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The Sex Equality Argument

I have suggested that we cannot reject all arguments by analogy and hope to make progress in our reasoning about abortion. Moreover, uncovering important points of disanalogy between abortion and other moral problems does not show analogical reasoning to be distorting. Instead, those disanalogies can prove useful for distinguishing the features of pregnancy which correctly affect our moral accounting. So far, though, I have paid scant attention to one very striking distinction between pregnancy and anything to which we might want to analogize it, when thinking about abortion. That is, I have made very little of the fact that unwanted pregnancy only happens to women.

This is an obvious point of disanalogy with the other scenarios discussed. In Thomson’s violinist analogy, for example, it is not specified that the person whose kidneys are used to keep the violinist alive is a woman. The analogy is in this way sex-neutral. Some feminist theorists have taken issue with the fact that the supporter in the example is not sexed. MacKinnon has argued that by leaving out the fact that the supporter in pregnancy is always female, Thomson’s parable fails to underscore the astronomical damage to sex equality for which mandated pregnancy is responsible.[1] According to this perspective, reproductive control is vital for combating the social inequality of women and their oppression by men. Denying women abortion, it is argued, exacerbates existing sex inequality in a number of ways, including by entrenching women’s dependence on and vulnerability to men. Why this is so is not all too difficult to see. Pregnancy and childrearing can aggravate a woman’s condition of poverty, reduce her chances of a good education, diminish her career prospects, and keep her dependent on men, perhaps in a situation of abuse. For feminists, abortion cannot be considered separately from this context, which includes the background conditions of inequality between the sexes that already persist with or without abortion rights. Susan Sherwin summarizes the point this way:

Since we live in a patriarchal society, it is especially important to ensure that women have the authority to control their own reproduction ... virtually all feminists seem to agree that women must gain full control of their own reproductive lives if they are to free themselves from male dominance.[2]

Both Sherwin and MacKinnon have also argued that reproductive control is central to women’s liberation because it is linked to the control of sexuality itself. 1[3] Their accounts lay emphasis on the way in which structures of male dominance can often make pregnancy difficult to avoid in the first place. Sherwin explains:

Few women have not found themselves in circumstances where they do not feel free to refuse a man’s demands for intercourse, either because he is holding a gun to her head or because he threatens to be emotionally hurt if she refuses (or both) ... Under such circumstances, it is difficult to argue that women could simply ‘choose’ to avoid heterosexual activity if they wish to avoid pregnancy.[4]

Openness to sex can be the price of domestic peace, continuing emotional support, or economic survival. As Sherwin explains, sexual coercion is not always recognized as such. Moreover, both Sherwin and MacKinnon make the point that contraceptives cannot always be relied upon to afford women reproductive control. The most effective and reliable contraceptives can be hazardous to health and future fertility if used for prolonged periods, and often come with undesirable side effects. Barrier methods do not have the same health drawbacks but are far less reliable, and there are often social impediments to using them. As Sherwin underscores, women are discouraged from ‘preparing’ for sexual activity, and many find their male partners unwilling to use barrier methods.

On the feminist picture then, the subjugation of women by men can make sex— and hence, pregnancy—difficult to avoid in the first place. Furthermore, however, unwanted pregnancy and childrearing can itself contribute further to the erosion of sexual autonomy. The more dependent women are, the less free they are to refuse sexual access. Given that the abortion option is often the only means of exercising reproductive control, the feminist argument concludes that the option must be protected if we are to take sex equality seriously. Abortion is, first and foremost, an issue of equal rights for women, since only by controlling their reproduction can they place themselves on a more equal footing with men.

As MacKinnon has explained, the feminist critique of abortion restrictions differs substantially from the mainstream ‘liberal’ defence of abortion, exemplified by the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Roe v Wade.[5] The latter proceeds by locating reproductive control in a zone of personal privacy out of reach of governmental interference. The reasoning of the US Supreme Court reflected this public-private distinction, grounding abortion rights on the liberal notion of personal autonomy, and the specific right to control one’s reproductive destiny, rather than in the need to secure sex equality. MacKinnon criticizes the ‘privacy doctrine’ of Roe for its failure to vindicate abortion rights using what she believes is the correct constitutional basis.22 By consigning legitimate abortions to the realm of ‘private choice’, MacKinnon argues that the Supreme Court neglected the public interest in securing sex equality, which is heavily implicated in the issue of abortion freedoms. Liberal theories of reproductive rights that rely on the public-private distinction are erroneous, she argues, in assuming that the private sphere is free and equal, rather than constituting a zone where male dominance is permitted to reign unchecked by state power. Roe v Wade was therefore right, but for the wrong reasons.

What does all this mean for abortion morality? The relation between procreative control and sex equality cannot seriously be doubted. Indeed, few philosophers writing about abortion do, I think, question the claim that mandated pregnancy and childrearing compound women’s inequality in a number of ways (although some opponents of abortion rights surely underestimate the effects of mandated pregnancy on the status of women).23

Since few ‘non-feminist’ philosophers (whether of a ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’ persuasion) would deny these claims, we must look further to discern the real point of conflict between traditional philosophic and feminist approaches to abortion. Sherwin claims that a feminist analysis, unlike non-feminist accounts, ‘regards the effects of unwanted pregnancies on the lives of women individually and collectively as a central element in the moral evaluation of abortion’Th Feminist ethics, she says, ‘demands that the effects on the oppression of women be a principal consideration when evaluating abortion policies’.25 Perhaps, then, the distinguishing feature of non-feminist abortion ethics is not resistance to the idea that abortion rights are intimately bound up with sex equality, but where and how this consideration is positioned in the overall argument. For feminist ethicists, it is the principal consideration. For non-feminists, it is perhaps just one piece of a larger puzzle.

Let me state, then, what we can call the sex equality argument in favour of abortion rights. The argument holds that the necessity of abortion rights for securing sex equality is sufficient to show that abortion is morally permissible and that abortion rights are necessary as a matter of justice. I think that most non-feminist philosophers would reject this argument, even though they would not deny that prohibiting abortion impedes sex equality. Their disagreement, I believe, is with the suggestion that the sex equality interest in reproductive autonomy is sufficient to justify abortion rights without needing to make any claim about the moral status of the fetus. Understanding this can go a long way towards understanding why it is that non-feminist accounts seem to pay so little attention to the women’s interests issue.

MacKinnon, Sherwin, and other feminist theorists undoubtedly identify a pertinent consideration for abortion policy when drawing attention to the various ways in which abortion restrictions entrench sex inequality. However, a full moral appraisal of abortion will not be complete until we consider how the sex equality interest weighs against countervailing considerations. It may well be that ‘traditional’ philosophers are not, on the whole, explicit enough about weighing the sex equality interest in their moral calculations. In some cases, though, this may only be because the factual claim that abortion rights are necessary for sex equality is seen as axiomatic. It is not given more air time only because it is not in dispute.

Whilst agreeing entirely with the claim that women’s equality with men depends, to a very significant degree, on the procreative and bodily control which abortion affords, I nevertheless think it is possible to show that the sex equality interest is neither sufficient nor necessary for a philosophical defence of abortion. If I am right about this, it may help to explain why the sex equality interest is often at the margins of philosophical abortion argument, without casting any doubt whatsoever on the undeniable claim that prohibiting abortion damages women as a class and exacerbates their social disadvantage.

  • [1] Catharine A MacKinnon, ‘Privacy v Equality: Beyond Roe v Wade , in Catharine A MacKinnon,Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Harvard University Press 1987) 98.
  • [2] Susan Sherwin, Abortion Through a Feminist Ethics Lens’ (1991) 30 Dialogue: CanadianPhilosophical Review/Revue canadienne de philosophie 327, 330.
  • [3] See Sherwin (n 18) and MacKinnon (n 5).
  • [4] Sherwin (n 18) 330.
  • [5] See MacKinnon (n 17) and Roe v Wade US 410 113 (1973). 22 ibid 93. 23 It should be acknowledged that certain contributions to the abortion debate also criticize permissive abortion laws on the ground that they are damaging to sex equality. So-called ‘pro-life feminists’draw attention to the way in which the availability of abortion as ‘back-up’ contraception can in factweaken women’s sexual autonomy, or that abortion choice fails to exemplify ‘feminine’ caring values(see Sidney Callahan, ‘Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Prolife Feminism’ (1986) 123Commonweal 232; Celia Wolf-Devine, ‘Abortion and the “Feminine Voice” ’ in Joel Feinberg andSusan Dwyer (eds), The Problem of Abortion (3rd edn, Wadsworth Publishing Company 1997) 160.) MacKinnon also draws attention at several points to the way in which the abortion option can andhas been used to strengthen male sexual dominance over women in a matrix where ‘private’ interactionsare deemed to be outside of the law’s concern (MacKinnon (n 17)). In a background context in whichwomen do not control access to their own sexuality, she argues, ‘the availability of abortion removedthe one remaining legitimized reason that women have had for refusing sex besides the headache’(above, n 17, at 99).
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