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.