Building a Consensus on Abortion

Building a Consensus on Abortion

“Anyone who believes that if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem is part of the problem.”

Aaron Haspel

Guns and fetuses. Out of all the issues that have plagued American democracy in the past few centuries, none seem to reach the tenor and intensity of the debate over gun rights and abortion. So much so that it’s fairly common to hear voters admit that it’s just on guns, abortion, or both that their vote was won. But where the debate over guns seems to be more about run-of-the-mill politics—more a matter of trying to strike a balance, compromise, please both sides in some way—the abortion debate seems just downright intractable: concede a little, and you end up conceding everything. Expanding the right for a woman to choose is an expansion of the right to kill innocent fetuses and destroy life; to limit women’s choices and ban abortion effectively imposes a single, overtly religious worldview on millions of people. The arguments are well-worn at this point, and everyone has dug in.

While some have interpreted this stalemate as an opportunity to develop more and more sophisticated arguments (or just rehearse the same tired ones) and continue to assume very simple premises their opponents would never assume themselves, others have tried to hammer out some sort of middle ground. In talking about how we should educate citizens in a democracy, Richard Rorty once wrote that we should:

try to educate the citizenry in the civic virtue of having as few such compelling interests, beliefs, and desires as possible. Try, for example, to get them to change the subject from “When does human life begin?” to “How can some unprincipled and wishy-washy consensus about abortion be hammered out?” Try to get them to be as flexible and wishy-washy as possible, and to value democratic consensus more than they value almost anything else. Try to make them as little inclined to emigrate or secede as possible, by encouraging them to tolerate compromise on matters which they previously thought uncompromisable.1

The modern abortion controversy—which dates back to the 19th century—is still fueled by the question, “When does human life begin?” We tend to think that if only we could find an answer to this question we could settle the issue once and for all, which is why so many begin their answer to the question with “scientists say…”

Are anti-abortion politics driven by misogyny?

My colleague here at Liberal Currents has written an admirable piece in which he tries to show how abortion bans are misogynistic and illiberal, but it is, to my eyes, just another attempt to answer the question, “When does life begin?” Granted, he does shift the question—this has essentially been the pro-choice strategy since Roe—but not as much as it seems. For example, consider this barrage: 

These consequences of criminalized abortion violate the core principles of liberalism. The right to be secure in one’s person and the basic freedom to choose one’s life path are fundamental liberal tenets that are directly infringed by abortion bans. A major historical motivating idea for liberal institutions is to facilitate one’s exercise of one’s own religion—or deepest metaphysical and ethical commitments—as one understands them in a manner consistent with the freedom of others to do likewise. This freedom is steamrolled under the narrow sectarian interpretation of fetal personhood.2

One might simply respond with: “Life begins at conception. Full stop.” I am not trying to be dismissive; rather I am trying to show just how futile it is to try and win the battle at this point with some kind of argumentative knockout. You can call it misogyny but that doesn’t trump life. Liberalism doesn’t trump life. Rights certainly don’t trump life, and every analogy drawn about rights in other cases—self-defense, trespassing, property, etc.—often has one glaring disanalogous aspect to it that the pro-lifer can latch onto with ease. 

This is why I always tell my students that while the pro-choice side might be more nuanced and sophisticated, the pro-life side has one thing going for it that seems to cut through just about every pro-choice argument: simplicity. Even staunch pro-choicers admit that the prospect of drawing a line for fetal personhood somewhere during the 9-month period—for when it’s okay to have an abortion and when it’s not—is bound to be arbitrary. Why heartbeat? Why viability? The difficulty in drawing this line is precisely what gives pro-lifers the upper hand. Why not just draw it at the very beginning?

But if we want the kind of world my colleague paints in his piece—a world where there is less misogyny and wider access to abortion—I think there are better ways to argue for it. From the very beginning, he says he wants to approach the subject from “what conception, fetal development, and fetal termination look like from a materialist’s perspective, even though I believe the case for abortion rights rests most firmly on the bodily autonomy of pregnant persons.” This is the wrong approach. At this point in the debate, refining one’s own position without reference to the other side or their beliefs is all but pointless. More to the point, pro-lifers tend not to be materialists, and don’t in fact think abortion arguments stand or fall on arguments about autonomy.

A tragic vision

In her excellent book Pro-Life, Pro-Choice: Shared Values in the Abortion Debate, Bertha Alvarez Manninen seeks to recover what I see as the more tragic element in the abortion issue. The tragedy, however, is not the fact that it’s an argumentative stalemate with no end in sight. On the contrary, the tragedy comes from needing to hold two, apparently disparate ideas together: that abortions should be accessible and that we should still talk about the fetus in terms of life and not as just a meaningless clump of cells. 

While there is little doubt my colleague and philosopher Kate Manne (whom he quotes) would disagree, Manninen says:

Many present-day feminists agree that grappling with the moral value of the fetus and the ambiguities of abortion is not antithetical to pro-choice or feminist advocacy. The challenge, however, is to successfully portray these concerns as widespread within the pro-choice community. The new generation of pro-choice advocates who wish to do more to introduce the fetus back into abortion rights discourse are increasingly removed from the oppression suffered by the generations of women before them.3

On the one hand, my colleague thinks anti-abortion measures are an extension of a very explicit but often unmentioned misogyny in American politics. Manninen, on the other hand, thinks “fetuses are no longer necessarily symbolic of the predestined and entrapped role of women as mothers and homemakers,” and this is “only because generations of women before us struggled to release us from the oppression that they suffered as a result of their biological capacities.”

She goes on:

Some pro-choice advocates do not regard anti-choice [Manninen’s term for pro-life] advocates as genuinely good people who truly believe that fetuses are morally equivalent to infants and are therefore disturbed by their deaths. Rather, some charge anti-choice advocates with sexism, elitism, and authoritarianism, viewing them as religious extremists and perpetuators of a rhetoric of fear and hate. This may describe some anti- choice individuals. … But this does not describe all abortion-rights opponents.

Circumscribing anti-abortion sentiment and laws to an expression of one thing like authoritarianism or misogyny is a mistake.  

One of the take-home points of Manninen’s book is that  we need to acknowledge all of the “complexities regarding both fetal life and women who abort.” Jeannie Ludlow, who Manninen quotes in her book, “recommends not approaching the issue by denying the fetus’s status as a potential person that is very close to being regarded as an infant. Instead, she recommends the following response: ‘Yes. It’s a baby and yes, it is killed. I want to talk about all the reasons why so many women choose to have abortions even though they know this, and why it is important that women are allowed to make that choice.’”

So what do we do? Interestingly enough, Manninen puts a good amount of blame on pro-choicers. She recommends that “the pro-choice community … acknowledge the value of fetal life and own up to the reality that abortion does involve the killing of a being that is biologically human and, potentially, a child.” As I mentioned in the beginning though, this seems like a concession that would spell the end of the pro-choice movement. Manninen understands why pro-choicers would be hesitant to say something like this, but, she insists, “we can show proper respect for fetal life, even while acknowledging that the pregnant woman has the final say concerning whether she wishes to use her body to gestate that life.” A she rightly points out, when feminists chose to focus solely on rights and bodily autonomy, they handed the pro-life side a monopoly on one of the most powerful arguments: the moral status of the fetus.

In her book, Manninen presents case after case of women who hesitate to call themselves pro-choice because “pro-choice advocates have largely neglected to take seriously the value of fetal life,” and those women felt as though the movement didn’t accurately represent their feelings on the matter. In my own life, I find this to be the case as well. My own wife, while pro-choice, demurs at calling herself pro-choice. “It’s more complicated than that.” This is also what I hear most often from students who sometimes default to pro-life simply because of the crude “clump of cells” talk that comes from the pro-choice side. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the pro-choice side has become just as dogmatic, just as inflexible and alienating as those they condemn. There is, at this time, no room in the pro-choice movement for people who think fetal life has value, and this is precisely what Manninen hopes to correct. As one woman from Manninen’s book recounts:

I desperately wanted a feminist article, pamphlet, speech, anything that would let me have both the abortion and my own ambivalence. . . . I wanted to deal with the moral balance sheet of abortion, not to have to deny that one existed for me. Instead people kept telling me I was misguided, brainwashed by the patriarchy. They patiently explained that the fetus was just a bunch of cells.

To be sure, it’s unclear just how many women fall into this camp; but it’s similarly unclear how many in the pro-choice movement simply fall in line due to the choice between the lesser of two evils. It’s simply prudent for the pro-choice movement to operate under the impression that there are people who believe that abortion access ought to be accessible and that abortions aren’t just the removal of a meaningless and morally irrelevant clump of cells.

Supporting life

So what are these so-called “shared values” Manninen talks about? First things first: pro-lifers and pro-choicers will, for the foreseeable future at least, disagree about the moral status of the fetus, that is, whether or not the human fetus is akin in moral status to a human infant. Similarly, pro-lifers and pro-choicers will probably continue to disagree on the primacy the role of motherhood ought to take in the lives of women. Whereas many pro-choice advocates view motherhood as an important and worthwhile life path for women, they do not believe that it trumps all other life paths. Anti-choice advocates, on the other hand, seem to maintain that upon pregnancy all women should embrace motherhood, even at expense of other desires and goals.

“Despite this difference,” Manninen says, “women on both sides value motherhood as a role of extreme importance and responsibility that ought not to be taken lightly,” and so both sides can agree that, ideally, a woman should keep an infant and raise it well. “Therefore, a common goal should be to help build a society that is conducive to assisting women with unintended pregnancies to keep and raise their infants if this is what they choose to do. For anti choice advocates, the motivation for engaging in such work seems clear: it may result in a decrease in abortion rates, which presumably is their primary goal.” If Manninen’s point here is unclear it’s because one of the supporting arguments throughout the book is that one of the primary reasons women choose to have abortions is because they feel they are not financially ready for the task. In other words, the system in place does not offer the kind of support needed to help potential mothers be actual mothers.

If you want fewer abortions, Manninen gently prods the pro-lifer, perhaps we should build institutions that alleviate one of the main reasons women have abortions in the first place. Perhaps then, pro-life advocates insisting on making laws forcing women carry to term won’t seem to combine paternalism with indifference, offering nothing yet lecturing women to “be more responsible next time.” Instead, their concerns will seem more like an honest expression of care for the fetus and their future life. In other words, put your money where your mouth is. “Resources such as high-quality, low-cost or free child care may go a long way to saving the lives of fetuses, disabled and not, who might otherwise have been aborted because their mothers were concerned about being able to provide for their care and welfare.” 

Manninen’s book is filled from cover to cover with real issues and stories of real women with real emotions, and that is precisely the turn in the abortion debate we need. We need more human connection. People need to familiarize themselves with the actual stories, the actual feelings, of women who had abortions, women who thought about it but didn’t, and everything in between. The abortion issue isn’t a simple, abstract equation just waiting for the right combination of words to form on a page. Unfortunately, tragically, it’s more complicated than that.

“Only connect,” E. M. Forster said. That, ultimately, is the story of Manninen’s book. Perhaps it will add a bit of life to the abortion debate.


1. Richard Rorty, “A Defense of Minimalist Liberalism.”

2. Paul Crider, “The Misogyny of Anti-Abortion Politics.”

3. Bertha Alvarez Manninen, Pro-Life, Pro-Choice: Shared Values in the Abortion Debate

Featured image is My body my choice sign at a Stop Abortion Bans Rally in St Paul, Minnesota by Lorie Shaull