Furthest Right

Abortion and the Insatiable Self (Camille Williams)

When the family name was called, the parents carried the child to the front of the small chapel, where they are joined by the grandparents, relatives, and close friends. Each person placed a hand beneath the father’s hands supporting the baby; encircled, buoyed up by shared joy, the young man offered a prayer of thanksgiving. In a voice soft with emotion, he asked for guidance in teaching, loving, raising the child aright.

This blessing ceremony, though it differs from rites in other churches and other cultures, reflects the very old practice of welcoming babies into our communities with ritual, celebration, promises, and gifts.

A few weeks later the chapel filled again, this time for the community to say goodbye to six-year-old Rachel, who stepped in front of a car and out of this world on her way home with her brothers. Neighbors and friends surrounded the family, saying by their presence: It matters to us that she lived; it matters to us that she died. We will bear sorrow with you that the burden may be light.

Such communal, life-affirming rituals have sustained cultures the world over since time immemorial. But in recent decades, in Western and particularly American culture, the values that undergird such rituals have begun a rapid erosion. The weakening of community-building, responsibility-oriented values and their replacement by self-oriented ones have led to an atmosphere in which abortion, once widely abhorred, now has broad approval.

In the past, our collective history of virtue and vice served as the text for instilling morality in our youth. But the old stories of serving and sacrifice that sustained our parents and grandparents have been increasingly displaced by the myth of the self-defined individual who believes that “when it comes right down to it, your first responsibility is to yourself.”

For example, in a poll of a thousand U.S. adults last fall, George Barna of the Barna Research Group found a “massive realignment of thinking is taking place” in the religious beliefs and practices of the United States. While most respondents said that religion is important to them, the religion they describe is significantly different from traditional belief. Eighty-two-percent agree that “every person has the power to determine his or her own destiny in life.” This essentially negative belief elevates the individual while turning the traditional God(s) into a “generic god” or a “universal force” available to assist in what many baby boomers believe is the purpose of life: “enjoyment and personal fulfillment.”

Unlike their parents, today’s adults “tend to pick and choose beliefs and go where their needs and tastes are met,” and “like its religious preferences, the boomer morality is private and pluralistic,” according to the poll. They are committed to the idea “that private ethics are quite personal and relativistic.”

As individuals separate belief from behavior and have fewer loyalties to religious institutions, the strength of their bonds with others is weakened, and the potential for churches to lead adherents toward moral behavior is diminished. In this climate of isolation and skepticism, a weakness of moral fiber comes to underlie proposed solutions to social problems such as caring for the homeless, the unborn, and the aged. The weakness manifests itself as a lack of respect for life.

“A lot of people fear that loosening the abortion strings will result in the willful ending of life of infants, old people, and others who are critically damaged,” a New York woman commented, “and I think that it is inevitable that this will occur.” She believes life has become cheap because every day she sees people in “wretched, undignified, and hopeless states.” Without official solutions, she says, personal empathy and generosity will turn into a callous disregard for the “unfortunate ones.”

Members One Of Another 

Traditionally, women and men have acknowledged in their marriages and childbearing some authority higher than themselves and have seen their obligations to each other and to their children as part of their duty to the community. Their fidelity was a sign of respect for their spouse and for the whole community. Essayist and poet Wendell Berry points out that this was not simply a private virtue but a virtue upon which society is dependent, for “one can be indiscriminately sexual, but not indiscriminately responsible, and irresponsible sexuality undermines any possibility of culture since it implies a hierarchy based purely upon brute strength, cunning, regardlessness of value and of consequences.” The promise made to one, he continues, is a promise made to the group: “The marriage vow unites not just a woman and a man with each other; it unites each of them with the community in a vow of sexual responsibility toward all others. The whole community is married, realizes its essential unity, in each of its marriages.”

While this recognition of the public aspect of family relationships did not ensure happiness, it did provide a standard by which individual behavior could be judged, a standard more authoritative than the mere inclinations of the individuals involved. In making and keeping promises, the good of individuals was thought to be tied to the good of family or community as a whole. Only in extreme situations would these “natural” bonds need to be severed in order for individuals to flourish, and those who perverted their duty by exploiting other family members were condemned.

Not only has this notion of the convergence of goods been rejected by some who have suffered failed family relationships, but the ideologues of individualism have declared the traditional family to be inherently exploitive and have asserted that no authoritative standard for individual behavior exists. We are becoming, as General Bradley writes, a “society of strangers.” As such, we have transformed the church, the community, and the law into instruments to promote individual self-interest, says Bradley, a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.

The impact of elevating the self as the measure of morality can be seen in the ways we care for, or fail to care for, each other in the family. More than 1.5 million children are aborted yearly by women who elect surgery over delivery. The bonds between mothers and fathers, between parents and their unborn children, have been reduced to the status of optional attachments, each attachment contracted always from the point of view of a private self and its needs. Conditional attachments to sex partners and to unborn children are conditional attachments to the human family as a whole; when we break faith with one, we have broken faith with all.

Empty Selves 

With the growth of psychology after World War II arose the secular self, an inward-looking creature of needs and drives. The contemporary self, according to professor Stanley Rothman of Smith College, is propelled by “expressive individualism” coupled with a rational self-interest that has changed marriage, childbearing, and the family into “experiences in self-realization rather than duties and obligations” to be honored.

Philip Cushman, professor psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley, sees the contemporary self as increasingly isolated from the communal forms that once sustained us: “People are living ever more secluded and secular lives, forsaking even the shrinking nuclear family.” The focus on the self leaves a pervasive sense of emptiness, which Cushman charges is the target for “advertising and the lifestyle solution” of our consumer economy. The manipulating self “experiences a significant absence of community, tradition, and shared meaning.” The empty self consumes “goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners, and empathic therapists in an attempt to combat the growing alienation and fragmentation of its era.” Loosed from the familial and communal bonds that once held people together in patterns of interdependence, the lonely self sees relationships in terms of power and autonomy.

The stories of empty selves in the process of consuming others and being themselves consumed provide convincing evidence that people need something higher than the self to protect them from themselves. Traditionally, it was obligation to God or to community that worked to temper the acts of the powerful and to provide succor and strength for the powerless. As Cushman says, “Our current era has constructed a self that is, fundamentally, a disappointment to itself . . . One of the wealthiest nation[s] on earth is also one of the emptiest.”

Contracts Versus Kinship 

With the technologies of birth control, abortion, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and other means of increasing fertility, the power and autonomy of parents have increased. Parental responsibility, according to Maura Ryan, a graduate student in religious studies at Yale, has generally included an acceptance of “inequalities in benefits and burdens.” The parental bond has transcended cultural standards of value because “unlike a product in the market, children cannot be returned or exchanged if found to be other than what was expected.” In her discussion of high-technology procreation, Ryan notes that the property view of children coupled with the collaborative contractual model used to describe human reproduction today can distort our view of the parent-child bond:

One of the false notions perpetuated in such a model of parental entitlement is that we are free to choose all obligations, and able to formulate all the conditions of our lives to meet our expectations. While most contracts and commitments are based on things such as shared purpose, equal benefit, common attraction, etc., and are entered into and terminated voluntarily, until recently, the agreement to conceive, gestate, and rear a child has been of a different nature.

Family life, Ryan explains, can teach us about “indissoluble and predefined obligations as well as the ones we freely incur. The involuntary quality of kinship can also teach us how to accept others as intimately connected to us, even when they fail to live up to our standards or when they do not possess the physical or personal qualities most attractive to us.”

She sees the problems that contracted reproduction can bring: “To image reproduction as primarily a contractual process, where all the elements are open for negotiation, threatens to lose sight of this sense of transcendent commitment.”

Seeking individual or familial autonomy in the rhetoric of procreative rights will not “encourage more respectful and cooperative parenting styles but may further facilitate the abuse of parental power,” Ryan predicts. Because the rights model protects proprietary interests rather than facilitating intimacy or more humane forms of parenting intimacy or more humane forms of parenting, she posits that “it may not be enough simply for feminists to argue for equality between women and men in the holding of these rights. Rather, the very language of rights, implying as it does some exclusive access to property, must be seen as inappropriate when describing the structure of the family.” To show respect for each family member, it may also be necessary to reconsider the use of male as an all-purpose pejorative, and feminist as an ameliorative; we may have to give up “gendered” blaming and rescuing altogether, if we are to strengthen marriages and families.

One way in which we avoid being exploited and remain in control is through asserting the right to define self, sexuality, and responsibilities to others. Central to the conception of the self is the self’s need for and right to sexual self-determination. This has resulted in what Bradley calls the erotic self, an entity recognizable in a string of Supreme Court cases regarding the right to privacy in sexual activity and reproduction.

In an article titled “Privacy and Liberal Legal Culture,” Russell Hittinger traces the growth of constitutional protection for personal autonomy as an outgrowth of liberty interests in the marketplace. The “right ‘to be left alone’ more often attached in the past to economic aspirations,” says Hittinger, associate professor of philosophy at Catholic University, “[but now] legal philosophers and jurisprudes frequently speak of autonomy, expression, and self-determination as various modalities of the right to make self-defining and intimate decisions about one’s life.”

The primacy of individual autonomy as a moral absolute has been advanced by advocates of neo-natural law as they have emphasized the autonomy rights of disadvantaged groups such as women and minorities. Bruce C. Hafen maintains that the individual rights analysis creates a nearly unassailable presumption in favor of interests categorized within the constitutional right of privacy, such as the “right” to an abortion. Thus, “judicial recognition of personal autonomy claims requires society to carry the burden of justifying its own traditional moral norms.” Once the highest good is defined as personal autonomy, the family as a social or legal entity disappears, though it may survive as a chosen option.

The focus on the self is not necessarily a direct rejection of the traditional family, church, and community. Sometimes these institutions are reinterpreted in light of self-psychology. In some self-help psychology, there is superimposed on the autonomous self a sacred quality so that, as Daniel Yankelovich explains, “each of us ahs become his or her own potential object of worship.” Those working to free their own potential recognize a duty to the self as an ethical principle, a moral duty to fully express their most authentic selves. For the “actualized” individual, self-development is more honest than self-sacrifice; caring for the self must, therefore, precede caring for others.

Families have traditionally required considerable self-sacrifice and work; family members’ obligations to each other have been weighty and socially prescribed. At the heart of the current abortion dispute, Hittinger asserts, is a disagreement over the social contexts and relations that encumber the abortion choice. The presence of the unexpected unborn child prompts parents to decide how they will fulfill their familial responsibilities and requires the community to decide how it will fulfill its responsibility to families.

Laissez-Faire Sexuality 

The notion that we can agree on general standards for individual men and women is anathema to those who view gendered norms as inherently oppressive. The contemporary self has the duty to construct him or herself from the individual’s own views of what is satisfying or fulfilling. Gender roles, especially in the family, are seen as cages that trap individuals in socially, politically, or biologically determined power structures. The male’s cage is generally described as larger and better furnished, but a cage nonetheless.

Although our culture is saturated with sex, it is bewildered about the meaning of human sexuality. Promiscuity, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, sexual assault, pornography, deserted wives and children, the feminization of poverty, the gay and lesbian movements, and abortion all seem traceable in part to the pervasive belief that there are no natural roles for men and women. Erudite social scientists assert that there are no natural roles in sexual relationships or within the family, nor are there any natural or proper bounds to behavior within relationships other than mutuality or consent. This claim has been given some ecclesiastical respectability by churches debating whether practicing homosexuals should be united in marriage or ordained to the ministry. Some states have validated these claims by prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

We are a generation proud of recognizing the potential ills that come from stereotyping males and females, but we are incapable of healing our estranged selves and our culture. Those who cringe at traditional gender roles are often willing to believe in myths of cultural determinism that lock people into conflict. The Marxist contention underlying gender liberation is that “submission and domination are not contingent features of particular kinds of economic relations; they are the only possible attitudes human beings can have towards each other.” Such determinism ultimately excuses aggressors and makes victims of us all. Unless we recognize a “moral call to be related to others–physically and spiritually, rather than sanctioning the filling or fulfilling of the self” the disaffection will linger; we may be able to shift the power structure slightly, but the weight of its distorted frame will crush us.

Feminism As Individualism 

Some leading feminist writers believe that popular feminism, one stronghold of individualism, has contributed to the “erosion of confidence in our inherited culture.” Ann Ferguson, a feminist theorist, holds that American feminism is based on a rational self-interest theory of human agency in which men’s interests are seen to be in conflict with those of women. This brand of feminism explains women’s subjugation to patriarchy by a combination of coercion theory and alienation theory. It is assumed that socialization into gender roles alienates women from their true, authentic selves and genuine human possibilities.

The feminist pursuit of empowerment has condemned and deconstructed “male-dominated” institutions because they are built on inequity, power politics, violence, and exploitation; but too many feminists have too readily adopted power tactics as the means of achieving equality. By adopting the ways of their “oppressors” these feminists have themselves perpetrated the wrongs they protest. According to pro-life feminist Daphne de Jong, mainstream feminism’s support of abortion on demand is inconsistent: “Feminism opposes the violent power games of the male establishment, the savage ‘solutions’ imposed by the strong on the powerless,” yet it has endorsed the violence of abortion in the name of choice.

Women abort because they feel vulnerable; fragmented relationships seldom offer support for unplanned pregnancies, and society bears little of the burden whether they abort or carry their children to term. Pregnancy is their personal, private problem.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, director of the women’s studies program at Emory University, criticizes feminism’s complicity in an “atomized version” of individualism that is little more than a “celebration of egotism and the denial or indefensible reduction of the just claims of the community.” She argues persuasively in Feminism without Illusions that individualism “actually perverts the idea of the socially obligated personally responsible freedom that constitutes the only freedom worthy of the name or indeed historically possible.” Individualism, she warns, is incapable of curtailing any exercise of the individual will. The assertion of individual rights, she claims, has “whittled away at the remaining bastions of corporatism and community–notably the family,” and individualism is inadequate to define our “collective purposes as a people and a nation.”

The shift from seeking the communal good to that of seeking individual goods politicizes family relationships, catching feminists in an uncomfortable and frequently unacknowledged contradiction over the right to abortion on demand rooted in the right of privacy:

Logically the defense of abortion on the grounds of absolute privacy carries potentially unpalatable corollaries, notably the difficulty of punishing men for abusing women or children, or even of holding men accountable for supporting women and children. Perhaps more important, it reinforces the individualistic view of rights as essentially a form of property.

If women are willing to consider their own bodies and their own sexuality as personal possessions, objects to be controlled not by society, but by the woman-owner, they may have transferred title but will not have changed the representation of women as property to be controlled:

The fight for women’s “right” to choice in the matter of abortion is being misguidedly waged in the name of women’s absolute right to their own bodies and, ironically, on the grounds of reproduction as a private matter. It qualifies as ironical since so much feminist energy has been devoted to an insistence that familial relations are not private matters.

Fox-Genovese contends that “the fight over abortion is being waged more in the name of women’s sexuality than in the name of their reproductive capacities. That confusion alone indicates the extent to which feminism has absorbed aspects of individualism, which, to be coherent, it must resolutely oppose.”

Ordinary feminism creates a world where the individual needs of women and men clash, usually hurting the women, and justifies women’s choices to abort as a way of cutting their losses in unsatisfactory relationships. These women are tired of getting stuck with family responsibilities men can escape, but are unwilling or unable to require more responsibility from the men who impregnate them.

This weariness in “well doing” led one woman to abort rather than face the hard work, patience, and sacrifice necessary to give birth after her lover abandoned her. “I am beginning to think,” she explained, “that all these virtues are really not getting me anywhere.”

Abortion In Another Voice 

In her much-quoted study of the moral reasoning of women who abort, Harvard prof. Carol Gilligan explores female psychological development from what she calls passivity to independence. Gilligan studies the situations in which women have the power to choose and in which she feels they can articulate the moral reasoning supporting their decisions. “When a woman considers whether to continue or abort a pregnancy . . . she is asked whether she wishes to interrupt that stream of life which for centuries has immersed her in the passivity of dependence while at the same time imposing on her the responsibility for care.” In a few sentences, Gilligan dismisses generations of women who felt it wrong to take innocent life as mindless breeders devoid of moral choice.

Gilligan discerns in women who abort an “ethic of care” that informs their choices. (To the layman, the ethic of care may seem remarkably similar to the conviction that one’s first duty is to be true to one’s self.) Gilligan describes the unplanned pregnancy as an occurrence that precludes nonviolent resolution. As a woman searches for answers to her problem pregnancy, Gilligan interprets: “Seeking the solution that best protects both herself and others, she defines morality in a way that combines the recognition of interconnection between self and others with an awareness of the self as the arbiter of moral judgment and choice.” The one connection Gilligan refuses to endow with significance is that between mother and unborn child. No value is attached to this intergenerational tie.

Because Gilligan and her interviewees perceive obligation as extending to include the self, for them, the disparity between selfishness and responsibility disappears when the child is aborted. If the woman’s heart is not ready for the child and she gives birth, she metaphorically hurts her autonomous self: the arbiter of morality, the maker of rational, responsible choices.

Real violence against the child and against the woman’s body has prevented the symbolic violence against her self-constructed psyche. “The conflict between self and other thus constitutes the central moral problem for women, posing a dilemma whose resolution requires a reconciliation between femininity and adulthood.” Trailing clouds of Sartrian apprehension, she introduces the female articulation of morality: consuming self-concern dressed up with bits of psychological theorizing.

Gilligan justifies abortion on the basis of interconnectedness and care because she sees it as a “release from the intimidation of inequality” that finally allows women to express a judgment that had previously been withheld, a judgment that exonerates the choices of the private self:

What women then enunciate is not a new morality, but a morality disentangled from the constraints that formerly confused its perception and impeded its articulation. The willingness to express and to take responsibility for judgment stems from a recognition of the psychological costs of indirect action, to self and to others and thus to relationships.

Thus Gilligan argues that all relationships are based on the articulation of the demands of the individual psyche.

Her view of women who have borne unplanned children is condescending: “In the absence of legal abortion, a morality of self-sacrifice is necessary in order to ensure protection and care for the dependent child. However, when such sacrifice becomes optional, the entire problem is recast,” becoming a “conflict between compassion and autonomy, between virtue and power.” Gilligan’s mature woman aligns morality with power and autonomy, a replication of measures used in maligned “male” ethics. If the moral question, as Gilligan says, addresses the needs of the unborn child for protection and nurturance, the availability of abortion has no influence on those needs and thus has no bearing on the moral question that she herself raises and recasts so illogically.

Plainly stated, “the ethic of self-sacrifice is directly in conflict with the concept of rights that has in this past century supported women’s claim to a fair share of social justice.” Self-sacrifice, for Gilligan, is not only morally immature, but also fails to further the feminist political agenda. Morality is choice, not the choosing of a particular option. High marks for morality are given those women who can take responsibility for their decisions to abort with the understanding that it would be wrong to hurt themselves by carrying an unwanted child to term. With a strong self-concept, women acknowledge their own power and worth and see that by requiring a confrontation with choice, the abortion crisis can become, as one woman stated, a “very auspicious time.” Pregnancy and abortion can be used as a means of self-discovery.

To imagine ourselves capable of controlling life because we are capable of causing death is a grave mistake in reason and in spirit. Our very being is someone else’s promise kept. We were given the breath of life, and our everyday survival is dependent upon many others, from family members who care for us to the driver of the oncoming car who stays on his own side of the road. We are dependent upon people who understand the difference between right and wrong, people who can tell their right hand from the left.

Myth, ritual,  literature, psychology: Each tells a story of human be-ing, human activity in this world; some link us with another world. The ways women and men accept or reject their children may have less to do with economic and social status than with beliefs about the nature of kinship, autonomy, and what it means to be human. Parents who view themselves as individuals who share time and space with each other but whose rights must be jealously guarded lest the other or tradition exploit them may view the child as just another contestant in a battle of rights waged within the family.

Conceiving and giving birth to a child can dwarf our pretensions of individual power, reminding us of our limited role in procreation. Caring for the newborn is an experience in humility, exhilaration, and desperation. Every exhausted parents sifts through the advice given by parents and friends, weighs the how-to-books, then sets them aside and simply responds to the child. Mothers and fathers learn to be the parent that the child needs now, even when that child is conceived unexpectedly or the birth is considered untimely.

The rights model undercuts family unity and is a poor substitute for understanding what it means to belong in a family. Belonging brings with it willingness to help each other, even when the helping hurts. It is not that family members bear a taste for masochism, it is that they will not detach themselves from a loved one simply to spare themselves the pain. Sometimes helping takes the form of concrete actions whereby progress can be measured; sometimes it is the bare courage of becoming a fellow sufferer rather than leave a loved one alone. Children holding a vigil for a critically ill parent have few material aids to offer the patient; nevertheless, the parent’s crisis interrupts the normal flow of their own lives: It is not possible for them to be anywhere but there, close enough to make their love known in any way that it can be perceived.

The power of love cannot keep death from taking those we love, but it can help us love those to whom we give life. Sidney Callahan, professor of psychology at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, suggests that the initially reluctant mother can change her response to the unborn child. “The desired goal is to feel more deeply for others than for oneself. Danger comes from selfish emotions, or from deadening the emotions so that one becomes callous or habituated to evil . . . Emotional change or progress is possible in our collective human history as well as in individual lives.”

Individual choices about procreation may seem far removed from or collective history, but they are not. We are jointly responsible for the history that our children will write. We have recognized the failings of our culture; either we will redeem our traditions at the cost of our “selves,” or we will dismantle our heritage in self-tribute, replicating the violence we disdain.


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