Feminist Ideas about Reproductive Rights
. . . that ail the while the Foetus is forming. . . even to the Moment that the Soul is infused, so long it is absolutely not in her Power only, but in her right, to kill or keep alive, save or destroy, the Thing she goes with, she won’t call it Child; and that therefore till then she resolves to use all manner of Art, to the help of Drugs and Physicians, whether Astringents, Diuretics, Emeticks, or of whatever kind, nay even to Purgations, Potions, Poisons, or any thing that Apothecaries or Druggists can supply. . . .
Behind Defoe’s scathing condemnation of female malice in the act of abortion lies the presence of not only "right-to-life" antecedents in seventeenth-century England but the idea among women that abortion is a "woman’s right." Linda Gordon lays the groundwork for a feminist theory of reproductive freedom, observing that, throughout history, women have practiced forms of birth control and abortion; recurrent moral or legal prohibitions against such practices merely "forced women underground in their search for reproductive control."1 Similarly, George Devereux, surveying 350 primitive, ancient, and preindustrial societies, asserts "that there is every indication that abortion is an absolutely universal phenomenon, and that it is impossible even to construct an imaginary social system in which no woman would ever feel at least impelled to abort/’2
The universality in birth control practices helps us to understand that reproductive freedom for women is not simply a matter of developing more sophisticated techniques. While the ascent from "purgations, potions, and poisons" to vacuum aspiration doubtless represents a gain for women, abortion and reproductive freedom remain political, not technological, agendas—which feminists find necessary to mobilize over and over again. Because we are in the thick of that mobilization at present, it is important to examine the political ideas that have informed movements for reproductive freedom historically and today.
Two essential ideas underlie a feminist view of reproductive freedom. The first is derived from the biological connection between women’s bodies, sexuality, and reproduction. It is an extension of the general principle of "bodily integrity," or "bodily self-determination," to the notion that women must be able to control their bodies and procreative capacities. The second is a "historical and moral argument" based on the social position of women and the needs that such a position generates. It states that, insofar as women, under the existing division of labor between the sexes, are the ones most affected by pregnancy, since they are the ones responsible for the care and rearing of children, it is women who must decide about contraception, abortion, and childbearing.
These two ideas grow out of different philosophical traditions and have different, sometimes contradictory, reference points and political priorities. The first emphasizes the individual dimensions of reproduction, the second the social dimensions. The first appeals to a "fixed" level of the biological person, while the other implies a set of social arrangements, a sexual division of labor, developed historically, that may be changed under new conditions. Finally, one is rooted in the conceptual framework of "natural rights," while the other invokes the legitimating principle of "socially determined needs."
In what follows I analyze the origins and theoretical implications of these two ideas; I take account of the radical and conservative elements in each and highlight tensions between them that may never be totally resolved. My argument is that reproductive freedom—indeed, the very nature of reproduction—is social and individual at the same time; it operates "at the core of social life" as well as within and upon women’s individual bodies.3
Thus, a coherent analysis of reproductive freedom requires a perspective that is both Marxist and feminist. This dual perspective is also necessary on the level of political practice. For even if it were true, as some "right-to-lifers" have charged, that the women’s movement is selfcontradictory in demanding both control by women over reproductive matters and greater sharing of responsibility for such matters between women and men, both these goals are indispensable to a feminist program for
reproductive freedom. We have to struggle for a society in which responsibility for contraception, procreation, and childrearing is no longer relegated to women primarily; and, at the same time, we have to defend the principle of control over our bodies and our reproductive capacities. In the long run, we have to ask whether women’s control over reproduction is what we want, whether it is consistent with equality; in the short run, we have never experienced the concrete historical conditions under which we could afford to give it up.