If [misogyny] feels like anything at all, it will tend to be righteous: like standing up for oneself or for morality, or—often combining the two—for the “little guy.” It often feels to those in its grip like a moral crusade, not a witch hunt. And it may pursue its targets not in the spirit of hating women but, rather, of loving justice.Kate Manne
Reproductive freedom is a cornerstone of a society of free and equal persons, especially when such persons have diverse understandings of the world and differential powers and positions. In the following I argue that restrictions on abortion, especially bans based on fetal personhood, violate two core principles of liberalism. Beyond infringing on bodily autonomy, abortion bans compromise the equal freedom of religious and conscientious expression. And such bans act as a central plank of women’s political and economic oppression, treating them as de facto inferior citizens. Together, the two parts show that reproductive freedom is necessary to secure freedom and equality for all persons in a diverse society.
A materialist account of personhood and abortion ethics
It’s fashionable in discussing the ethics of abortion to argue from a point as close to one’s opponents as possible, so we see abortion advocates allow the premise that fetuses are morally valuable entities and abortion opponents begin with entirely secular premises. In my defense of abortion rights, I will buck this trend and start with 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.[*] While it often makes rhetorical sense to assume as little as possible, it’s also worth remembering that no one truly leaves their deep religious or metaphysical commitments outside the public forum, nor should we expect them to. Religious moderates and non-religious people also have principled beliefs that are often sidelined as the debate is framed as an irreconcilable contest between religious conviction and purely secularly construed rights to privacy and bodily autonomy.
To understand why a materialist does not consider embryonic or fetal life to have the same kind of value as persons, we have to think about both what is valuable about human life and what is bad about its loss. To a materialist, there is no immaterial “soul” or essence of a person that exists apart from the physical substrate of the body. But we value human lives as much as any religious person who believes in immaterial souls. This value arises from several sources: the capability to value; the ongoing roles, projects, and activities in which one participates; awareness, sense of self, and self-narrative; the ability to feel and dread suffering; and the location of the self within social relationships.
A fetus has no capability to value their own continued existence because they lack the neural complexity and the life experiences to form any kind of values. Likewise the fetus has no roles, projects, or plans that can be interrupted. And while healthy late stage fetuses—note that 98.7% of abortions are performed during the first 20 weeks (see figure)—likely have some awareness, they likely have no narrative about their life and experiences. A famous argument from philosopher Don Marquis argued that fetuses warrant moral consideration because they have a “future like ours” and termination robs them of this. But under normal conditions, a fetus cannot reasonably expect a future like ours: 10 to 20% of pregnancies spontaneously miscarry, or Russian Roulette odds. And the fetus requires a steady stream of resources and conscious maternal cooperation to develop in good order. This is different in kind from the “future like ours” that a sleeping person can reasonably expect to wake up to if left unmolested. Marquis’s argument begs the question whether termination is construed as interference with the fetus or as withdrawal of grudging, unchosen cooperation.
Much is made of fetal pain—which is likely impossible before the third trimester—but instantaneous pain itself doesn’t have the ethical importance of prolonged suffering, the fear of the possibility of pain, and the traumatic remembrance of pain. This intuition is common enough in animal welfare ethics: we often rate hunting as less problematic than factory meat farming because in the former death is quick and follows a life of freedom, whereas the latter involves long suffering. Aborted fetuses do not have freedom before their termination, but for reasons given above, freedom has no meaning in utero. Fetuses also have no understanding or dread of pain, and they will obviously have no remembrance of the brief pain of their termination.
Finally, at least part of the badness of dying is not only the abrupt loss of one’s own narrative and ongoing projects, but the hole a death renders within the social fabric. It is paradoxical that, because we no longer have any sensation, emotion, or cognition after we have died, it is unclear what the problem with death is. But a death of a person is also the severance of a relationship: a parent or child, sibling or friend, lover or colleague. And there is pain in grief and mourning. When a child is wanted by expectant parents, relationships already begin to form: the parents already love the child to be, a nursery is prepared, friends and grandparents prepare their own hearts to welcome the new addition into their lives. These relationships do not arise in the case of an unwanted pregnancy. This is why the very same person with the same decent values can at one point in their life terminate a pregnancy with no other emotion than a sense of relief, and at another point in their life mourn a miscarriage.
To an atheist who believes in a purely physical world, these considerations all converge on the position that nothing as morally weighty as personhood could possibly be present in the early months of pregnancy when the majority of abortions are performed. The strongest argument against abortion on demand is that much of the above discussion applies to newborns as well, potentially inviting justifications for infanticide. This is a real rhetorical risk, but this fear is about a non-problem. As noted above, almost 99% of abortions occur before the 21st week of pregnancy. Abortions in the third trimester are rare enough that the CDC does not record them, but estimates are on the order of dozens per year in the entire US. The “partial birth abortion” is a fictitious article of propaganda spread by anti-abortion activists. The image of the whimsical late term abortion is effectively a libel on all women who seek abortions, portraying them as capricious and unable to make ethical or medical decisions. Obviously no one is suggesting legalizing infanticide. Forty-three states presently impose regulations on late abortion, and these are often intended to make abortion inconvenient. In an alternative political context, there could be room for reasonable regulation of third trimester abortions due to considerations of viability and the plausible onset of personhood, but in the present environment such regulations are best understood as wedge policies that are purposefully hostile to women’s reproductive freedom.
Abortion bans violate the religious freedom of dissenters, nonbelievers and believers alike, by privileging one controversial doctrinal interpretation over others. There is an inherent asymmetry on abortion rights and religious freedom. Under a regime protecting reproductive freedom, all persons can enjoy religious freedom by aborting unwanted pregnancies or not, as befits their own religious or metaphysical beliefs. But under an abortion ban, those who wish to terminate unwanted pregnancies have their religious freedom infringed due to the state’s endorsement of the fetal personhood doctrine. This imposition of state religion is enforced on the very bodies of dissenters in the form of forced pregnancy and forced birth, so it is more akin to compulsory circumcision or some other invasive ritual procedure than it is to, say, suffering the posting of the Ten Commandments within the state courthouse.
Bodily autonomy and physical risk
The argument is based on a major assumption. Many of the most insightful and careful writers on the ethics of abortion … believe that whether or not abortion is morally permissible stands or falls on whether or not a fetus is the sort of being whose life it is seriously wrong to end. The argument of this essay will assume, but not argue, that they are correct.
Don Marquis began his much-cited essay “Why Abortion Is Immoral” with this consideration, and it is widely echoed in the anti-abortion movement. It is exactly wrong. If one accepts something like the materialist account of the development of personhood presented above, then abortion would be moral by default. But if one’s religious or other commitments lead one to believe in fetal personhood—a person being someone whose life it is seriously wrong to end, all else equal—then the moral permissibility stands or falls on how we evaluate the conflict of interests between the fetus and the mother. The argument is only getting started.
That fetal personhood would by itself determine abortion to be immoral betrays a lack of concern and respect for both the bodily autonomy and physical safety of women. Consider that we do not compel people to give blood, and—even in the case of dead persons—we will not harvest their organs unless given explicit permission to do so prior to the person’s death. Even the use of deadly force in response to trespass on physical property is often morally excused. By similar reasoning, a person carrying a fetus should not be expected to devote nine months of discomfort, altered life plans, and resources to growing that fetus if doing so doesn’t align with their own autonomously chosen life plan. The case against coercing someone to carry a pregnancy to term is even stronger than the case against coerced blood or organ donation because of the duration and significant bodily risk of pregnancy and childbirth. In 2014 the maternal death rate was 25 per 100,000 live births, and the maternal death rate for black women was more than twice that.
In addition to the substantial physical risks, childbirth can—and should, as voluntary parenthood is an ethical endeavor—profoundly alter a person’s life. A deep emotional bond is formed, along with a lifelong set of obligations. One’s life is no longer one’s own in the way it is prior to parenthood. This is something of beauty and wonder when it is entered freely, but it’s also something that shouldn’t be forced on a person. Adoption naturally springs to mind, but if people are compelled to carry their pregnancies to term, there will always be some who prefer to keep their children rather than give them up.
Genealogy and ideology of “pro-life”
While I do not doubt the sincerity of fetal personhood proponents, it’s worth considering how malleable the position has been, and how attuned to political and other circumstances. Even in Roman Catholic teaching, ensoulment was understood to occur upon “quickening,” or the detection of fetal movement within the womb, until 1869, the idea being that movement signified awareness. Prior to this, the Church still disapproved of abortion before quickening, but did not condemn it as murder, and also allowed for various mitigating circumstances. Conservative Christians, now the frontline foot soldiers for overturning Roe v. Wade and implementing the most extreme state-level abortion bans in the USA, did not always view abortion as a salient political issue. At the time of Roe v. Wade (1973), The Baptist Press supported the landmark decision, and in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution condemning abortion, but allowing exceptions not only for rape and incest, but even the emotional and psychological health of the mother. Then Governor Ronald Reagan signed bipartisan legislation legalizing abortion in 1967 in California.
As this brief historical sketch shows, much about abortion even in the Christian mindset hinges on ideology. This applies to sexist framing just as much as theology. Commentator Gabrielle Blair in a viral tweet thread provided a radical alternative to the way abortion is framed as it relates to the differential responsibility of men and women, even as someone who is opposed to abortion.
No matter how many orgasms she has, they won’t make her pregnant. Pregnancies can only happen when men have an orgasm. Unwanted pregnancies can only happen when men orgasm irresponsibly.
What this means is a women can be the sluttliest [sic] slut in the entire world who loves having orgasms all day long and all night long and she will never find herself with an unwanted pregnancy unless a man shows up and ejaculates irresponsibly.
Women enjoying sex does not equal unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Men enjoying sex and having irresponsible ejaculations is what causes unwanted pregnancies and abortion.
Let’s talk more about responsibility. Men often don’t know, and don’t ask, and don’t think to ask, if they’ve caused a pregnancy. They may never think of it, or associate sex with making babies at all. Why? Because there are 0 consequences for men who cause unwanted pregnancies.
If the woman decides to have an abortion, the man may never know he caused an unwanted pregnancy with his irresponsible ejaculation.
Blair goes on to point out that, despite the greater responsibility of men for unwanted pregnancies (and thus abortions), the consequences of unwanted pregnancies fall entirely on women, whose bodies are strained and irrevocably changed, and whose lives are risked and transformed. And it is women’s sexuality that is policed, not men’s. If men, Blair argues, really cared about ending abortion, then they would at least countenance serious penalties or preventive measures for men who impregnate women not seeking to become pregnant. A vasectomy is a far less dangerous procedure than childbirth, and only castration might be as impactful on one’s life. But the truth is that men don’t even consider policing men’s sexuality or imposing burdens on men to prevent pregnancies. This is not how the issue has ever been framed for them. This isn’t a knock on anti-abortionists. We are all susceptible to ideological framing. But ideology serves political purposes, and the question is what purposes are served by the evolution of abortion among religious conservatives as a morally problematic procedure that may nonetheless be permissible depending on context to the literal murder of a human person.
Abortion restrictions, forced birth, and misogyny
In her book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, philosopher Kate Manne redefines misogyny as the “enforcement mechanism of patriarchy.” She models misogyny not as “hatred of women” but as the actual disadvantage, danger, and injustice women experience when they deviate from patriarchal norms. If patriarchy is truly a normative system, as most feminists maintain, then we would expect violation of patriarchal norms to provoke moral reactions.
To take an apolitical example of how this works, imagine a server at a restaurant suddenly stops serving you with politeness or deference, and suggests you help yourself. Even apart from questions of money, you would feel at least a little outraged, and you might even try to get them fired or punished. You’d have this reaction even if you are friends with servers or have experience in the industry yourself. Even though you know a restaurant employee is a full human person deserving of dignity, in the context of the server/customer relationship, certain deferential behaviors and attitudes are expected, and we have a moral response when those expectations are flouted.
On Manne’s model, men and women are slotted for particular roles. Women are mothers, doting wives, domestic goddesses, and sexual companions. Women in their various roles are expected to listen, care, perform domestic labor, bear children, and be sexually available. Other roles are reserved for men, such as breadwinner, head of family, or political authority. When women neglect or reject their own roles or usurp men’s roles, they invite a moral backlash just like the negligent (uppity?) server.
Abortion itself is a rejection of motherhood, but it always has been, so that doesn’t explain the shift in abortion ideology described above. More important is that in the postwar years women began to move en masse into political and economic territory long reserved for men. Women entered the labor force—increasing from a third of adult women in the 50s to half of women in the late 70s—and began to earn their own money, affording them unprecedented economic independence. The first birth control pill was approved by the FDA for married women in 1960, launching the sexual revolution. With Baird v. Eisenstadt the Supreme Court legalized birth control for all persons in 1972, further extending women’s independence. The women’s liberation movement gained steam in the 60s, with the founding of the National Organization for Women and a string of legal and legislative victories including the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title IX, and the extension of affirmative action to women. The campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment proceeded apace and was nearly ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures before its progress was halted by a religious right wing counter-campaign.
Aggressive opposition to abortion only picked up political momentum in the late 70s, after more than a decade of women gaining greater power and status. The opposition fits the model of a misogynistic backlash, as women left their traditional gendered roles and as the freedoms enabling that departure were met with pushback, in both attitude and policy. Importantly for this analysis, no one—especially the rank and file citizen and voter—has to have conscious ill will toward women or even be aware that they are reacting against women’s freedom. Patriarchal norms are internalized. We don’t usually remember learning them explicitly, but pick them up from stories, social cues, and observed behaviors as we grow up. We have a sense that something is wrong when they are violated, even if we can’t articulate what that wrong is, just as we may struggle to verbalize why we’re perturbed when the restaurant server is insufficiently deferential as they perform their duties. These patriarchal norms make it easier to subscribe to narratives and policies that hobble women’s opportunities. It was easy for lay Evangelicals to follow their leadership from troubled ambivalence about abortion in 1971 to radical opposition in 1980 because of the gut reaction against women’s liberation (i.e., women spurning their proper roles as demure homemakers).
Manne insists that misogyny is most fruitfully understood as the actual social realities confronting women, rather than any feelings any individual persons may have. This allows us to understand policies that harm or disadvantage women as misogynistic, regardless of the rationales anyone has for supporting those policies. Under this light, impediments to reproductive freedom, including abortion bans, constitute structural misogyny.
From a purely economic standpoint, forced birth limits their labor force participation, leading them to miss opportunities for promotion and to miss out on prime earning years, setting them back years relative to their male peers. Absent affordable or free childcare, this can cause women to drop out of the labor force altogether. If pregnancy occurs early enough, then women miss out on human capital accumulation, similarly stifling their earning power and the economic security higher earnings make possible. These problems are all exacerbated by sexist norms that lead men to perform less domestic and childcare labor than women and lead employers to expect men to be primary breadwinners for their families. And of course, many of these women will be single mothers, the impoverishment of whom passes on to their children, who often find themselves in similar circumstances. This cycle of poverty creates an enduring socioeconomic underclass.
When abortion is treated as murder, as in Georgia’s and Alabama’s recent bills, women are harmed in numerous ways. Self-performed or amateur abortions will injure and kill women. Women will almost certainly be prosecuted and imprisoned for abortions and suspected abortions. Women will become a suspect class because miscarriages will be investigated as abortions. Where exceptions to abortion prohibitions are made for rape, victims are likely to be disbelieved by default and aggressively interrogated in order to prove they were really raped and not merely women with “morning after regrets” or other slanderous motivations. Rape victims already face a gauntlet of suspicion; it’s incredible to believe women seeking abortions under rape exceptions would not be routinely disbelieved precisely because they waited until they knew they were pregnant to report their assaults.
The Georgia bill allows prosecutors to charge women with conspiracy to commit murder if they leave the state for the purposes of having an abortion. Not only women’s sexuality, but their freedom of movement and any behaviors that can be construed to harm a fetus will be policed and prosecuted. As with all victimless crimes—whatever one thinks of fetal personhood, fetuses cannot speak for themselves, and so abortions are functionally victimless—enforcement will be biased against those already marginalized, specifically women of color, poor women, homeless women, and so on. The avenues for forced birth policies to corrode the freedom and autonomy of women and other potentially pregnant persons are limited only by the imaginations of the enforcers.
Finally, forced birth exploits women in their reproductive capacities. Women and other persons with uteruses are uniquely able to develop and nurture new human beings. Coercing a person to perform this dangerous and time- and resource-intensive labor against their expressed will is exploitation at the very least. And it treats the pregnant person as a tool, a mere means and not an end in themselves.
Forced birth in the liberal order
To summarize, abortion bans first and most obviously violate the bodily autonomy of pregnant persons by compelling them to suffer nine months of sickness, fatigue, and sometimes extreme discomfort, culminating in a dangerous medical procedure. They force persons to undergo what is usually considered to be a radical and irreversible life change in the form of parenthood. Abortion bans violate the religious freedom of all those who do not affirm the historically and theologically dubious doctrinal assertion of personhood at conception or fetal personhood. Restrictions on reproductive freedom systematically disadvantage women and other persons with uteruses in economic and social domains, creating an oppressed and vulnerable class subject to abuse and exploitation. And forced birth treats pregnant persons as mere tools for reproduction.
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. The liberal idea that all persons are moral equals and equals before the law is rent asunder by the subjugation, economic marginalization, and oppression of women under forced birth regimes. Forced birth is one of the most powerful tools by which women are pushed into gendered roles of social inferiority. In ways practical and profound, bans on abortion are inconsistent with the liberal order of free and equal persons.
Featured image is “Intervención the handmaid’s tale en Santa Fe por el aborto seguro legal y gratuito en Argentina” by Agustina Girardo.