Thirteen years ago, after George W. Bush nominated John Roberts for appointment to the US Supreme Court, I wrote a column entitled Are “Feminists For Life” Feminists For Real? Because then-Judge Roberts’s wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, had served on the Board of Feminists For Life (FFL) for a number of years, I decided to examine the case for opposing abortion rights on feminist grounds. Now the Senate will be considering another judge for elevation to the Supreme Court, a judge who may be even more inclined to want to overturn Roe v. Wade than are the other Republican appointees—all of them Christian men—whom he will be joining on the Court.
I will therefore consider here some of the currently prevailing pro-life feminists’ (PLF’s) arguments against abortion rights, expanding beyond FFL’s opinions and then articulating some replies. It may be necessary to provide a trigger warning. Some of what I say will be offensive to people who are religious. Please know that my goal is not to offend but to illuminate the degree to which religion can color one’s moral calculations about abortion (and other subjects).
When I first heard of PLFs, I was confused. Here were people who not only claimed to be feminists while opposing the right to abortion but actually believed that their position on abortion kept greater faith with feminism than mine did. Rather than reject feminism because of its stance on choice, then, they maintained that opposing abortion was itself feminist.
The PLFs whose work I have read, both then and now, make seemingly good points. FFL in particular observes that Susan B. Anthony and other important suffragists may have opposed abortion. PLFs point out that a normal part of women’s reproductive life should not cut off her opportunities for success, claiming that schools and workplaces should stop requiring women to become like men through abortion. And PLFs propose that if abortion is an option, people (like the father, employers, universities, and the government) unwilling to support a mother and her child will, directly or indirectly, pressure her to abort.
Could I have been wrong about this issue? I have given it a great deal of thought, but I ultimately find the PLF arguments unpersuasive. So suffragists may have opposed abortion. Did everything that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton said make sense? Some of their and other suffragists’ arguments for granting women the franchise traded on white supremacy. One such argument provided that withholding the vote from women would be a mistake because it would mean that formerly enslaved people would have more rights than their former mistresses, as though this were the problem.
Suffragists were feminists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they could have been clueless about abortion just as they were clueless about white supremacy. And some historians say that claims about the early feminists being pro-life rest on very weak evidence, in any event. Either way, the mere fact that someone respectable had a particular viewpoint is no reason to adopt that viewpoint, particularly when they held an ugly and immoral position on some other issue, like racial equality. Why would someone elevate the personhood of an embryo—assuming suffragists would have done so—over the personhood of an African American?
An Argument Based on Religious Authority
According to Jonathan Haidt, conservatives are more inclined to believe that morality dictates respect for authority than liberals are, so perhaps that plays some role here as well. I do not defer to Susan B. Anthony, but perhaps PLFs do. We should accordingly not assume that PLFs cite the early feminists opportunistically, even if we cannot rule out that possibility.
Yet just because PLFs sincerely believe in an argument from authority does not mean that they have a good reason for accepting that authority. Acquitting PLFs of a charge of insincerity does not make the appeal to Susan B. Anthony’s authority persuasive.
Moreover, we have good reason to think that the authority of suffragists plays less of a role in determining the stance of PLFs than does the authority of religion. Consider that nearly all people who are pro-life, presumably including PLFs, say that we have a child at the moment of conception. Indeed, that is for many what it means to be pro-life. But what grounds the life-begins-at-conception view?
My own moral intuitions tell me that the moment of conception, however exciting (or, for a woman who does not want to be pregnant, dispiriting) it might be, cannot immediately transform two reproductive cells into anything like what we think of as a child. It is a potential child. To suggest that it is a child seems far stranger than propositions that some religious people deride, such as gender identity claims advanced on behalf of trans people.
Denying that Laverne Cox could be considered a woman, as religious conservative Kevin Williamson did, even as he expressed the desire to hang women for abortion, seems symptomatic of a delusion of sorts. Strikingly, Williamson is not unique. Some of the same people who refuse to call a trans woman a woman—because “look at him [sic]; he [sic] is just not a woman”—are perfectly comfortable calling a single cell a child.
That some of the same people have such a capacious concept of “child” yet such a narrow and rigid definition of “woman” is, alas, not so mysterious. Both ways of thinking come from religion, from the “Judeo-Christian ethic.” Rejecting the biologically plausible definition of “woman” is a sin, while embracing a biologically plausible definition of “child” is also a sin.
In a liberal democracy, people are free to hold whatever religious beliefs that they wish, even ones that strike nonbelievers as bizarre or contradictory. However, religion should not determine the moral rules of the entire country. And yet religious conservatives who want to force trans women to live as men and force fertile women to take unwanted pregnancies to term are pressing for religion to do just that.
So much for the PLF arguments from authority. What about their next argument, concerning the workplace? Shouldn’t employers have to accommodate women experiencing a normal part of female life? Yes. However, for the most part, employers that discriminate against pregnant women do so not because of concerns about pregnancy itself. Such discrimination typically finds its roots in attitudes towards women’s common social role as primary caretakers.
Most workplace sex discrimination has less to do with the status of being biologically pregnant than with the anticipated change in the woman’s availability once the baby is born. And that has to do with discrimination in the home and the prioritization of men’s careers. Indeed, research shows that women but not men suffer job consequences for having children. It thus seems punitive—not feminist—to leave in place structures that punish women for having a family but simultaneously take away one method for putting off having a family.
To be sure, a PLF could say that women in the workplace do not really want abortions; they only have them to eliminate the competitive advantage enjoyed by other women who have abortions, a sort of race to the bottom. But that rejoinder is doubly flawed. First, abortion remains stigmatized so that many women are unaware that almost a quarter of those who reach 45 will have had one. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that many women who would otherwise carry their pregnancies to term have abortions due to competitive pressure.
Second, the race-to-the-bottom claim assumes that pregnant women compete only with other (aborting) women for jobs, promotions, and salary. But in fact, women compete with men as well. For women to feel less job-related pressure to avoid having children would require men to assume responsibility for a greater share of childcare.
Yet if women lose their right to terminate, that may only further reduce the incentive for men to help with their children. The social norms associated with a society that bans abortion would be less likely to foster egalitarian partnerships between (straight) men and women and more likely to foster those that resemble the time when society kept women “barefoot and pregnant.”
The desire to avoid having a child would not, of course, justify an abortion if (a) a child really were at stake and (b) the child lived somewhere other than inside the woman’s body. No one proposes that a woman should be able to kill her six-month-old son because she would like to pursue more meaningful work. We would universally regard this as morally repugnant no matter how beneficial it might be for the woman. So those who clash over abortion necessarily disagree about either the status of a zygote, the importance of pregnancy to the abortion question, or both.
PLFs must therefore first explain why anyone should accept the moral claim that a zygote—a single-celled organism—qualifies as a baby. I recently watched a video illustrating a D & E (Dilation and Evacuation) abortion, a later-term procedure. The speaker said that he had performed over twelve hundred abortions.
The demonstration was disturbing, as the doctor used specialized clamps to yank arms and legs off the fetus’s torso, leaving stumps covered in what looked like blood in their wake. He explained that the head is about the size of a plum at that stage (the precise stage was unclear) and that you must crush the skull before removing it from the woman’s body. The release of a white liquid discharge—the brains—signifies success. Toward the end of the video, the doctor revealed to the audience that he no longer, in his words, kills babies for money, adding almost as an afterthought that killing smaller babies is no better.
A one-celled zygote, however, is not simply smaller than an older fetus or born baby. If we were to magnify a cell to the size of an infant, it would look nothing like any kind of baby. It would have no limbs to be torn from a torso and no torso.
Perhaps most importantly, it would have no brain, no spinal cord, and no nervous system of any kind. Unlike a baby, a cell, a ball of cells, and even an embryo lack sentience, the ability to have experiences. The pro-life doctor exhibited a later-term abortion precisely because such a procedure looks like it hurts a sentient being.
To say, then, that all abortions are wrong—equally wrong—and that zygotes and embryos are babies—is to perform a bait and switch. You agree with him that it is wrong to kill the later-term fetus, because it so closely resembles a baby, and he then asserts without justification that it is therefore wrong to kill a “smaller baby” too. A non-sentient cell or ball of cells is not a baby at all, however, even if the transition from human tissue to baby happens over the course of weeks and months rather than moments.
Well, can’t the PLFs simply rely on the violence of a late abortion to make their point? Not really. They typically say that abortion is murder from the moment of conception; they accordingly regard developmental stages and such landmarks as sentience as morally irrelevant. To them, a zygote is as much a child as a seventh-month fetus, so they cannot rely on qualities of the later fetus to justify their position.
If the only relevant facts are conception and human DNA, then PLFs (and others who are pro-life) must explain why that is. They cannot, because their position is indefensible. That is why, in the many years I have taken an interest in this subject, all but one of the many pro-life people with whom I have spoken and whose speeches I have heard were in some way connected to religious dogma. Without such dogma, virtually no one concludes that a zygote is a baby. And if an abortion involves no baby—if it involves just cells that could become a baby later—then the entity comprising those cells has no more right to live than a collection of corn cells.
Readers familiar with the abortion debate will know that the pro-choice position does not rest solely on the proposition that early abortion kills no baby or child or other living being with its own interests. The pro-choice view rests as well on the unique burdens imposed by forced pregnancy. Yet the point bears repeating, as an anecdote reveals.
I recently had a conversation with a PLF who expressed surprise and confusion in response to my suggestion that some portion of the pro-life movement wants to control women’s bodies. “Where is this coming from?” he asked. He and other pro-life advocates just want to protect what he calls prenatal children and wishes to use the law to help fulfill that objective.
The problem here—the elephant in the room—is that the “children” are living in a parasitic relationship with a female host, and “protecting” them with the help of the law means forcing the host to keep the zygote or embryo or fetus inside her uterus. Using the law in this way very much means controlling her body, and it is hard to imagine that the zygote’s “protectors” have not thought of that.
Some will say that a zygote or embryo is no parasite, because a parasite is harmful in a way that pregnancy is not. But they may be enjoying a limited perspective on gestation. For a woman who wants to have a child, all of the burdens associated with pregnancy may be worthwhile, worth the chronic and acute pain, worth the medical risk, worth the excruciating pain (likened by some to a gunshot wound) or major surgery at the end. These things, for an aspiring mother, are like side effects that go with a life-saving drug. Not so for an unwanted pregnancy.
To be sure, women’s reasons for abortion are often connected with not wanting the future child rather than with avoiding the physical burdens of pregnancy. PLFs might infer from this fact that arguments about bodily integrity miss the mark and that the pro-choice view rests on less weighty concerns like career or finances or relationship status or an unwillingness to care for a child with disabilities. Frustrating these goals is not really about women’s bodies at all, on this account.
Yet something happens when a woman has determined that she does not want the child that her embryo or fetus would become. The side-effects aspect of the pregnancy become intolerable. The nausea becomes like chemotherapy for someone without cancer. The risks of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia have no upside. The impositions of an involuntary pregnancy on a woman’s bodily integrity become central, and she may see the embryo or fetus as a kind of not-entirely-benign tumor that she wants out of her body.
We know that pregnancy is costly to a woman’s body, because the body spontaneously aborts embryos that have problems. Embryos take from the pregnant woman’s body, and evolution has decreed that her body will expel most of those that cannot pay their way genetically. The expulsion necessarily rests on the evolutionary calculation that pregnancy is a zero-sum game.
Of course, as a moral community, we do not simply do whatever evolution either does or enables us to do. For example, I could consume the lacteal secretions of a bovine mammal (the recently proposed exclusive definition of “milk”), because my ancestors evolved lactase persistence (the lack of lactose intolerance). I choose, instead, to refrain from consuming the products of animal suffering and slaughter, selecting plant-based milks like almond milk or soy milk or hazelnut milk instead, because inflicting unnecessary violence on animals is wrong. But knowing that pregnancy imposes a cost on a pregnant woman’s body helps us to determine whether we can fairly require a woman to remain pregnant.
With abortion, the question is really not whether I or you would terminate a pregnancy under a given set of circumstances. It is whether PLFs can plausibly claim to be feminists but simultaneously change the law to force women to remain pregnant against their will, given what pregnancy does to a woman’s body. The answer to this question is no.
I understand that PLFs believe that a zygote is a child, but that belief—upon examination—proves no more rational or sound than a young boy’s belief that he is Superman. And I understand that PLFs may be focused on the zygote or embryo and not on the woman, so that they do not think they are trying to control women. But it is, frankly, not especially feminist to see a woman’s body as a life-giving environment or respirator to a zygote or embryo or fetus entitled to that environment. It is not feminist to ignore the woman’s wishes regarding the inside of her own body.
Everyone may hold their views, of course, and PLFs may indeed be feminists in all respects other than that concerning the right to abortion. They may support women’s right to be free from rape and sexual harassment, from strangers and acquaintances alike. They may fight for pay equity and subsidized childcare. And they may and probably do promote policies that make life easier for pregnant and nursing students and workers.
That is tremendously helpful to the enormous number of pregnant women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term. And I believe that help is sincere. Nonetheless, while PLFs may support other feminist policies, their position on abortion is not only not feminist but is contrary to feminism.
Being against the right to abortion forces an inescapable, dramatically burdensome, and uniquely female (or trans) condition on people who do not want it. A zygote is not a child, and it would have no claim to the inside of a woman’s body even if it were. A full feminist would recognize these simple truths and would be pro-choice.