A Pro-Life Feminist Balance Sheet
[Today’s guest post by Acyutananda is part of our paid blogging program.]
Pro-life feminism claims that the institution of legal abortion is bad for women. Is it true?
This article will focus on the U.S., and the thesis will be: the population of American women can be divided into three groups. The first group will clearly benefit when abortion is made illegal. While my personal sense about the second group is that it will also benefit when abortion is made illegal, that group will be harmed if we grant certain pro-choice claims that are arguably true. And the third group will be little affected when abortion is made illegal. So if we concede the pro-choice claims I just alluded to, then whether American women overall will benefit will depend on the sizes of Groups 1 and 2, and the degree to which Group 1 will benefit and Group 2 will be harmed.
Group 1 is women who are pregnant when abortion is banned, or will become pregnant later in their lives, and who would never wish to get an abortion, except under circumstances that anti-abortion laws would probably consider an exception anyway (in particular a likelihood of grave physical injury for themselves).
Group 2 is women who are pregnant when abortion is banned, or will become pregnant later in their lives, and who, if abortion remained legal, would willingly decide to get at least one abortion.
Group 3 is women who are not pregnant when abortion is banned and will never become pregnant later in their lives.
I’m aware that the sizes of Groups 2 and 3 are not fixed and that reduced access to abortion would cause some in Group 2 to fall into Group 3. But I’m assuming that this effect will not be enough to change the outcome.
If abortion becomes illegal, Group 1 women, who do not want to abort, will lose nothing. What will they gain?
1. It will be more difficult for boyfriends and parents to pressure them into abortions.
2. As I previously wrote:
If a child is conceived and is unwanted by the father, but its birth seems unavoidable because abortion is illegal, the father may feel morally obligated to help. But if abortion is legal, the father’s attitude is likely to be “She chose to have that child against my will. I will only do the bare minimum required by child support laws.”
This change of attitude benefits Group 1.
3. Similarly, employers will no longer be able to resist pressure for paid maternity leave and other benefits by saying, “Women are free to abort, so if a woman chooses to have the child, that’s her problem.”
4. Mounting pressure by women and their supporters for a society that gives more honor and support to pregnant women and mothers, and that takes ultimate responsibility for quality child-raising, will no longer be defused by the “escape valve” of legal abortion, the easy way out. That social pressure will likely reach a mass where it will get results.
5. Women will no longer have to live in a society that gives official sanction to the idea “The best way for women to have status in society is to be like men (unpregnant). The contributions to society that women can make will likely be insufficient to deserve the rewards that society confers on successful professionals, if the women are pregnant or mothers. Often, the female sex can become equal to the male only by assaulting a female function and moreover, in the eyes of many, throwing another human being under the bus. A fundamental female function is a disease to be cured surgically rather than a natural function to be accommodated.”
6. Pro-lifers feel that considering all the factors under discussion in this article and also the harm done by abortion to the unborn (which is not directly under discussion here), it is a moral imperative to outlaw abortion. Pro-choicers of course dispute this and say that to outlaw it would be morally wrong. But if the pro-life view is correct, and it is morally right to outlaw it, then in addition to the above gains for the women of Group 1 specifically, everyone in society will benefit morally by outlawing it.
I have now noted that pro-choicers claim abortion rights not to be a moral wrong for society. Another claim they make in contradiction to many pro-lifers is that women who abort normally suffer no psychological harm from it. The truth or falsity of these two claims will of course affect, at least to some extent, the calculation we are attempting of the harm or benefit that women will derive overall when abortion is made illegal. We have now seen what happens to Group 1 women when abortion becomes illegal (it’s all positive); what happens to Group 2, that is, women who get pregnant and do wish to abort?
The Group 2 women, who do wish to abort, will lose in these ways:
1. Abortions will become less accessible and a little less safe. But I would expect them to become only marginally less safe (not to say that the legal abortions we have now are necessarily as safe as is often claimed), because a) dangerous abortions have continued to occur after Roe; and b) when abortion was illegal prior to Roe, the vast majority of abortions, contrary to legend, were done by physicians as certified and competent as those now doing legal abortions. (Moreover, maternal abortion deaths were already way down from earlier in the century due to medical advances, particularly antibiotics.)
2. For many, their psychological sense of body ownership will be offended, and many will feel that their bodily rights are being violated.
3. Those who obey the law and carry to term will lose some freedom in their lives.
4. For those who obey the law and carry to term, there will be a health toll. Anti-abortion laws will be written so as not to result in deaths or serious injuries for women, but there will be an assumption that the value of protecting the unborn unfortunately requires that women do pay a price at a certain level in terms of physical health. We should not whitewash this.
We can see that this loss becomes offset to an extent, however, if we take two facts together: abortions carry their own adverse health consequences, even if done in safe conditions; and anti-abortion laws will deter many women from abortions (thus saving them from those consequences – see below about how laws do successfully deter).
I’m assuming that just as before Roe v. Wade, when abortion is made illegal, the women involved will not be punished. Otherwise those punishments would have been another “loss” for Group 2.
5. If pro-choicers are correct and it is morally wrong to outlaw abortion, then in addition to the above losses for the women of Group 2 specifically, everyone in society will lose morally by outlawing it.
And what will the Group 2 women gain?
1. They will gain points 5 and 6 listed above for Group 1 women, the same as will those women.
2. On occasions when the pregnancy is one that they do not wish to abort, they will additionally gain points 1-4 listed above for Group 1 women, the same as will those women.
3. Those who obey the law and carry to term will be spared any psychological harm that the abortion might have caused. Julius Fogel was pro-choice and an obstetrician who, according to a columnist who interviewed him in 1989, had already performed over 20,000 abortions. But he was also a psychiatrist, and he believed that women invariably harmed themselves psychologically through abortion, though they might not recognize the harm. The columnist quoted him as saying:
I’ve had patients who had abortions a year or two ago – women who did the best thing at the time for themselves – but it still bothers them. Many come in – some are just mute, some hostile, some burst out crying . . . Every woman – whatever her age, background or sexuality – has a trauma at destroying a pregnancy. A level of humanness is touched. This is a part of her own life. When she destroys a pregnancy, she is destroying herself. There is no way it can be innocuous. One is dealing with the life force. . . . There is no question in my mind that we are disturbing a life process. The trauma may sink into the unconscious and never surface in the woman’s lifetime. But it is not as harmless and casual an event as many in the pro-abortion crowd insist. A psychological price is paid. It may be alienation, it may be pushing away from human warmth, perhaps a hardening of the maternal instinct. Something happens on the deeper levels of a woman’s consciousness when she destroys a pregnancy. I know that as a psychiatrist.
Coleman McCarthy, “The Real Anguish of Abortions,” The Washington Post, Feb. 5, 1989.
I personally agree with Fogel that the harm must be inescapable, though I share his awareness that his insights are not a scientific proof. I also think that a significant part of the passion of the abortion-rights side is driven by the psychological denial of those who have had abortions. But of course pro-choicers would strenuously contest this.
Some pro-choicers might say that even if women ever do suffer psychological harm from abortion, anti-abortion laws will not save any of them from it because no one will obey the law. But as researcher Dr. Michael New often reiterates, various studies have shown that when abortion is legally restricted, fewer women abort. Even the Guttmacher Institute recently admitted, “. . . the wave of abortion restrictions passed at the state level over the last five years could also have contributed to the decline [in abortion rates].” And those laws actually banned hardly any abortions; they merely made access somewhat more challenging.
I personally believe that the institution of legal abortion is morally wrong, and also believe that it psychologically harms women. So I believe that, if we factor that wrongness and harm into all the above, in the way indicated by some of the points, then making abortion illegal would ultimately benefit even the women of Group 2. But if I am mistaken about that wrongness and harm, then I would concede that the women of Group 2 would, in net, be harmed by making abortion illegal.
And what about the women of Group 3, women who will never become pregnant?
Apart from what may be won or lost by everyone in society under the above point concerning the morality of outlawing abortion, they will lose nothing. They will gain a little in terms of the point about female functions above (Group 1, #5).
So to wrap this up: Will all women, as one big group, be better off when abortion is illegal (which is the pro-life feminist claim)? The answer depends mostly on the losses and gains, the costs and benefits, for Groups 1 and 2. Group 1 will clearly be better off, and Group 2 will, let’s say for the sake of argument, be worse off. So now the answer depends on how many women fall in each group, and the comparative degrees of “better off” and “worse off.” Suppose (for the sake of making the calculation process clear) that in the US the number of women who are pregnant when abortion is banned, or will become pregnant later in their lives (Groups 1 and 2 together), is 100 million. If 80 million of them do not want to abort (Group 1) and 20 million do want to abort (Group 2), and if what a woman in Group 1 typically gains is anywhere near as significant as what a woman in Group 2 typically loses (if that group really loses anything), then clearly women overall will be better off. The real proportions are not likely 80 to 20, but this makes clear how it would be possible to come to a conclusion. (When we come to estimate the real proportions, we will have to remember that many women who identify as pro-choice say that they themselves would never abort, which places them in Group 1.)
If pro-choicers are correct that it is morally wrong to outlaw abortion and correct that abortion does not psychologically harm women, then I would concede, as already mentioned, that the women of Group 2 will be harmed in net when abortion becomes illegal; but the gross amount of harm will be offset by a very significant gross amount of benefit. Because even if the legality of abortion is morally neutral and abortion does not psychologically harm women, there is no question that reliance on the practice to solve various problems denigrates women’s femaleness, instead of honoring it and demanding that society accommodate it (remember the point about female functions above); and no question that on occasions when the pregnancy is one that they do not wish to abort, the women of Group 2 will gain in important ways. So even if the women of Group 2 will lose, they will not lose as much as might appear at first sight; while for the women of Group 1, making abortion illegal will be practically an unqualified win.
And all that is not even counting what making abortion illegal will do for the unborn – half of whom are female.
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