Feminist as Antiabortionist
By Sidney Callahan
Let's get our feminism together. Right now. The feminist cause is being betrayed by the men and women pushing for public acceptance of the principle of abortion on demand. Arguments used in urging routine abortion deny fundamental values guiding the whole women's movement.
On the issue of abortion radical feminists have completely identified with the male aggressor; they spout a straight machismo ideology, with a touch of Adam Smith. The worst of traditional male power plays are being embraced and brandished by those who have suffered from them the most. Every slogan in the pro-abortion arsenal is male-oriented and a sell-out of feminist values. For instance:
(1) "The fetus isn't human and has no right to life." But the feminist movement insists that men cease their age-old habit of withholding human status from women, blacks, Jews, Indians, Asians and any other helpless or different instances of human life. Women encourage rights to life, and value potential life. To deny the fact that human life is always a growing process through time is a failure of imagination and empathy. Out of sight, out of mind, may do for a bombardier's conscience but not for a feminist movement dedicated to ending unilateral suppression of life. Embryonic life is also life, life with a built-in future.
(2) "Any problem pregnancy should be terminated early by a qualified medical professional employing the best technological techniques." Yet the feminist movement has persistently protested impersonal professional technologies which efficiently ignore not only emotions but the real roots of complex human problems. Males have always searched, destroyed, cut, burned and aggressively attacked anything in the way without regard to context, consequences and natural interrelationships. Women have been committed to creative nonviolent alternatives which seek more lasting solutions. Feminist values are highly attuned to conservation and the achievement of social and ecological health. What irony that a society confronted with plastic bags filled with fetal remains, or fetal "wastage," could worry more about the problem of recycling the plastic. So where have all the flowers gone?
(3) "A woman has the right to control her own body." How valiantly the feminist movement has struggled against the male obsession to control. As they find in every prison, to fully control, you kill. The Dostoevski hero comes to mind who extinguished an insignificant life in order to assert his existential freedom to control his destiny. Any view of mere bodies as separate and subordinate to the self smells of an alienation reminiscent of male gnostic anxiety. Men have always tried to detach themselves from the body, viewing female bodies in particular as a form of property. Men are only too happy to separate female "reproductive systems" from the self. More middle-class men favor elective abortion than any other group, not only because it accords with male convenience, male strategies, but also because it suits the male norm of a human body. Full feminine sexuality is a threat; better to have women look at their own bodies as objects which they can manipulate at will and keep under control. Privately, discreetly, efficiently, with no messy demands.
(4) "Males have no right to speak or legislate on the abortion issue, since abortion is solely a matter between a woman and her physician." This argument is used to browbeat men (how to mau-mau the male power structure), but it is contrary to other feminist demands. Women now insist on their right to speak out on war not only because their husbands and sons die, but because it is a human concern. Feminists justly demand equal male-female cooperation, decision-making and mutual responsibility in all areas of social life. In particular, women will no longer bear the sole responsibility for childbearing. They insist (quite rightly) that men and the society at large accept their responsibility for the next generation by providing public day-care, health programs and other measures which will support and help women. Only with abortion does community concern become disallowed. Man are angrily disqualified, although over half the aborted fetuses are male and all fetuses are fathered. Each fetus not only has a direct link to a male, but genetically and physically it is linked to the human species as a whole. Who owns the human species? Or the gene pool? Who owns life? We don't let people in the name of private property pollute their own water, contaminate their own air or shoot their own eagles; so how can aborting potential human life not be a public socio-legal concern.
I propose that a truly feminist approach to abortion would:
(1) Display an advocacy of life no matter how immature, helpless or different it is from white, middle-class, adult males who have heretofore preempted the right to be fully human.
(2) Affirm that full feminine humanity includes distinctly feminine functions. Women need not identify with male sexuality, male aggression and wombless male lifestyles in order to win social equality. Getting into the club is not worth the price of alienation from body-life, emotion, empathy and sensitivity.
(3) Assert that abortion is a two-sex community decision in which the rights and welfare of women, fetuses, children, fathers, families and the rest of the community be considered and arbitrated. The whole society has a responsibility for human life and the next generation. Women and men should urge and support nonviolent creative alternatives to abortion. Facing such a painful problem we cannot give into simpleminded sexist slogans and a property rights ethic. Life is not that easy.
Originally published in National Catholic Reporter
This particular editorial articulates some important feminist concepts that negate the validity of legal abortion as a feminist issue. It both reflects an accurate understanding of the dynamic involved in legalizing abortion, and the fact that early leaders had not yet developed knowledge of the rhetoric.
The idea of women becoming involved in the perpetration of violence against the weak, especially the unborn, certainly is clearly anti-feminist, and Callahan correctly identifies this. However, there is a subtle condemnation of industriousness and prosperity in these words, "they spout a straight machismo ideology, with a touch of Adam Smith." The problem with this condemnation is twofold. First, if we as women are going to rise above our present circumstances and become equal in every way, we of necessity will be industrious. We do not want to set up a situation with a built-in plan of failure for us when we become prosperous, which surely we will do if we are diligent. Common misconceptions, about what is of necessity part of feminism and what is merely one political ideology imposing itself on feminism because most of the vocal adherents in the modern feminist movement reside in that camp, muddy the waters. The growing movement of libertarian feminism is ample illustration of this. A group of women are recognizing the value of personal autonomy as opposed to becoming dependent on a new male chauvinist: the one occupying the halls of Congress, who will use women's plight to garner votes by making many promises that result in the impoverishment of women and families led by women. Increasingly, this is becoming a problem, because of ill-advised government policies.
Beyond that, however, Callahan correctly identifies the male characteristic of aggression as a poor value upon which to rest feminism. What happens when women, who naturally turn inward with anger, begin to seek an outlet by attacking themselves and their children? We have abortion. If a woman's husband yells at her, she usually will not yell back. She yells at the kids or the cat. Now we have a new way to turn the aggression against an innocent bystander, this time fatally. More and more feminists are coming to recognize that abortion is aggression against the woman herself, even if they do not accept the full humanity of her child. So why do some women feel abortion is empowering? That remains somewhat of a mystery, but it seems to me that it is because women realize they have attacked the core of their being, and this is a defense mechanism which is used to run away from the truth. The existential freedom of which Callahan speaks has worked itself out in more recent times in the form of women teaching each other how to do abortions on each other, and on themselves, and it is rumored that there are even abortion parties where women come to perform abortions on each other and celebrate. The idea that we needed to make abortion legal so that it would be safe and women would no longer have to do abortions on themselves seems to have escaped these women. We truly are a puzzle!
Callahan speaks of the bombardier who does not see his victims face to face. Already in the early 1970's, she recognizes that women cannot so easily hide from reality. By this time, the unborn child is no longer a mystery hidden in a dark womb. Technology has opened new windows, and this fact alone has resulted in a great awakening to what is really going on, in the minds of many people. We can no longer kid ourselves that this is some shapeless mass of tissue. This beautiful little being is one of the youngest members of the human race, superbly functioning and formally wonderful.
Another great mystery is just how it is that a woman can lose control of her body by becoming pregnant in the first place, and then have an abortion where she turns control of her body over to a technocrat who will rape her with cold surgical instruments of death, and call that controlling her own body! The fact that many women are returning to their roots in the earth, to a closer affinity for their bodies, and to more natural ways of healing, makes this all the more mysterious.
The problem, of speaking accurately of the balance between decrying the men who use women as sexual playthings, yet praising and supporting the men who refuse to kowtow to abortionist demands that they butt out of the political debate, and stand up for justice on a matter of principle, remains. Callahan emphasizes the playboy types who view abortion as letting them off the hook so they can continue to play with women's bodies. But we must not forget the men who rise above all this and in the name of humanity support the latest victims of prejudice, this time in its deadliest form. Rather than condemning all men by implication, we need to recognize the existence of these ethically superior men, and encourage them to speak out. True feminism has always encouraged people to speak out against injustice to others, and in support of others, to their basic inalienable rights. True feminism has always allowed both women and men of good will to speak out on behalf of all victims. We need to recognize the men who speak out boldly, even as we condemn those who use women. And we need to encourage ethical men to condemn those men who see women as subhuman and act accordingly, so that these playboys no longer have the tacit support of other men for their escapades.
Callahan's portrayal of the abortion issue as a two-sex community decision also begs the question of the fact that that the right to life is an inalienable right. In seeking to include men in the decisionmaking, she ignores the fact that the decision ought never to be made. This, unfortunately, also undermines the very basis of feminism.
Finally, Callahan fails to see that the use of the term "fetus" with the pronoun "it" is itself dehumanizing. Better we should use the pronoun "she" to emphasize that half the abortions (more in some countries with sex-selection abortion) kill our unborn sisters. The term "fetus," while a medically accurate term, has been turned into a niggarizing term by rhetoricians who want to maintain the special privilege to kill. The irony is that the term "fetus" literally means "young one" for those of us in the know, which demonstrates the ignorance of these rhetoricians in an almost laughable way. But using terms that aid and abet the aggressors is no laughing matter. We must instruct each other kindly always to humanize the child in our speech, by using the term "child," which is also medically accurate, and always with either a female or male pronoun.
Callahan was prophetic in her words. With the advantage of hindsight, we can see this, even as we can bring her rhetoric and ideas into the twenty-first century.
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