In some ways, this is a follow up to a previous blog post about an article Frederica Mathewes-Green about why she changed her mind about abortion. The article is well worth reading, it’s a powerful piece. Writing about it awhile ago got me thinking about how people might respond to the kinds of arguments that she makes in it. I think that most pro-choice people would agree to this:
Nobody wants to have an abortion. And if nobody wants to have an abortion, why are women doing it, 2800 times a day? If women doing something 2,800 times daily that they don’t want to do, this is not liberation we’ve won. We are colluding in a strange new form of oppression.
But they do not think that this is a reason to oppose abortion. The full weight of the claim the claim that abortion is oppressive to women is one that is only really felt if you acknowledge, at least to some extent, the humanity of the lives that are lost in these procedures. Abortion is especially abhorrent if a woman feels forced to reluctantly end a pregnancy if in doing so she is reluctantly ending the life of her child. When Mathewes-Green says
abortion is no bargain for women, either. It’s destructive and tragic. We shouldn’t listen unthinkingly to the other side of the time-worn script, the one that tells us that women want abortions, that abortion liberates them.
This is probably a claim that requires at least some respect for the humanity of the fetus to fully be appreciated.
What implications does this have for changing people’s minds on abortion? I used to chair a feminist society, I think feminist arguments against abortion are important, and I hugely admire pro-life feminist organisations like New Wave Feminists, Feminists for Life, and Feminists for Non-Violent Choices. I think it’s true that abortion is not as liberating for women as it might seem, and I think that it’s it’s important for us to argue this.
But when you’re having a conversation with someone (or speaking or writing for an audience), and want to persuade them that abortion is wrong and is therefore not an option that should be made available to women, when will arguing that abortion doesn’t liberate women be an effective way of doing this? Here are some thoughts!
- When making feminist arguments against abortion (without first arguing for the humanity of the fetus) doesn’t help.
I have always been cautious about launching straight into purely woman-focused arguments against abortion without first of all convincing your opponent of the humanity of a (human) fetus. Imagine you are someone who does not think that a fetus is a person, and does not think that their species-membership grants them human rights: imagine you fully believe that the fetus is a bunch of cells, the moral equivalent of a non-cancerous tumour inside a woman’s uterus.
That women who don’t want to have abortions sometimes end up choosing them because they seem better than any alternative is bad from a pro-choice perspective – if you want to give women genuine choice, then you want them to be able to freely choose the options they actually want. But if you think that the life of the fetus has no value, this isn’t obviously any worse, in principle, than situations in which someone who would like a child but can’t afford one, abstains from sex in order to avoid pregnancy -except perhaps that abortion arguably has a worse emotional impact on women more than abstaining from sex does. And none of this gives you a reason to think that abortion should be legally banned. A woman might regret getting married, or joining a convent, or joining the military, but we do not prevent women from doing these things (or if we want to prevent her from joining the military it is not primarily because it might make her less well off, it is because we think that the military does things that are wrong. )
Things might get a little trickier when we consider one reason why some women might find abortion emotionally difficult: perhaps even though she believes that abortion was her best option given the circumstances, she also feels that she is ending the life of her child. But if you believe that that is a mistaken belief perpetuated by pro-lifers is the risk that this might happen enough to ban her from deciding to go for that option? Surely not! A white woman who married a black man about at some point in the past, might feel that she is doing something wrong because he judgemental neighbours told her so, but this is not a reason to ban interracial marriage. The solution in a case like this is to get rid of the pernicious false beliefs that make people suffer emotional distreess for having done something that is completely morally fine.
So, if someone doesn’t believe that the fetus has any rights at all, or that the fetus’ life is of any worth, arguments that focus only on women might not convince them if they’re thinking along those lines! But these kind of women-focused arguments might have more weight for people who fall into the following two categories.
2. When making feminist arguments against abortion (without first arguing for the humanity of the fetus) does help, Case 1: Shifting the scale in a ‘Balance of Rights’
Let’s imagine again that you’re pro-choice, but you think the fetus does kind of have rights, or does have rights, and you are in favour of abortion because these these are outweighed by the woman’s right to bodily autonomy. For example, you might think that the fetus actually does have a right to life, but that that right is sometimes outweighed by a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. (See Judith Jarvis Thompson’s Violinist Argument.)
If you hold this position and then come to believe that, actually, abortion doesn’t give women more genuine autonomy, that it doesn’t actually give women greater power to choose options that they actually want, that could change this ‘rights balancing equation’ for you. You might think that the fetus’ right to life is outweighed by a woman’s right to bodily autonomy only if ending the right of the fetus actually gives her genuine bodily autonomy. And you might think that, in aggregate, making abortion widely available as an option for pregnant women does not do this.
3. When making feminist arguments against abortion (without first arguing for the humanity of the fetus) does help, Case 2: Shifting the scale in a ‘Balance of Moral Risks’
You might be pro-choice because you just aren’t sure whether the fetus has rights or not, and the risk of violating those is outweighed by the woman’s right to bodily autonomy.
The rationale for this position is roughly as follows. You might have heard arguments on either side of the personhood debate….and these might have left you unsure as to who is right about whether a fetus is a person with full human rights. What should you do in your uncertain state? As someone who is uncertain about the moral status of the unborn, what stance should you have about the legalisation of abortion?
Some would say that your uncertainty should mean that you should think that abortion access should be severely restricted. Why?
1)Because if pro-life arguments are correct, and fetuses are people, high abortion rates mean that large numbers of people are dying.
2) On the other hand, if pro-choice people are right, and fetuses aren’t people, that means that women are being denied their right to choose to end pregnancies.
Which would be worse, 1) or 2)? In 2), millions of women are being unjustly deprived of their right to a means of exercising greater control over when they have children, and when they are pregnant: in some cases, this causes suffering, and even when it does not it is seriously unjust to deprive women of their right to control what happens to their bodies (remember that on on 2), the fetus has no rights at all, and isn’t a person, just the equivalent of an extra organ in the woman’s body that will eventually turn into a person). That is bad.
However, on 1) millions of young human beings are dying. So even if you aren’t sure whether the fetus’ life is of moral significance or not, the possibility that 1) might be an accurate description of reality should seriously worry you.
Now, some people think that this balance of risks is enough to want to discourage people from having abortions, but not enough to deny them abortion access. For reasons similar to those discussed in the previous section, someone who thinks this, might be swayed if they found out that women’s overall situation wasn’t actually improved by abortion access, that they didn’t actually have more choices overall because of abortion access, and that in fact abortion access rarely grants access to women’s preferred options.
This might make it rational to shift their assessment of the ‘balance of risks’ slightly so that they favoured greater restrictions on abortion access, or an outright ban on abortion access.
It changes your mind if concerns about bodily autonomy it helps to outweigh the concern that you already have about the fetuses life. In the absence of any concern at all for the fetuses life, it probably won’t usually do much to make them oppose abortion. That being said, these are rules of thumb – and it is often worth sharing your feminist convictions about abortion even if they won’t make someone pro-life!