Feminism and Abortion

Pro-choice arguments, the author says, reflect the ambitions, hypocrisies, and contradictions of contemporary feminism
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Who Owns Whose Flesh?

The original pro-choice argument is rooted in the classical liberal affirmation of every man's right to own his own body. Critical of liberalism for its failure to extend this right equally to women, pro-choicers define abortion as the essence of every woman's right to own her own body. In Abortion & The Politics of Motherhood, Kristin Luker's 1984 study of attitudes on both sides of the abortion debate, one activist put it this way: "we can get all the rights in the world...and none of them means a doggone thing if we don't own the flesh we stand in."

The obvious objection to this argument is that a fetus is not just part of a woman's body For a while pro-choicers tried to meet this objection by dehumanizing the fetus. Some still do. For example, Jane Hodgson, the Minnesota physician who is currently challenging that state's parental-notification law before the Supreme Court, told The Washington Post that one way to reassure a patient after a first-trimester abortion is to show her the pan of "uterine contents." Dr. Hodgson also refers to the object of such a procedure as "a few embryonic cells." By using such phrases the seventy-four-year-old Hodgson is echoing the tones of an earlier era. In the face of the passionate rhetoric of the pro-life movement, to say nothing of public opinion, which has never wavered in its support of tighter restrictions on later abortions (a position that does not deny the fetus humanity so much as assign it greater weight as it becomes more likely to develop into a child), pro-choice activists have nothing to gain from using such clinical and dehumanizing language.

The more up-to-date pro-choice arguments are rooted in superiority-feminism's elevation of the "private" morality of women over the "public" morality of men. In this spirit pro-choicers define abortion as an intensely personal experience that no man can judge. Bella Abzug anticipated this view in 1980 when she attacked Jimmy Carter's "'personal' objections to abortion" as "biologically inappropriate." With this phrase Abzug reveals the bogus logic of declaring the subject of abortion off limits to men. Since when has biology determined the arenas in which human beings can make moral judgments?

In a similar vein pro-choicers define abortion as a family matter that is no business of politicians'. Thus the claim, made before the Supreme Court by the American Civil Liberties Unions that the Minnesota law requiring notification of both parents in cases of teenage abortion "tramples on the integrity of families. " And thus Planned Parenthood's insistence that cuts in federal funding for abortion counseling are "an outrageous assault on the American family."

To clarify the doublethink in such rhetoric, consider the language used by the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court last year in ruling against two pro-life activists who tried to prevent an abortion on a comatose woman named Nancy Klein. The abortion had been sought by Klein's husband, in consultation with her parents and her doctor, in the hope that it would increase her chances of recovery. The court said that "absolute strangers to the Klein family, whatever their motivation, have no place in this family tragedy."

Appropriate though this language may be to the unhappy case of Nancy Klein, it is also misleading, in exactly the same way that the pro-choice activists' pro-family, anti-government rhetoric is misleading. "Absolute strangers" are not the only people who "have no place" in abortion decisions. If Klein had not been in a coma, she would have been legally entitled to decide between destroying and preserving this unborn life without consulting either its father or its grandparents. All the pro-family rhetoric in the world cannot change this blunt fact. After Roe v. Wade abortion is not a family decision. It is the decision of one class of individuals—pregnant women—who have been designated, in Orwell's pithy phrase, "more equal than others."

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