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Abortion by Daphne de Marneffe

page two

Desire and Selfhood

There is a stark, almost shocking difference between how one feels when one wants to be pregnant and how one feels when one doesn’t. The same physiological event can be experienced as a blessing or a catastrophe, as being in harmony with one’s body or as being mugged by it. Women’s lives are often described as contextual, but this may be the most contextual aspect of all, “the mother of all contexts.” The extremes of women’s responses in the face of pregnancy, and every ambiguous point in between, puts us face-to-face with how central the issue of wanting is to the abortion dilemma.

We have difficulty knowing how to weigh the mother’s desire for a child; by its very nature, it seems too capricious, too emotional, and too devoid of principle. And perhaps because this desire is so hard to evaluate, its complexity is flattened both by abortion’s opponents and proponents. On the right, the mother’s desire is too often dismissed as a selfish concern with “convenience,” a touchy-feely, morally insignificant wisp in comparison with the sober matter of fetal life. On the left, it seems desire had best not be inquired after too energetically, for fear that women’s ambivalence about their abortions might be used to discredit their decisions and undermine the legitimacy of their right to decide.

In fact, a woman’s desire is absolutely central to the morality of abortion, even though the ways we have tended to talk about it have not always helped us to understand why. In the wrong hands, sometimes in women’s own, the notion of “wanting” has been facilely assimilated into the “we are empowered and can do whatever we want” school of moral nihilism. But desire is actually more complex than our more casual notions of feeling or preference imply. It is not simply about feelings, however complicated or conflictual; it is also about intentions, the coordinated movement of feeling, thought, and action toward a self-chosen purpose. The critic Adam Gopnik aptly described desire as a “thought-through feeling.” The freedom and responsibility to choose the intentions most important to us are central features of what we believe it means to be a person. A woman’s desire with respect to something so consuming and momentous as carrying a pregnancy to term involves just these sorts of intentions.

In Fruitful, a memoir of her life as a mother and a feminist, the writer Anne Roiphe reflected on the folly of trying to ground the ethics of abortion in when life begins, as she and her friends had tried to do in the days before Roe v. Wade. “We should have drawn the line on whether the fetus was or was not wanted and shaped the debate on that issue,” she wrote, “instead of getting mired in metaphysics or theology about the beginning of life.” Roiphe speaks of whether the mother wants the fetus; but she is actually implying something much broader about the fact that the potential mother is the person in the best position to assess her desires and make judgments about them. Whether a child is “wanted” functions as a shorthand to convey two related but distinct meanings: a woman’s feelings concerning having the baby and her prerogative to evaluate her own feelings and come to her own decision.

A woman’s feelings about an unintentional pregnancy are almost always mixed. Even when she is deeply chagrined to be pregnant, she may feel remorse about having an abortion. She may imagine pleasure at mothering a child but see no practical way to support it. She may have no interest in caring for a child but feel swayed by her family’s wishes for her to keep it. She may ultimately hope for a child with her partner but feel that to have a child now would threaten the viability of their relationship. She may ambivalently decide to continue the pregnancy and one day find herself very happy about it. When a woman considers her feelings, whatever they are, she also likely considers them in light of her values. It is almost impossible to have feelings about abortion without those feelings becoming interwoven with ethical concern.

Yet whatever a woman feels about an abortion — whether she feels bereft, suicidal, liberated, that she will go to Hell, or all of the above, whether she has an abortion half awake, half asleep, or completely confused about what she wants — her entitlement to make her own decision does not derive from the content of her feelings. It derives from her own ultimate authority to weigh her own competing desires, intentions, and values and to undertake her own course of action.

In this sense, decisions about continuing a pregnancy confront us with the connection, in its most naked form, between a woman’s very claim to personhood and her reproductive freedom. The reality of pregnancy is that having a baby one does not inwardly consent to is a traumatic offense to one’s integrity as a person; having a baby that one desires is an ultimate fulfillment of oneself as a person. Not being able to have a baby when one wants to is experienced as a great injury to the self. Ending a pregnancy that would have shortchanged one’s other commitments is experienced as a wrenching but necessary act of self-preservation. Each instance bears out just how deeply our reproductive fate is enmeshed with our very selves. Whether abortion is legal or illegal, safe or dangerous, women will always have abortions, not only because practical limitations or social stigma urge it, but also because there are situations where to have a baby represents a compromise of herself or her values that a woman will take great risks to avoid.

The trivialization of this connection between a woman’s integrity and her procreative choice has at times found expression in legal arguments against women’s reproductive self-determination. In her article “Are Mothers Persons?” (note the pointed reversal of the more usual question, “Are fetuses persons?”), the philosopher Susan Bordo demonstrates the stunning desecration of women’s personhood right under our noses in the realm of reproductive law. The principle of a person’s right to physical inviolability has been strenuously protected in cases concerning such issues as whether someone can be legally compelled to donate bone marrow to a dying relative. The import of this protection is not simply physical; it constitutes, Bordo writes, “a protection of the subjectivity of the person involved — that is, it is an acknowledgment that the body can never be regarded merely as a site of quantifiable processes that can be assessed objectively, but must be treated as invested with personal meaning, history, and value that are ultimately determinable only by the subject who lives ‘within’ it.” When this “meaning-bestowing function is in danger of being taken away,” the law tends to interpret “the situation as a violent invasion of the personal space of the body.”

But look what happens, Bordo says, when the body in question is a woman’s pregnant or reproductive body. The right to physical integrity and the protection of subjectivity gives way to the abrogation of a woman’s will for the sake of saving an unborn child’s life. Courts do not order people to make personal sacrifices on the order of a transplant or marrow donation, even to save their own child’s life; for, despite the fact that a child’s life hangs in the balance—a full-fledged person’s life—the potential donor’s claim to inviolable subjectivity overrides the potential recipient’s need for life-giving support. In contrast, where a woman’s specifically reproductive decision making is concerned, courts have ordered caesarean sections, intrauterine transfusions, and the delivery of babies of terminally ill women against their will. Here we see in sharpest relief a particular bias directed not simply against women but specifically against women’s autonomy in pregnancy decisions.

If a woman happens to be poor, pregnant, and of non-European descent, she “comes as close as a human being can get to being regarded, medically and legally, as ‘mere body,’ her wishes, desires, dreams, religious scruples of little consequence and easily ignored in the interests of fetal well-being.” Bordo cites a 1987 study that found that 81 percent of court-ordered obstetrical interventions involved African-American, Asian, or Hispanic women. In the case of Ayesha Madyun, a woman who resisted a caesarean on religious grounds, the judge ruled that “for him not to issue a court order forcing her to have the operation would be to ‘indulge’ Madyun’s ‘desires’ at the expense of the safety of her fetus.” This sort of dismissal of religious beliefs by the judicial system is, as the legal scholar Stephen Carter has argued, part of a more general cultural tendency to treat religious convictions as optional and expendable. But even beyond that, such legal opinions essentially deprive the pregnant woman of the right to informed consent, paternalistically declaring how she should interpret the meaning and value of a given procedure. By so doing, they preempt the very act that forms the core of her entitlement to informed consent: that is, her own subjective determination of what a given intervention means to her.

Bordo helps us appreciate that coercion in reproductive decisions undermines not simply what individual women want but also their entitlement to subjectivity itself. In the polemics of abortion, the pro-life side objects to a woman sacrificing an actual human life merely for the sake of her own “convenience” (that is, reproductive control), whereas the pro-choice side argues that a pregnancy can be terminated with little impact on a woman’s autonomous self. The fact is, a woman’s personhood cannot be disentangled from her reproductive life so cleanly. “The nature of pregnancy is such,” Bordo correctly observes, “that to deprive the woman of control over her reproductive life . . . is necessarily also to mount an assault on her personal integrity and autonomy (the essence of personhood in our culture) and to treat her merely as [a] material incubator of fetal subjectivity.”

Pregnancy as Relationship

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