“How Abortion Has Failed Women”

by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese Crisis, March 2000

In an article appropriate for the March 25 Jubilee Day for Women, Elizabeth FoxGenovese, Catholic convert and professor of the humanities at Emory University, writes: “Like the stone crosses that once stood at crossroads, abortion marks the convergence of the most portentous social, political, and moral questions of our time. … The point of convergence between the [culture of life and the culture of death] lies in their common understanding that abortion has proven a powerful force in the sexual and social liberation of women. The point of divergence lies in whether one believes that liberation has benefited women and society and even whether it can sustain a just and decent society at all.”

The women's movement has made abortion rights its nonnegotiable demand, a “fundamental liberty” about which feminists may not disagree, and to that end they have been relentless in attacking pro-life arguments based on the humanity of the unborn. “Recently, however, one unusually candid feminist, Cynthia Daniels, has urged women to acknowledge the life of the fetus. This, she argues, does not weaken the case for abortion but strengthens it. In Daniels’ reasoning, the fetus is living, uninvited, off of the woman's private resources and must, therefore, be viewed as an aggressor.”

Though most feminists do not consider this argument tactically useful, it “nonetheless exposes the core of the movement's unyielding attachment to abortion as the foundation of women's freedom.

The view of the fetus as invader of the woman's body and plunderer of her vital resources offers a chilling vision of women's autonomy. More disturbing is the vision it offers of the human person. For this vision separates each of us completely from all others, unless we voluntarily suspend a measure of our autonomy by entering into a contractual relation with another. And, in the case of women, it separates us from our embodied selves.”

By “insisting that no woman may be compelled to bear a child, the movement has sought to liberate women from the handicap of their bodies. … This strategy rests on the disquieting premise that for women to achieve full dignity and freedom they must become as much like men as possible.” Though women have made great strides in achieving public parity with men in employment, education and politics, they have generally “secured their positions in the public world by adapting to the prevailing male pattern. The real adaptation has occurred in women's private relations with men and children, and not all of it has been to women's advantage.”

The feminist scenario on liberated male-female relations “rests on the assumption that girls — for they are the ones at highest risk — have the same sexual agenda as boys, namely, no-strings-attached adventure for its own sake. Typically, they do not. Girls and, for that matter, young women are much more likely to seek love and connection. Improbable as it may seem in our current cultural climate, surprising numbers still half-consciously hope that an unintended pregnancy will lead the boy to marry them.

“However unrealistic, these dreams compound the emotional trauma of an abortion, which represents not merely the death of the child but an assault on the girl's sense of herself and her trust in others.”

Fox-Genovese traces the relationship of abortion, marriage and gender equality in the secular feminist worldview which influences many women who might not apply the feminist label to themselves. “Increasingly, sex is viewed as an end in itself, and sexual unions — or better, liaisons — are treated as temporary arrangements, entered into for immediate gratification and abandoned for new objects of sexual desire. In this climate … [a] woman who knows that, at any moment, her husband may forsake their marriage without penalty or sanction, has scant reason to sacrifice her career to the marriage and children — or even to subordinate her interests to those of the family as a unit. Failure to protect her own earning power would be economic suicide for herself and perhaps her children. And the more open she had been to the gift of children, the more daunting the prospects would be.”

Fox-Genovese concludes: “Abortion provides many women with a quick solution to immediate problems. It does not improve the conditions that produced the problems in the first place. … But we should not delude ourselves: Women's freedom to bear and nurture children is expensive. And, under present conditions, we should not expect the private sector to shoulder the entire cost. Having permitted the disintegration of marriage, we must now pay the taxes to underwrite support for single mothers. The great challenge will be to meet the needs of single mothers without encouraging the further erosion of marriage.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.