In today’s polarized political climate, the issue of abortion remains a contentious issue ensconced in passionate, emotive rhetoric from both its proponents and its detractors. Such strong feelings can obscure the underlying realities of the matter, leading to shouting matches and propaganda-spewing instead of civil discourse about deeper truths and implications. In light of this fact, careful critical analysis of the morality of abortion becomes extremely important.
In this article, I will argue that from a feminist ethics perspective, abortion is morally permissible when it is the choice of the pregnant woman and is made without coercion; I will go on to articulate how society has a moral obligation to make abortion safe, legal, and accessible for all women.
First, it is necessary to understand the framework from which the morality of abortion shall be evaluated. In this case, that framework is feminism and how it operates within the healthcare/medical system. According to bioethicist Lewis Vaughn, feminist ethics is “an approach to morality aimed at advancing women’s interests and correcting injustices inflicted on women through social oppression and inequality." Feminist ethics recognizes that traditional Western ethics is partially contingent on masculine conceptions of morality. Thus, feminist ethics consciously move away from emphasizing ideas such as autonomy and property rights that Western ethics prioritize. Instead, feminist ethics purports that “moral reflection must take into account the relevant social realities, such as social practices, relationships, institutions, and power arrangements."
Bioethicist Suzanne Holland crystallizes these ideas, saying that there are four essential tasks when it comes to considering a moral dilemma from a feminist ethics framework: “ Focus on vulnerability…  Take seriously the knowledge that comes from experience…  Include a structural analysis of the setting in which the dilemma occurs…  Consider what justice and autonomy means in the context of relationship and responsibility."
This means that feminist ethics can be seen as an intersectional method of approaching moral dilemmas that strive to examine not only the content of the dilemma, but also the setting in which it occurs, which individuals in the situation are most affected, and what forces act on that individual that may affect her decision.
Although all feminist ethicists are guided by this intersectional method, they may arrive at differing conclusions; this article shall focus on the conclusion, articulated by bioethicist Susan Sherwin, that abortion is an important feature of a woman’s reproductive control. Sherwin chooses to approach the issue of abortion in her article “Abortion Through a Feminist Ethics Lens,” in which she argues that “A decision to have or not to have an abortion must be left to the individual woman, the one who best understands the circumstances of the decision."
Sherwin’s conviction in this claim results from a series of claims she articulates. To begin with, pregnancy is an issue that uniquely concerns cis-gender women; it cannot be “regulated” or subjected to moral specification by external authorities. Such external authorities lack knowledge of all the relevant factors of a woman’s life when she becomes pregnant, and thus cannot hope to evaluate for her whether or not she can/should carry the pregnancy to term or have an abortion. To shift the power of decision-making about pregnancy away from the pregnant woman and to anyone else is to enforce patriarchal norms upon the pregnant woman—in effect, to presume that she does not have the capacity for self-determination. Access to safe and legal abortions increases women’s freedoms to determine the course of their lives. Abortion—when freely chosen by the pregnant woman (as opposed to a situation in which her romantic partner or family coerces her to “choose” it)—is absolutely morally permissible.
Feminist ethics concludes that the fetus is not entitled to personhood separate from its mother. Sherwin says the paradigm that the fetus is a person, and thus is entitled to the considerations/protections of personhood, is rendered invalid due to the fundamental nature of persons. “Persons…are members of a social community which shapes and values them, and personhood is a relational concept that must be defined in terms of interactions and relationships with others." With this definition of persons/personhood as contingent upon the individuals’ unique interactions with other individuals in a community, a fetus cannot be considered a person separate from the mother. Granting a fetus personhood (in spite of its inability to fulfill the roles of persons) endangers women because it justifies erroneously devaluing the personhood/self-determination of the pregnant woman in the name of protecting the idea of the fetus’ personhood.
(It is worth noting that the aforementioned definition of persons as beings capable of forging connections with others may seem to perpetuate ableism—what about autistic individuals who have difficulty “making connections,” or disabled persons who may be unable to communicate with people? Feminist ethics does not, in fact, participate in ableism in this respect. It recognizes that individuals who are, for whatever reason, incapable of relating to people in a “normal” way still absolutely play an important role in their families and communities, and thus have the same claims to personhood as able-bodied persons.)
The pro-birth, anti-abortion paradigm that views fetuses as separate persons either ignores or trivializes the enormous impact that carrying a fetus to term has on a woman’s education, career opportunities, emotional well-being, and social acceptance. It makes a strict calculation of “quantity” of life as more important than the “quality” of these lives. One of its biggest failures is its lack of recognition that forcing a woman to complete her pregnancy may perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
What about the position that women whose pregnancy or pregnancy complications are not “their fault” (i.e. women who have been impregnated by rape or incest) are the only ones justified in seeking an abortion? The position of women who unintentionally became pregnant through consensual sex were merely being “irresponsible,” and are thus not justified in seeking an abortion? As Sherwin points out, “Such views show little appreciation for the power of sexual politics in a culture that oppresses women." In other words, feminist ethics recognizes that it is unjust to assign blame and moral reprehensibility to these women—that it is unjust to say that the only sexual coercion within society takes the form of rape or incest. Forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term is morally wrong because it fails to recognize the other ways in which a woman’s choice/self-determination can be stripped away from her (i.e. social conditioning about sex, sexism in education and the workplace, etc.) and how these may have played a role in her pregnancy. It places an undue burden on a woman who is already battling at least one system of oppression on account of her sex.
This is where I depart from Susan Sherwin in my advocacy that abortion is not merely morally permissible, but that society has a moral obligation to support women in their choices by providing access to abortion (should she choose to terminate her pregnancy) or by providing adequate childcare resources (should she choose to carry the pregnancy to term). This argument is contingent on the feminist premise that increasing women’s ability to determine the course of her own life is inherently moral because it acts as a direct challenge to millennia of oppression and moves the female sex closer to liberation. Because control of one’s reproductive system is vital to control of a one’s self-determination, and because society has an obligation to countermand the oppressive practices of history by increasing women’s right to self-determination, a society has an obligation to aid in women’s control of their reproductive systems.
It should not be brought forth as the only means to women’s liberation; on the contrary, unduly influencing women to have abortions would be antagonistic to the goals of liberation. Instead, access to pragmatic sexual education, access to contraceptives, the dismantling of destructive patriarchal norms about sex, better pre-and post-natal care, and increased access to high-quality/affordable childcare should also be brought forth. Such actions further the fundamental goal of feminism—to restore control of a woman’s life to the woman.
Is there potential of coerced abortion if access to abortive services is increased? If access to abortion is paired with access to resources that make carrying the fetus to term a viable option, particularly for impoverished women, then the chances of abortion becoming the “default” or “expected” outcome to an unintended pregnancy will actually decrease.
Is there potential of the devaluation of human life if access to abortion is increased? On the contrary, increasing access to abortive services increases a woman’s ability to self-determine. It allows her to evaluate her life—her economic, educational, relational, religious, social, and emotional standing—and to determine from there whether it makes more sense for her to carry the pregnancy to term or to abort the fetus. This increase in a woman’s self-determination shows a higher estimation of the intrinsic value of a woman’s life. Thus increasing access to abortive services augments the value of currently-devalued (female) human life.
In conclusion, feminist ethics argues that morality is not a matter of abstract, masculine theories—it necessitates the acknowledgment and exploration of multidimensional, complex, diverse, interrelated set of human experiences. Feminist ethics advocates working towards dismantling systems of oppression by examining the intrinsic nature and functioning of oppressive systems of power. The patriarchy, one such power, currently oppresses women’s reproductive rights by seeking to limit access to abortion. By increasing access to safe/legal abortions, along with increasing access to other services that enhance the scope of women’s choices, we take an important step in dismantling oppression.
This article cannot encapsulate a methodology by which to bring about access to abortive services and access to resources to make carrying a fetus to term viable. But I hope it has helped you understand the importance of allowing a woman to choose the best course of action--for who better knows the complex, multidimensional landscape of her life and identity better than she?