Feminism and Abortion

Pro-choice arguments, the author says, reflect the ambitions, hypocrisies, and contradictions of contemporary feminism

Sandra Day O'Connor has observed that "Roe v. Wade is on a collision course with itself." Justice O'Connor was referring to medical advances since 1973 that make it easier both to destroy potential life and to preserve it. Her meaning is vividly illustrated by those rare but disturbing cases in which a second- or third-trimester abortion yields a living infant, which must then be either killed or rushed to another part of the hospital for the latest in neonatal care.

But Justice O'Connor could just as well have been referring to the contradictions at the heart of contemporary feminism. Like the majority of Americans, I have reservations about both the pro-choice and the pro-life extremes. But I also feel that there is an imbalance between the degrees of criticism aimed at the two sides: not enough attention has been paid to the twisted logic of pro-choice rhetoric. This essay will try to redress that imbalance, by first sketching the course of recent feminist history and then dissecting some of the hypocrisies and contradictions used by pro-choice advocates to justify the absolute right to abortion.

Contemporary feminism began as a revolt against the traditional female role as it was experienced by the generation of college-educated women who in the 1950s attempted to make a full-time occupation of domesticity. To a large extent it was inspired by Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), which began as a survey of Friedan's former classmates at Smith and grew into a polemic about the psychological frustrations experienced by women who exchanged the relatively egalitarian world of the college campus for the "comfortable concentration camps" of middle-class suburbia. Restless and sometimes envious of their husbands' careers, Friedan's "trapped housewives" wanted to pursue the basically liberal goal of freedom and autonomy on an equal basis with men. Soon a movement arose to break out of the stifling private sphere inhabited by females and enter the breezy public forum dominated by males.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Try as they would, the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s could not extirpate the reality of gender differences. For the radical fringe, the persistence of such differences was proof that female oppression was the most deeply ingrained injustice in history—"metaphysical cannibalism," Ti-Grace Atkinson called it. But mainstream feminists did not feel drawn to this sisterhood, which was based on hatred for the essential experiences of womanhood. Beginning in the universities, many of them sought ways to accept gender differences without sacrificing equality.

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