succumbing to peer pressure

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Let me start by saying that I know in my gut that abortion should be safe, available, and legal. I know that I will write letters and make phone calls and donate money and march on streets and sidewalks and whatever else it takes to protect a woman's access to trained medical professionals who perform abortions.

However, if you really pin me down, I don't have a good, moral, reason for why I believe this. Truthfully, I don't know when life begins. I don't. I don't know if or at what point abortion becomes killing a person. Yet it makes sense to me, if abortion is killing a person, that it should be illegal. And that people will feel compelled to try to stop abortions from happening.

And yet this train of thought is unsatisfying, because it feels incomplete. It feels incomplete because it fails to take the pregnant woman into account. This provides a good rhetorical road, for a while, until you get past medical complications. What's the moral defense of abortion in cases where the health of the woman is not at risk? I can provide lots of arguments, but they all leave me a little uncomfortable, they all feel slightly inadequate.

Fortunately, as part of my prep work for the upcoming summit, I have been introduced to the writings of Margaret Olivia Little. Regardless of your stance on abortion, if you're truly interested in some thought-provoking reading on the subject, I'm not sure you can do much better. She fills, in my opinion, an often overlooked gap in the rhetoric surrounding abortion. She includes the pregnant woman in her moral reasoning, but in a very specific way - by acknowledging and addressing that the relationship between a pregnant woman and an embryo/fetus is unlike any other relationship. Therefore, every analogy is inadequate, every argument faulty, specifically because we don't have the ethical and rhetorical tools to tackle this problem. As she states in "Procreative Liberty, Biological Connections, and Motherhood":

Let me put it more bluntly. The central figures in the abortion drama - fetus, gestating woman, and their relationship - are left out of the conceptual paradigm. When we reason about them, we appeal to analogies that are at best awkward, at worst dangerous, but always distorting, because we are trying to analogize to classifications that have at their root the denial of the situation we confront.

In "Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate" she gets into some really interesting thinking about this specific relationship:

...a fetus's right to life circumscribes a woman's rights to bodily autonomy; but it could go just the other direction: we could conclude that a person's right to life is circumscribed at the point at which that life involves occupying and using another's body. We could conclude that a woman's right to bodily autonomy ends when her decisions reach the body of the fetus; alternatively, we could say that the fetus's right to life ends when it relies inextricably on hers. In wondering whether abortion is murder, then, the issue is not just a matter of deciding whether or when the fetus is a person: it is a matter of determining the contours of the right to life in the rather distinctive circumstances of being gestated.
The really interesting questions about abortion, I think, are questions about whether or when one has a duty to continue gestating when one finds oneself pregnant.

In the same piece, I think she really hits the nail on the head with regard to the state's interference in this relationship and decision (albeit through the use of language that is a bit insensitive to the fetus):

The fetus, of course, is innocent of malintent, indeed, of any intent; but the complaint here is not with the fetus, it is with the state. The complaint is with the idea of forcing a woman to be in a state of physical intimacy with and occupation by this unwitting entity. For, unwitting or not, it still intertwines and intrudes on her body; and whatever the state's beneficent motives for protecting the interests of the fetus, it matterse that the method used for that protection involves forcing others to have another entity live inside them.
With pregnancy, of course, matters are especially loaded, because it taps into expectations of motherhood: women are supposed to want this sort of enmeshment. But this is just to point out the ideal (if it is one); whatever she is supposed to want, the point remains: it's what she actually wants and agrees to that determines the status of the enmeshment.

She also has a chapter in "Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics" (the whole book is fascinating and challenging) in which she defends the moral basis for abortion. In the previously mentioned piece Little says, "What we need in thinking about abortion is a moral approach that does justice to the ethics of intimacy; what we have is a moral approach that rarely uses the word." In this chapter she runs with this idea, part of which involves distinguishing between one's moral obligations in deciding whether or not to enter into a relationship and one's moral obligations once one is involved in a relationship.

Then there is the aftermath of the nine months: for gestation doesn't just turn cells into a person; it turns the woman into a mother. One of the most common reasons women give for wanting to abort is that they do not want to become a mother - now, ever, again, with this partner, or no reliable partner, with these few resources, or these many that are now, after so many years of mothering slated finally to another cause. Not because motherhood would bring with it such burdens - though it can - but because motherhood would so thoroughly change what we might call one's fundamental practical identity.
To argue that women may permissibly decline this need not trade on a view that grants no value to early life; it is, in essence, to argue about the right way to value pregnancy and parenthood. It is to recognize a level of moral perogative based not just on the concretely understood burdens of the activity in question, but also on its deep connection to authoring a life.
Little goes on to point out that for many women, abortion is viewed as 'preferable' to adoption because they realize that they will not be able to care for a child at this point, and yet also know that after living with that gestating child for nine months, will be incapable of giving it up.

Lastly, returning to the first piece mentioned above, Little does an excellent job of pointing out the double standards that currently exist regarding mothers and fathers:
Legan 'duties to assist' for instance, are far more extensive for pregnant women than for fathers of children already born. Courts have ordered women to undergo cesarean sections without their consent in order to increase incrementally fetuses' chances of survival, while courts routinely deny attempts to force fathers to undergo procedures such as kidney transplants or even blood tranfusion in order to save their existing children.
For instance, concerns about the dangers that alcohol poses to a fetus focus almost exclusively on women's dangerous proclivities...even though fetuses also face significant harm from drunk men battering their pregnant partners. Or again, public health campaigns concerned with fetal damage from tobacco smoke almost never target expectant fathers' responsibilities not to smoke around their pregnant partners.

And yes, I realize this double standard works both ways, and men are still getting the shaft when it comes to 'positive' rights too. I think work toward equality has to focus on both awarding the positive things and punishing/restricting the negatives.

The conference starts tomorrow, I'm sure I'll be back with another mouthful.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

would you ever consider an abortion, or would you feel absolutely no guilt in having an abortion?

11:21 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I don't mean to pick on cylindricine, but these are the sorts of questions from pro-lifers (and I'm cheating a bit here because I know Cylindricine's position - "I believe abortion should remain legalized, but should be made expensive and inconvenient.") that frustrate me because they seem to imply that pro-choicers believe that abortion is an easy choice. I can argue that abortion should be possible and available, and still find it morally troubling, complicated, and often tragic. I don't think it is ever a good choice I just think that sometimes it is the least terrible among a list of terrible choices. And I believe that I am in no position to make that choice for someone else by supporting legislation that would limit everyone's options.

Personally, yes, there were times in my life when hypothetically, abortion would have been on the table were I to find myself pregnant. But I don't think we're very good at predicting how we would actually act in those situations - a good friend of mine who is staunchly anti-abortion immediately considered it as an option when his girlfriend turned up pregnant. And regardless, I can be personally pro-life and publicly pro-choice. Even if I think abortion is never the 'right' choice for me, I can still defend the right of other's to make a choice with which I may personally disagree.

Would I feel absolutely no guilt? Absolutely I would feel guilty! Of course, if I had had to make such an excruciating decision I am sure that it would have affected me for the rest of my life. And frankly, I think anyone who has had an abortion and claims to feel uncomplicated about it is lying.

Lastly, again, I'm not picking on cylindricine (we've discussed how both our blogs are 'safe places' for theses sorts of political discussions and questions, and I mean that), but in general, out in the real world, I would be a bit more careful about asking such a question so indelicately. You'd be surprised just who has had an abortion.

5:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Then there is the aftermath of the nine months: for gestation doesn't just turn cells into a person; it turns the woman into a mother. One of the most common reasons women give for wanting to abort is that they do not want to become a mother - now, ever, again, with this partner, or no reliable partner, with these few resources, or these many that are now, after so many years of mothering slated finally to another cause."

I think this is interesting because it is remarkably complicating - if we were to weigh the relationship of motherhood in the moral calculus, then not only do the personal and medical issues of that mother and that fetus matter, but the larger social and political context is relevant because it changes the nature of (and resources available to) parents. You could reasonably come to a conclusion like "in the status quo abortion should be legal, but if we had universal health care and subsidized child care then it should be illegal" (Note that this isn't necessarily my position, but it serves to highlight how abortion may not be able to stand alone as an issue independent of the larger portfolio of governmental policies).


11:16 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Exactly! And I think that's the point of her statement, "The really interesting questions about abortion, I think, are questions about whether or when one has a duty to continue gestating when one finds oneself pregnant." I think it's quite reasonable to imagine scenarios in which one would conclude yes, in this case, there is a duty to gestate.

I think this is why I find Little's arguments so interesting and productive as thought exercises - yes, she is arguing that abortion can be a moral choice. But she's leaving open the possibility that sometimes it may not be. I think she very cleverly avoids the dichotomous argument that the abortion debate so commonly becomes out in the mainstream.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did have an abortion, and I did not find it troubling or feel guilty about it. I took it seriously, but I was not conflicted.

I'd like to remain anonymous here, but I'll e-mail Megan to let her know who it is.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"if abortion is killing a person, that it should be illegal"

Doesn't that line of thinking worry you? I mean, *if* an act might be murder, wouldn't the logical thing be to err on the side of saving a life? Is the alternative (motherhood, however unpleasant) as bad as murder?

(Devil's advocate, as I too am publically pro-choice)


3:28 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Sid - precisely! I guess I wasn't clear enough on that point - although I know in my gut I want to protect a woman's right to choose, I am torn, because I don't know the answer to when life begins, and I can easily follow the logic that for those who firmly believe life begins at conception abortion is killing which should then be illegal. I know that's a dangerous concession for a pro-choicer to make, but it's a troubling moral problem for me, one I'd like to reason out with other's feedback.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I began by addressing this question:

Is killing so bad?

As a Hindu, the answer was no (Krisha clarified this point pretty clearly in the Marabharta). As a humanist... well, the issue was less clear cut. Is capital punishment wrong? Is killing in self-defense wrong? Is euthanasia wrong? Is killing during wartime wrong?

For me, the compromise was this: it is, at times, necessary for society to allow killing. We empower police officers and soldiers to do it because we feel it fulfills the greater societal good. I'm more than willing to allow doctors to do it when quality of living drops below what a patient is willing to deal with.

Abortion should remain legal for the same reason-- there is a societal cost that we're unwilling to bear should it be illegal, and so we allow what might be murder, if the individual is willing to bear that burden.


8:33 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I think that's very similar to Little's point (or at least, my interpretation of Little, and why I find her writing so appealing). The question of whether or not abortion is murder is a dissatisfying approach because it omits the fact that the embryo's right to life is inextricably linked to a woman's physical boundaries and identity as a person. So just as my right to life means you can't randomly stab me on the street (or rather, you are able to, but it is illegal) but you could legally kill me in self-defense were I to attack you. Perhaps there is a more 'morally agreeable' way to determine if/when an embryo has a right to life (or not) and if/when a woman has a duty to gestate (or not) in much the same contextualized way that our society determines when murder is legal/morally acceptable. However, again, this analogy is incomplete since murder involves two distinct and independent people and gestation does not.

9:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand your position of 'personally pro-life/publically pro-choice' because I also have a hard time trying to define my exact stance towards abortion. On one hand, I wouldn't protest in front of a clinic or run a guilt trip on any woman that has had an abortion but on the other hand I view abortion as morally wrong in most cases and don't want to ever pay for another womans abortion ( which is why I can't be supportive of some feminist organizations such as NOW that advocate for public funding of abortion as if it is a regular healthcare expenditure).

I figure I can call myself a reluctant pro-choicer who might be a pro-lifer at heart.

12:08 AM  

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