issue 176 - October 1987
At cross-purposes on abortion
Whose rights are paramount - the rights of an unborn child, or the rights
of its mother? Kathleen McDonnell argues that abstract moral principles are
both unhelpful and inhumane ways of discussing the morality of abortion.
With the rise of Christianity, abortion came to be seen as a full-blown moral problem. 'It was Christianity which revolutionized moral ideas in this matter by endowing the embryo with a soul,' wrote Simone de Beauvoir in 1952. 'Abortion became a crime against the fetus itself.' Christian moral philosophy is based on Aristotelian logic and a system of universal moral principles, known as the Divine Law. It results from a process of logical, deductive reasoning, unsullied by personal feelings or practicalities.
Until relatively recently Western moral philosophers debating abortion have been concerned almost exclusively with when life begins - and hence when abortion is not permissible. For instance, the Catholic Church once followed what was known as the '40- and 80-day rule', whereby the soul was thought to enter the male fetus 40 days after conception and the female after 80 days. Abortion of a male up to 40 days and a female up to 80 days was thus considered permissible until 1898, when the Church adopted its current position - that the soul was infused at conception - which effectively outlaws abortion.
There were complications with my pregnancy. Without the abortion I'd only a ten per cent chance of survival.
I believe firmly in the sanctity of human life - all human life. And that meant the child in my womb. The operation - the abortion - would actually mean killing my child, my new son or daughter. But my life is sacred too. The magnitude of the problem shook me quite badly. I had weeks of sleepless nights and my health got even worse.
At that stage I would have liked someone else to make the decision for me. I was wracked by anxiety and guilt even before I made the decision. I had no time for those who advocated abortions of convenience, as if the child was somehow an invading organism, like gonorrhoea. But I'd also become disenchanted with pro-lifers who seemed to be saying that they loved my unborn baby but hated me! I'm afraid I've lost a few friends and challenged a few others.
So what do you do? You read all the books you can lay your hands on. You listen to your friends and look for tell-tale signs behind their smiles. You're all ears in case some TV or radio programme raises some point you hadn't thought of. And you learn about the real necessity of acting and thinking for yourself. Because it's your decision, and you've got to make it.
Would I abort if my child was likely to have some kind of deformity? What If I had a 90 per cent chance of surviving, but my child had a similar chance of being badly handicapped? Then I look in the mirror and think: 'You're not Miss World, kiddo', and I thank God that someone didn't determine that my appearance didn't come up to scratch. I guess that's part of it: I never really wanted anyone else to tell me what to do, though I craved for them to make my decisions easier. You have to work it through. It has to be complex.
And afterwards? The healing process - I mean working through things like guilt and remorse - that's all really valuable. It sort of goes in tandem with recovering from the physical pain. I've learnt that life is deeper than I'd thought and certainly not meant to be skimmed along. It's so easy to forget that the name of the game is survival. And it's so hard to sift between pro- and anti-abortionists, liberals and reactionaries. I think there's a little truth in a lot of the groups.
Of course some of my pro-life friends have disowned me. Others tried to understand and were concerned and helpful, rather than judgmental. But you have to remember that when moat people voice an opinion they do it from their own perspective. You've got to take that into account as well. And never judge. I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of that.
Other cut-off points have also been prevalent: quickening, for instance, which is when a woman first becomes aware of fetal movement. And viability, the point at which the fetus is able to survive outside the womb, is the limit accepted by most modern-day proponents of abortion.
Western moral thought has also been concerned with the related question of whether the fetus is a person, with all the attendant rights of a human being. The utilitarian theorists - such as LW Sumner and Joseph Fletcher - reject moral absolutes, but still rely on deductive reasoning to arrive at moral principles and are much given to abstract statements like 'a fetus is a human being which is not yet a person'.
The problems inherent in these purely deductive approaches to the morality of abortion are becoming more and more evident. We understand now that life is a process, a continuum. It does not infuse itself at conception - or any other magic moment Viability, similarly, will no longer serve as a moral cut-off point sophisticated life-support systems can now sustain fetuses as early as 20 weeks and even that limit is being pushed further and further back towards conception.
The feminist response to abortion as a moral problem has been ambivalent Feminists and other progressives have always been uncomfortable with the whole notion of morality, viewing it as an essentially conservative concept that has been used to bolster traditional modes of thinking and undermine efforts for change. In fact some pro-choice advocates go so far as to deny that abortion is a moral issue at all - a favourite slogan for a while was abortion is a health issue, not a moral issue'. But most feminists do not believe that abortion is merely the moral equivalent of a tonsillectomy. We sense there is more to it than that, but we have not known how to come to grips with it without giving ammunition to our opponents.
Some of us have dealt with the dilemma by adopting the 'clump of tissue' argument. 'Let's get something straight,' wrote Michele Landsberg in the Toronto Star. 'If a clump of living tissue is a human being, then an acorn is an oak tree and an egg is a chicken and the church should be giving names and funeral to every miscarried fetus'. This approach, which dominated the abortion reform movements of Sixties' North America, is rooted in liberal humanism which values science and rational thought Humanists have no use for the Christian view that the fetus has a soul, finding it a backward and unscientific idea, shrouded in mysticism.
The 'clump of tissue' argument does indeed provide a challenge to the view that the fetus has full moral standing from conception. But it does this by denying it any moral status at all. Many feminists have become uncomfortable with this idea, but we haven't been able to find any other argument that didn't immediately pose a threat to our basic position that women must control their own bodies. Consequently we have appeared to withdraw from the moral debate altogether. And Right-to-Life ideology has filled the vacuum. Their solution to the dilemma is a very simple one: abortion is wrong, abortion is murder.
Many people abhor the extremity of this view. But they do have a gut feeling that abortion is a moral issue. And they see no-one but Right-to-Life addressing it. But in fact feminists have been concerned with the morality of abortion all along - but in a distinctly different way from the moral philosophers and Right-to-Lifers. What has appeared as an intense, bitter and irreconcilable polarization has occurred partly because our basic moral concerns have not been the same. We have been talking apples - the rights and concerns of women - while they have been talking oranges - the rights and concerns of fetuses.
Rather than elevating the rights of the fetus to the exclusion of all the other factors, we have set ourselves the primary task of helping other women who face the dilemma of unwanted childbearing. We took up the coathanger as our symbol - one of the grim tools women used to induce their own abortions before the operation was legalized - and we vowed that no more women should die, become maimed or made permanently sterile as a result of trying to get an abortion.
My husband left about a year ago. He ran off with another woman. Since then I have been working part-time cleaning offices downtown. I do three offices each day, for two hours each, which pays about 15 bolivianos ($7.50) a week - just enough to buy food. Luckily I don't have to pay rent, because this old adobe house belonged to my grandmother and I've lived here all my life. I can't find a better job because I only studied three years in school, then I had to earn money by selling newspapers of the street.
I sold papers until I was 17, then I married my husband. We were lucky because we had two healthy children, a girl and a boy, and neither of them died. That's unusual around here. It was the best time of my life: staying home to raise my children.
No, I have never used anything to stop myself from getting pregnant. I don't know any women who have. I don't know much went to the doctor it would be very expensive and I just couldn't afford it. Two years ago, when I was three months' pregnant, I fell over in the cemetery when I was visiting my mother's grave and I lost the baby.
I got pregnant again at the beginning of this year. My husband came by and I thought maybe there was a chance of us getting back together again. Well, we didn't get back together, but I did get pregnant. I felt angry and upset, but I didn't tell my husband in case he was angry and took it out on the children.
So I decided to get an abortion. I just can't afford any more children. It was hard because I am a Catholic and I think it is wrong. But I just couldn't see any other way. I went to a private doctor who I heard will get rid of pregnancy for you, but the office was so crowded I had to come back another day. It cost 80 bolivianos ($40), which I borrowed from my aunt who runs a little store and has some money saved. The doctor treated me politely. But when I came home I felt bad, like I had done something wrong, against God. And after about three days, I was in terrible pain and started to bleed a lot.
My aunt took me to hospital in a taxi. They cleaned up whatever was still there, but before they did the doctor told me I was evil for having an abortion, and I felt even worse. I was there for three days and they charged me 50 bolivianos ($25) which I also had to borrow from my aunt. I have no idea how I will ever pay her back.
Interview by Linda Farthing for the Better Health through Family Planning Conference, Nairobi, October 1987
In our approach we have been motivated by what psychologist Carol Gilligan has called an 'ethic of care', which resists the subordination of human needs to so-called universal principles of right and wrong. According to Gilligan, women's morality tends to be rooted in human relationships, in the concerns of daily life, rather than in abstract moral principles. Male theorists have tended to view this approach as a weakness in women. But, arguably, it is one of our strengths, a vital counterbalance to what Gilligan calls 'the blind willingness to sacrifice people to truth'. She argues that we need to rethink the theories of moral development altogether to encompass a respect for both the masculine 'ethic of rights' and the feminine 'ethic of care'.
Ironically this 'ethic of care' has a way of intruding into the lives of the most passionate 'ethic of rights' adherents. In 1983, for example, the Toronto Star gave a moving account of an evangelical Christian minister and his wife who went through a painful rethinking of their position on abortion after experiencing an unwanted pregnancy. The woman had become suicidally depressed while pregnant with her previous two children and was devastated when she found herself accidentally pregnant again. Although she decided, after an agonizing period of inward questioning, to continue with the pregnancy, it led her and her husband to reject their rigid moral position:
'We will never pressure any woman not to have an abortion. We've been there ourselves and now feel that it's too easy for churches simply to add to the guilt of those who have abortions.'
A true feminist morality would strive to root the abstract principles of right and wrong in the firm ground of our tangible day-to-day existence: because one of the inherent limitations of an ethic based solely on rights - whether it be the fetus's right to life or women's right to control their bodies - is that it is one-dimensional. It assumes we are all atomized individuals with competing rights, rather than beings whose very existence is based on profound interconnections with one another.
Acknowledging this interdependence allows us to make the courageous leap of 'letting in' the fetus, of rejecting the idea that it is simply a clump of cells, of taking it into our moral accounting and allowing it to make some claim on our attentions. Because there is no escaping the fact that we have, with full consciousness, terminated life. This is most emphatically not the same as blaming ourselves or burdening ourselves with an unnecessary load of guilt It means accepting, as one grieving woman put it, 'that there was something alive in you, and that you ended that process'.
Ultimately what we are talking about is acknowledging the seriousness of abortion. The potential trap, of course, lies in defining what is a 'serious' enough reason to have an abortion. Most Right-to-Lifers believe that only a threat to the life of the mother is sufficient justification and that most women seek abortions for essentially 'trivial' reasons. But we know that this is not the case. That we cannot cope with another child, that we are not ready for parenthood, that we cannot face raising a child without a partner, that we cannot afford a child, that our method of birth control failed, that we are the victims of rape, that we cannot bear the anguish of carrying a child to term and giving it up for adoption, that we cannot accept the responsibility of caring for a handicapped child - these are the reasons why we seek abortion in the vast majority of cases. Far from being trivial, they are dilemmas of great consequence. If abortion is a serious matter, so, too, are the life circumstances that lead us to choose it
This is how one young abortion counsellor expressed her conflict over 'letting in' the fetus: 'I just couldn't kid myself any more and say there was nothing in the uterus, just a tiny speck. Finally I had to reconcile myself that, yes, life is sacred, but the quality of life is also important, and it has to be the determining thing in this particular case. I had to be able to say "Yes this is killing, there is no way around it. But I am willing to accept that".'
Kathleen McDonnell is a playwright and author of the controversial book Not an Easy Choice: A Feminist Re-examines Abortion (The Women's Press, Toronto, 1984). This article is an edited extract from that book.