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
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
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
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.