Thursday, January 24, 2008

Abortion and Moral Complexity

Earlier this week, journalist and Feministing blogger Courtney Martin published a piece at Alternet in which she discussed her own reservations about abortion. She begins with the story of how she accompanied a friend who was getting an abortion. While in the waiting room, she was disturbed by the apparent lack of remorse of a woman who was chatting on her cell and herding her toddler. Martin remarks:
I was unequivocally pro-choice, but I hated that woman in her 30s because she seemed (I didn’t ask) to have such an uncomplicated relationship with abortion. I was jealous. Past my conviction that abortion should be legal and safe, my own feelings were a mess.
Martin admits that her reaction wasn't necessarily fair, but she still uses this woman as a projection screen for her own doubts and anxieties. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon rightly takes her for task for this.

My own reading of the scene Martin describes is that of course the woman appeared ordinary and unruffled; she was waiting for a doctor, and that's just not a situation where most people allow themselves to lose it. I'd bet no one saw how conflicted Martin and her friend may have felt, either.

Having spent tons of time in oncology wards and waiting rooms - not as a patient but as a caretaker - I've been repeatedly amazed at how calm people are even in the face of medical catastrophe. You'd think you'd occasionally see someone rant and rage against the dying of the light, but no, people sit stoically, chit-chat about mundane things, and wait.

I can imagine that a similar dynamic obtains in abortion facilities, too. Whatever turmoil a woman might feel while she waits, be it sorrow, guilt, or even happiness, she'll put up a impassive front because anything else violates the norms of medical institutions.

That's just one more reason why Courtney has no basis for her projections - apart from the fact that she didn't know jack about that woman and her situation.

Still, I'm frustrated by how hard it is, even among feminists, to discuss the moral complexities abortion holds for some women. This issue seems to rear up every year or two. One year it's Naomi Wolf who urges us to ponder the morality of abortion, then it's Frances Kissling, and now it's Courtney. Feminists should be able to discuss the morality angle without immediate accusations of betraying our own cause. Amanda Marcotte's protestations to the contrary, the comments thread under her post on this topic already shows how quickly feminists feel judged by fellow feminists. (I posted an earlier version of this on that thread and fully expect someone will pounce on me.)

I myself find abortion morally unproblematic in early pregnancy. But I worry that if feminists can't acknowledge and address other women's qualms, we end up preaching to the choir and alienating people who are in the mushy middle, where a majority of young women (and men) find themselves.

As a teacher of women's studies, I have both the opportunity and the responsibility to promote real dialog on this. Most of my students say they wouldn't choose abortion themselves (though of course some of them will decide otherwise when faced with an actual pregnancy). But most can also be readily persuaded that women, rather than government, ought to make the decision. While I in no way view my role as providing "conversion experiences," I'll admit I'm glad when young people who initially say they're pro-life realize their actual position is more complex. If they learn to distinguish the personal level from policy, it's real progress.

Here's an example of where feminists should reasonably be able to concede that moral complexity exists: While I agree that it's ludicrous to endow a fetus with personhood, I'm wholly unconvinced when Marcotte equates a fetus with a tumor or with the whole universe of children-never-conceived due to birth control.
The vast majority of abortions are performed when the fetus is basically brainless, and thus those abortions have the moral weight of removing tumors or tapeworms. The potential person argument has no sway over me, because if not allowing a potential person to come into being is wrong, all forms of birth control, including abstinence, are wrong.
Unlike a tumor, a fetus is at least a potential person. And unlike the "unconceived," a fetus is not an abstract and infinite potential person, it's a concrete, specific one. It's got DNA and it's human, though it's not yet an actual person, which is of course a crucial distinction. Its gradual development toward fully realized personhood is one reason why even most staunchly pro-choice people see a difference between abortion at 2, 12, 20, and 30 weeks. We should be able to acknowledge this without fearing that it hurts the case for abortion rights.


Sugarmag said...

Well said. I was hoping to avoid writing about this but the more I read and think about it, the more I realize I have to. I am so tired of wrestling with this topic, tired of talking about it and arguing about it because it is so polarizing. It irritates the hell out of me that one of the writers you mentioned was critical of another woman for not being in pieces over having an abortion. For one thing, is she sure that the woman was even there for an abortion? Why would someone bring a toddler if they were there for an abortion? Maybe she was there supporting a friend. If she was there for an abortion, how does she know what is going on in the other woman's head? The poor woman could hardly go to pieces in front of her child and maybe she was talking on the phone because the person on the phone was trying to distract her and it was working. Even if the woman was not feeling emotional about it, so what? You are so right about how stoic people are in the face of illnesses, when facing their own death, etc. Ok, I better stop, I had forgotten how passionate I am about this issue.

I really like what you have written about it. I like the way you think, Sungold!

Sungold said...

Yeah, we don't know anything about that woman's exact situation, and we never will. This was discussed at length on the Pandagon comments thread, and eventually a former abortion clinic worker chimed in and said that on the days when abortions were performed, all of the doctors were fully occupied and so they didn't do other procedures.

So the woman was probably there for an abortion, but golly, imagine a life where you couldn't call on friends or family to care for your toddler!

It'd be cool if you do decide to post on this topic; writing about has helped my clarify my own ideas, even though it's a topic I've thought about a lot over the years.