A bio-ethicist’s powerful counter-argument to husband’s pro-choice views
by Charles C. Camosy
Sidney and Dan Callahan were pioneers. The efforts of this dynamic husband-and-wife team led to the founding of the Hastings Center, now the premier place in the world to study bioethics. A key moment came in 1968, when Dan received a grant from the Ford Foundation to do comprehensive research and produce Abortion: Law, Choice and Mortality. This came at a time when abortion was just heating up as a national issue, with Roe v. Wade (which would end up citing his book) coming a mere five years later. Month after month, day in and day out, Dan and Sidney would talk and argue about the ideas he was exploring in the book. After the research and arguing was complete, Dan came to a “pro-choice” conclusion, while Sidney decided that she was “pro-life.” Indeed, after her husband’s book came out in support of abortion rights, Sidney responded not only by providing the intellectual support behind the now widely popular and successful group Feminists for Life but also by responding to some of her husband’s arguments.
Perhaps her most famous essay is entitled “Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Pro-Life Feminism.” The essay begins by highlighting and explaining what she takes to be the four main principles of “pro-choice” feminism. In what follows, I summarize this section of her essay:
- The autonomous right to control one’s own body
- A woman choosing an abortion is exercising a basic right to do what she wishes with her body. If she does not want to be pregnant and give birth, she should not be compelled to do so. Just because it is her body that is involved, a woman should have the right to terminate her pregnancy.
- This is an especially important right in a society in which women cannot count on medical care or social support in pregnancy, childbirth, or child rearing.
- Personal responsibility and reproductive freedom
- In order to plan, choose, and exercise personal responsibility, one must have control of reproduction. A woman, therefore, must be able to make yes-or-no decisions about a specific pregnancy according to her present situation, resources, prior commitments, and life plan.
- Abortion is necessary to guarantee women this freedom. Without abortion rights, women’s personal moral agency and human consciousness are subjected to biology and chance.
- The contingent value of fetal life
- A woman must want and value the fetus for it to be considered of moral worth. After all, the process by which a fetus gains social and moral significance can only take place in the body of the woman.
- The meaning and value of fetal life are constructed and defined by the woman. Without this personal conferral, the only thing left is a biological process. Thus fetal interests or fetal rights can never outweigh the woman’s prior interest and rights.
- The right to full social equality
- Female social equality depends on being able to compete and participate as freely as males can in the structures of educational and economic life. If a woman cannot control when and how she will be pregnant or rear children, she is at a distinct disadvantage, especially in our male-dominated world.
- Women should enjoy the basic right of everyone to the free exercise of full sexual expression, separated from procreation. No less than males, women should be able to be sexually active without the constant fear of pregnancy. Therefore, it is necessary for abortion to be available in order for women to participate in our culture on an equal footing with men.
Upon examining the arguments she was having with “pro-choice” feminists, Callahan began to realize that the categories, assumptions, reasoning, and goals with which she was being confronted were not feminist at all. To the contrary, her opponents simply borrowed the categories, assumptions, reasoning, and goals of “pro-choice” men. Indeed, it turned out that the arguments she was hearing from most “pro-choice” feminists were very similar to the ones her husband was making.
In response, Sidney Callahan maintained that each of the above principles must be changed—or even abandoned altogether—if we are to incorporate the insights of an authentic feminism. Again, what follows is my summary of this part of her essay:
- A shift from talk about “autonomous control” over one’s “own body” to a more inclusive focus on justice and a nonviolent focus on the vulnerable
- In pregnancy, a woman’s body no longer exists as a single unit but as nurturer and protector of another’s life. Pregnancy is not like the growth of cancer or infestation by a biological parasite. It is the way every human being enters the world.
- Debates similar to those about the fetus were once conducted about the personhood of women and girls. A woman was once viewed as incorporated into the “one flesh” of her husband’s person; she, too, was a form of bodily property. In all unjust patriarchal systems, lesser orders of human life are granted rights only when wanted, chosen, or invested with value by the powerful. As recent immigrants from “nonpersonhood,” feminists have traditionally fought for justice for both themselves and others who have their personhood threatened by the powerful.
- Rejecting male aggression and destruction, feminists seek alternative, peaceful, ecologically sensitive means to resolve conflicts. It is a chilling inconsistency to see pro-choice feminists demanding continued access to assembly-line, technological methods of fetal killing. It is a betrayal of feminism, which has built the struggle for justice on the bedrock of women’s empathy and nonviolence.
- A shift from “personal responsibility and choice” to a deeper and more authentic sense of reproductive freedom
- Morality is sometimes thought of as a matter of human agency and decisive action, but feminists know that we have moral duties we do not choose. Morality is hardly limited to contracted agreements between isolated individuals.
- A pregnant woman, whether or not she has explicitly consented to the existence of the child, has a moral obligation to the now-existing and dependent fetus. No pro-life feminist would dispute the important observations of pro-choice feminists about the extreme difficulties that bearing an unwanted child in our society can entail. But the stronger force of the fetal claim presses a woman to accept these burdens: the fetus possesses rights arising from its extremely vulnerable situation.
- A shift from the “contingent value” of human life to a justice-centered respect for its intrinsic and irreducible value
- Human beings, from the beginning to the end of their development, have intrinsic value that does not depend on meeting selective criteria or tests. Human rights arise from human needs, and it is the very nature of a right, or valid claim upon another, that it cannot be denied or rescinded by more powerful others.
- It is particularly odd for feminists, who otherwise have justice-centered concerns to protect the vulnerable from the powerful, to hold that in the case of the fetus it is the pregnant woman alone who has the power to bestow or remove her rights.
- A shift of our understanding of “full social equality” to reflect an authentically feminist perspective
- Permissive abortion laws do not bring women freedom, social equality, sexual fulfillment, or full personal development. They are based on male models of sex, which have long been used to subjugate women. This male-centered understanding pits women against their own offspring in a way that is not only morally offensive but psychologically and politically destructive.
- Women’s rights and liberation are linked with fetal rights. If a woman claims the right to decide by herself whether the fetus becomes a child or not, what does this do to paternal and communal responsibility? Why should men share responsibility for child support or child rearing if they cannot share in what is declared to be the woman’s sole decision? Furthermore, if explicit intentions and consciously accepted contracts are necessary for moral obligations, why should men be held responsible for what they do not voluntarily choose to happen? Abortion on demand, often advocated as a response to male irresponsibility, legitimates such irresponsibility.
- In our male-dominated world, what men don’t do doesn’t count. Pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing have been characterized as passive and debilitating. Pregnancy is likened to a disease or impairment that handicaps women in the “real” world. Many pro-choice feminists, deliberately childless, adopt the male perspective when they cite the “basic injustice that women have to bear the babies,” instead of seeing the injustice in the fact that men cannot give birth to children. Women’s biologically unique capacity and privilege has been denied, despised, and suppressed under male domination. Rather than accept this view of the world, women should argue that pregnancy is an exercise of life-giving power that men can never know.
- Instead of being empowered by their abortion choices, women are instead merely attempting to survive the debilitating reality of not being free to bring a baby into the world in terms that respect their difference from men. A new kind of pro-life feminism is needed in which all of women’s reality is accorded respect. This time, instead of conforming to male models and ideas, women must demand that society must make room for the biological reality of women.
When it comes to the insights of pro-life feminism, though she was expanding on what the first American feminists (see quotes below, and download a pdf of selected quotes) had already said about abortion, Sidney Callahan began the movement in the contemporary era. And, for me at least, her arguments remain the best ones out there.
This article is excerpted from chapter 5 ofBeyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation, by Charles C. Camosy (Eerdmans, 2015). It appears here by kind permission of the publisher.
The first feminists—those who fought for the right of women to vote, for instance—were strongly skeptical of abortion, not least because they believed that men (and institutions run by men) coerced most abortions. The groundbreaking group Feminists for Life is one of the few organizations that recognizes and highlights this fact.
Susan B. Anthony
“We want to prevention, not merely punishment. We must reach the root of the evil…It is practiced by those whose inmost souls revolt from the dreadful deed.” ~Susan B. Anthony, The Revolution, 4(1):4, July 8, 1869
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
“There must be a remedy even for such a crying evil as this. But where shall it be found, at least where begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women?” ~Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Revolution, 1(5):1, March 12, 1868
“The custom of procuring abortions has reached such apalling proportions in America as to be beyond belief… So great is the misery of the working classes that 17 abortions are committed in every one hundred pregnancies.” ~Emma Goldman, Mother Earth, 1911
“When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society—so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged.” ~Maddie Brinkerhoff, The Revolution 4(9):138-9, Sept. 2, 1869
“Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an un-wished for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth.” ~Victoria Woodhall, the first female US presidential candidate, Wheeling (WV) Evening Standard, Nov. 17, 1875
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Abortion and Women's Rights: Unification of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice through Feminism
January 22, 1973 is a day that, in the eyes of many modern feminists, marked a giant step forward for women's rights. On this date the U.S. Supreme court announced its decision in Roe v. Wade, a verdict that set the precedent for all abortion cases that followed. For the first time, the court recognized that the constitutional right to privacy "is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy" (Roe v. Wade, 1973). It gave women agency in their reproductive choices; no longer were they forced to succumb to second rate citizenship as a housewife, a single mother, or a mother in poverty on account of pregnancy.
Was this decision really a step forward for women, or was it a step backwards? The abortion debate has polarized women, pitting them against each other in the binary of pro-choice and pro-life. This leads to a destructive division between women, one that is detrimental to the furthering of women's rights. How can we, as women, fight for our rights as women if we are so divided? Is there any way to unite these two apparently irreconcilable sides of the abortion debate?
A good starting place is to look at abortion from a feminist standpoint. Within feminism, the debate over abortion is not based in the morality of abortion or the integrity of people who support or are against abortion; it is about how abortion fits into our culture and how a women's choice to undergo or not undergo an abortion influences the status of women within our culture. Abortion has become a double-edged sword for women's rights. Without the right to choose women would be locked into their role as mothers, but being given the right to choose also acts to bypass the greater issues of patriarchy, such as the lack of support for women as mothers within our society. It is important, to further women's standing in today's society, that these two sides on the abortion debate become united through feminism.
Feminism is the advocacy of the rights of women based on the theory of equality of the sexes (Oxford English Dictionary). It is built on the principle that women have innate worth, inalienable rights, and valuable ideas and talents to contribute to society. Feminists fight for equality in every dimension of society, for both equal rights with men and equal respect.
Pro-choice feminism views the right to an abortion as integral to a women's right to sovereignty. Without abortion, women would unjustly be forced into motherhood. From a feminist standpoint, denying the right for women to choose to have an abortion forces them into submissive roles in society. Pregnancy works to condemn women to second class citizenship, since in our society, mothers are second class citizens. Once a woman becomes a mother, her resources to education, employment, and health care become severely limited.
Gaining the access to safe and legal abortions finally allowed a woman to have the basic right of controlling her own body. Prior to legal abortion, women had two options: to undergo an unsafe, illegal abortion that put their bodies at risk or to continue their pregnancy, even in situations that were disadvantageous to both the woman and the unborn fetus. Society has no right to control what happens to a person's body, and does not try to manage men's bodies in such a manner, so the right to abortion has equalized women by giving them the right to manage their own bodies.
Without legal abortions, underground unsafe abortions will still occur at the expense of a woman's health. Denying women the right to abortion serves to diminish women within society. There is the claim that fetus is a person and, by revoking a woman's right to chose abortion, society places more value on the fetus. From the pro-choice standpoint, the implication that an unborn fetus, which is unconscious and without thoughts, has rights equal to or superior to a woman's, serves only to diminish the recognition of women as living, breathing people who are able to consciously make their own decision about their pregnancy. Compulsory pregnancy laws also violate the traditional American ideals of individual rights and freedoms.
Pro-life groups, though often touted as anti-feminist, do not disagree with the need for women to become equals in society. Instead, the feminist pro-life groups see abortion as a mode used by patriarchal culture to keep women in submission by not adapting its structure to encompass mothers. Patriarchal culture has devised abortion as a way to manage pregnancy while maintaining its domineering structure.
The beginning of discrimination against women is based on the simple fact that they are not men. Women's bodies are defined by men through the male gaze that shapes the male dominated culture. Because of our lack of a penis, women are relegated to the periphery of society, unable to succeed. The fact that women are able to give birth only serves to continue to define women as the other. The way women can succeed is by adapting ourselves to the patriarchal society. An example of this is displayed through women's bodies. Socially, women's beauty is defined by thinness. Some sections of pro-life feminism argue that by having an abortion, women are succumbing to the social pressure to be thin; they are not embracing their womanhood. Instead of defining what a "woman" is by the standards of living as a woman, womanhood is defined by men. Pregnancy, one of the times when a woman feels most beautiful and in charge of her body and life, is discriminated against. In society, pregnancy is not considered beautiful and, through medical institutions, pregnancy has become considered to be a precarious condition that must be monitored and looked after. This serves to alienate women from their own feelings of beauty. By not embracing our bodies during pregnancy, we resort to defining ourselves in men's terms.
Not only does abortion serve to alienate women from identifying with what defines us as special, it also acts as a device that eludes the root of discrimination against women: patriarchal culture. Abortion serves as an easy escape from confronting the discrimination of women by taking the guise as fundamental to women's equality. The truth is that women's equality is still based in a man's world. In order to be equal, women must adopt the characteristics of men. To be on an equal level politically, socially and economically, women cannot become pregnant, because that is, quite obviously, something that men do not do. Our society is not made for women with children. There is a significant lack of good, reliable child care. Businesses do not have flexible hours which suit women with children. Women are still considered the primary care-givers to children, keeping the burden of responsibility for children off of men.
Instead of liberating women, abortion liberates men and society. "Abortion on demand liberates men who want sex without strings, promises, responsibility, or the rituals of romance" (Gargaro). Since abortion is an option, it enables employers to not have to make concessions to pregnant women and mothers. Abortion only serves to support the idea that childbearing is solely a job for a woman and, now more than ever, men are exempt from being involved. In the case of an unwanted child it is a woman's "duty to undergo an invasive procedure and an emotional trauma and so sort the situation out" (Greer, 95). Germaine Greer encapsulates the feminist pro-life reaction to the legalization of abortion:
"What women 'won' was the 'right' to undergo invasive procedures in order to terminate unwanted pregnancies, unwanted not just by them but by their parents, their sexual partners, the governments who would not support mothers, the employers who would not employ mothers, the landlords who would not accept tenants with children, the schools that would not accept students with children. Historically the only thing pro-abortion agitation achieve was to make an illiberal establishment [patriarchal culture] look far more feminist than it was" (Greer, 92).
What type of "right" does abortion allow? Most women choose abortion because they feel like they have no other option. How is this real choice? To continue to live happily in the patriarchal world, women submit themselves to the social structures that favor men. As society is structured today, women risk losing everything they have worked for by choosing to have a child. Childbearing, as an option for pregnancy, fits into this society in a marginalized way.
On the most basic level, the abortion issue is not really about abortion, but is about the value of women in society. Feminism is pro-woman rather than pro- or anti- abortion. This is where the pro-life and pro-choice groups can begin to relate to one another. But where can we go from here?
These two groups need to come together for the sake of equality for women. Instead of focusing their energy on protesting each other, they should unite their energy to change the structure of society. Women must work together to create a business world that supports mothers by petitioning for legislation that protects their right to work, even if they have children. Focusing energy on advocating for better, more reliable childcare would help to combat the male bias in business. We must start at the root of the problem, the lack of space for women within our society, and work from there.
Not all of the change can be made by altering the laws that govern our society. We must change our attitudes. Women must stop yielding to patriarchal society in order to succeed. We must demand from everyone around us the equality that we deserve, in both the public and private spheres. This includes pushing men to take initiative and responsibility within relationships to uphold their half of the duties. Women have moved into the workforce, so men must compensate by helping in the home. We must demand from men equal responsibility in caring for the children that they took equal part, and pleasure, in creating.
Only when this change is accomplished and when women and men do equally participate in all aspects of our society, will the abortion issue become actually about abortion within feminist thought. As for now, we have to establish ourselves as a powerful force. We must fight for the acceptance of motherhood in society, but until then we also work to keep abortion legal so that we can live without the fear that everything we have worked for, including the acceptance of motherhood and truly equal rights, could be taken away with one sexual mishap.
Gargaro, Carolyn C. "What is a Pro-Life Feminist?" Problems of Death: Opposing Viewpoints Series. Greenhaven Press, 1997. found at http://www.gargaro.com/lifefem.html accessed on 11/20/04
Greer, Germaine. The Whole Woman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1999. 91-100.
McClain, Linda C. "Equality, Oppression, and Abortion: Women Who Oppose Abortion Rights in the Name of Feminism." Feminist Nightmares: Women at Odds, Feminism and the Problem of Sisterhood. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser and Jennifer Fleishner. New York: New York University Press, 1994. 159-188.
Planned Parenthood Website. www.plannedparenthood.com accessed on 11/20/04
Pro-Life Feminism Website. http://members.tripod.com/~SLV80/ accessed on 11/20/04
Young, Iris. "Pregnant Embodiment." Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader. Ed. Donn Welton. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998. 274-290.
Comments made prior to 2007
Abortionby must be left a lone. I had one in 1993. I was raped and beaten by my then husband. I was left in a shelter for battered woman.
No protection for me.
I learned I was pregnant during my divorce procedings. If I had gone through the pregnency I would have been forced to have that man another 9 months into my life.
Politic;s have no place in a woman medical prodecure. IT is non of there business ... Jeannette, 8 November 2006