“Abortion: Whose Values? Whose Rights?” by Helen Avare, Marie C. Wilson and Naomi Wolf

Reference: Tikkun

January/February 1997

Marie Wilson: I’m president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, where I’ve been for the last eleven years. I’ve worked on the issue of abortion for the foundation, but the views I express today are my own. I am a mother of five children who are now grown. I am an activist and writer; I recently wrote a book, with two other women, called The Mother/Daughter Revolution: From Good Girls to Great Women. I’m here because I really believe that the women’s movement has a great deal to look at in terms of how we reach out to more people, and how we talk about values and meaning, and because recently we are looking at the Right, and asking questions about what are they offering that is not being offered by our movement.

Naomi Wolf: I’m here, because last October I wrote an article in The New Republic in which I don’t think I said anything particularly new to any of us, but I made public a private conversation about what it does to the pro-choice movement to fall back sometimes on an abortion rhetoric that seems to me to dehumanize and trivialize the death of the fetus as a way to humanize and make important the reproductive rights of women. And I suggested that this is a false dichotomy, and that it is morally foolish as well as strategically foolish, because we lose the middle when we talk about reproductive rights without reference to a larger moral and spiritual dimension, and when we’re unwilling to use language like transgression and redemption, or right and wrong. This discussion should not be played out in the legislative arena, since Americans tend to legislate as an excuse for not looking into themselves and changing their behavior. But I was tired of traveling around the country and hearing strong pro-choice women confide in me privately with great grief that they light a candle every year for the fetus that they aborted, and that they felt like there was no room within the organized reproductive rights institutions or within mainstream feminism to articulate that grief and make it meaningful.

Helen Alvare: I work with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as the secretary for pro-life activities. When I was asked to come here today, it was mentioned that I have a reputation for being civil, and that that was really why I was asked to be on the panel. My work in the Pro-Life Secretariat is mostly on issues of abortion. I also speak out on questions of euthanasia, against capital punishment, and other life or death arenas. My writing has mostly been in the nature of what I call in shorthand “pro-life feminism,” sometimes in the religious arena, sometimes in the secular arena. I think that there will be a lot of sympathy on issues of feminism here, but that we will diverge perhaps, from my perspective, on where abortion fits in that framework.

Not only personally, but that part of the pro-life movement that I represent tends very much to embrace a consistent ethic of life, which means that one philosophically cannot fully appreciate and cannot fully be consistent about respect for one kind of life unless one is respectful of all life, from the very beginning to the very end.

I’ve came to this movement from the disability-rights movement. And one of the things I realize about both of these movements is that they are always about more than themselves. Abortion is never about just abortion. It is about questions like whether the society at large, or individual pieces of it, regards the fact of women’s fertility as burden or gift, and how they treat it, and what are the incentives and disincentives they provide? How the rearing of children is regarded – benefit or burden, or some balance of those, and who is responsible for that? And then one of the deepest things, at the core of what abortion is about, is what is our understanding of freedom? Is freedom something like will: the ability to choose something in any way you choose, freedom without regard to truth, to what some would call natural law? Freedom without regard to the common good?

After publicly encountering, debating, writing about the abortion debate for the last five years, I find that there is, among those I debate – the supporters of abortion – almost never a reference to anyone involved in this except the individual woman. I do not find an understanding of the relationship between the mother and the child, or even the relationship between the mother and the community’s interests, and what becomes of that family. In fact, as Catharine MacKinnon once wrote that the privacy right is actually the right to leave women alone to suffer, to abuse them one at a time. In some ways, by denominating abortion as a “privacy right,” it’s almost given a license to society to say you have no right to enter in here. And the constant references made in the slogans of abortion advocacy organizations to an individual’s right to choose. Not the state, but the individual it’s not some abstract state we’re talking about. The state includes mothers, fathers, grand-parents, etc.

The pro-life movement, and particularly the parts that I most encounter – those who are Catholic and pro-life, those who are religious from all faiths and pro-life – have a different take on this. One of the best expressions that I’ve seen was when the Catholic bishops put together a statement called “Faithful for Life,” which said here’s our take on abortion: They couch their discussion in terms of fidelity. They pose the Good Samaritan story at the beginning of the document, and then they say, “We’re all on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and the Good Samaritan story haunts us. For it so contradicts the widely held persuasion today that our loyalties and obligations are held only to those we choose. In fact, we owe our loyalties even to those we do not choose, even to those we don’t want to choose. But we have been chosen to go out of our way for others.”

The Catholic Bishops’ take is a radical breaching of the fidelity gap, of the language of individualism. They feel obligated by that stance to take the consistent ethic of life. The caricature of the pro-lifer is that they care nothing about life after birth. In fact, the group that I represent, the Catholic Church in the United States, is the largest provider of social services for born Americans. So I radically reject that caricature. It is not always the case politically either. Not only do you have Democrats who are characterized as pro-choice voting for certain measures that are pro-life, but you have Republicans who are labeled pro-life voting for things like the ban on assault weapons or reductions in military spending, the ban on landmines. In fact, in the capital punishment debate, it is the case that things sort of switch around – those who hold the no-exceptions pro-life position are the greatest opponents of capital punishment. And those who are the strongest supporters of legal abortion are the greatest supporters. The caricatures do not hold on either side.

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