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Abortion by Daphne de Marneffe

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Pregnancy as Relationship

The reason freedom in reproductive decisions is so important to women’s integrity has to do with the kind of relationships pregnancy and motherhood are. If requiring a woman to carry a baby to term were on the order of insisting she pay a parking ticket, we wouldn’t bat an eye; no morally weighty abridgment of personal freedom would be involved. Our sense that coercion in reproductive decisions jeopardizes women’s important and legitimate interests in self-determination has to do with what a woman commits to, psychologically and emotionally, by carrying a baby to term.

It helps to consider the unique character of pregnancy. Most obviously, pregnancy is unique in that there is no counterpart in male experience. For the woman herself, it is unique in that it involves a new relationship between “me” and “other,” between “my body” and “not my body.” Women rarely experience pregnancy as a clear matter of “me the mother” and “you (or ‘it’) the fetus.” Instead, we are intimate with the fetus’s otherness early on, and it is an otherness instantly able to alter our own reality. When we are tired or nauseated, we feel taken over by a stubborn force wresting life from our flesh, our bone, our consciousness.

Individual women experience this situation in their own ways, inflected by their psyche, tradition, history, and circumstances. There is no universal norm that guides a women’s experience of it; every pregnancy is different, every woman is different, and each pregnancy for a given woman is different. But there is a basic situation that each pregnant woman is faced with and has to make sense of in her own way, and that is the relationship between herself and the developing fetus.

The reality of pregnancy is that it is a relationship of great, and progressively greater, physical and psychological investment. That is abundantly clear when a pregnancy is wanted; it is why women can become grief-stricken after even an early miscarriage, and why women who choose to have prenatal diagnostic testing want to do so as early as possible. Yet even when a woman does not want to be pregnant, she almost inevitably becomes increasingly involved psychologically and emotionally as the pregnancy continues. To insist, then, that women carry their pregnancies to term, and give the baby up for adoption if need be, makes deciding against involving oneself in the relationship virtually impossible. By the same token, if a woman were compelled to have an abortion, she would be prevented from deciding to involve herself.

Even when women respect the potential of fetal life, one reason they choose abortion over giving a baby up for adoption is their awareness at how deeply attached they will become to their developing fetus as pregnancy progresses. For some, the idea that they would actually manage to relinquish the child at birth becomes increasingly unbearable. During my second pregnancy, I had amniocentesis around halfway through the pregnancy. The baby was already kicking. I walked around in a moral fog, not even quite sure if it was right to have taken the test, since I could barely allow myself to think of any outcome but keeping the baby, no matter what the test revealed. My experience, which I don’t think was unusual, underscores just how emotionally and physically involving the relationship of pregnancy is. For that reason, among others, many women faced with an unwanted pregnancy decide that ending the pregnancy while it is still mostly a potential relationship, is the more endurable choice.

In the view of many of abortion’s opponents, the ethical remedy to an unwanted pregnancy is for a woman to carry the baby to term and either find a way to care for the baby or put it up for adoption. Both of these are honorable, even noble, solutions when they are chosen by a woman herself. But the moment either solution is coerced, by law or overweening emotional pressure, troubling implications follow for both the woman and for her relationship to the child. Consider, for example, a relational “worst case scenario,” where continuing a pregnancy is forced on a woman. In a case described by Bordo, a man was granted an injunction against his girlfriend’s abortion by a judge who ruled that “since the woman was not in school, was unemployed, and was living with her mother, ‘the continuance of her pregnancy would not interfere with either her employment or education.’” He continued, “‘The appearance and demeanor of the respondent . . . indicated that she is a very pleasant young lady, slender in stature, healthy, and well able to carry a baby to delivery without an undue burden.’”

The circumstances in which this woman’s baby will enter the world are really quite horrifying. Are the feelings of a woman who is compelled by the courts to bear her boyfriend’s baby likely to be all that different from her feelings if she were required to have the baby of a rapist? What does it do to the development of one’s relationship to a child to have it forced on one, not simply by biological fate, but by one’s boyfriend, and then by the law? It seems certain that the mother will feel robbed of her will and compromised in her ability to share parental responsibilities with the child’s father. What would it mean to a child to be born into a universe of such contention and total absence of shared goals?

The likely result of such forced childbearing is, in other words, misery for mother and child. But this fact will appear morally relevant only if one considers not just “the life of the unborn” but also what the “born” require to survive and flourish. The judge in the case focused on the former and ignored the latter; by his lights, if the woman was “well able to carry a baby,” why shouldn’t she also be “well able” to devote her life to that child? For the potential mother, by contrast, her ability and desire to devote herself to caring for the child are absolutely central issues. Caring for the child will require an enormous share of her emotional and practical resources; the relationship with her child will become central to who she is. A woman who is rejecting of a pregnancy cannot be forced to find room in her soul to embrace it. If there is a path of discovery that could allow a pregnant woman to transform her resistance into acceptance, it is a path that only she herself can tread.

Only when we understand the relationship as central do we see that a woman’s deliberation about abortion necessarily involves her prospects for caring for the potential child, in the context of her responsibility to other people in her life, herself, and the wider community. When the abortion dilemma is framed solely in terms of the fetus’s right to life, the necessity of this relationship drops out of the picture. But in fact, the fetus’s alleged right to life is completely inseparable from another human’s commitment of enormous resources, time, and energy. Taking into account a mother’s complex and sometimes conflicting obligations to care, we quickly leave the black-and-white world of antiabortion certitude. We enter into the more ambiguous, complicated domain of what obligations a woman has to nurturing this potential child and this potential relationship, in light of her other obligations and the fact that her resources to care for others and herself are not limitless.

One of the many complexities women face in weighing decisions about pregnancy is that, though legal coercion is actually rarely at issue, psychological pressure can exert an enormously powerful force. One college student sought therapy because she was still suffering from the trauma of an experience of pregnancy and adoption two years earlier. When she became pregnant at seventeen, her devoutly Catholic parents never discussed it with her but silently assumed that she would live at home, carry the baby to term, and give it up for adoption. The young woman described her pain at seeing her biological daughter in the care of the adoptive mother. She felt the mother was well meaning, and the family provided all the signs and symbols of a good home, but in her eyes, the adoptive mother seemed somewhat superficial. She was plagued by thoughts of how the adoptive mother wasn’t doing things as she herself would have done.

Relinquishing a child in adoption can be extraordinarily painful in any circumstance. But this young woman’s trauma was intensified by her lack of opportunity to talk honestly and sort out her feelings at the time, and to think through and come to a decision for herself. Likewise in cases of abortion, coercion complicates already difficult emotions. In any unintended pregnancy, there is no pain-free solution. But whatever confusion, regret, or grief a woman feels in the process of making her own decision, when her decision is forced, not only are these emotions compounded, but her sense of self-determination and self-respect suffers harm.

What Is Sacred?

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