Feminism and Abortion

“One cannot be anti-choice and be feminist,” says bell hooks in her book Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics.

Wait, I thought it said feminism was for everybody. Apparently it is not for me.

In high school I drew the majority of my knowledge of feminism from the pro-life movement. To me, feminism was all about women demanding the right to abort their children easily and cheaply for any reason in the name of sexual liberation. Since I don’t believe that anyone should have the right to abort their children, I naturally considered myself not a feminist.

But in college I met Christian women who share my moral values and are still very strong feminists- especially my roommates past and present, who I love dearly- and so it became necessary to rethink my framing of feminism. This led me to sign up for a Sociology class I’m now taking entitled The Female Experience. We study the historical background of feminism as well as different types of feminism, the issues they deal with, and various ideas about how to best advance the equality of women. I’m a fan of equality for women. I think we should be able to be equal to men without having to struggle against them. Maybe I can be a feminist after all.

Enter bell hooks. She makes it very clear that by anti-choice she is referring to opposing abortion. I’m not anti-choice. I’m anti-abortion. To me, the woman’s right to choose comes before she is pregnant, not after she’s already conceived a child. Apparently this is not allowed if I care about women at all. hooks grants permission to personally choose never to have an abortion, but demands that we must support other women’s choice to do so. Women need to be as sexually liberated as men are. We need to be able to have as much sex as we want in any way at any time with anyone without consequences. Apparently, it is the fault of sexist white supremacist male patriarchy that women have the consequence of unplanned pregnancy, while men do not. So she says of course women are going to have unplanned pregnancies, and naturally, abortions no matter what. We must make it safe for them. We must make it affordable and comfortable. If I think otherwise, I am clearly an evil ultra-conservative close-minded woman-hating anti-feminist.

This blows my mind. To me, abortion is not a women’s rights issue. It is a moral issue. It is a human issue. Before you go telling me to keep my morality to myself and to keep my rosaries off your ovaries (I’ve heard it all before, and as an aside, am not Catholic), ask yourself what law exists independent of morality. Laws are by nature moral. The reason we have laws is because as thinking human beings with a conscience, we have agreed that some things are wrong.

A law by definition restricts your rights. You do not have the right to steal someone else’s car. You do not have the right to indecently expose yourself in public. You do not have the right to shoot someone. Why, in the land of the free, do we allow these restrictions of our rights? Because we live in a society with other people, we choose to restrict certain rights when the exercise of those rights would impose on the rights of someone else. You don’t have a right to steal because stealing imposes on someone else’s right to own property. You don’t have a right to indecently expose yourself in public because it imposes on someone else’s right to not have to look at you naked. You don’t have the right to shoot someone because it imposes on that person’s right to life.

And that brings us to the right to life. Along with liberty and pursuit of happiness, it is listed as an inalienable right of humanity in America’s Declaration of Independence.  How could I care about the rights of women while saying that they should not have the right to abortion? Because a woman’s right to abortion imposes on her baby’s right to life.

If I really want to be a feminist, by bell hook’s logic, shouldn’t I also support the right of a single mother to kill her five-year-old son if paying for his food is preventing her from having the resources to get ahead in life? Don’t I care about the plight of women who can’t afford their children? Shouldn’t a young mother without access to daycare be allowed to leave her six-month-old in a dumpster or an alleyway, if taking care of him is preventing her from going to school? Is this the only way women will ever have a chance to advance in the world? How do we determine when the right of a mother to live her life the way she pleases supersedes the right of her child to live?

Hooks says, “Many of us were  the unplanned children of talented, creative women whose lives had been changed by unplanned and unwanted pregnancies; we witnessed their bitterness, their rage, their disappointment with their lot in life. And we were clear that there could be no genuine sexual liberation for women and men without better, safer contraceptives– without the right to a safe, legal abortion.” (ch. 5, p. 26)

So is she saying she should have been aborted? Does she think it would have been better if her mother could have killed her and gotten on with her life? This argument perplexes me. Does she know what she’s saying? Maybe bell hooks doesn’t think she had the right to live because she messed things up for her mother, but I think that she did and does have a right to live.  Don’t we all?

Next argument– you can be personally against abortion, but don’t force your view on others. Our society must learn that relativism is not logical or realistic. Relativism says the for me, it may be wrong to kill, but for you it might be OK. It’s all in how you look at it. A matter of personal preference. I don’t have the right to stop you. In that case, we should support anarchy. If we are not going to impose our morals on others, then there should be no laws and no government. Every woman, man and child for themselves. Don’t tell me I can’t mug you at knifepoint. It may be wrong for you, but it’s so right for me. I need what you have, and this is how I will get it. Show some compassion. After all, it’s my right to choose.

So the abortion question always boils down to this: when does life begin? Does abortion take a life? Science and technology long ago refuted the myth that abortion simply removes a blob of tissue. As technology progresses, the stage of viability for children born premature gets ever earlier. Is human life something that we can arbitrarily assign or deny?

There are laws in place that indicate life is defined by whether or not the baby is wanted by the mother. If you beat a pregnant woman and cause a miscarriage, you can be tried for murder. If you kill a pregnant woman, causing her baby to die also, you can be charged with a double homicide. But if that same woman aborted her baby that day, she would simply have been making a choice about how to live her life.

It’s a terrifying world when we have assumed the power to affirm or deny someone else’s personhood. In our society, we think of our children like chattel- mere property- just like women and slaves were once viewed. Their value is not intrinsic, it is assessed by what value they are to their “owners.” Abortion isn’t progress. Abortion is a glaring example of the depraved, self-centered things humanity has historically allowed in order to make our lives better at the expense of others.

I have not even addressed how abortion hurts women.

It disturbs me that hooks made no mention of the fact that often fathers, boyfriends, and husbands who don’t want to deal with a child coerce women into abortions that they may not want. Even legal abortions often have long-lasting negative physical and emotional effects on women that everyone blatantly ignores. Abortion increases the risk of breast cancer and infertility, but these facts are suppressed by a male-dominated abortion industry that is making a fortune off exploiting women in crisis situations. Where is the choice then?

Instead of demanding more access to abortions, feminists should demand more support for pregnant women. Demand mandatory reasonable maternity leaves. Establish affordable day care options on site in the workplace and on high school and college campuses. Require men to pay child support that will actually compensate for the expenses. Work to establish a mindset where men take initiative and responsibility to put time into helping raise the child, or even raising the child exclusive of the mother in some cases.

To me, these solutions are much more pro-woman than the rigid pro-abortion rhetoric that only offers one choice to pregnant women. I don’t expect everyone to have my view, but I would hope that my opinion would be heard and considered in an ongoing conversation about ways to advance feminism, rather than completely stifled and rejected outright, as in Feminism is for Everybody.

About Nicole

Daughter of God, wife, mother, volunteer youth leader, substitute teacher, aspiring writer, rabbit owner, nature lover. These are some of my titles.
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13 Responses to Feminism and Abortion

  1. David says:

    Excellent post!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think you are being a little melodramatic. Clearly you’re an idealist and not a pragmatist. I understand you don’t like abortion and you equate abortion with murder, but Hooks obviously doesn’t feel the same way. And how has science proven that an embryo is more than tissue? You don’t substantiate that claim.

    A women choosing an abortion is much different than a mugger assaulting her and killing the baby. The family didn’t choose to have a mugger kill their embryo. Being in control lessens the emotional impact.

    Relativism is not a personal preference. It’s situational ethics and it has nothing to do with law because it can’t be universally applied. God’s divine judgment is relative because since he has infinite wisdom he can assess everything that causes an action in order to judge its goodness.

    When someone argues for relativism in regards to abortion they’re simply saying that a family has a better understanding of what is right for a pregnant women than the government. There are many people who’d like to limit government intervention to only extreme situations and those same people don’t feel that abortion is such an aggregious wrong to merit intervention even if they are personally against it.

    That all said I agree there should be more emphasis on preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place, but that means contraceptives and the likes and that’s a whole nother debate.

    I don’t like the idea of women having sex drives like men. It’s confusing to me. I know there are men who can have no strings attached sex and then suddenly the right girl comes along and they want a relationship. What I don’t understand is how women trust that guy is going to make a good boyfriend. I guess women can trust men with a promiscuous history, but I don’t think men can trust women with that same history. If girls go slutting around they really are going to lose the respect of the most desirable men.

    Beyond that if women don’t push for emotional closeness it won’t happen. Men feel more comfortable advancing physically and letting the women advance emotionally. If a guy likes a girl he will let her, but she needs to be the pursuer. I think feminist don’t realize that men and women acting exactly the same upsets the natural balance.

  3. Nicole says:

    “And how has science proven that an embryo is more than tissue? You don’t substantiate that claim.”

    I was referring to the antiquated argument for abortion based on a lack of knowledge of prenatal development. The term “lump of tissue” implies that the fetus is formless and couldn’t possibly considered human.

    Science enables us to watch exactly how the baby develops.

    We know that from fertilization the embryo has its own distinct genetic code, meaning it’s obviously not just a part of the mother’s body.
    The heart starts beating only 3 weeks after fertilization.
    After 6 weeks you can measure the brain waves. The baby moves reflexively and has functioning kidneys and stomach. All of the organs are there after 8 weeks.
    After 9 weeks the baby is sucking its thumb.
    Fingernails, toenails, and unique fingerprints come at 10 weeks.

    Those are just a few of the details that I think clearly demonstrate we’re watching a living human grow and develop. You could argue that it’s just a lump of tissues just as you could argue that I’m only a lump of tissues. Perhaps true on some level, though not the kindest or most accurate way to describe a person.

    “Being in control lessens the emotional impact.”

    Does this mean you agree that we have to right to determine personhood based on the value to other people rather than based on intrinsic value? As long as the mom doesn’t feel sad that her baby is dead, no one else should care, either?

    “I agree there should be more emphasis on preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place, but that means contraceptives and the likes and that’s a whole nother debate.”

    When it comes to contraceptives I agree with the notion that personal morals should not be dictated by the government. Of course women should have access to contraceptives, even if I don’t agree with their use (which I am undecided on, by the way). My only argument there would be against pills that induce abortion. But certainly a big part of solving the problem of abortion is preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Contraceptives are one way, though not the only way. I also think that we need to provide more assistance and care, especially for women who are single and/or poor, but really just for all mothers. Then maybe pregnancy wouldn’t seem like such a burden, and some that might have been unwanted under different circumstances won’t seem so bad after all.

    Maybe on one level I am an idealist as you claim. But the changes that I’m arguing for are all possible and reasonably practical.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I feel like this conversation has been done before. I understand you feel functioning organs makes a fetus human. I think it’s a little bit more philosophic than that. Other animals have those same functions and we don’t feel bad killing them. I don’t necessarily think of a fetus as human. I know that sounds really cold. I waver on this a lot. It’s a difficult thing, but I think I’d rather leave the decision up to individual families rather than making it universally illegal. Also, the pragmatist in me worries about the repercussions of such an action. Foreign nations with no abortion have a lot of health problems. There’s a good chance we’d see repercussions similar to prohibition where the illegalization doesn’t stymy the practice. It simply weakens regulation.

    I am completely in favor of more access to contraceptives. We might be able to subvert this entire conversation if that were the case.

    Also, you’re definitely an idealist, but that’s not such a bad thing.

  5. Nicole says:

    Your animal argument doesn’t make any sense. If we didn’t kill the animal, there is no possibility that it would then grow up to be a human. The organs and functions prove that the fetus is alive and a separate entity from the mother.

    You’re now saying that the fetus is alive but not human? What makes someone human? It has human DNA. If allowed to live, there is no chance it will develop into a chicken or a pig. If it is alive and it will grow up to be a human, why is it not a human yet? Because it is inconvenient for the mother to accept that her child is a human.

    We’ve always justified human rights abuses by denying the humanity of the abused. We did it with slaves, we did it with women, and now we do it with children. It is convenient to have slaves because you can get so much work done that way. It is convenient to prevent women from voting or working because then the men don’t have as much competition. It is convenient to abort our children because we want to have irresponsible sex without consequences. At least slaves and women had the chance to protest on their own behalf. Unborn babies will never get that opportunity, so other people have to stand up for them.

    Do these foreign countries have health problems because they don’t have abortion, or do they have health problems because of inadequate health care, unclean conditions and other problems that will not befall the US if we outlaw abortion?

    A lot of people worry about how many women would die from illegal abortions if we outlawed it.

    First of all, since I believe that abortion is killing a person, I don’t particularly think we should be worried about making it safer. This would be like legislation to make it safer to rob a bank…if it’s wrong in the first place you shouldn’t be doing it and shouldn’t expect to be protected while doing it.

    Next, studies show that most illegal abortions (there are still cases and places where it is illegal) are performed by licensed physicians. The wire coat-hanger claims are inflated and antiquated. So most illegal abortions probably wouldn’t be more dangerous than legal ones are– women die in America from legal abortions every year.

    Finally, way fewer women would have abortions if they were illegal. It’s not like everyone who’s getting legal abortions would seek to have one if it were illegal. With the case of prohibition, people were used to having alcohol on a regular basis when suddenly it was taken away. I don’t think it’s the same thing, unless most women are accustomed to getting pregnant and having abortions on a regular basis.

    This website explains the ideas I’ve just outlined in much more detail and with stats and quotes. Yes, it is very biased, but I think it presents reasonable arguments with logic to back them.


  6. 1dawhy says:

    I guess the first is to say that if there is one topic that will always receive a response it will be feminism and abortion and the arguments generated from pro-choice and pro-life sides of the debate.  I think at times it is necessary to differentiate between pro-life and pro-choice in this way because there are those who claim to be pro-life and feminist which is evident in this article.  In fact some who say they are pro-life claim to have womens’ best interests at heart.  These people also suggest it is feminism that is more harmful and detrimental to women.  This scenario shows how feminism has so many different meanings and many interpretations but it appears, as with most antifeminism, there is a rudimentry understanding of feminism.

    I find the opening line about drawing most knowledge about feminism from the pro-life movement very interesting considering the article continues in this manner.  The article seems to imply that this may have changed with further consideration of other points of view.  However upon reading the article and the line that ‘feminism was all about women demanding their right to abort’ would indicate that other points are view have been looked at but simply discarded.  This is not surprising.  This line also fails to consider that feminism was interested in so many more things besides giving women choice over abortion. What many antifeminists don’t look at is the broader reason of how feminism came to see the right to abortion as integral to a woman having total control of her body.  Historically, women have not had total control.  Often women did experience unwanted pregnancies, sometimes unwanted sex but because a common belief  was that it their duty or  men should have sex whenever men wanted, unwanted sex and pregnancy were simply tolerated.

    Feminism instead said that women should not have to tolerate unwanted sex or unwanted pregnancies.  As a result, a whole new way of thinking emerged that saw women ‘reclaim’ their bodies and view them in a different light.  Sexual liberation as written in the above article implies that it was all about being able to have sex whenever and wherever a woman likes.  This is not entirely true.  Yes it was about being able to have sex and for this to be enjoyable for women, but it was also about being able to say no and for this to respected without being seen as ‘frigid’.  Sexual liberation was also about creating new understandings of women’s bodies.  Within medical and scientific theories  women’s bodies were seen as faulty, hysterical and uncontrollable.  Feminism attempted to change these ideas and show that women’s bodies were not faulty and uncontrollable.

    The issue of morality is very interesting.  Like many antifeminists, morality is associated with abortion.  It is often seen to be something higher than humanity, something that guides us without our interference. This point of view is questionable as morality is often taken for granted.  But what is moral in our society changes.  What is moral in our culture is immoral in another. We also have to consider different historical periods because when we do we realise that morality is something very much influenced by people and therefore forever changing. 

  7. Nicole says:

    It is my opinion that you can be pro-life and feminist. I’m not an anti-feminist, I just take aversion to this one view offered up by some people, but I don’t believe it necessarily reflects the views of all feminists. Of course important aspects of sexual liberation were understanding women’s bodies better and freeing women from unwanted sex. I am not against those things at all.

  8. David says:

    Maybe I can jump in here…what makes a human human is a soul.

    Nicole is right that outlawing it would inhibit the number of abortions. Drastically. It might even cause people to think before they have sex.

    More important, though, is to change hearts. Show what sanctity of marriage is all about. Show that sex is an integral part of marriage, but should not be used outside of marriage.

    Most women who are shown the human-ness of their baby through ultrasound choose not to have an abortion. So I think it’s a good idea to show women this, show them all the alternatives, then let them make their choice. To not show all the possibilities is to give a death penalty to the life within her.

  9. Jon says:

    Here’s a tardy but relevant article by Richard Stith, law professor at Valparaiso University.


  10. Nicole says:

    Some telling quotes from the article Jon shared above:

    “One investigator, Vincent M. Rue, reported in the Medical Science Monitor, that 64 percent of American women who abort feel pressed to do so by others. Another, Frederica Mathewes-Green in her book Real Choices, discovered that American women almost always abort to satisfy the desires of people who do not want to care for their children.”

    “To the degree that a culture is built on machismo, for example, the legalization of abortion will make women relatively worse off by giving men another tool to manipulate women as sex objects. Again, to the degree that an economy employs mainly men, leaving women dependent on economic handouts, women will be much less likely to resist male pressures to make use of abortion. Wherever men make women’s decisions for them, the option of abortion will be a man’s choice, regardless of how the law may label it.”

    “Since only the mother has the right to decide whether to let the child be born, the father may easily conclude that she bears sole responsibility for caring for the child. The baby is her fault. ”

    “Employers may likewise react negatively to maternal needs where abortion has been available. If they (or the state) pay for abortions, they may feel less obligated to shape labor practices to the needs of mothers.”

    The bottom line? Abortion hurts women and undermines the feminist movement.

  11. Pingback: Abortion and antifeminism « Understanding Anti-feminism

  12. Jon says:

    I just read the following article this morning. It doesn’t deal directly with abortion, but it still reminded me of your discussion here from last month.


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