The Intersection of Abortion Rights and Sexism

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I consider the claim that the sexual revolution explains the sexual misconduct that has surfaced lately in #MeToo revelations. In this post, I consider the role that legalized abortion might have played in protecting or motivating coercive sexual conduct.

I recently heard someone making the argument that that the pro-life view is more feminist than the pro-choice perspective on abortion. I had heard the claim before. It goes roughly like this: the pro-choice approach treats the woman and her baby as adversaries and pregnancy as a pathological condition. The idea is that pro-choice advocates alienate women from their own bodies and their own babies to such an extent that women prefer to kill rather than keep their unborn children.

I had never found it convincing. Pro-choice is not pro-abortion, despite what many pro-life commentators say. Giving women the option of aborting merely acknowledges the reality that some pregnant women experience their unborn inhabitants as intrusive and their pregnancies as pathological. It does not create that reality. And when women want to remain pregnant, pro-choice feminists support their right to do so and to go to school and to keep their jobs with pregnancy accommodated rather than punished.

But the feminist argument that I recently heard was a little different. It held that the availability of abortion as an option liberates men to bed as many women as they like, as coercively as they want, without having to suffer the consequences of having to provide child support. And men sometimes pressure women into terminating a pregnancy as well, to avoid just such consequences.

The position seemed potentially feminist-friendly to me, in the sense that the speaker was on the lookout for policies that might either enable or discourage men from using coercion to satisfy their sexual desires. The threat of a potential pregnancy could perhaps fit the bill. A predatory man who would coerce women into having sex with him might think twice if he knew that sex could lead to an 18-year child-support obligation. Access to abortion could, on this logic, undermine the deterrent, maybe even adding a coerced abortion to the coerced sex that led to the pregnancy in the first place. Many pro-choice men may in reality be anti-feminist libertines who simply want a way out of having to be a father to children on whose mothers they imposed themselves sexually.

Despite the good intentions behind this argument and the likelihood that there are men who support abortion rights for selfish reasons, the argument is still flawed. First, birth control would likely reassure predatory libertines enough to allow them to have their coercive sex notwithstanding an abortion prohibition. Abortion access may not be necessary to enable date rapists.

Second, people often make decisions about sex in an impulsive rather than well-thought-out manner. Impulsive decisions, in turn, are unlikely to be responsive to down-the-road consequences such as an unwanted child to whom one will owe many years of support. Accordingly, thoughts like, "Well, abortion is legal/illegal, and I will therefore have sex/not have sex," seem improbable, especially given the illegal abortion market that would certainly emerge if the law prohibited the procedure.

Third and finally, many of the women who have an abortion are already in committed, loving relationships with men who do not view potential offspring as a deterrent. Some women may have children who would suffer from an expansion in their numbers, and that is what motivates their abortions. This is plainly going to be a nonstarter for anyone who believes that an embryo or early fetus is the moral equivalent of a baby and that abortion is the same as murder. One may not kill a baby because there are too many mouths to feed. But if an embryo or early-to-midterm fetus is a potential baby and/or if living inside a woman's body gives the woman sovereignty over one's destiny, regardless of one's status, then the feminist position would protect abortion as an option.

I want to emphasize here that I do not doubt the sincerity of people who say that they are pro-life feminists and feel that the two positions reinforce each other. It is right to observe, moreover, that some, perhaps many, abortions are not freely chosen but instead result from a culture that treats pregnant women and mothers as "less than," in the workplace, in universities, at home, and in life more generally. And some abortions doubtless result from coercion by the father of the pregnancy. A more pregnancy- and baby-friendly society and a cultural shift that harshly penalizes coercion within intimate relationships would do a lot to help pregnant women who actually want to keep their babies but anticipate a loss in life opportunities to do what they truly wish to do.

Even after all of these measures are taken, however, there will still be women who find themselves pregnant and do not want to be. For them, there must be an abortion option. If women are truly equal, then they cannot be compelled against their will to remain internally invaded by an unwanted occupant. I know that pro-life feminists would dispute this contention, but I think that their view--in this class of cases--is a function of their being pro-life rather than of their feminism. When the two conflict--and they inevitably will sometimes--pro-life wins for them.

While I understand this view, I do not share it. For me, the government should never be able to force a woman to remain pregnant (though it could perhaps prohibit the killing of a truly viable fetus). As in sexual encounters, no means no. Period. Full stop.