Feminist Law Prof Nancy Kim writing here on “Complicating the Abortion Discussion” reflected on sex-selective abortions, as described in this New York Times article. Professor Kim provided context for the meaning of “reproductive freedom,” explaining that for some Chinese women, the issue has been coerced or forced abortions. In the U.S., feminists tend to think of choice in terms of access to abortion.
Merle Hoffman, editor of On the Issues magazine, responds here to the New York Times article with a column entitled, “Selecting the Same Sex.” Hoffman describes her experience counseling a woman who wanted an abortion. The woman was married and had two children already. She was pregnant with a girl.
This is the place where my feminism and pro-choice philosophies collided violently. I sat across from her and thought of her fetus and the”primal birth defect”[of femaleness] it carried and felt rage and despair, as if it were me she would be negating.
I so much wanted to say: “No. STOP! You should not.”Not”You cannot,”but”You should not.”Yes, this feminist makes judgments — value judgments — and, sometimes, I disagree profoundly with some women’s choices.
I would not personally make a decision to abort on that basis — or for some of the other reasons that women present themselves for abortions.
But I have spent the better part of my life defending the principle of reproductive freedom and have provided the service to thousands of women for over 38 years because, ultimately, women do and should have the right to make what may be to others the wrong choice.
It’s about separating the chooser from the choice.
Hoffman’s full column is available here. I have read the piece several times now. I find it thoughtful, thought-provoking and a bit confusing. That is because the implications of the discussion are confusing. Hoffman’s writing is clear.
I take Hoffman to argue that feminists who support choice (as in access to abortion) should support any choice a woman makes without regard to the content of the choice (i.e., to abort or to carry a pregnancy to term). Hoffman says, “the active will and power of choosing itself that has unconditional value, not the result of the choosing.”
Hoffman’s position appeals to me tremendously. It emphasizes autonomy and individual freedom. It doesn’t judge the content of the choice, but rather the conditions of the choice (or, in Hoffman’s language, she separates “the chooser from the choice”). I wonder, though, what is lost in emphasizing the chooser over the choice. Are all choices equally valid, if the choice is made in the context of a society in which women and men do not have equal incomes, healthcare, employment opportunities, family responsibilities?
I agree with Hoffman that the solution “is to create a world where women truly have both equal and human rights. The solution is to focus on changing the need for the choice of abortion.” But that seems much more difficult and overwhelming than, say, disallowing sex-selective abortions. And, at the same time, prohibiting sex-selective abortions would be inconsistent with a commitment to allowing each individual to control her own reproduction. Does that mean there never can be an absolute moral wrong, as in, it is wrong to terminate a pregnancy because the fetus is female? My guess is that Hoffman would say that this is rhetoric borrowed from the religious right. She warns that, “[t]o accept the language of the opposition is the cede our moral compass.”
I am struggling with the question of whether over-emphasizing the chooser cedes the moral compass, too.