Abortion on My Mind

First, let’s approach this vexing topic from the metaphysical side.

If we adopt the Aristotelian view of gestation (a view that, if I’m correct, was part of the thinking of Christian philosophers in the High Middle Ages) the child in the womb relates to the human being that will emerge at birth as the acorn does to the oak tree — a relation of potentiality to actuality. From that perspective, the later the pregnancy, the more criminal abortion seems. On a spectrum from least to greatest, the newly-fertilized egg cell has the smallest moral claim on us.

But suppose we took the typical view of those who presently oppose ending the life of the zygote on the ground that — from the moment of fertilization — the egg cell harbors a fully actual human soul. I would say, if we assume a discrepancy that vast between the microscopic physical entity on the one hand and its spiritual counterpart on the other, we are in the realm of the near-supernatural. A soul denied entry at so early a stage might well be capable of finding another mother, if the first one proved so unwelcoming.

What’s my own view of the relevant metaphysics? Mine is a bit idiosyncratic. I tend to suppose that the stage at which the human soul enters the fetus varies from mother to mother, as well as from child to child. If that’s the right view, then a perfectly just law would apply differently depending on whether a human soul was, or was not, in the mother’s body. If not, no crime. If yes, then abortion would be more like homicide.

The trouble with my view is that we have no means of detecting the soul’s arrival. Therefore, it might be metaphysically safest to assume what the pro-life advocates now hold: abortion is murder (just in case it is).

Even undecidable metaphysical questions may have social and political implications. What’s remarkable in the situation presently under review at the highest court in the land is that, for at least two generations, American women have felt that — subject only to the privacies of conscience — they could shrug off the constraints of biology. There’s a philosophical history we haven’t time for here, but it traces at least to Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist groundbreaker, The Second Sex. A certain line of thinking has authorized women to treat their outsides and insides as mere social constructs or grammatical artifacts. Urged forward by these assumptions, women have gone from one rights claim to the next — till they came up against the “logical” endpoint of these irresponsible fictions: men winning foot races against women competitors on the pretext that they can deconstruct their grammatical sex though not of course their biological advantages; male felons admitted into women’s prison cells on the same pretext, and so on. These masculine strengths are not counterbalanced by any corresponding protectiveness toward the feminine. The Titanic goes down in the North Atlantic and it’s every person for themselves — tricking grammar as well as nature.

Suddenly, the house of cards threatens to tumble. Men have supplied women with contraceptives, refrigerators, constabularies, policemen, and firemen. In consequence, women can leave their cookpots; they can safely leave their homes; they can choose to have children or not. On the strength of such provisions, women thus protected claimed the same entitlements that men earlier gave themselves. Seeing the logic and the chivalry of the situation, American men voted to expand suffrage along with a host of other protections, prerogatives, and responsibilities.

The Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision has had certain grotesque consequences, including cases approaching infanticide or dismemberment of recognizable babies in utero. To my mind, it has fostered a general coarsening of sensibility. I think of the death by court-ordered starvation of Terri Shiavo, which was almost cheered on by men and women who had nothing personal against Shiavo, but were keen to inure society to the killing of those who can’t speak for themselves. (If Shiavo was so very comatose, why was the priest giving her last rites ordered to stop and leave her deathbed because it was upsetting her?)

Nor have legally empowered women functioned reliably as a protective bloc for their more vulnerable sisters. In my own experience, when I tried to get other feminists to defend a woman who’d made a credible accusation of rape against a male politician with a record of public support for “women’s” causes, only one of the well-known feminists to whom I appealed was willing to join me in that effort.

Every feminist I know wanted to see my engagement ring and reacted just as women did before they were “liberated.”

Spontaneous sisterly feeling may actually be less available now than it was in the days when all women feared an unlicensed pregnancy more than death and believed — as one successful woman writer told me she’d learned at the knee of her southern mother — men are the enemy.

The vulnerability of women is what the potential pealing back of Roe discloses. I took note of that vulnerability at the time when the regime of the Shah was overthrown in Iran. Persian women had been admired for their fine fashion sense and worldly charm. After the Ayatollah came to power, with scarcely a muffled sound they disappeared almost overnight into black chadors and they have not been seen since.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has reported the reduced ability of European women to circulate in the public space they now share with immigrants whose norms confine women to the home. Phyllis Chesler, who told her personal story in An American Bride in Kabul has, since that near-fatal episode of youthful romance, fought to rescue women, here and in far-away Afghanistan, whose freedom was simply erased by local mores.

The present legal change, if it goes through, may not roll back the standing of women to the extent that I fear. But it will ruin some young lives and — to an as yet unknown degree — diminish the social power of all women while at the same time enhancing the power-to-live of the unborn.

I sometimes refer to the asymmetry of the sexes. The difference is not just about the steps socially marked out for dance partners. It takes two to tango but real life is not a tango.

Long ago, in “Feminism Without Contradictions,” an article published in a pathbreaking feminist issue of The Monist, I foresaw that the time might come when the interest of this society in feminism burns out again.

People may get tired of

compensating women

for what, after all,

they are.

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Abigail Rosenthal

Abigail Rosenthal

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Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee.