When an icon of the feminist movement writes a book questioning abortion even a teeny-weeny bit, it's cause for a little celebrating, and investigating.
Germaine Greer broke into the ranks of “lifetime-achievement” feminists with the publication in the late 1960s of her book The Female Eunuch. She has just published a new work entitled The Whole Woman, which, while falling prey to much of “old feminism's” shortsightedness, contains some good insights on abortion.
The book's jacket promotes its contents this way: “With passionate rhetoric, unique authority, and outrageous humor, The Whole Woman reveals how women have been side-swiped and sidetracked in the quest for liberation, duped into settling for an ersatz equality.” Certainly, this describes Greer's “take” on the origins and development of the “right” to an abortion. She goes a long way in a good direction. But because of some fundamental errors that even she in all her brightness cannot see, Greer isn't able to get where a woman of her insight ought to go.
The “Abortion” chapter in her book starts off promisingly enough with sarcasm: “Feminism is supposed to be pro-abortion.” And: “The decision in Roe v. Wade did nothing to confront, let alone resolve, the deep moral conflicts surrounding the issue of abortion.”
Greer rightly recognizes that the abortion right was handed to women by a “masculine medical establishment” and a “masculine judiciary.” This comports perfectly with polls taken over the decades showing men more supportive of abortion than women. It also comports with anecdotal stories too numerous to count in which women are coerced by men, overtly or subtly, to have abortions against their instincts and will.
Perhaps most importantly, Greer recognizes that abortion is itself the consequence of “oppression,” and an unwillingness to give women the support they need to bear and raise children in this world: “What women ‘won’ was the ‘right’ to undergo invasive procedures in order to terminate unwanted pregnancies, unwanted not just by them but by their parents, their sexual partners, the governments who would not support mothers, the employers who would not employ mothers, the landlords who would not accept tenants with children, the schools that would not accept students with children. Historically, the only thing pro-abortion agitation achieved was to make an illiberal establishment look far more feminist than it was.”
Greer falls into the feminist error of blindness to any goodness in men.
In this vein, Greer has kind words for a Catholic bishop in Scotland who offers financial support to women who would otherwise feel pressured to choose abortion.
Greer even laughs figuratively at the mighty efforts of pro-life activists in the United States and in Europe in light of the behemoth powers aligned against them. Do they really think, she asks, that governments, pharmaceutical companies, the medical establishment and men generally will allow abortion to be outlawed when all of the above rely on it for financial or other reasons?
At this point, however, she leaps to the defense of legalized abortion: “[T]he media have locked feminists into a position which they define as ‘pro-abortion.’ Feminism is pro-woman rather than pro-abortion.” And: “There can be no gainsaying that women cannot manage their own lives if access to abortion is to be denied.”
So it's the media's fault! And/or, women are so weak and victimized that we cannot “manage our lives” without abortion. It is hard to figure how Greer can be so absolutist on this point. Her chapter on abortion even contains several allusions to post-abortion grief!
The answer lies in a common error of old feminism: blindness to others. First, blindness to the child. Only once does Greer really refer to the fate of the aborted child, and only then to note how such descriptions disturb the woman seeking abortion: “Her agony of mind is increased by the regular publication of results of research to establish whether and when human fetuses become aware, feel pain, and learn. … The evidence was unconvincing in that reaction was being construed as consciousness, but it had the desired effect, which was to worry women.”
Second, Greer falls into the feminist error of blindness to any goodness in men. In her view, men are by their very biological nature, and by their lives, intrinsically assaulting to women.
In Evangelium Vitae, the Holy Father cited as one of the mainsprings of a “culture of death” a notion of freedom which denies solidarity with other human beings, a notion that is wholly individualistic. Greer's writings on abortion are a perfect example of this notion of freedom. She is so wholly focused on one party, the woman, that she cannot see beyond her for a minute to a “community” which includes the woman, the father, their child, and all those whose lives are diminished when the child is aborted.
Helen Alvaré is director of planning and information, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.