Abortion: Beyond Legality

by Alana Wingfoot

Sometimes I feel like in order to be accepted as a Real Feminist, I have to stand up, place my right hand over my uterus, and recite the pledge:

'I solemnly swear that I shall support every woman's right to have an abortion, at any time, for any reason, without question or comment from anyone, because dammit, it's her RIGHT.'


I don't want abortion to be across-the-board illegal, especially not in the first trimester. I don't want the morning-after pill banned. I don't want particular forms of birth control to be criminalized because they might have a secondary effect of keeping an embryo from implanting. I definitely don't want that fertilized egg to be declared a person under the law.

But I think that abortion is a bad thing, at best the lesser evil, and I think that there's a point well before birth at which the fetus's right to live affects the woman's right to decide what to do about her pregnancy. And I sometimes feel that this viewpoint isn't welcome in a second-wave-based feminism, which was so busy fighting for the right to abortion at all that they didn't have the chance to sit back and say 'now we have this right; when is it appropriate to use it?' or 'now that women can have abortions, how can we help women who choose it but still grieve over it?'

Not that the 'pro-life' groups would want me either (or, more accurately, the anti-choice groups wouldn't want me). I have a close relative who had a life-threatening pregnancy complication; the fetus was doomed anyway, and had the relative not had the abortion, she would have died and her next child would never have been born. I've read too many horror stories of women before abortion was legal, desparate to end their pregnancies, going through procedures that make me blanch. I know rape and incest victims; I know women with physical problems that make childbearing hazardous. I know of women who have severe financial problems, or whose family really would react violently to their pregnancy. I don't have the gall to say 'you can't end this pregnancy, period' to all women in the United States or the world, when I have no idea what their personal situations are.

And I definitely don't like the tacks some anti-choice groups take in their agendas. A tangential rant: In my home state, some conservatives have been trying to pass a law requiring parental notification before a minor can have an abortion. They frame this in a parent's rights format, not an anti-choice format. 'A minor girl has to get parental permission to have her ears pierced but not to have an abortion. That's inane! Do you want your 14-year-old daughter to have an abortion without your knowledge?'

No, I don't. But I don't want her to go through pregnancy and birth without my knowledge either -- and by state law, no one has to notify me, even if she gives birth by C-section. These conservatives think it's okay for my daughter to have abdominal surgery without my knowledge, for my grandchild to be given up for adoption without me ever knowing it had existed or having a chance to discuss alternatives with my daughter -- but she can't abort without my permission?? Excuse me? If it's really about parent's rights, fix the bigger hole, and then you can talk to me about abortion.

And then there's this whole 'partial-birth' abortion hoopla. Come on, either be up front about it and just say you want to ban all third trimester abortions, or stop this namby-pamby procedure-by-procedure hogwash. There are uglier late-term abortion methods than intact dilation and extraction; that word 'intact', for example, should give you a hint....

Rights + Bodies = Muddle

Our society glorifies the rights of the individual. We don't want anyone, especially our government, to tell us where we can live, what we can eat, or where we can work. We say that people should be able to do as they want as long as they don't hurt anyone else; 'your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.'

But in pregnancy, the woman's fist and the fetus's nose (or perhaps more accurately, the fetus's fist and the woman's bladder!) are connected. Fetuses are attached to women; what the woman does or what's done to her affects the fetus; what the fetus does or what's done to it affects the woman. And we still haven't figured out how to deal with this as a society.

Ignore the fetus, as the second wave seems to ask, and declare it completely irrelevant until the umbilical cord is cut? (Ignore it when I can feel it kicking? Ignore it when it's just about ready to live outside me? Ignore it when I really want it to live?)

Ignore the woman, as many conservatives seem to ask, and protect the life of the fetus no matter the cost to her? (Ignore me when I don't even know whether I've caught? Ignore me when my kidneys are threatening to fail? Ignore me when I don't have the money to eat right or to get proper care for myself, let alone to pay for the birth or to care for the child?)

What if we don't like either option? What if we believe that both lives should be considered in the decision? What does that make us?

And I Have To Be Happy About It Too?

The second wave of feminism made major strides in the legality of abortion. But when it comes to the emotions of a woman who has an abortion, there's still a long way to go. If a woman says 'I had an abortion, and while I still think it was the right decision, I regret having to do it', she's looked at in puzzlement. If she says 'I had an abortion, and in retrospect, it was the wrong thing to do in my situation, and I'm sorry I did it', she's treated as a by-goddess-SPY from some rabid anti-choice group.

To be fair, part of the problem here comes from those right-wingers who hear 'abortion is a tragic thing, and it's okay to feel bad about it' as 'yes, we agree with the right wing! let's ban abortion right now and save those babies!' News flash: no, that's not what we mean. We mean exactly what we said: abortion is a tragic thing, and it's okay to feel bad about it. (Giving up one's child for adoption is a tragic thing too, and it's okay to feel bad about it. Does that mean that women shouldn't be allowed to give up a child for adoption? Should we not be allowed to divorce? shoot someone in self-defense? euthanize a dying pet? put a parent with Alzheimer's in a nursing home?) When you make a tough choice between undesirable alternatives, of course you're going to have regrets, to grieve about it, to wish that you had a better option to choose from. And sometimes you'll have what-if thoughts and wish you had chosen the other way, and in some cases you'll look back at the situation and realize that you did the wrong thing. This is all normal and part of being human.

But the second wave is still focused on whether the woman can get the abortion, not what she does or how she feels after she chooses to have one. It's the anti-choice movement who appears more likely to offer sympathy and support. Granted, it's sympathy based on the idea that she made the wrong decision, and often they appear to take the tack 'you were duped into this by a godless society' (as if women have no personal responsibility for our choices!), but it's sympathy nonetheless. Where is the feminist sympathy? Where are the feminist post-abortion support groups, that acknowledge women who grieve and regret as well as women who feel nothing but relief, and that still support them in their right to choose? Where are the feminists who will listen to a woman who believes that she shouldn't have aborted, without trying to convince her that the abortion was an okay thing to do?

Surely there can be a better feminist response to these women than, 'You used your right of choice. Previous generations didn't have that right. Stop complaining.'

The Balancing Act Goes On

As a third-wave feminist (and, of course, not speaking for all third-wave feminists!), I believe that we have to keep walking the tightrope between the woman's rights and the fetus's rights. We need to continue to speak out against those who will put down the woman -- the child protective services department who puts a pregnant woman in prison on the grounds that they're taking her unborn child into protective custody because of something the woman is doing or not doing (yes, this has already happened), the smug 'religious' men who talk oh-so-seriously about how there really aren't situations where a pregnancy truly threatens the mother's life to the point where abortion is the only answer (I have two words for them: ectopic pregnancy), the employer who decides to keep all women out of a certain type of job on the grounds that the chemical exposure is too dangerous for a potential fetus (and it's not going to affect the sperm of the men who are exposed?), the people who believe that a just-fertilized egg should be treated with the same rights as a newborn baby, and therefore that taking a morning-after pill is just as heinous as slitting a newborn's throat.

But some of us do believe that as the pregnancy advances, the fetus's rights grow more and more worthy of consideration, and that after a certain point -- perhaps when the brain is well developed, perhaps when the fetus is viable in a neonatal ward, perhaps when the fetus is viable under normal delivery -- the fetus should not be killed unless the only alternative is the woman's death or severe disability. (Personally, I think that a woman who's seven months pregnant and who doesn't want the child should be able to have labor induced, get the kid out, and give it up for adoption without having to wait out the last two months. But I suspect it's easier to get a late-term abortion than an induced early delivery....) We may be wary of putting these beliefs into law (who knows how some Congressbeing would twist it to try to get in good with the Religious Right?), but we don't want to hide these beliefs. And we believe that women should have the same rights, opportunities, and responsibilities as men, the same pay for the same work as men, the same respect for the same quality of work as men.

And you say that, because we believe in women's rights but think it's morally dubious for a woman to abort a healthy pregnancy when she's six months along, we're not feminists?

Then what, pray tell, are we?

Copyright © 1998 by Alana Wingfoot

07/04/07 at 22:27