Does Legalized Abortion Make Women More Free?

I receive weekly emails from an organization called Consistent Life, which opposes all threats to life from war, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment, and euthanasia. Each email always includes a relevant “quote of the week.” This week’s came from David Gushee’s reflection on the recent Princeton abortion conference, hosted in part by my friend Charlie Camosy as part of his overall “magenta” campaign. Gushee notes,

“I claimed that abortion places on women the burdens of the sexual revolution’s ‘liberation.’ But as a man I totally and viscerally understand that the availability of abortion and the leverage a man has to demand it of ‘his’ lover enables us to exploit our access to women’s bodies without having to pay the ultimate price if it results in an unwanted pregnancy. The pro-choice side can talk about women’s moral agency all day long, but moral decision making happens in contexts of power. To the extent that a man has power or leverage in a relationship with a woman, he can affect or sometimes even direct her decision to have an abortion.”

Inspired by the quote and the source (Consistent Life is a nice antidote to those who claim that “pro-life” people stop caring about life after birth), I decided to post the quote on Facebook. A firestorm of comments ensued (up to 37 now), which for the most part, I have not responded to. In order to provide a more thoughtful response than Facebook will allow, this blog post will attempt to give a response (names changed to protect the innocent).

The reason I liked Gushee’s original quote is that it lines up very well with my own experience. I teach in an urban community college. In my ethics class, which I have taught about eight times now, I ask my students on the first day of class to write about an ethical dilemma they have faced, and how they went about resolving that dilemma. My students, who are over 90% women, overwhelmingly write about abortion. What is interesting is that they also tend to focus on the different social forces that were at work in their decision.

Most recently, a student approached me (after I chided for texting in class) and apologized, telling me that her best friend was pregnant and her father had threatened her with physical violence if she refused an abortion (which she did not want to have). The girl was financially dependent on the father, with no job of her own, and no support from the father of the child. “What am I supposed to do for my friend?” my student asked.

Another student wrote that she lived with her boyfriend who threatened to kick her out of his house if she did not get an abortion. My student wrote about choosing to get the abortion because she had no place else to go, and could not imagine life without her boyfriend. While she regrets the abortion, she does not, in retrospect, feel that she had any other choice.

Another student wrote about a similar situation, but rather than getting an abortion, she chose not to. The relationship ended, and she struggles now to get the father to provide any financial support for her child while she tries to get through nursing school in order to get a stable job and become financially independent. She lives with her parents now and does not regret her decision.

There are a dozen more anecdotes that I could share, similar to these. Gushee’s point is that it is fallacious to call these women “liberated.” They have suffered, and the men who share the responsibility of their pregnancies have not. In a sense, it is true that these women at least have more options available post-Roe, even if those options are not ideal. But from a Thomistic perspective, more “options” does not necessarily equate with more “freedom.”

I have distinguished between the “freedom for indifference” and the “freedom for excellence” on other blog posts, but briefly, Thomistic theologian Servais Pinckaers emphasized in drawing this distinction that “freedom” is something far richer than simply “options.” True freedom is the power to choose wisely as a matter of habit those actions conducive to ultimate happiness (eudaimonia). Freedom of indifference reduces the concept of “freedom” to the ability to choose between alternatives, regardless of whether the alternatives are good or conducive to ultimate flourishing.

From this perspective, we can say that Roe made another “choice” available to women, but it did not make them any freer or any happier. In a recent study comparing post-abortion reactions of Russian and American women, researchers found that

29.4% of women received counseling beforehand and only 17.5% were counseled on alternatives
51.9% of women felt they needed more time to make a decision
64% of women felt pressured by others
50.7% of women felt abortion was morally wrong

Only 0.9% of women claimed that their relationship with their partner improved, 26.7% cited relationship problems, and 19.8% reported their relationship with their partner ended.
3.7% claimed to feel more in control of their lives.
53.9% of women reported feeling badly
36.4% reported thoughts of suicide
77.9% felt guilt

Supporters of Roe will often admit that abortion is not a “good” choice, as does this anonymous Roe supporter from the aforementioned Facebook conversation:

Anonymous G: “Suffice to say that NO WOMAN WANTS AN ABORTION, something is “forcing” her to make such a choice. Each woman’s story is “anecdotal”, because every situation is different, so we cannot discount anecdotal evidence. . . In the ideal world of every abortion provider, there is no abortion – and women are 1) educated enough about reproduction and contraception, and has access to contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, or 2) has the financial and emotional support to care for a child conceived in an unintended pregnancy. [T]he more concerning exertion of power over women would be to take away any possibility of choosing. More anecdotes, but ones that I’ve heard from honestly every gynecologist of a certain age who practiced before Roe, is that at any given time, there was at least one woman on the gyn units admitted for complications of back alley abortions, ranging from simple infection, to sepsis and death.

If women pre- and post-Roe are often pressured or coerced into getting abortions (as even Alan Guttmacher, the research agency of Planned Parenthood admits), and if abortion is not a good and desirable-in-itself option, then it seems odd that the solution would be the legalization of abortion.

According to a Thomistic concept of freedom as laid out by Pinckaers, the law is there to direct agents towards those things that will ultimately lead to their flourishing. The law is “coercive” in a way because it ultimately directs people to do certain things and avoid doing certain things that may not be consistent with their immediate desires. For example, the law “coerces” me to pay taxes, even if I do not really want to, because paying taxes leads to the sort of things (roads, public schools, libraries) that I really do want and really do ultimately make me happy.

This Thomistic attitude towards freedom and the implications for the abortion debate was expressed aptly on my FB wall by another Thomist:

Anonymous G: “It really is not that simple (more restrictions = less options). Yes, there is a certain truth to it. But there is another dynamic at work. Now that women are free to choose abortion, everyone from boyfriends to parents to taxpayers are increasingly free to see children as “her choice, her problem.” In the days before Roe (yes, many bad stories could be told), there were some pretty incredible networks of support that a woman in an unintended pregnancy could rely on. Funny, that was a world where more restrictions on women meant (oh, look!) MORE options for women who wanted to find a way to bring their children to term and/or keep them. Legalizing abortion added one option, and took away many.

As such, the appropriate legal reaction to the imbalanced power dynamics between women and men pre-Roe should not have been making another bad option available to women. Rather, it should have been stronger coercive measures that lead to the overall health and flourishing of women and men. Such measures might include stronger penalties for domestic abuse and back-alley abortion providers, increased availability of pregnancy resources like financial support, housing, counseling, education, and health care, easier access to adoption agencies and childcare, and better maternity leave options in both schools and colleges and the workplace.

Feminists for Life is a group focusing on exactly these issues. FFL works to provide real opportunities to college students, for example, who find themselves pregnant and want to both keep their baby and finish school (things like providing on-campus housing and healthcare for students and their babies, desks that can accommodate the bulging bellies of pregnant students, and on-site daycare). The FFL website effectively illustrates how its mission relies on a better concept of “freedom” and “choice than the pro-Roe crowd:

Most women do not want to have an abortion. Most women do not want to leave school. Pregnant and parenting students want, and deserve, other viable choices. Feminists for Life’s College Outreach Program is all about choices – the choices women truly want.

Still, Planned Parenthood refers to FFL’s College Outreach Program as “anti-choice:”

FFL’s College Outreach Program is “the newest and most challenging concept in anti-choice campus organizing” and “could have a profound impact” on college campuses “as well as Planned Parenthood’s public education and advocacy efforts.”

This brings us back to David Gushee’s original quote, in which he places “liberation” in quotes. The idea that I think he is appealing to is that Roe is necessary in a society where sex is normative and women and men are, at least on the surface, relatively equal. Pre-Roe, men could have sex with women, get them pregnant, and not suffer any financial, legal, or emotional consequences. The expectation with Roe was that women would now be able to do the same—have sex, get pregnant, but not suffer any financial, legal, or emotional consequences. This has not happened. The burden of both a pregnancy and an abortion still falls on women. Women are still suffering. And those gendered power dynamics have not really improved.

What about back-alley abortions? Well, according NOW (a pro-Roe organization), “during the 1950s and 60s, each year an estimated 160 to 260 women died from illegal abortions, while thousands more were seriously injured.” I am not denying that such deaths and injuries are not a tragedy (they are), but arguably, woman are suffering just as much as a whole post-Roe in light of all the other negative consequences associated with abortion (and a whole lot more abortions to boot—an average of 1.2 million a year now).

And rape and incest? According to a study cited by the NYTimes (by no means a “pro-life” establishment), just 1% of all abortions are due to rape or incest. Again, these are tragedies, but legalizing abortion is in no way a sufficient response to a woman who is pregnant because sex was forced on her against her will. In light of these tragedies, would it not be better to take economic and political steps to foster the true freedom of these and other women who have been victimized? Greater access to counseling and adoption resources, for example, so that women who are already victims do not also have to become victims of their own guilt? Giving a woman the opportunity to get an abortion after she was raped does not make the rape go away, but it may make it easier for a woman to hide the fact that she was raped or abused by a family member. The recent Planned Parenthood fiasco in which a woman was taped giving abortion advice to a man posing as a sex abuser just goes to illustrate this.

Now, I am not denying that Planned Parenthood and Roe supporters, both male and female, will still argue that the best way to empower women is to legalize abortion (my lengthy FB wall is a testimony to that). I am not arguing (and I do not think Gushee is either) that some women do benefit from easy and legal access to abortion. His point is that simply giving women another choice (and a bad one, at that, as so many pro-Roe people admit) in no way fixes the underlying root causes that women seek out abortion in the first place, and may even do more to exacerbate those root causes than to fix them. We can do better than abortion.


2 comments so far

  1. nohiddenmagenta on


  2. […] Does Legalized Abortion Make Women More Free? at Everyday […]

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