Within the context of our modern culture, feminism has become inextricably linked with pro-abortion activism. With the debate surrounding the killing of unborn babies being manhandled away from fetal personhood and toward “women’s rights,” many feminists are championing the cause for unlimited abortion and the “right to choose.”
But should that viewpoint be regarded as aligning with a traditional view of feminism? Well, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, Gina Schouten, thinks not.
In her 2017 paper, “Fetuses, Orphans, and a Famous Violinist: On the Ethics and Politics of Abortion,” she urged feminists to “re-center fetal moral status in their theorizing about abortion” and argued that those holding true to a feminist ideology should seek to protect the personhood of the unborn.
“I argue that fundamental feminist normative commitments are at odds with efforts to de-emphasize fetal moral status: The feminist commitment to ensuring care for dependents supports surprising conclusions with regard to the ethics of abortion, and the feminist commitment to politicizing the personal has surprising conclusions regarding the politics of abortion,” she explained. “But these feminist insights also support the conclusion that, conditional on fetal moral status, care for unwanted fetuses would be a social obligation that only derivatively falls to women who are unwillingly pregnant.”
In any area of the abortion debate, the moral status or “personhood” of the fetus is absolutely crucial. Simply put, if you assign personhood to an unborn being, then you should be compelled to protect its right to life. Indeed, at the point of “becoming a person,” a baby should be endowed with its own inalienable human rights.
“Determining the moral status of the fetus is of paramount importance,” Schouten explained. “To make my case, I assume for the sake of argument that the fetus has full moral status. Conditional on that assumption, I argue that gestating unwanted fetuses can be morally obligatory, and that reducing the incidence of abortion can be a legitimate aim of social policy.”
Schouten added that “theorists who have minimized the importance of determining fetal moral sigificance have been wrong to do so.”
There is a famous analogy, put forward by Judith Jarvis Thompson in the 1971 “Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs.” It goes as follows, according to Stand to Reason:
“I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person’s right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.
It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.
Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says, “Tough luck, I agree, but you’ve now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.
But in Schouten’s interpretation of the scenario, as it relates to abortion, one must always come back to moral obligation.
“I want to challenge the reliability of the intuition she implies: that the sacrifice necessary to save the violinist’s life is a sacrifice we are not morally obligated to make,” Schouten wrote. “Thomson is right that the fetus’s being morally considerable is not sufficient to establish the impermissibility of abortion+ the ethics of abortion will depend on how to resolve conflicts of morally significant interests. Thomson expects us to share her intuition that the violinist’s interest – and the fetus’s, in many cases – is decisively outweighed by the interests of the host on whose body it relies.”
Spotting the loopholes in Thompson’s argument, Schouten asks a critical question: What is the burdensomeness threshold? In other words, how far are we willing to care for something or someone that is solely reliant upon us?
Thompson clearly believes that the onus is on the mother to decide the threshold level. But if the fetus is its own person, isn’t this immoral and unethical by simple definition? Not just this, but how can we then, in good faith, apply this cold ethical logic to other situations in which dependents are in need of our care?
“Consider our obligations to the disabled, the elderly, and children without parents” noted Schouten. “If, in accordance with feminist thinking, these things ‘shared responsibilities’ placed upon the shoulders of society, why is the protection and nurturing of the unborn excluded from our collective duty of care?”
Schouten stated that feminists have “powerfully drawn attention to the implications of dependence for our moral and political theorizing,” but that in this extremely important area of human ethics, they appear to deviate from their ideological line.
“If the fetus is a person, then its interest in using the woman’s body to sustain its life is morally significant,” Schouten argued. “We all rely on the care we receive from others to meet our basic needs and to flourish, and our dependence does not lessen our moral claim to have our interests considered in moral decision making.”
You can read the paper here.
There are, however, many who would now class themselves “pro-life feminists” — these are those who “accept the scientific reality that the unborn child is a human life deserving of the same protection as any other member of the human family,” as the Society for the Protection of Unborn puts it.
The society argues that “true feminism” must include a provision for the protection of the unborn.
“The idea that the most vulnerable human lives can and should be sacrificed in the name of choice is neither pro-life nor is it authentically feminist,” the organization notes. “‘Choice’ is the buzzword of consumerism, the determination to maintain control at the expense of others belongs to patriarchy, not a movement that was founded to fight for equality and justice.”
“Pro-life Feminism picks up the mantle of the first feminists and fights for equal rights for all – first and foremost the right to life, without which all other rights are meaningless.”