who have had abortions, their "motherliness" is very much present even though the child is gone. . . . One of the facts of being a human being is that in spite of the abnormality of human beings and the cruelty of their actions, there still exist the hopes and fears, the longings and aspirations, that can be bundled together in the word motherliness. To stamp out these feelings is to insure that many women will turn into the kind of hard people they may not want to be.46

Like the fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone view, the implication of the "Christian compassionate" view of abortion is the basic precept of all patriarchal ideology: Motherhood—and indeed "motherliness," a state of being and not just a social role or relationship—is the primary purpose of a woman’s life. Abortion is thus "abnormal," "unnatural"; a woman who undergoes an abortion is subverting her own nature and will surely suffer or become "hardened" (read, unmotherly, unwomanly). Whether the "prolife Christian" confronts her "suffering" with pity or hatred, the point is that suffer she must, for procreation and childrearing are woman’s "privileged position and purpose in human history" and to renounce them—whether once or for good—is to place herself outside female nature and "human history."

More ancient than the idea of the fetus as person, the primacy and necessity of woman as Mother has been a continuous ideological thread in antiabortion pronouncements since the nineteenth century. Callahan quotes the Catholic theologian Bernard Haring, writing in 1966 in terms that lay bare the deeper passions underlying "right-to-life" sentiments:

If it were to become an accepted principle of moral teaching on motherhood to permit a mother whose life was endangered simply to "sacrifice" the life of her child in order to save her own, motherhood would no longer mean absolute dedication to each and every child.47

Because the pregnant woman is Mother, she must be ready to die for the fetus. More than the survival of the individual fetus, what is ultimately at stake in the abortion struggle, in this view, is the "moral teaching" of motherhood as "absolute dedication." It is the idea of woman as Mother, and of the fetus as the tie that binds her to marital chastity and selflessness, that takes precedence over anything else. The woman who has an abortion makes a clear statement about her life and her understanding of her moral and social commitments relative to a potential maternal relationship; she renounces, defies the concept of motherhood as total self-sacrifice for the sake of others. On some level, perhaps, she even asserts her capacity to exercise control over life and death—and this makes her particularly, ineffably dangerous.48 Thus does antiabortion ideology reveal its associa­tion, not only with antifeminism, but with the most primitive traditions of misogyny.

Contemporary opponents of abortion reflect these elements of mi­sogynist thinking in their perpetuation of the myth that women who get abortions do so mostly for reasons of "convenience" and to repudiate motherhood.49 We have seen that the social reality behind this perception is complex; motherhood has assumed a different place in many women’s lives during the past decade, interwoven with work and study, deferred but hardly abandoned. What is important here is the tremendous emotion­alism and hostility toward women that the perception of change has apparently generated. The cry that women are "killing their children" (you too, it seems to say, might have been an abortion) signals a new wave of "momism" and "motherhood revivalism," a fundamental current of the New Right’s moral offensive. This cry touches deep nerves—fears of maternal abandonment, fears that women will no longer mother. The assumption behind it, that woman’s purpose is to exemplify "unselfish­ness" through motherhood, is not often challenged even by those who claim to favor "choice."50 Recently, a rash of disclaimers and apologies by liberals, leftists, and even some feminists in the popular media, confess­ing "ambivalence" about abortion,51 reveal the extent to which "right – to-life" ideology has penetrated the dominant culture and fostered guilt, even without a change in the law. More than ever, we need a feminist morality of abortion, one that addresses the issues that "right-to-lifers" raise in human, social terms and moves well beyond them.

Biological ReducHonism

Increasingly, in response to accusations of religious bias and violations of church-state separation, the evidence marshaled by antiabortionists to affirm the personhood of the fetus is not its alleged possession of a soul but its possession of a human body and genotype. In addition, by relying on biological, or genetic, determinism, the "right-to-life" move­ment asserts a claim to scientific objectivity. Biological determinism grows out of the social Darwinism and eugenics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which were applied in the service of racism, class domination, and population control. Its essential core is an attempt to explain the meaning and direction of human society, behavior, and values in terms of biochemistry and what we can observe about heredity: "For sociobiologists and believers in natural aristocracies of class and sex, the properties of society are determined by the intrinsic properties of individ­ual human beings, individuals are the expression of their genes, and genes are nothing but self-replicating molecules."27 All human life is reduced to its chemical bits. It is no accident, of course, that the "right-to-life" movement draws on mechanistic biological explanation as well as religion to legitimate its moral and social philosophy. For it does so in a general ideological climate that has seen the revival of genetic "theories" of race and reductionist theories of genetics; the rise of sociobiology in the social sciences; and, as part of the backlash against feminism, the renewed re­spectability of biological arguments supporting gender distinctions.28

"Fetal personhood" doctrine draws upon biological determinism in several ways. Its crudest expression is the profusion of antiabortion imag­ery presenting the fetus as "baby." It is a propagandistic tour de force to have taken the notion of "personhood" (a metaphysical, moral idea) and translated it into a series of arresting visual images that are utterly physiological and often just plain morbid. Various techniques are used to convey the idea that the fetus is literally a baby from the moment of conception: (1) photographs of fetuses at different stages of develop­ment, revealing recognizable physiological features; (2) photographs of aborted (bloody, gory) fetuses, particularly those aborted late; (3) clinical descriptions of fetal development, with special emphasis on the formation of heartbeat, fingerprints, fingers, and toes; (4) juxtaposition or alternation of pictures of fetuses with pictures of live babies, reinforcing the idea of their identity; and (5) the constant use of language referring to fetuses as "babies," "children" or "unborn children."29

The fetus as an image of the small, the helpless, and the mortal is made to embody one’s desire for protection, for the safety of the womb; hence its power as a symbol to manipulate emotions. Through an errone­ous attempt to portray the fetus as a miniature replica of you or me, this imagery not only denies the subtle processes of biological develop­ment but also seeks to arouse one’s sense of identity with the fetus. Indeed, continually stressing the "small fingers and toes" or the capacity of the fetus to "feel pain" excites this kind of identification, through a psychological mechanism that reduces the sense of "humanity" to its most primitive biological and sentimental manifestations. The purpose of shocking, scaring, and eliciting morbid fears is connected to the biolo – gistic reduction of the meaning of "human life." "Right-to-life" rhetoric communicates the worst horrors of our age; abortion is "killing babies," clinics are "death camps" and "abortion chambers," clinicians who per­form abortions are "death peddlers" and "Nazi murderers." Their empha­sis on fetuses "hacked to pieces" or "burned" in saline solution is polemi­cal, since it refers to only 5 percent of all abortions. For people who claim to uphold "life," as critics have frequently noted, "right-to-lifers" are enormously preoccupied, even obsessed, with death and the remnants of aborted fetuses, apotheosizing and even displaying them in public rituals.

This symbolic representation of fetal "personhood" in the guise of human embodiment (in contrast, note, to "ensoulment") is reinforced on a more sophisticated level through an appeal by antiabortionists to biological science. Thus Jesse Helms, in introducing the "human life stat­ute" (S. 158) in the Senate, cited, not moral and religious authorities, but sources on human embryology; and Noonan takes for granted that the argument for fetal personhood is established in "biological knowledge common to all Americans."31 Using biological and theological language almost interchangeably, "prolife" spokesmen, in supporting the Helms statute in the Senate, argued that science is now able to determine "when human life begins" and that this settles the matter of the moral and legal status of the fetus.32 Because it can be shown that every fertilized human egg is genetically unique, possessing a distinct human genotype, they claim, it can be inferred that the zygote is a human person in a moral sense. The Protestant theologian and opponent of abortion Paul Ramsey expounded this argument, which Peter Steinfels calls the "genetic package" argument, back in the 1960s:

. . . microgenetics seems to have demonstrated what religion

never could, and biological science to have resolved an ancient

theological dispute. The human individual comes into existence first as a minute informational speck, drawn at random from many other minute informational specks his parents possessed out of the common gene pool. This took place at the moment of impregnation. There were, of course, an unimaginable number of combinations of specks on his paternal and maternal chromosomes that did not come to be when they were refused and he began to be. Still (with the exception of identical twins), no one else in the entire history of the human race has ever had or will ever have exactly the same genotype. Thus, it can be said that the individual is whoever he is going to become from the moment of impregnation. Thereafter, his subsequent development may be described as a process of becoming the one he already is.33

Ramsey’s statement is a wondrous example of theological opinion masquerading as biological fact. Into the randomness of human fertiliza­tion and genetic pairing he conveniently reads the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: We are all that we can ever be from the moment of concep­tion. Indeed, there is even the suggestion, in the image of millions of possible combinations "refused" and only one selected, of a divine and inscrutable will. Such an interpretation is peculiarly alien to the stance of modern science, including molecular biology, which is one of rigorous indeterminacy:

. . . the traditional opinion, which most of us are still unconsciously guided by, is that the child conceived on any one occasion is the unique and necessary product of that occasion: that child would have been conceived, we tend to think, or no child at all. This interpretation is quite false. . . . Only over the past one hundred years has it come to be realized that the child conceived on any one occasion belongs to a vast cohort of Possible Children, any one of whom might have been conceived and born if a different spermatozoon had chanced to fertilize the mother’s egg cell—and the egg cell itself is only one of very many. It is a matter of luck then, a sort of genetic lottery. And sometimes it is cruelly bad luck—some terrible genetic conjunction, perhaps which once in ten or twenty thousand times will bring together a matching pair of damaging recessive genes. Such a misfortune, being the outcome of a random process, is, considered in isolation, completely and essentially pointless. It is not even strictly true to say that a particular inborn abnormality must have lain within the genetic potentiality of the parents, for the malignant gene may have arisen de novo by mutation. The whole process is unhallowed—is, in the older sense of that word, profane,34

Abortions occur continually in nature, and we do not experience them as sacred events—quite the contrary. Even in a narrowly biological sense, it is impossible to say with certainty that a particular embryo will develop into a particular human being, since it may be spontaneously aborted or may turn out to be a decidedly unhumanlike mutation.35

If molecular biology cannot be relied on to ascertain the sanctity of genetic uniqueness, how much less can it tell us about the relationship between the genotype and the person. The most striking fallacy in the genetic arguments of antiabortionists is their leap from the fact of genetic individu­ality—a characteristic not only of humans but of all living things, including cows and chameleons—to the value of human personhood. This is a prob­lem, in part, of confusing the self, the person, with her or his genetic basis, ignoring the enormously complex interaction between genes, envi­ronment, and development that ultimately determines who or what an actual person becomes. To say that who I am is codified from the moment of my conception is to deny most people’s common-sense assumptions about who they are, their selfhood, and its roots in conscious experience. But it also contradicts the caveats of well-known geneticists (those of a humanist persuasion) against confusing genetic potentiality with actual hu­man personality and character, which are highly influenced by culture.36 Manier sums up this genetic fallacy with great elegance:

Since our general concept of humanity is more than a biological concept, no amount of biological evidence can provide adequate warrant for any claim concerning the starting point of individual life. . . . Further, it is misleading to assert that "a being with a human genetic code is a man," as if there were specific evidence from molecular biology warranting that assertion. In fact, it has no more empirical significance than "a rose is a rose," since the only means of identifying genetic material as human is by direct comparison with DNA already identified as human.37

Thus the broader problem with the idea that the fetus is a "person" from conception is its concept of personhood, or even humanity, for it either rests on a theological premise—"ensoulment"—or it reduces to a crude, mechanistic biologism. In legal and moral terms, this means that the concept of "person" (moral) is totally collapsed into the concept of "human life" (biological, or generic).38 In fact, as Dr. Leon Rosenberg testified in the Senate hearings on S. 158, there is not agreement among scientists about the question of "when human life begins," nor any way to determine the answer definitively.39 But I submit that the beginning of human life is not the issue, for it can be argued that fetuses, even if they are "human life," are still not human persons. It might be conceded that the fetus is a form of life insofar as it is alive (as established by EEG readings, heartbeat, and other biological responses) and it is human (in the narrow and morally insignificant sense that it is composed of authenti­cally human genes or DNA, derived from genetically human parents). Yet, agreeing on this reduction of the fetus’ identity to its genetic material does not move us one step toward knowing what value to give the fetus, what rights it has (either as a class or in a particular case), or whether to regard it as a person in the moral and legal sense (which is the only sense there is).40

That the fetus is human and may even have a "right to life" does not prove that abortion is "morally (im)permissible," because being "hu­man in a genetic sense" is distinct from being "human in a moral sense"— that is, from being a person. The fetus is not a human person in this latter sense; therefore, whatever rights it may have "could not possibly outweigh the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, since the rights of actual persons invariably outweigh those of any potential person when­ever the two conflict."41 This position suggests that we may acknowledge the fetus’ "potentiality" and its "sanctity of life" while rejecting its "per – sonhood." To deny that the fetus is a "full human person" does not necessarily mean denying that the fetus, as a potentially human and pres­ently sentient being, is morally deserving of consideration, or even that it can make moral or emotional claims on those in charge of its care— mainly pregnant women. The problem is that whatever those claims may be, they frequently come into conflict with the rights and needs of women and others with whom they are connected who are (in the opinion of feminists and humanists) full human persons. But the "right-to-life" posi­tion either denies such conflict or dissolves it into a definition of "mother­hood" that makes the fetus’ life determinant of the woman’s.

Religious Symbolism

"Right-to-life" spokespeople strenuously oppose the characterization of their movement as primarily religious, despite all the evidence (see Chapter 7) about the centrality of religious personnel and institutions in antiabortion organizing. Many liberal Catholics are sensitive to the charge that the antiabortion cause is led by the church hierarchy, or to the association of the "right-to-life" movement with the church, seeing behind it a veiled expression of anti-Catholic bigotry.20 In fact, the argu­ment made again and again about the cross-denominational character of both antiabortion attitudes and antiabortion activism is valid. Yet the emphasis on interdenominationalism obscures the importance of religious symbolism in abortion politics, especially in regard to "fetal personhood." A pluralism of sects does not necessarily mean an absence of doctrinaire religious values and motifs inspiring that idea. It is not religion that is objectionable in "right-to-life" ideology but conservative, antihumanist religion, which contradicts its claim to rest on "science" and reveals its fundamentally narrow, sectarian character. An important part of the strug­gle for moral hegemony is that being waged within the major religious groups (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish), between their liberal and some­times feminist tendencies and their orthodox or fundamentalist ten­dencies.

The religious doctrines underlying antiabortion ideology, taken as a related cluster, are more characteristic of fundamentalist and orthodox sects. These religious doctrines include (1) belief in the existence of an immortal soul; (2) belief that the soul is "implanted" in the fetus from the moment of conception; (3) belief in the doctrine of original sin or the innate sinfulness of human beings, who are "conceived in sin"; (4) belief therefore that souls "killed unbaptized" are lost to eternal salvation and that death before birth is an especially horrible "curse"; (5) belief in divine creation and in the fetus as the "bearer of God’s image"; and (6) belief in the doctrine of "stewardship," that human bodies belong neither to themselves nor to their parents nor to society, but to God, their creator, who alone has the right to kill the "innocent."21

While there is little theological content or consistency to the idea of fetal innocence,22 it is used continually by the antiabortion movement as a symbol to mobilize, not just moral outrage, but religious sentiment, in an attempt to justify an absolute prohibition against abortion. A polemi­cal device that draws on religious signifiers, the notion of innocence con­structs the view of abortion as murder and the fetus as helpless victim. It also implies that the fetus is an object of preference—holier, closer to God, than women and their families. Thus, the "absolutist" or "one­dimensional" position of the Catholic church and the "right-to-life" move­ment on abortion "gives the fetus the overwhelming advantage," making conflicting concerns, such as the health or well-being of pregnant women, negligible.23 The church’s 1974 Declaration on Abortion, denying that even danger to a woman’s life is sufficient justification for abortion, makes this perfectly clear:

We do not deny these very great difficulties. It may be a serious question of health, sometimes of life or death, for the mother; it may be the burden represented by an additional child, especially if there are good reasons to fear that the child will be abnormal or retarded; it may be the importance attributed in different classes of society to considerations of honor or dishonor, of loss of social standing, and so forth. We proclaim only that none of these reasons can ever objectively confer the right to dispose of another’s life, even when that life is only beginning.24

To a moral tradition that celebrates renunciation and turning away from the human world, the woman who dies in childbirth becomes the supreme "exemplar" of blessed motherhood and Christian "self-sacrifice."25

As represented in testimony in McRae, religious groups that tend to be more progressive, liberal, or humanist in their interpretation of Scripture take a different view of the fetus and the moral issues involved in abortion. Certain Baptist, Methodist, and Reformed Jewish groups, for example, stress some version of the idea of "responsible parenthood" as the ethical basis of abortion decision making, implying that in special circumstances abortion may be seen as a religious duty. These groups, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, hold unequivocally that the woman’s life, health, and well-being and her family’s welfare must take precedence over the survival of the fetus. According to one Baptist clergy­man testifying in McRae: "It is for the people themselves to decide on the number of their children, because that is a value judgment. Conscience means moral awareness, and liberty of conscience means the exercise of one’s moral awareness. Abortion presents a matter for individual moral decision, in a matter of ultimate concern respecting bringing a life into the world." In the Reform Jewish view, "Abortion is mandated to pre­serve a woman’s health and is permitted in the interest of the wellbeing of the woman and her existing family. The position on abortion is seen as a part of the larger principle of choosing life, that is, life in this world, not in the next/’26 Liberal Catholic thinking, too, particularly the natural – law tradition represented in the ideas of Jacques Maritain, while indeed not condoning abortion, contains a humanistic concept of personhood that conflicts sharply with that of conventional "prolife" dogma. Religion, then, or religious sectarianism masquerading as "universal morality," can­not be summoned to settle the "abortion question."