Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Prochoice Rhetoric

NAOMI WOLF is the author of Fire with Fire: The New, Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century (Ballantine).


I had an abortion when I was a single mother and my daughter was 2 years old. I would do it again. But you know the Greek myths when you kill a relative you are pursued by furies? For months, it was as if baby furies were pursuing me.

These are not the words of a benighted, superstition-ridden teenager lost in America’s cultural backwaters. They are the words of a Cornell-educated, urban-dwelling Democratic-voting 40-year-old cardiologist. I’ll call her Clare. Clare is exactly the kind of person for whom being prochoice is an unshakeable conviction. If there were a core constituent of the movement to secure abortion rights, Clare would be it. And yet: her words are exactly the words to which the prochoice movement is not listening.

At its best, feminism defends its moral high ground by being simply faithful to the truth: to women’s real-life experiences. But, to its own ethical and political detriment, the prochoice movement has relinquished the moral frame around the issue of abortion. It has ceded the language of right and wrong to abortion foes. The movement’s abandonment of what Americans have always, and rightly demanded of their movements—an ethical core—and its reliance instead on a political rhetoric in which the fetus means nothing are proving fatal.

The effects of this abandonment can be measured in two ways. First of all, such a position causes us to lose political ground. By refusing to look at abortion within a moral framework, we lose the millions of Americans who want to support abortion as a legal right but still need to condemn it as a moral iniquity. Their ethical allegiances are then addressed by the prolife movement, which is willing to speak about good and evil.

But we are also in danger of losing something more important than votes; we stand in jeopardy of losing what can only be called our souls. Clinging to a rhetoric about abortion in which there is no life and no death, we entangle our beliefs in a series of self-delusions, fibs and evasions. And we risk becoming precisely what our critics charge us with being: callous, selfish and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of human life.

In the following pages, I will argue for a radical shift in the prochoice movement’s rhetoric and consciousness about abortion: I still maintain that we need to contextualize the fight to defend abortion rights within a moral framework that admits that the death of a fetus is a real death; that there are degrees of culpability, judgement and responsibility involved in the decision to abort a pregnancy; that the best understanding of feminism involves holding women as well as men to the responsibilities that are inseparable from their rights and that we need to be strong enough to acknowledge that this country’s high rate of abortion—which ends more than a quarter of all pregnancies—can only be rightly understood as what Dr. Henry Foster was brave enough to call it: “a failure.”

Any doubt that our current prochoice rhetoric leads to disaster should be dispelled by the famous recent defection of the woman who had been Jane Roe. What happened to Norma McCorvey? To judge by her characterization in the elite media and by some prominent prochoice feminists, nothing very important. Her change of heart about abortion was relentlessly “explained away” as having everything to do with the girlish motivations of insecurity, fickleness and the need for attention, and little to do with any actual moral agency.

This dismissive (and, not incidentally, sexist and classist) interpretation was so highly colored by subjective impressions offered up by the very institutions that define objectivity that it bore all the hallmarks of an exculpatory cultural myth: poor Norma—she just needed stroking. She was never very stable. The old dear—first she was a chesspiece for the prochoice movement (“just, some anonymous person who suddenly emerges,” in the words of one NOW member) and then a codependent of the Bible-thumpers. Low self-esteem, a history of substance abuse, ignorance-these and other personal weaknesses explained her turnaround.

To me, the first commandment of real feminism is: when in doubt, listen to women. What if we were to truly respectfully listen to this woman who began her political life as, in her words, just “some little old Texas girl who got in trouble.” We would have to hear this: perhaps Norma McCorvey actually had a revelation that she could no longer live as the symbol of a belief system she increasingly repudiated.

Norma McCorvey should be seen as an object lesson for the prochoice movement—a call to us to search our souls and take another, humbler look at how we go about what we are doing. For McCorvey is in fact an American Everywoman: she is the lost middle of the abortion debate, the woman whose allegiance we forfeit by our refusal to use a darker and sterner and more honest moral rhetoric.

McCorvey is more astute than her critics; she seems to understand better than the prochoice activists she worked with just what the woman-in-the-middle believes: “I believe in the woman’s right to choose. I’m like a lot of people. I’m in the mushy middle,” she said. McCorvey still supports abortion rights through the first trimester-but is horrified by the brutality of abortion as it manifests more obviously further into a pregnancy. She does not respect the black and white ideology on either side and insists on referring instead, as I understand her explanation, to her conscience. What McCorvey and other Americans want and deserve is an abortion-rights movement willing publicly to mourn the evil-necessary evil though it may be-that is abortion. We must have a movement that acts with moral accountability and without euphemism.

With the prochoice rhetoric we use now, we incur three destructive consequences—two ethical, one strategic: hardness of heart, lying and political failure.

Because of the implications of a Constitution that defines rights according to the legal idea of “a person,” the abortion debate has tended to focus on the question of “personhood” of the fetus. Many prochoice advocates developed a language to assert that the fetus isn’t a person, and this, over the years has developed into a lexicon of dehumanization. Laura Kaplan’s The Story of Jane, an important forthcoming account of a pre-Roe underground abortion service, inadvertently sheds light on the origins of some of this rhetoric: service staffers referred to the fetus—well into the fourth month—as “material” (as in “the amount of material that had to be removed... “). The activists felt exhilaration at learning to perform abortions themselves instead of relying on male doctors: “When [a staffer] removed the speculum and said, ‘There, all done,’ the room exploded in excitement.” In an era when women were dying of illegal abortions, this was the understandable exhilaration of an underground resistance movement.

Unfortunately, though, this cool and congratulatory rhetoric lingers into a very different present. In one woman’s account of her chemical abortion, in the January/February 1994 issue of Mother Jones, for example, the doctor says, “By Sunday you won’t see on the monitor what we call the heartbeat (my italics). The author of the article, D. Redman, explains that one of the drugs the doctor administered would “end the growth of the fetal tissue.” And we all remember Dr. Joycelyn Elders’s remark, hailed by some as refreshingly frank and pro-woman but which I found remarkably brutal: that “We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus.... “

How did we arrive at this point? In the early 1970s, Second Wave feminism adopted this rhetoric in response to the reigning ideology in which motherhood was invoked as an excuse to deny women legal and social equality. In a climate in which women risked being defined as mere vessels while their fetuses were given “personhood” at their expense, it made sense that women’s advocates would fight back by depersonalizing the fetus.

The feminist complaint about the prolife movement’s dehumanization of the pregnant woman in relation to the humanized fetus is familiar and often quite valid: prochoice commentators note that the prolife film The Silent Scream portrayed the woman as “a vessel”: Ellen Frankfort’s Vaginal Politics, the influential feminist text, complained that the fetus is treated like an astronaut in a spaceship.

But, say what you will, pregnancy confounds Western philosophy’s idea of the autonomous self: the pregnant woman is in fact both a person in her body and a vessel. Rather than seeing both beings as alive and interdependent-seeing life within life—and acknowledging that sometimes, nonetheless, the woman must choose her life over the fetus’s, Second Wave feminists reacted to the dehumanization on of women by dehumanizing the creatures within them. In the death-struggle to wrest what Simone de Beauvoir called transcendence out of biological immanence, some feminists developed a rhetoric that defined the unwanted fetus as at best valueless: at worst an adversary, a “mass of dependent protoplasm.”

Yet that has left us with a bitter legacy. For when we defend abortion rights by emptying the act of moral gravity, we find ourselves cultivating a hardness of heart.

Having become pregnant through her partner’s and her own failure to use a condom, Redman remarks that her friend Judith, who has been trying to find a child to adopt, begs her to carry the pregnancy to term. Judith offers Redman almost every condition a birth-mother could want: “‘Let me have the baby,’ “ she quotes her friend pleading. “‘You could visit her anytime, and if you ever wanted her back, I promise I would let her go.’“ Redman does not mention considering this possibility. Thinking, rather, about the difficulty of keeping the child—”My time consumed by the tedious, daily activities that I’ve always done my best to avoid. Three meals a day. Unwashed laundry...” she schedules her chemical abortion.

The procedure is experimental, and the author feels “almost heroic”, thinking of how she is blazing a trail for other women. After the abortion process is underway the story reaches its perverse epiphany: Redman is on a Women’s Day march when the blood from the abortion first appears. She exults at this: “‘Our bodies. Our lives our right to decide.’ ... My life feels luxuriant with possibility. For one precious moment, I believe that we have the power to dismantle this system. I finish the march, borne along by the women....” As for the pleading Judith, with everything she was ready to offer a child, and the phantom baby? They are both off-stage, silent in this chilling drama of “Feminist” triumphalism.

And why should we expect otherwise? In this essay, the fetus (as the author writes, “the now-inert material from my womb”) is little more than a form of speech: a vehicle to assert the author’s identity and autonomy.

The prolife warning about the potential of widespread abortion to degrade reverence for life does have a nugget of truth: a free-market rhetoric about abortion can, indeed, contribute to the eerie situation we are now facing, wherein the culture seems increasingly to see babies not as creatures to whom parents devote their lives but as accoutrements to enhance parental quality of life. Day by day, babies seem to have less value in themselves, in a matrix of the sacred, than they do as products with a value dictated by a market economy.

Stories surface regularly about “worthless” babies left naked on gratings or casually dropped out of windows, while “valuable,” genetically correct babies are created at vast expense and with intricate medical assistance for infertile couples. If we fail to treat abortion with grief and reverence, we risk forgetting that, when it comes to the children we choose to bear, we are here to serve them—whomever they are; they are not here to serve us.

Too often our rhetoric leads us to tell untruths. What Norma McCorvey wants, it seems, is for abortion-rights advocates to face, really face, what we are doing: “Have you ever seen a second-trimester abortion?” she asks. “It’s a baby. It’s got a face and a body, and they put him in a freezer and a little container.”

Well, so it does: and so they do.

The prochoice movement often treats with contempt the prolifers’ practice of holding up to our faces their disturbing graphics. We revile their placards showing an enlarged scene of the aftermath of a D & C abortion: we are disgusted by their lapel pins with the little feet, crafted in gold, of a 10-week-old fetus; we mock the sensationalism of The Silent Scream. We look with pity and horror at someone who would brandish a fetus in formaldehyde—and we are quick to say that they are lying: “Those are stillbirths, anyway” we tell ourselves.

To many prochoice advocates, the imagery is revolting propaganda. There is a sense among us, let us be frank, that the gruesomeness of the imagery belongs to the prolifers: that it emerges from the dark, frightening minds of fanatics: that it represents the violence of imaginations that would, given half a chance, turn our world into a scary, repressive place. ‘People like us’ see such material as the pornography of the prolife movement.

But feminism at its best is based on what is simply true. While prolifers have not been beyond dishonesty, distortion and the doctoring of images (preferring, for example, to highlight the results of very late, very rare abortions), many of those photographs are in fact photographs of actual D & Cs; those footprints are in fact the footprints of a 10-week-old fetus, the prolife slogan, “Abortion stops a beating heart,” is incontrovertibly true. While images of violent fetal death work magnificently for prolifers as political polemic, the pictures are not polemical in themselves: they are biological facts. We know this.

Since abortion became legal nearly a quarter-century ago, the fields of embryology and perinatology have been revolutionized-but the prochoice view of the contested fetus has remained static. This has led to a bizarre bifurcation in the way we who are prochoice tend to think about wanted as opposed to unwanted fetuses: the unwanted ones are still seen in schematic black-and-white drawings while the wanted ones have metamorphosed into vivid and moving color. Even while Elders spoke of our need to “get over” our love affair with the unwelcome fetus, an entire growth industry—Mozart for your belly; framed sonogram photos; home fetal-heartbeat stethoscopes—is devoted to sparking fetal love affairs in other circumstances, and aimed especially at the hearts of over-scheduled yuppies. If we avidly cultivate love for the ones we bring to term, and “get over” our love for the ones we don’t, do we not risk developing a hydroponic view of babies—and turn them into a product we can cull for our convenience?

Any happy couple with a wanted pregnancy and a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting can see the cute, detailed drawings of the fetus whom the book’s owner presumably is not going to abort, and can read the excited descriptions of what that fetus can do and feel, month by month. Anyone who has had a sonogram during pregnancy knows perfectly well that the 4-month-old fetus responds to outside stimulus—”Let’s get him to look this way,” the technician will say, poking gently at the belly of a delighted mother-to-be. The Well Baby Book, the kind of whole-grain holistic guide to pregnancy and childbirth that would find its audience among the very demographic that is most solidly prochoice reminds us that: “Increasing knowledge is increasing the awe and respect we have for the unborn baby and is causing us to regard the unborn baby as a real person long before birth....”

So, what will it be: Wanted fetuses are charming, complex REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere “uterine material”? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for prolifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for prochoice women to be confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism. Free women must be strong women, too: and strong women, presumably do not seek to cloak their most important decisions in euphemism.

Other lies are not lies to others, but to ourselves. An abortion-clinic doctor. Elizabeth Karlin, who wrote a recent “Hers” column in The New York Times, declared that “There is only one reason I’ve ever heard for having an abortion: the desire to be a good mother.”

While that may well be true for many poor and working-class women--and indeed research shows that poor women are three times more likely to have abortions than are better-off women--the elite, who are the most vociferous in their morally unambiguous prochoice language, should know perfectly well how untrue that statement often is in their own lives. All abortions occupy a spectrum, from full lack of alternatives to full moral accountability. Karlin and many other prochoice activists try to situate all women equally at the extreme endpoint of that spectrum, and it just isn’t so. Many women, including middle-class women, do have abortions because, as one such woman put it, “They have a notion of what a good mother is and don’t feel they can be that kind of mother at this phase of their lives.” In many cases, that is still a morally defensible place on the spectrum; but it is not the place of absolute absolution that Dr. Karlin claims it to be. It is, rather, a place of moral struggle, of self-interest mixed with selflessness, of wished-for good intermingled with necessary evil.

Other abortions occupy places on the spectrum that are far more culpable. Of the abortions I know of, these were some of the reasons: to find out if the woman could get pregnant; to force a boy or man to take a relationship more seriously; and, again and again, to enact a rite of passage for affluent teenage girls. In my high school, the abortion drama was used to test a boyfriend’s character. Seeing if he would accompany the girl to the operation or, better yet, come up with the money for the abortion could almost have been the 1970s Bay Area equivalent of the ‘50s fraternity pin.

The affluent teenage couples who conceive because they can and then erase the consequences—and the affluent men and women who choose abortion because they were careless or in a hurry or didn’t like the feel of latex—are not the moral equivalent of the impoverished mother who responsibly, even selflessly, acknowledge she already has too many mouths to feed. Feminist rights include feminist responsibilities: the right to obtain an abortion brings with it the responsibility to contracept. Fifty-seven percent of unintended pregnancies come about because the parents used no contraception at all. Those millions certainly include women and men too poor to buy contraception, girls and boys too young and ill-informed to know where to get it, and countless instances of marital rape, coerced sex, incest and couplings in which the man refused to let the woman use protection.

But they also include millions of college students, professional men and women, and middle- and uppermiddle- class people (11 percent of abortions are obtained by people in households with incomes of higher than $50,000)—who have no excuse whatsoever for their carelessness. “There is only one reason I’ve ever heard for having an abortion: the desire to be a good mother”—this is a falsehood that condescends to women struggling to be true agents of their own souls, even as it dishonors through hypocrisy the terminations that are the writer’s subject.

Not to judge other men and women without judging myself, I know this assertion to be false from my own experience. Once, I made the choice to take a morning after pill. The heavily pregnant doctor looked at me, as she dispensed it, as if I were the scum of the earth.

If what was going on in my mind had been mostly about the well-being of the possible baby, that pill would never have been swallowed. For that potential baby, brought to term, would have had two sets of loving middle-income grandparents, an adult mother with an education and even, as I discovered later, the beginning of diaper money for its first two years of life (the graduate fellowship I was on forbade marriage but, frozen in time before women were its beneficiaries, said nothing about unwed motherhood). Because of the baby’s skin color, even if I chose not to rear the child, a roster of eager adoptive parents awaited him or her. If I had been thinking only or even primarily about the baby’s life, I would have had to decide to bring the pregnancy, had there been one, to term.

No: there were two columns in my mind—”Me” and “Baby”—and the first won out. And what was in it looked something like this: unwelcome intensity in the relationship with the father; desire to continue to “develop as a person” before “real” parenthood; wish to encounter my eventual life partner without the off-putting encumbrance of a child; resistance to curtailing the nature of the time remaining to me in Europe. Essentially, this column came down to: I am not done being responsive only to myself yet.

At even the possibility that the cosmos was calling my name, I cowered and stepped aside. I was not so unlike those young louts who father children and run from the specter of responsibility. Except that my refusal to be involved with this potential creature was as definitive as a refusal can be.

Stepping aside in this way is analogous to draft evasion: there are good and altruistic reasons to evade the draft, and then there are self-preserving reasons. In that moment, feminism came to one of its logical if less-than-inspiring moments of fruition: I chose to sidestep biology: I acted—and was free to act—as if I were in control of my destiny, the way men more often than women have let themselves act. I chose myself on my own terms over a possible someone else, for self-absorbed reasons. But “to be a better mother”; “Dulce et decorum est...”? Nonsense.

Now, freedom means that women must be free to choose self or to choose selfishly. Certainly for a woman with fewer economic and social choices than I had--for instance, a woman struggling to finish her higher education, without which she would have little hope of a life worthy of her talents—there can indeed be an obligation to choose self. And the defense of some level of abortion rights as fundamental to women’s integrity and equality has been made fully by others, including, quite effectively Ruth Bader Ginsberg. There is no easy way to deny the powerful argument that a woman’s equality in society must give her some irreducible rights unique to her biology including the right to take the life within her life.

But we don’t have to lie to ourselves about what we are doing at such a moment. Let us at least look with clarity at what that means and not whitewash self-interest with the language of self-sacrifice. The landscape of many such decisions looks more like Marin County than Verdun. Let us certainly not be fools enough to present such spiritually limited moments to the world with a flourish of pride, pretending that we are somehow pioneers and heroines and even martyrs to have snatched the self, with its aims and pleasures, from the pressure of biology.

That decision was not my finest moment. The least I can do, in honor of the being that might have been, is simply to know that.

Using amoral rhetoric, we weaken ourselves politically because we lose the center. To draw an inexact parallel, many people support the choice to limit the medical prolongation of life. But, if a movement arose that spoke of our “getting over our love affair” with the terminally ill, those same people would recoil into a vociferous interventionist position as a way to assert their moral values. We would be impoverished by a rhetoric about the end of life that speaks of the ill and the dying as if they were meaningless and of doing away with them as if it were a bracing demonstration of our personal independence.

Similarly, many people support necessary acts of warfare (Catholics for a Free Choice makes the analogy between abortion rights and such warfare). There are legal mechanisms that allow us to bring into the world the evil of war. But imagine how quickly public opinion would turn against a president who waged war while asserting that our sons and daughters were nothing but cannon fodder. Grief and respect are the proper tones for all discussions about choosing to endanger or destroy a manifestation of life.

War is legal: it is sometimes even necessary. Letting the dying die in peace is often legal and sometimes even necessary. Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or necessary to minimize the value of the lives involved or the sacrifice incurred in letting them go. Only if we uphold abortion rights within a matrix of individual conscience, atonement and responsibility can we both correct the logical and ethical absurdity in our position and consolidate the support of the center.

Many others, of course, have wrestled with this issue: Camille Paglia, who has criticized the “convoluted casuistry” of some prochoice language; Roger Rosenblatt, who has urged us to permit but discourage abortion; Laurence Tribe, who has noted that we place the fetus in shadow in order to advance the prochoice argument. But we have yet to make room for this conversation at the table of mainstream feminism.

And we can’t wait much longer. Historical changes from the imminent availability of cheap chemical abortifacients to the ascendancy of the religious right to Norma McCorvey’s defection—make the need for a new abortion-rights language all the more pressing

In a time of retrenchment, how can I be so sure that a more honest and moral rhetoric about abortion will consolidate rather than scuttle abortion rights? Look at what Americans themselves say. When a recent Newsweek poll asked about support for abortion using the rare phrasing, “It’s a matter between a woman, her doctor, her family, her conscience and her God,” a remarkable 72 percent of the respondents called that formulation “about right.” This represents a gain of thirty points over the abortion rights support registered in the latest Gallup poll, which asked about abortion without using the words “God” or “conscience.” When participants in the Gallup poll were asked if they supported abortion “under any circumstances” only 32 percent agreed; only 9 percent more supported it under “most” circumstances. Clearly, abortion rights are safest when we are willing to submit them to a morality beyond just our bodies and our selves.

But how, one might ask, can I square a recognition of the humanity of the fetus, and the moral gravity of destroying it, with a prochoice position? The answer can only be found in the context of a paradigm abandoned by the left and misused by the right: the paradigm of sin and redemption.

It was when I was four months pregnant, sick as a dog, and in the middle of an argument, that I realized I could no longer tolerate the fetus-is-nothing paradigm of the prochoice movement. I was being interrogated by a conservative, and the subject of abortion rights came up. “You’re four months pregnant,” he said. “Are you going to tell me that’s not a baby you’re carrying?”

The accepted prochoice response at such a moment in the conversation is to evade: to move as swiftly as possible to a discussion of “privacy” and “difficult personal decisions” and “choice.” Had I not been so nauseated and so cranky and so weighed down with the physical gravity of what was going on inside me, I might not have told what is the truth for me. “Of course it’s a baby,” I snapped. And went rashly on: “And if I found myself in circumstances in which I had to make the terrible decision to end this life, then that would be between myself and God.”

Startlingly to me, two things happened: the conservative was quiet, I had said something that actually made sense to him. And I felt the great relief that is the grace of long-delayed honesty.

Now, the G-word is certainly a problematic element to introduce into the debate. And yet “God’ or “soul”-or, if you are secular and prefer it, “conscience”—is precisely what is missing from prochoice discourse. There is a crucial difference between “myself and my God” or “my conscience”—terms that imply moral accountability—and “myself and my doctor,” the phrasing that Justice Harry Blackmun’s wording in Roe (“inherently, and primarily, a medical decision”) has tended to promote in the prochoice movement. And that’s not ever, to mention “between myself and myself” (Elders: “It’s not anybody’s business if I went for an abortion”), which implies just the relativistic relationship to abortion that our critics accuse us of sustaining.

The language we use to make our case limits the way we let ourselves think about abortion. As a result of the precedents in Roe (including Griswold v. Connecticut and Eisenstadt v. Baird), which based a woman’s right to an abortion on the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments’ implied right to personal privacy, other unhelpful terms are also current in our discourse. Prochoice advocates tend to cast an abortion as “an intensely personal decision.” To which we can say, No: one’s choice of carpeting is an intensely personal decision. One’s struggles with a life-and-death issue must be understood as a matter of personal conscience. There is a world of difference between the two, and it’s the difference a moral frame makes.

Stephen L. Carter has pointed out that spiritual discussion has been robbed of a place in American public life. As a consequence we tend-often disastrously-to use legislation to work out right and wrong. That puts many in the position of having to advocate against abortion rights in order to proclaim their conviction that our high rate of avoidable abortion (one of the highest in developed countries, five times that of the Netherlands, for example) is a social evil: and, conversely, many must pretend that abortion is not a transgression of any kind if we wish to champion abortion rights. We have no ground on which to say that abortion is a necessary evil that should be faced and opposed in the realm of conscience and action and even soul; yet remain legal.

But American society is struggling to find its way forward to a discourse of right and wrong that binds together a common ethic for the secular and the religious. When we do that, we create a moral discourse that can exist in its own right independent of legislation, and we can find ground to stand upon.

Norma McCorvey explained what happened to her in terms of good and evil: she woke in the middle of the night and felt a presence pushing violently down on her. “I denounce you, Satan,” she announced. This way of talking about evil is one of the chief class-divisions in America: working-class people talk about Satan, and those whom Paul Fussell calls “the X group”—those who run the country--talk instead about neurotic guilt. While the elite scoff at research that shows that most Americans maintain a belief in the embodiment of evil—”the devil”—they miss something profound about the human need to make moral order out of chaos. After all, the only difference between the experience described by Clare the Cornell-educated prochoicer, and McCorvey, the uneducated ex-alcoholic, is a classical allusion.

There is a hunger for a moral framework that we prochoicers must reckon with. In the Karlin “Hers” column, the author announced proudly that pregnant women are asked by the counselor in the office, “So, how long, have you been prochoice?” Dr. Karlin writes that “Laughter and the answer, ‘About ten minutes,’ is the healthiest response. ‘I still don’t believe in abortion,’ some women say, unaware that refusal to take responsibility for the decision means that I won’t do the procedure.”

How is this “feminist” ideological coercion any different from the worst of prolife shaming and coercion? The women who come to a clinic that is truly feminist—that respects women—are entitled not only to their abortions but also to their sense of sin.

To use the term “sin” in this context does not necessarily mean, as Dr. Karlin believes, that a woman thinks she must go to hell because she is having an abortion. It may mean that she thinks she must face the realization that she has fallen short of who she should be; and that she needs to ask forgiveness for that, and atone for it. As I understand such a woman’s response, she is trying to take responsibility for the decision.

We on the left tend to twitch with discomfort at that word “sin.” Too often we have become religiously illiterate, and so we deeply misunderstand the word. But in all of the great religious traditions, our recognition of sin, and then our atonement for it, brings on God’s compassion and our redemption. In many faiths, justice is linked, as it is in medieval Judaism and in Buddhism, to compassion. From Yom Kippur and the Ash Wednesday-to-Easter cycle to the Hindu idea of karma, the individual’s confrontation with her or his own culpability is the first step toward ways to create and receive more light.

How could one live with a conscious view that abortion is an evil and still be prochoice? Through acts of redemption, or what the Jewish mystical tradition calls tikkun or “mending.” Laurence Tribe, in Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes, notes that “Memorial services for the souls of aborted fetuses are fairly common in contemporary Japan” where abortions are both legal and readily available. Shinto doctrine holds that women should make offerings to the fetus to help it rest in peace; Buddhists once erected statues of the spirit guardian of children to honor aborted fetuses (called “water children” or “unseeing children”). If one believes that abortion is killing and yet is still prochoice, one could try to use contraception for every single sex act; if one had to undergo an abortion, one could then work to provide contraception, or jobs, or other choices to young girls; one could give money to programs that provide prenatal care to poor women, if one is a mother or father, one can remember the aborted child every time one is tempted to be less than loving—and give renewed love to the living child. And so on: tikkun.

But when you insist, as the “Hers” column writer did, on stripping people of their sense of sin, they react with a wholesale backing-away into a rigid morality that reimposes order: hence, the ascendancy of the religious right.

Just look at the ill-fated nomination of Dr. Henry Foster for Surgeon General. The Republicans said “abortion,” and the discussion was over. The Democrats, had they worked out a moral framework for progressivism, could have responded: “Yes, our abortion rate is a terrible social evil. Here is a man who can help put a moral framework around the chaos of a million and a half abortions a year. He can bring that rate of evil down. And whichever senator among you has ever prevented an unplanned pregnancy—and Dr. Foster has—let him ask the first question.”

Who gets blamed for our abortion rate? The ancient Hebrews had a ritual of sending a “scapegoat” into the desert with the community sins projected upon it. Abortion doctors are our contemporary scapegoats. The prolifers obviously scapegoat them in one way: if prolifers did to women what they do to abortion doctors—harassed and targeted them in their homes and workplaces—public opinion would rapidly turn against them: for the movement would soon find itself harassing the teachers and waitresses, housewives and younger sisters of their own communities. The prolife movement would have to address the often all-too-pressing good reasons that lead good people to abort. That would be intolerable, a tactical defeat for the prolife movement, and as sure to lose it “the mushy middle” as the prochoice movement’s tendency toward rhetorical coldness loses it the same constituency.

But prochoicers, too, scapegoat the doctors and clinic workers. By resisting a moral framework in which to view abortion we who are pro-abortion-rights leave the doctors in the front lines, with blood on their hands: the blood of the repeat abortions—at least 43 percent of the total; the suburban summer country-club rite-of-passage abortions; the “I don’t know what came over me, It was such good Chardonnay” abortions; as well as the blood of the desperate and the unpreventable and accidental and the medically necessary and the violently conceived abortions. This is blood that the doctors and clinic workers often see clearly, and that they heroically rinse and cause to flow and rinse again. And they rake all our sins, the prochoice as well as the prolife among us, upon themselves.

And we who are prochoice compound their isolation by declaring that that blood is not there.

As the world changes and women, however incrementally, become more free and more powerful, the language in which we phrase the goals of feminism must change as well. As a result of the bad old days before the Second Wave of feminism, we tend to understand abortion as a desperately needed exit from near-total male control of our reproductive lives. This scenario posits an unambiguous chain of power and powerlessness in which men control women and women, in order to survive, must have unquestioned control over fetuses. It is this worldview, all too real in its initial conceptualization, that has led to the dread among many prochoice women of departing from a model of woman-equals-human-life, fetus-equals-not-much.

This model of reality may have been necessary in an unrelenting patriarchy. But today, in what should be, as women continue to consolidate political power, a patriarchy crumbling in spite of itself, it can become obsolete.

Now: try to imagine real gender equality. Actually try to imagine an America that is female-dominated. Since a true working democracy in this country would reflect our 54-46 voting advantage.

Now imagine such a democracy, in which women would be valued so very highly as a world that is accepting and responsible about human sexuality; in which there is no coerced sex without serious jailtime: in which there are affordable, safe contraceptives available for the taking in every public health building; in which there is economic parity for women—and basic economic subsistence for every baby born; and in which every young American woman knows about and understands her natural desire as a treasure to cherish, and responsibly, when the time is right, on her own terms, to share.

In such a world, in which the idea of gender as a barrier has become a dusty artifact, we would probably use a very different language about what would be-then-the rare and doubtless traumatic event of abortion. That language would probably call upon respect and responsibility, grief and mourning. In that world we might well describe the unborn and the never-to-be-born with the honest words of life.

And in that world, passionate feminists might well hold candlelight vigils at abortion clinics, standing shoulder to shoulder with the doctors who work there, commemorating and saying goodbye to the dead.