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.