Feminism and Abortion

Pro-choice arguments, the author says, reflect the ambitions, hypocrisies, and contradictions of contemporary feminism
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Take Carol Gilligan's "concepts of self and morality" in a group of women considering abortion. There's nothing objectionable about her claim that women faced with unwanted pregnancies tend to weigh "selfishness" against "responsibility." But there's plenty objectionable about her tortured efforts to interpret abortion as always a responsible decision. According to her discussion, the women who were Catholic concluded that the "honesty and truth" of their own desires was worth more than the Catholic "conventions that equate goodness with self-sacrifice." The single women, mired in dead-end affairs with exploitative Don Juans, decided that destroying their lovers' potential offspring was a way of affirming their self-esteem. And one twenty-nine-year-old married woman reasoned that it was selfish to bear her child and adult to abort it.

In Gilligan's view, a woman is not permitted to put the needs of other people first, because "self-sacrifice" is the linchpin of female oppression. Instead, she is expected to ascend to a higher level of enlightened self-regard, where the act of putting her own needs first is tantamount to striking a blow for women's freedom. But what if the other people involved are also women? Consider the scenario of the pregnant teenager who decides, against the wishes of her mother, to abort a female fetus. In the one instance, she is depriving an older female of a grandchild. In the other, she is depriving a younger female of life. Compared with such deprivations, the idea of striking a blow for women's freedom seems pretty absract, impersonal, and public—rather like Gilligan's stereotype of male moral reasoning.

The above scenario may not be typical, but neither is it as lurid as the picture of the American family currently being drawn by pro-choice activists opposing the various state laws that are trying, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Webster decision, to restore the attenuated interests of other family members in the life of the unborn. Again, the goal of pro-choice rhetoric is to emphasize female helplessness. But because the battleground is now the family itself, the rhetoric of abuse and violation gets applied to the parents of minors seeking abortions. In a full-page ad in The New York Times, Planned Parenthood explains "What's Wrong With Parental Consent" as follows: "Indeed, after hearing evidence of family conflict and brutal violence, an appeals judge wrote 'compelling parental notice...is almost always disastrous.'"

Never mind the deliberate confusion of "parental consent" with "parental notice." Just look at the model of family life offered by pro-choice activists and their allies as the basis for law. On the one hand, minors should have complete sexual license, because younger people need to practice those all-important skills of trust, caring, and intimacy. On the other hand, parents should be kept in the dark, because older people cannot be trusted to refrain from brutal violence. A favorite variation on this theme is the tale of the molesting father who murders his daughter after learning that she is pregnant with his child. The activists don't want the law to make provisions for these grim exceptions; they want it to enshrine them as the rule.

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