abortion through a feminist ethics point of view


The feminist supposition is that abortion must end the existence of the fetus, since this is what women look for when they seek abortions. Females seeking abortion do not necessarily want to give up their fetus; they simply want to make certain that there is no life form at all in the universe to whom they can be associated as mother to child. Feminists have replied to the insufficiencies of only fetus-centered approaches by reminding us to give more moral and ethical attention to the actuality that fetuses live in women’s bodies.

Reproductive freedom has long been an obsession of feminist hypothesizes and activism. In the long struggle to achieve reproductive independence for women, feminists have organized a variety of conversations and public speaking and supported a wide range of initiatives. Perhaps the most triumphant, and surely one of the most ever-present of these dialogues, has been the expression of “choice.” Part of the accomplishment of resistance of reproductive freedoms on the basis of “choice” has been the thorough mere liberalness of such assertions. Choice is a typically liberal idea; it is intrinsic in liberal attitude where the individual person is a “free agent” who works out her or his rational ability in making choices. It is also intrinsic in liberal views of rights: the individual right to independence is all too eagerly reduced to choice.

In spite of an existing feminist analysis of “choice,” chiefly for its inattentiveness to varied economic, social, and gender scenery, feminists have not yet made obtainable an analysis of the intrinsic dilemmas in trying to fight for women’s reproductive autonomy inside a liberal structure. In one study, the class and race bias in liberal notions of “choice,” especially insofar as most deployments of the vocabulary of choice are conspicuously silent about the context in which those choices will be formed and made.

A rich literature appeared immediately following the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. By the mid-1980s, scholars turned their attention to the role of abortion in contemporary society and to an evaluation of the meaning of choice. Political scientist and reproductive rights activist Rosalind P. Petchesky (1984) argued that a coherent analysis of reproductive freedom requires a perspective that is feminist. To understand the content of the right to choose, she asserted, we need first to understand the social and material conditions under which choices are made. Only an analysis that adequately accounts for the specific conditions influencing individual reproductive decisions enables us to understand the extent to which women’s choices are shaped by exterior constraints and to evaluate reproductive policies-in this case the freedom to choose abortion (Petchesky 1984).

The repression of abortion during the postwar period led in turn to a dual system of abortion which divided women by race and class. As abortion was driven underground, it became unregulated and increasingly dangerous. Women became subject to harassment and coercion by abortion providers, the quality of services declined, and maternal death rates rose. Paying careful attention to class and race differences, Reagan demonstrates how white and upper-class women continued to obtain therapeutic abortions in private hospitals or went abroad while growing numbers of poor women became victims of botched abortion procedures and ended up in hospital emergency rooms.

Women’s persistent demand for abortions convinced physicians to provide them and led to a mass movement and eventual legalization. Stretching from the mid-1950s to Roe v. Wade in 1973, the movement to legalize abortion defines the fourth section. Reagan traces three strands of reform: doctors and lawyers sought to expand the definition of therapeutic abortions to enable physicians to offer more abortions; feminists argued for women’s reproductive rights; and attorneys placed class inequities at the forefront of abortion suits.

Reagan reminds us that abortion rights carry importance beyond guaranteeing the right to make decisions about pregnancy in private. Abortion rights highlight women’s ability to control their bodies, and, in the process, they strengthen the civil rights of all patients. Despite the clear limitations of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision, which permitted women to decide whether to have an abortion but failed to guarantee women access to the procedure, Reagan accords Roe v. Wade the same importance in transforming the status of women as suffrage and the right to equal pay for equal work.

Still, Reagan’s is a hopeful story about the continued–although at times limited–ability of women to make their reproductive needs known and to effect change. Although Reagan bemoans the circumstances under which physicians cooperated with the state against women’s best interests, she argues that most physicians aided state investigations not because they actively sought an alliance with the state in enforcing criminal abortion laws but because they feared being arrested themselves. In her story, women ultimately have the power to make their voices heard. In their fight for abortion, they pulled many doctors over to their side and eventually achieved legalization.

In a society that views a disabled fetus as an undesirable fetus and turns wanted babies via genetic screening into unwanted babies, women’s choices are, of course, conditioned by this very context. Women might make a decision to abort a disabled fetus because they feel unable to balance the care of a disabled child with other parts of their lives, because they are worried about a lack of support services or about the care that a disabled child would receive once the parents are no longer able to fulfill this role, or because of an intractable aversion to difference or disability of any kind. Moreover, not all women have equal access to the resources and information that might help them make an informed decision. Faced with a positive amniocentesis reading, many couples probably do decide, as Saxton seems to suggest, to have a selective abortion because of their horror that their child will be flawed and that this will reflect on them. Still, even in the face of such realities, a number of questions are left open: Are we prepared to judge women differently depending on the kind of abortions they decide to have [disabled fetus v. healthy fetus] or the motivations for choosing a selective abortion [utilitarian v. emotional]? How are we to judge the medical developments that have created such choices in the first place? Clearly, the enormous changes that pregnancy monitoring has undergone since Roe v. Wade have significantly changed both the debate surrounding abortion and the choices women have to make. Saxton’s essay points to the need to continue a dialogue on the moral framework surrounding such choices.

In Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice, Rudy traces the ideological fault lines in the abortion debate and proposes that only a repeal of all abortion laws would allow pro-life and pro-choice advocates to move beyond the current political deadlock. Her book, like those of Kristin Luker, Faye Ginsburg, and others, evaluates the current stalemate and proposes solutions to the situation. Rudy follows Luker in her assumption that competing world views separate activists on both sides of the debate. Abortion, Rudy observes, does not carry the same meaning for all people. Rather, the meaning of abortion is a product of an ethical framework or tradition specific to individual activists. Thus, when feminists speak of abortion, they do not talk about the same thing as Catholics or members of Operation Rescue. Identifying herself as a feminist who was raised Catholic and is now a practicing Christian, Rudy proceeds to analyze the ideological framework and meaning of abortion for the Catholic Church, the Christian Right, and the feminist movement.

According to Rudy’s analysis, the pro-life and pro-choice factions disagree over the question of whether abortion is murder. Although this is certainly the most visible disagreement, the factions differ on a number of other vital questions as well. The debate surrounding abortion is also a debate over women’s sexual autonomy and their position in society. Sexual freedom is not merely part of the ideological construct of feminists who support abortion, as Rudy would like us to believe, but a real outcome of women’s right to abortion. Abortion rights and the open dissemination of birth control, for instance, dramatically affected many young unmarried women, their socioeconomic position, and their sexual ideas and practices. As such, abortion came to represent the image of the “emancipated woman,” focused on education and work more than on marriage or childbearing, sexually active outside marriage and outside the discipline of the parental household, independently supporting herself and her children, consciously espousing feminist ideas. The circumstances surrounding and defining abortion, Petchesky concluded in 1984, present an unquestionable threat to traditional gender and sexual relations. [7] It is this vision (or nightmare) that lies at the core not only of feminist hopes for abortion rights and ethics but also of Catholic and conservative Christian opposition.

If feminists are to broaden our fight for abortion to one that integrates contraceptive technologies into a vision of reproductive rights and ethics, we need to analyze abortion in relation to birth control, sterilization, and new technologies. A simultaneous analysis of all these areas will illuminate the politics of provision and the integrated role that multiple technologies play in women’s lives. Moreover, because race, class, and age are crucial in determining women’s access to reproductive technologies, we need to recognize government-funded programs and public health and welfare as central-not ancillary-to the discussion in line with the conventional ethical framework such as social justice.


With When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973, Leslie J. Reagan

Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: Moral Diversity in the Abortion Debate. By Kathy Rudy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Rosalind P. Petchesky, Abortion and Woman’s Choice: The State, Sexuality, and Reproductive Freedom (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1984).

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