By Paul Stark
Abortion was legalized in the United States during what is often called the “second wave” women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Many self-proclaimed feminists argued for the right to abortion, claiming that it empowered women—that it gave them “choice” and control over their bodies and their reproduction. But does feminism really entail support for abortion?
The term “feminism” is used to mean different things. But if it is defined simply (and uncontroversially) as a commitment to the well-being of women and to the equal fundamental dignity and rights of both sexes, then it seems to me that feminism is inconsistent with abortion and/or the pro-choice movement in a number of important ways.
First (and most fundamentally), abortion relegates a class of vulnerable human beings (the unborn) to the status of non-persons that may be killed for the convenience or benefit of others. Thus, it contradicts the basic principle of equal dignity for all human beings, the same principle that properly grounds the feminist effort to ensure female equality with men.
Second, there is overwhelming evidence that abortion can harm women both physically and psychologically. Yet defenders of legal abortion almost always downplay or dismiss these risks, and they typically oppose any requirements that women be properly informed of them prior to an abortion.
Third, the claim that abortion access is necessary for pregnant women to be equal to men—a common assertion of pro-choice feminists—implies that women are inferior by nature. Janet E. Smith, a professor of moral theology, wrote in her 1978 essay “Abortion as a Feminist Concern”:
[Some argue] that as long as men [can] engage in sex without the “danger” of becoming pregnant, women should have this “right” also: otherwise the sexes would not be equal. Thus women should go to the extreme of killing their offspring in order to gain so-called “equality” with men. It seems to me that feminists should find this a very “unliberated” attitude. At root this argument suggests that the manner in which a male’s body functions is better than that of a woman. The argument amounts to an admission that a woman would rather be a man and that she is willing to … have sex on a man’s terms, not on a woman’s.
Thus, Smith says, “Abortion is a denigration of women, a denial of one of the defining features of being a woman—her ability to bear children.” Philosopher Francis J. Beckwith explains further:
“[Some] popular abortion-choice rhetoric … asserts that women cannot achieve social and political equality without [abortion access]. … But the assumption behind this rhetoric—that equality can only be achieved through special surgery (abortion)—implies that women are naturally inferior to men, that they need abortion (a form of corrective surgery) to become equal with men. This is hardly consistent with any feminism that claims that men are not naturally superior to women. … It seems to me that this argument is rhetorically powerful in some circles because it taps into an unconscious sexism that assumes that male sexuality is the paradigm of human sexuality. Consequently, the inequality does not lie in the nature of women but in the disordered way in which our society places value on that nature. The key to ending this inequality is not to socialize women into the male paradigm, but to celebrate and honor the indispensable role that mothers play in caring for the most vulnerable and defenseless members of our population, the unborn.”
Teresa Collett, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, puts it this way: “True equality requires society to accept women with their fertility intact.”
Fourth, suggesting that abortion is a “need” for some women—given difficult economic or social conditions—implies that women are unable to succeed economically or socially without killing their own offspring. Writes Janet Smith:
“Why is it that we assume women are incapable of dealing with the adversity of an unwanted pregnancy by any other means than that of destroying life? Is this a flattering view of women? Is this a true view of women? Are women so weak psychologically that they cannot deal with what I so often hear referred to as the ‘trauma’ of an unwanted pregnancy? I argue that by allowing women to abort their unwanted pregnancies we are telling them that we have a very low opinion of them. Isn’t a mark of a mature and responsible person the ability to face problems squarely? Does not the mature person have the ability and the desire to consider the well-being of all those who are involved in a situation which presents problems—not just herself?
“In fact, I take the legalization of abortion to be an indication that as a society we expect less of our women than we do of our men. After all, society has traditionally in times of war asked men to risk their own lives. But we are unwilling to ask women to offer a few months of their lives in order to give life. Why is it that we expect men to be able to risk their lives for the well-being of us all, while we do not ask a woman to give a few months to protect a life she is responsible for creating?
“In this day of unparalleled opportunities for women, when women pride themselves on their ability to fend for themselves, when many agencies are designed for helping women in distress—why do we assume that women who become pregnant when inconvenient for them are not resourceful enough to find a way to nourish the life they have conceived?” …
Fifth, the acceptance of abortion may help enable the mistreatment of women. Abortion can be (and sometimes is) used to hide pregnancies resulting from incest and statutory rape, allowing those crimes to continue. Moreover, abortion access unfairly shifts the responsibility for child rearing to women. As Richard Stith writes, “Men these days can choose only sex, not fatherhood; mothers alone determine whether children shall be allowed to exist. Legalized abortion was supposed to grant enormous freedom to women, but it has had the perverse result of freeing men and trapping women.”
So, I think there are good reasons to think that abortion is incompatible with the equal rights of every human being, and with the welfare and special dignity of women.
Editor’s note. This first appeared on the blog of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, National Right to Life’s state affiliate, at http://prolifemn.blogspot.com/2010/07/how-feminism-is-inconsistent-with-legal.html. Mr. Stark is MCCL communications associate.