Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thoughts on Feminism and Abortion

For a long time, it has been assumed of the women's rights movement generally, and the abortion rights movement specifically, that feminism and abortion naturally go together. Surely, this is what one is made to believe by the majority of public spokespersons, activist representatives, and talking-heads on all sides of the issue. Yet, as I have pondered the feminism to which I ascribe (Christian feminism) and read the works of a variety of other like-minded women, I think that this assumption is sorely mistaken. In fact, I think it is quite legitimate to offer a feminist reasoning against abortion, both as a personal choice and social practice.

First, I think its important to make a distinction between "on the street" feminism and feminism as a worldview. "On the street" feminism, which is what is espoused by your average young American female, understands women's liberation primarily as the right of a woman to do what she pleases. (This may include the right to be paid equally and have equal rights generally, too, but the focus is personal choice.) In this mindset, it is perfectly in keeping with feminism for a woman to work her way through college as an exotic dancer, provided that's what she chooses to do. The issue of main importance is that a woman's choices are not dictated to her by a man (husband, boyfriend, father), or a male-dominated group (government, intelligentsia, church).

Now, this perspective on feminism isn't entirely mistaken. As a movement, feminism is globally and socially focused, directing its efforts toward the emancipation of women as a whole. This is done primarily by seeking for women the same rights as men in modern society, especially in the political, social, and economic realms. Often, these efforts are focused upon the removal of obstacles, such as beliefs, values, attitudes, and social structures, which hinder liberation (read: freedom).

This is somewhat in keeping with the "on the street" feminism described above, in the sense that feminism is seeking for women to be free to form their own future--one without oppression, violence, and hierarchy--and allowing for, yes, personal choice. But, I would argue that as a Christian theology and worldview, feminism is much more than this. If feminism is associated mainly with a woman's choice, it is significantly and dangerously truncated.

In its Christian form, feminism at its best is the pursuit of the flourishing of the human race as a whole and especially marginalized peoples: women of color, children, the impoverished, and the disabled. As I see it, in this "brand" of feminism, the pursuit of female liberation is held in tension with the pursuit of human flourishing. A balance is being pursued between freedom of the self and responsibility to and for the other.

So, getting back to abortion, I think it is "on the street" feminism, largely divorced from its roots in feminism as a worldview (and certainly Christian feminism), that is responsible for the emphasis on the woman's right to choose in today's abortion debates. (I should say that I do not debate in theory, the woman's right to choose what is done to and with her body. There are too many examples worldwide of women's bodies being mutilated and abused against her will for me not to [i.e., female circumcision, wife battering, sex trafficking, etc]. But, I am eager to point out that feminism is much, much more than an ideology that supports personal choice. It has a constructive, redemptive end, as well.)

And so, in an attempt to think about abortion (and the surrounding issue of female sexuality) from a Christian feminist perspective, allow me to tease out some thoughts in a rough, fairly undeveloped form. I know that I am not the first person to think in this way. Feminists of a variety of faiths--especially Catholic feminists--have been saying similar things for some time. But, this topic is fairly new to me. So, in the name of learning, I invite your (charitable) comments and (civil) interaction.

I think it can be argued that many women, particularly young women, have a mixture of antagonism, fear, and confusion regarding their bodies. Although feminism seeks to value the female body and lift it up as good, I think women continue to be informed by the patriarchal majority in how they view their bodies, particularly their sexuality.

For example, for the majority of American men, the feminine ideal is a lean, twenty-something, who dresses provocatively and is comfortable with illicit sexual liaisons. Hence, we hear women on MTV taking great pride in their ability to have a "one night stand" with a man and have no emotional problem with it at all. And, more often than not, this pride in sexual promiscuity is provided for with a variety of birth control methods.

But, Christian feminism would say that there are two major problems with this. First, the female body is not like the male body. Men can have sexual intercourse without consequence to themselves (other than sexually transmitted diseases, of course). Women, however, have the built-in capacity to conceive, carry, and bear children, as a result of their sexual encounters. The idea of sex without consequences, mutual regard, attachment, or responsibility is a very worldly and a very male concept--it arises solely from the male experience. By their very nature, women cannot have sexual intercourse without the possibility--even probability--of conceiving a child. Somehow, American women have lost touch with this reality.

Second, women who have adopted the predominantly male view of their bodies--that they must be able to act as men in their sexual encounters--develop a detrimental and thoroughly un-liberating antagonism toward their reproductive ability. The desire to participate in sexual intercourse in the way men do and the desire to be the detached, infertile, ideal woman that men want, leads them to do a variety of things to squelch their body's natural potential.

Women, by their nature, have the capacity to produce and nurture children. This is a fact. And it is a good thing. This is a primary way women are to be differentiated from men. No matter how hard modern women may try to do so, they cannot ignore their body's natural capabilities without serious consequences.

Christian feminism seeks to embrace the female body's reproductive power, to honor, protect, and nurture it for the benefit both of self and society. The female body is good. For centuries men characterized the female form as weak and contrary to the ideal. Men were associated with the mind (all things rational, strong, and powerful) and women were associated with the body (all things emotional, earthly, and weak). Because of the bodily changes women undergo--especially menstruation and childbirth--women were considered defective, dirty, and problematic. I think this idea is still embedded in the way women's bodies are spoken of, by men and women alike, and it is something that feminism should oppose.

And so, while it is certainly within a woman's rights to choose to have sexual intercourse with whoever she pleases (she is liberated, after all, and has embraced the fact that she's a "sexual being"), it is unnatural and wrong for her to expect that her body can cease its ability to conceive children when she does so--even with the use of a variety of birth controls.

In my opinion, the feminist ideal would be for women to embrace their reproductive potential--their natural ability to make children--and seek to live in responsible relationship to it. Live according to your moral convictions (or lack thereof), certainly. But do so with a view to your nature as a woman--your nature as a sexual and reproductive being.

Moreover, just as the female body is good, so also the fruit of the female body is good. The capacity to bring forth life is natural to the way of women and, going further, something to be valued and honored. Even as feminism seeks to create a world where women live without fear of exploitation, abuse, rape, and murder, so also feminism should seek to create world where the fruit of women's bodies are welcomed, cherished, and believed valuable enough to protect.

Life is, indeed, sacred. Women know this instinctively. And the lives women hold within them are sacred. And, going further, the lives women (and men) bring into the world and nurture into adulthood are sacred. For a feminist, then, sanctity of life means not just preventing a woman's child from being killed in the womb, but also ensuring the child's nourishment, health, and development outside the womb. (Hence, I believe the issue of abortion must not be divorced from the issues of poverty, health care, and education. But these are topics for another time.)

Finally, there is something deeply problematic in the way women have been conditioned to view children. Although I am by no means a believer in "quiverfull" ideology, and would have serious differences with their sympathizers on a number of levels (and they with me), the general view of American society that children are a problem, an obstruction even, to the lives of women, is false. This is the perspective held by many and is especially apparent in the view of (mostly male) employers regarding their female employees.

Christian feminism says that children are not an obstruction, either to women's liberation or the female pursuit of self-fulfillment (whether in a particular line of work or some other arena). As I see it, this negative view of children is mostly the product of a male-dominated society (and some feminist's imbibing of their ethos), which doesn't want to take responsibility for the fruit of their loins or partner fully with women in child-rearing. Further, male employers don't want either to provide financial security for women attending to the earliest stages of motherhood (maternity leave) or accept the possible financial repercussions of women placing ultimate significance in new life and mothering. God forbid the almighty dollar bow at the feet of a mere child!

Along these lines, I think a feminist must reject both the male-chauvinist rejection of working mothers (because of the financial liability) and the traditionalist rejection of working mothers (because of sharply differentiated gender roles), concluding that mothering and working go hand-in-hand, no matter what one's work is conceived to be (from accounting to quilting to zoology). Using one's gifts and abilities to serve one's neighbor and the common good (the proper Christian understanding of "work") is not closed off to women because they accept and follow-through on their body's capacity to bear children. But, once again, this means that feminists can and should support efforts to change the way society views and organizes "work," so that it is a more inviting environment, conducive to the valuing of mothering in general, and children in particular.

All this taken together leads me to conclude that abortion is not just wrong from a Christian perspective (as most of my evangelical friends argue the point), but also wrong from a feminist perspective. Women should value their bodies as distinctly female--capable of producing new life--and live responsibly in light of this truth. The fruit of their bodies--living, breathing, vulnerable children--is to be protected and nurtured, not treated as a problem to be done away with. The feminist drive to work for the flourishing of the human race extends to unborn children, as well, and desires a civil society that will value the fruit of their bodies and foster the lives of children. As an accepted social practice, abortion does not lead to the flourishing of women in particular, or the human race in general, especially in case of the most vulnerable and marginalized among us--the unborn.

In saying all this, though, I should say that I am not an idealist, nor am I unaware of the difficulties and complexities of many women's personal circumstances. I have never been faced with a surprising and unwelcome pregnancy. I am not familiar with the many difficult circumstances under which women choose an abortion (i.e., poverty, abuse, rape, and others). I am not calloused to the very real fear and anxiety that drives such women to abortion clinics. And, I am painfully aware that we live in a society where many who are adamantly opposed to abortion are just as adamantly opposed to lifting a finger (or paying a cent more in taxes) toward helping the woman who bravely chooses life.

Yet, I have concluded that ultimately, it does not benefit women or contribute to human flourishing to have a society that views their body's fertility as a problem and the children they produce as an obstruction. As a general practice, abortion contributes to this and should be opposed.

The details as to how to do this are another matter, entirely (another post for another time). For now, the above ideas are what I've been thinking recently about the relation of abortion to Christian feminism. Hopefully this can be good "food for thought" for feminists and traditionalists, alike. I'm interested in what you think.


Lory said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lory said...

Thanks for this. As a single, never married female (and all that goes with that in 'good' Christian circles...), my question has been more about birth control in this idea of sanctity of life.

Is birth control against this idea of accepting females as sexual/reproductive? I certainly hold that image or role to be a part of being female.

Or is it responsible in light of poverty, repeated abuse, etc.?

I agree that sexual encounters can be for the purpose of reproduction, but what about the young couple who wants to express intimacy and love for their spouse while realizing they are not in a position to responsibly care for offspring?

Just some thoughts I've been throwing around recently.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Hey Lory,

Thanks for your good questions. I think you've put your finger on something that reveals a couple major weaknesses in my post:

(1) I'm not dealing with specifics--real women in real situations (whether single, married, divorced, etc). My theories are well and good when they are theories. But, what about how they work themselves out "on the ground," among the women I'm proposing to empower and support? Maybe in the future, I can be more practical--deal more with real life situations, as well as policies, laws, etc. For now, its mostly theory.

(2) I don't address the matter of birth control, which is often presented as the logical means for preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place (both in married and unmarried couples). Certainly, if reproductive capability is an essential part of being female, then we must consider the question of limiting that reproductive capability through means other than abortion.

I wish I had time to be more thorough, but I wrote this post in-between seminars and reading assignments. You know how that is. :)

Regarding the first weakness, I certainly don't want to speak to ethical matters without reference to "real life," particularly as it relates to women. Part of the feminist enterprise is about doing theology and ethics out of women's experience. That said, I think at least some of what I'm doing does indeed take into account the experience of women--at least, American women. But there is more to be done, for sure. I'm writing as a Caucasian, American, middle-class woman scholar in the Midwest and that inherently implies limitations in my thought. More needs to be done.

About birth control, I can only say some things in a preliminary way. Its probably necessary to think about the question by distinguishing between types of birth control. There are ways to limit births without using drugs (although their efficacy is certainly more limited than drugs). And, the birth control methods that use drugs do so through various means, too. Perhaps we should be thinking about how these methods affect the female body and how they affect the female perception of her body (and her sexuality), and how they affect society (humanity) as a whole.

I'm not sure where to go with this, yet, but I am thinking through it. What do you think?

Thanks again, Lory.

Grace, peace, and love,


Lory said...

Don't have long....about to drive to Waco. Same situation as you.

My question wasn't so much based on thinking your post was theory vs. practical. I know you better than that! And, theories are always tweaked in real life. It's really just another aspect that I've been wrestling with lately. A tangent from your post, if you will.

I'm with you on not knowing exactly where to go in this discussion. The struggle with putting theory into practice is that every practical situation is different. (I'm a fan of situational ethics for some things...primarily where scripture is totally silent on methods, etc.)

As for evaluating methods, I think you are spot on when you say we need to look at more than just "will this prevent?" to the results and consequences of such action.

Again, still working on and thinking answer could be a ways off.

Happy Ph.D-ing!

Tim Dunn said...

good stuff. very thought provoking and well written. would be interested in recommendation on some of the "christian feminists" authors you referrenced as well as the forthcoming "how" of the above. hope you guys are well.

thoughts and prayers-

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks for your comment.

I have to filter and re-appropriate a lot of the Christian feminists I read, not because their systems are badly constructed, but because some of their conclusions are ultimately untenable to me as an evangelical (and will be to you, too).

So... If I were suggesting books in the area of Christian feminism to a fellow evangelical, I'd probably recommend the following to start with (especially the first one):

- John Stackhouse, Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender (Baker, 2005)
- Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (Baker, 2006)
- Discovering Biblical Equality, gen eds. Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (IVP)

Then, I think these books could provide a good framework through which to read the following authors (who are a few of the "heavy hitters" in feminist theology, but have ideas that will push a lot of one's evangelical buttons):

- Catherine M. Lacugna, Ed., Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective (HarperOne, 1993)
- Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (Crossroad, 1994)
- Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Crossroad, 2002)

I hope to post something soon on the practical implications of my view of abortion. I'm still working through it, but I know that I'm not content simply to say, make it illegal. I'm asking questions like this:

What does justice and mercy require of us? While I think abortion is wrong--the taking of an innocent life--how would God have us treat those who are desperate enough to choose it? And, what of those who provide the medical tools to carry it out? And, what can we as a society do to persuade and support women faced with an unplanned pregnancy (as well as the much earlier work of educating them about their body's value in the first place)?

Thanks again, Tim.

Grace and peace,


Ashley said...


So very interesting! As a woman, I know my instincts scream "no" when it comes to abortion, but I have never thought about it in the way you described: Truly feminism is about the equality of genders, but what about the equality of humans altogether- whether a fetus or a 90 year old man. Unfortunately in our society, both seem to have little value. Cultural feminism would advocate the woman's right to choose, but ironically enough that choice is an infringement on the child's right to live. If others would recognize this hypocrisy, true feminism, as you stated, could then authentically be about the furtherance of the human race as a whole.

Very well written, will link to it tomorrow on my blog!

Fred Smith said...

Excellent post Emily and the germ of what could become a book eventually. Let me raise a few points to challenge your thinking:

1) Be careful of using the term Christian Feminism as if it refers exclusively to people of your persuasion--remember that Virginia Mollenkott, whose ideas on abortion are VERY different from yours calls herself a Christian feminist, and an evangelical. We cannot define a term the way we want to and use it expecting people to understand us. (Consider the fact that Mollenkott appropriates "evangelical" to herself, but she fools almost no one. You don't want to call yourself a Christian Feminist and everyone else in that camp say "yeah, right.") Consider developing a new term, or one that incorporates "Christian Feminist" into a larger phrase.

2) Be careful of bifurcating "theory" and "real life" as if conclusions in the two realms must be different. It is true that you have never faced the circumstances of a woman who makes the choice to get an abortion, but that does not make the choice right. One of the values of the intellectual life is that it gives us a "laboratory,' a safe place, in which to develop the best answer to difficult questions. We can then take that answer out into the world and apply it. But--what about those who do not have the education/opportunity for reflection that you have? This is the reason--the real reason--why we teach. Part of your task is to take the results of deep reading and reflection on difficult matters, and find a way to communicate the truth about these matters to the average person out there so that they can be guided toward making right choices. It is a big part of what makes teaching such a tremendous challenge, and also what makes it so worthwhile.

3) Be careful of "giving away too much" in an effort to be understanding of the situation in the "real world." For example, did you really, really mean to say that a woman should engage in sexual choices in light of her moral convictions "or lack thereof" ? Is it really, as you imply, a neutral matter whether one has moral convictions about sexual behavior, or not. You don't believe that, and yet a straight forward reading of that part of your post would lead one to think that you do. (I believe you were trying to be "objective" or "understanding" or something like that. Please, don't do that to yourself, or to the things you believe. If we compromise away everyting we believe, just inorder to gain a hearing, we end up with nothing to say that is worth hearing at all. There is middle ground between the ravings of ignorant wild eyed preachers, and the careful measured statements of leftist "eggheads." That middle ground--where you express in "careful measured statements" the important truths of the Bible--often the same truths that underly the preacher's rantings--is what you really want.

I look forward to reading your book!

Richard said...

Excellent article, and I love the pictures of William.

You write: "The idea of sex without consequences, mutual regard, attachment, or responsibility is a very worldly and a very male concept--it arises solely from the male experience."

Maybe a hundred years ago. I'm not sure you can make this distinction today with modern contraception, even if it isn't 100% reliable. Women do, in practice today, behave as though they can have sex without consequences. In this sense they have now become male.

My wife went out with the gals a week back, all the others were single and all were sexually active. There were even jokes about men, claimed suspicions they were gay when they did initiate sex soon enough. I could also cite two cases when I was single, aggressive (evangelical Christian) women in which I had to flee their apartment. I hadn't come prepared for sex without consequences, and I never asked if they had.

My comment is that drawing a male/female distinction regarding "sex without consequences, mutual regard, attachment, or responsibility" and arising "solely from the male experience" is simply not accurate in today's world.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Hi Richard,

Thanks for your comment. You make a good observation--one that I agree with. But, I think I should have been more clear in my initial statement. I didn't word it very well at all.

What I was attempting to say is that sex without consequences is something entirely unnatural for the female bodily experience. (Not necessarily what women actually do with their bodies, but what is natural to their bodies as women.) That is to say, women's bodies are not made in such a way that they can have sex without consequences. As you point out, they require the use of contraceptives to prevent pregnancy. I think this fact actually proves the point. Sex without pregnancy is, generally speaking, an unnatural thing for women.

For men's bodily experience, however, sex is divorced from immediate bodily consequences. They can have sex with hundreds of women and never experience any consequence within their own bodies. That's why I said that sex without consequences is a distinctively male experience--distinctively male in the sense of what naturally occurs. (But, I should say, I'm not saying that because men can have sex without consequence that they should do so willy-nilly, either. As a Christian, I have very clear ideas about the bounds of sexual conduct, for men and women.)

I hope I understood your comment and that my explanation makes sense. I think it is a serious problem that contemporary women attempt to act as men in their experience of sexuality. Their bodies were not designed this way. For a variety of reasons, women are no longer in touch with what makes them distinctively female and they ignore this reality at their peril (and, I think, the peril of their unborn children).

Thanks again, Richard.

Grace and peace,


r. grannemann said...

Thanks Emily, your clarification helps quite a bit.

Your line of reasoning seems to be a "natural law" argument, which I think has a certain validity, an approach under appreciated by Protestants, though I don't accept all the conclusions Catholics draw from it (e.g. that artificial contraception is wrong).

Still, I liked your article very much.

Leanie Meanie said...

Good post.

Richard makes a very valid point (and Emily, thanks for clarifying). I agree with both of you, that it is certainly incorrect to assume that men can play around in the sexual arena without getting hurt, whereas women can't. (And I understand and agree with Emily's clarification).

I know from personal experience as a man, that any kind of playing around in the are of physical intimacy can be hurtful: coming from a very Christian background in my moral values, I have been scarred badly (even despite not having had "gone all the way") in what a girl did to me in playing around and using me. Meanwhile two female elders in our informal Christian group, have told me that "as a gentlemen" I shouldn't let anyone else know what she did to me. This is despite her actions to me causing problems in our ministry. This just just goes to show that men also DO have to face "a raw deal" in this matter. I am fully aware that more often the shoe is on the foot; nevertheless, in some ways, for genuine decent men like me, life is tougher, since people won't even understand how we feel in such a situation.

Sorry for that long rant, which digresses from your main post. Your approach to the idea of how a woman should approach the idea of abortion, is a great approach. May I add to this: I feel a man also SHOULD be made to feel the consequences: it is the woman who bears the physical consequence, but - especially as Christians - we really need to teach oursevles that men should feel equally responsible. (Which is not to say that I approve of any sex outside/before marriage; nevertheless, if it happens, then both are equally responsible and it's upto men like me to push this point home to my fellow men).

I'm an idealist? Yes - but then Jesus's ways ARE idealist; that's what we oughta aim at.