Abortion is not a holocaust, and feminism is not about convenience

a photo of a cute pig next to a 16-cell human embryo .
Pig (left) and human.

Quick, disorganized comment on abortion.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who opposes abortion rights, recently wrote in defense of the Kevin Williamson, fired from the Atlantic, for saying this, before he was hired:

Someone challenged me about my views on abortion, saying, “If you really thought it was a crime you would support things like life in prison, no parole, for treating it as a homicide.” And I do support that. In fact, as I wrote, what I have in mind is hanging.

Douthat thinks feminists are just as extreme as this, but even worse because they’re on the wrong side (the side in favor of the baby holocaust).

Douthat is concerned that abortion is “justified with the hazy theology of individualism.” When he says that what he’s insulting is feminism. He’s mocking us for being stupid (hazy) atheists who don’t realize secularism is just another theology (like Chris Smith does). And “individualism” refers to the idea that women have rights. Privilege is congratulating yourself for exposing oppressed people’s struggle for liberation as actually being about their individual self-gratification.

In claiming to make a moral argument, he pits this claim to women’s individualistic convenience against the holocaust:

the distinctive and sometimes awful burdens that pregnancy imposes on women have become an excuse to build a grotesque legal regime in which the most vulnerable human beings can be vacuumed out or dismembered, killed for reasons of eugenics or convenience or any reason at all.

There are no men, no patriarchy, in this telling, and that’s telling. It is important to say, which Douthat won’t, that abortion rights are women’s rights, that women’s rights are not about some decadent “individual” rights but about systemic group oppression perpetrated over millennia, especially by religion (especially by Douthat’s religion, Catholicism).

Douthat wants to take the abortion debate to the moral plane of “the killing of millions of innocents” (his phrase) versus feminist selfish self-indulgence. He is egging on his fellow anti-feminists, pushing them to take this extremist position while decrying the extremism of feminists. Organized anti-feminism doesn’t want to say abortion is really really murder because then women will turn against them, because women aren’t idiots. The mainstream abortion rights movement doesn’t want to say fetuses are human because it makes abortion seem worse, plus for early-term pregnancies it’s really not true. Still, we should argue about abortion as if it’s a decision that matters, not only as if it’s the restriction of the right to make that decision that matters. Unfortunately, Roe v. Wade was not decided on the principle that women can take a fetal life when it’s inside their own body, but on the principle of respecting women’s privacy rights to make personal decisions. This makes it harder to have the real feminist argument. I’m with Douthat that we should have a real moral argument, which he in his sneering at “individualism” actually refuses to engage.

Only religion can say all fetuses are instantly human; any scientific understanding exposes this incontrovertibly as just crazy talk. But abortion rights don’t depend on fetuses not being human at all. If you want to take the argument off the religious turf, you have to acknowledge that there is no moral instant when a fetus becomes human — science can’t locate that transformation more precisely than sometime between conception and birth. For that matter, there is no moral bright line between human and animal as far as suffering and death, that separates a human from a chimpanzee from a pig from a dog. (Many of us are, after all, not fully human ourselves, but part homo neanderthalensis.) There is moralizing, but not morality, in approving the grotesquely cruel slaughter of billions of sentient animals for “convenience or any reason at all,” while labeling women who abort sixteen-cell fetuses as murderers.

Ending life is a serious moral decision, of the kind Douthat and others are comfortable letting men take in many ways, in wars, and corporate decisions, and state policies, and slaughterhouses. Abortion rights mean women deserve that responsibility, too. Abortion rights don’t rest on the inconsequentialness of the decision but on the humanity of women. There is no reason to shy away from that. Catharine MacKinnon, who is aging well on this, wrote in 1983:

My stance is that the abortion choice must be legally available and must be women’s, but not because the fetus is not a form of life. In the usual argument, the abortion decision is made contingent on whether the fetus is a form of life. I cannot follow that. Why should women not make life or death decisions?

That’s my attempt to defend abortion rights without relying on euphemism and evasion or the hazy theology of individualism.

20 thoughts on “Abortion is not a holocaust, and feminism is not about convenience

  1. Here’s a related piece of mine on related material, called Are Women Full Citizens: The Abortion Debate and the “Gifts” of Life and Poverty: https://nanocrit.com/issues/issue11/Are-Women-Full-Citizens-The-Abortion-Debate-and-the-Gifts-of-Life-and-Poverty

    Abstract: This essay explores fertility’s impact on economics and the gendered relations of power among humans in patriarchy. By definition, patriarchs rule through fertility—their status depends upon the exclusion of women from policymaking by means of childbearing. When forced to bear and rear early, women receive limited education and have neither skills nor time to object. The availability of birth control and abortion transforms this situation. This essay argues that anti-reproductive-choice arguments based on the premise that an unborn potential child has received an individual “gift of life” which it is the mother’s duty to host occlude the way that the arrival at maturity of human lives depends on the ongoing gift of parents’ (principally mothers’) time and energy. When this “gift” is coerced, it blocks the innovative participation and skills development of huge portions of the population.


  2. I think that, to take the argument completely out of the religious arena, and put it in a policy arena, we should first consider the social contract. Democratic government is made by and for adults. Children are not party to the agreement — they cannot vote — but they are protected by law. (Not because they are the property of their parents, but because the law gets to say whatever it wants.)

    It’s up to the law to decide what defines a person.

    The important point here is that morality doesn’t come into the conversation at all. Children aren’t protected by the law because the law enforces morality. It really doesn’t. They are protected by the law because that’s how the law is written.

    So: the people (adults) have chosen to disallow the unjustified killing of both adults and children, and call it murder. The adults have decided that a fetus is not a child. If and when the adults decide that a fetus is a child, abortion will become murder. Murder is a legal term in this context, not a religious one.

    It is clearly not a religious term because our constitution guarantees the separation of church and state. Let’s keep that straight — it’s central to the discussion. People who insist that religious law should be treated as the law of the land are anti-American. They are against our constitution. Anti-abortionists sometimes do speak this way: as if religious rules should immediately be treated as law — without waiting for Congress to first decide in their favor.

    True Americans understand that the decision is up to Congress, not God.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Also, the issue has been addressed on the level of moral philosophy, for example by Judith Jarvis Thomson:

    This argument is exactly the rational moral consideration that “intellectual” anti-choicers are always insisting on, so it should be the kind of thing that people who object to “identity-based” feminist arguments would want to respond to. I’ve never actually seen that happen, though.


  4. Mostly in agreement, except that for many women, the decision to have an abortion comes easily, with no struggle, and doesn’t seem like a life-or-death decision, just like another (expensive) errand you have to run, like getting your toenails cut or your hair done. I don’t think men appreciate the extent to which the baby can feel like *part of your body* even after it is born, and certainly at the beginning of the pregnancy. I realize not all women experience pregnancy or abortion this way, but I wanted to speak up for those who do.


  5. 1. Douthat defends Williamson because he thinks that Williamson is right – that abortion is murder. But unlike Williamson, he just can’t bring himself to follow this idea to its logical conclusion: that women who get abortions should be severely punished.

    2. While he thinks abortion cannot be “justified with the hazy theology of individualism,” I would bet that there are other things he defends with the idea of individual rights. Just guessing, but I would guess that when it comes to the “right” to discriminate against gays, he sees individualism arguments as far less hazy and theological.

    3. Another quote that has aged well is Gloria Steinem’s counterfactual, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m not sure I understand the full argument here, but as I read it you say that abortion is a matter of equality rather than individualism. Still when talking about Roe you say they ought to have relied more on the idea of self-ownership as overriding the protection of developing life. So what are the conditions for abortion to be an issue of equality for women? If inequalities between men and women somehow disappeared throughout society, would there still be a right to abortion?


  7. My own thinking raises issues you have not. First, a fetus is a parasite until it is born and pregnancy imposes substantial health costs on many/most pregnant women. In no other area does any body of law demand that one person use parts of their own body to support another person. You are not required to donate a kidney or even blood even if somebody else will die without it. The feminist demand that women be given the complete right to decide what happens to their bodies has been transmuted into the fantasy that pregnancy and abortion are matters of “convenience.” The fact that the embryo/fetus cannot survive outside the woman’s body can only be used as an argument against reproductive rights if you think that women should be forced to be the vessels of other life. Women who have chosen to become pregnant and bear a child are voluntarily undertaking these health risks (although they may not realize what they are). Second, a substantial fraction of the people who oppose abortion rights (including the Catholic Church hierarchy) also oppose contraceptive rights and sex education. Anybody who opposes freely available contraception and sex education is even more manifestly viewing women’s bodies as vessels and women as less than human. Third, the question of whether to bring a child into the world is tied to the larger social structure of parenting. See Myra Ferree’s research.

    Yes, women do have life or death control over other people. That is the essence of motherhood. That stark fact terrifies a lot of men, I think.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Your argument seems clear and forceful to me. It suggests that you believe abortion becomes more complicated towards the end of pregnancy, when the fetus becomes more viable. Is that true?

      I think these kinds of fraught arguments should happen without psychoanalyzing the opposition, and especially without attaching these feelings to a specific group (such as men). Perhaps the power women have over other people terrifies you, too, and that’s why you make this argument? Just kidding 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I actually think abortion at all stages is morally fraught, in the same way as deciding not to donate a kidney is also morally fraught, I just think that women are manifestly capable of making those moral decisions. I personally did not want to have to choose whether to abort, so I was careful about contraception and refused a genetic test when it would have been standard due to my age. Roe v Wade implicitly recognized the continuum when it said there should be no restrictions on the first trimester, restrictions based solely on the woman’s health in the second trimester, and that restrictions in the third trimester were permissible. Regarding attributions to men, there is a weird romanticizing of motherhood that I’m pushing back against.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Pushing back against a weird romanticizing of motherhood is a pretty common feminist thing to do. But what does this get us? In my view, this is still saying what someone else feels, and arguing against your view of their feelings, rather than arguing against their arguments. If you follow me.


  8. “Only religion can say all fetuses are instantly human; any scientific understanding exposes this incontrovertibly as just crazy talk.”

    Quite false. The elementary literature on fetal development clearly states that conception creates the new human organism which is qualitatively different from the zygotes.

    I think you’re uncomfortable arguing some humans are OK to kill, but you can and should own that, and articulate why.


      1. The literature also says that approximately one third to one half of all pregnancies end spontaneously without the woman’s being able to perceive a pregnancy (that is, menses comes on time, more or less).
        Yet – there’s little research on very early miscarriage and ways to prevent it. We know more about commercially valuable animal reproductive biology from fertilization through embryonic organ establishment than we do about humans in this period (for obvious reasons).


  9. Actually, most people who are against abortion don’t care about the babies at all; they just say that for emotional impact. What they care about is making women into property again. We started out as the property of our fathers to be passed on to a husband in the USA history and we were not considered humans. To control our bodies and reproductive choices, means a husband could legally rape us again and then chattel us into raising “his” children while treating us like children who can’t make their own decisions.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s