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Abortion by Daphne de Marneffe

page five

Pro-life Feminism and Saintliness

There are those who fully endorse the sanctity of the connection of natural and human creativity and are at the same time passionately against abortion. “Pro-life feminism” has been one label used to refer to the view that a stand against abortion is a stand for respecting women. As the pro-life feminist Sidney Callahan put it, “I can’t see separating fetal liberation from women’s liberation. Ultimately, I think the feminist movement made a serious mistake — politically, morally, and psychologically — by committing itself to a pro-choice stance, a stance which in effect pits women against their children.”

Almost everyone can agree that as a society we devalue caring for children. We can also acknowledge that pro-choice rhetoric has by and large avoided dealing with the common intuition that there is a sacred dimension of conception and fetal life. We can even concede that there is a spiritual opportunity posed by an unplanned pregnancy, and it is possible to respect the spiritual state of women who are able truly to put the life of a potential baby on par with their own. This admiration is not far removed from how we feel about James McBride’s mother in his memoir, The Color of Water, who overcame the trauma of her early life and her own loss and depression and was able, through faith and love, to raise eight children. Likewise, we tend to regard as enlightened and almost saintly those people who adopt troubled or disabled children, sometimes many of them.

Pro-life feminists legitimately question whether a permissive and even cavalier approach to abortion works to the detriment of women’s interests. Their concern derives from a belief in the immense value of women’s reproductive capacity and extends to a vision of society organized around true recognition of that value. In that sense, their view converges with that of some ardently pro-choice feminists. Both consider what society might look like if our goal was to give women’s concerns the same centrality and respect that men’s have traditionally enjoyed. Both find fault with a society that condemns abortion but does little to make the health and welfare of children a primary goal.

However, I find it problematic when pro-life feminists argue backward from the sanctity (and the rights) of fetal life to a prescriptive, utopian view of women’s lives. They don’t always acknowledge that the key intermediary step must always be women’s ultimate responsibility to make their own abortion decisions. We cannot go directly from an opposition to abortion to a certain vision — even if a freer, more respectful vision, according to its advocates — of women’s lives. We can only proceed through a respect for women’s personhood. It is not enough to insist that women will find their sense of greatest meaning and value in a society that opposes abortion; it is necessary to create a society where women are free to discover that, or not, for themselves.

Recognizing women’s right to self-determination entails accepting that society cannot compel saintliness. It is fundamentally unfair to oblige women to be good Samaritans with respect to their pregnancies. Throughout history, women often have not been free to make and take responsibility for their own decisions about sexuality and motherhood, and it has been easy enough to create identities for them, to make them stand for good or evil. When we finally accept that women must be their own mediators of their conscience or God’s word, we lose a fantasy about the purity of women and a clarity about their rightful destiny. But we gain a fairer, more truthful, more complex view of each other.

mmo :  february 2005

From MATERNAL DESIRE by Daphne de Marneffe. Copyright (c) 2004 by Daphne de Marneffe. By permission of Little, Brown and Company, Inc. All rights reserved. To purchase copies of this book, please call 1.800.759.0190.

Daphne de Marneffe, PhD is a clinical psychologist and the author of Maternal Desire: On Children, Love and the Inner Life. She lives with her family in California.

Also of interest:

Getting to the heart of the matter
MMO review of Maternal Desire

Balancing act
An interview with Daphne de Marneffe for Salon.com

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