Abortion and Sexual Caste

Feminist ethics and understanding women’s experiences
This story is included in these collections
Photo from Unsplash

This article was originally published in the February 4, 1972 issue of Commonweal.

In panels and discussions on religion and abortion I frequently have cited my favorite set of statistics: 100 percent of the bishops who oppose the repeal of anti-abortion laws are men and 100 percent of the people who have abortions are women. These “statistics” have the double advantage of being both irrefutable and entertaining, thereby placing the speaker in an enviable situation vis-à-vis the audience. More important than this, however, is the fact that this simple juxtaposition of data suggests something of the context in which problems concerning the morality of abortion and the repeal of anti-abortion laws should be understood. That is, I’m proposing that the issue of the repeal of anti-abortion laws should be seen within the wide context of the oppression of women in sexually hierarchical society.

Society as we know it is characterized by a sexual caste system in which men and women constitute birth-ascribed, hierarchically ordered groups, having unequal access to “goods, services, prestige, and well-being” (from Berreman’s description of caste). There is already available abundant researched material demonstrating the existence of such social inequality of the sexes in all basic areas: access to income, occupational specialization, prestige, self-esteem, behavior, sexual privileges, and institutional power. All of this is enforced through sex-role segregation, which in some ways is more devastating than spatial segregation (as in a ghetto), for it prevents comparisons and masks inequalities.

Patriarchal religion—in its various forms with their varying degress of intensity functions to legitimate sexual caste, affirming that it is in harmony with “nature” and “God’s plan.” It does this in a number of interrelated ways, and I am proposing that rigidity on the abortion issue should be seen as part of the syndrome. It is less than realistic to ignore the evidence suggesting that within Roman Catholicism the “official” opposition to the repeal of anti-abortion laws is profoundly interconnected—on the level of motivations, basic assumptions, and style of argumentation with positions on other issues. Such interconnected issues include birth control, divorce, the subordination of women in marriage and in religious life, and the exclusion of women from the ranks of the clergy.

The fact that all of the major ethical studies of the abortion problem have been done by men is itself symptomatic of women’s oppressed condition. The concepts, terminology, and modes of questioning and reasoning in theology and philosophy all have been devised by men under the conditions of patriarchy. As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out, women have been obliged to exhaust themselves just in the process of survival and, in the case of feminists, of breaking through the barriers imposed upon their sex. They have had little energy left for developing a real opposition to the prevailing culture. Moreover, as is the case in all oppressed groups, women suffer from a duality of consciousness, having internalized the consciousness of the superordinate group. Divided within themselves and against themselves, women by and large have not been able to challenge the value system of the dominant elite, even in matters vitally affecting their own lives.

Since the condition of sexual caste has been camouflaged so successfully by sex-role segregation, it has been difficult to perceive anti-abortion laws and anti-abortion ethical arguments within this context. Yet it is only by perceiving them within this total environment of patriarchal bias that it is possible to assess realistically how they function in society. If, for example, one-sided arguments using such loaded terminology as “the murder of the unborn child” are viewed as independent units of thought unrelated to the kind of society in which they were formulated, then they may well appear plausible and cogent. However, once the fact of sexual caste and its implications have been unveiled, such arguments and the laws they attempt to justify can be recognized as consistent with the rationalizations of a system that oppresses women but incongruous with the experience and needs of women.

A number of male-authored essays on abortion that have appeared recently in liberal publications (including Commonweal) have been praised for their “clarity” and “objectivity.” Yet in many cases, I suggest, such articles give the illusion of clarity precisely because they concentrate upon some selected facts or data while leaving out of consideration the assumptions, attitudes, stereotypes, customs, and arrangements which make up the fabric of the world in which the problem of abortion arises. Moreover, upon closer examination, their “objectivity” can be seen as the detachment of an external judge who a) does not share or comprehend the experience of the women whose lives are deeply involved and b) has by reason of his privileged situation within the sexual caste system a built-in vested interest opposed to the interest of those most immediately concerned.

Their “objectivity” can be seen as the detachment of an external judge who does not share or comprehend the experience of the women whose lives are deeply involved.

Illustrative of this problem is an article by Professor George Huntston Williams of Harvard in which the author proposes as model for the politics of abortion a “sacred condominium” in which the progenitors and the “body politic.... share sovereignty in varying degrees and in varying circumstances.” As he develops his thesis, it becomes evident, I think, that the woman’s judgment is submerged in the condominium, and that the theory’s pretensions to offer reasonable solutions are belied by the realities of sexual politics in the society in which we actually live.

Basically, Professor Williams’ theory ignores the fact that since men and women are not social equals, the representatives of the male-dominated “body politic” cannot be assumed to judge without bias. It also overlooks the fact that the “progenitors” do not have equal roles in the entire reproductive process, since it is obviously the woman who has the burden of pregnancy and since under prevailing social conditions the task of upbringing is left chiefly and sometimes solely to the woman. It disregards the fact that the male sometimes deserts his wife or companion (or threatens desertion) in a situation of unwanted pregnancy.

The inadequacies of Professor Williams’ approach are evident in his treatment of the problem of abortion in the case of rape. He writes:

Society’s role . . . would be limited to ascertaining the validity of the charge of rape. Here the principals in the condominium could be at odds in assess- ing the case and require specialized arbitration. If this were the case, the medical and legal professions could be called upon together with that of social work. But even if rape is demonstrable the mother may surely assent to the continuance of the misplaced life within her . . . (from "The Sacred Condominium," in The Morality of Abortion, edited by John Noonan).

What is left out in this eloquent, multisyllabic, and seemingly rational discussion? First, it does not take into consideration the bias of a society which is male-controlled and serves male interests. Second, (and implied in the first point), it leaves out the fact that: it is very difficult to prove rape. In New York State, for example, one must have corroborating evidence to convict a man of rape. In some states, if the man accused of rape was known previously by the woman, this fact can be used in his defense. According to the laws of many states, it is impossible for a man to rape his wife. Moreover, women who have been raped and who have attempted to report the crime to the police frequently have reported that the police treated them with ridicule and contempt, insinuating that they must have worn provocative clothing or invited the attack in some way. The whole mechanism of “blaming the victim” thus works against them, adding to the trauma and suffering already endured. Nor are the police alone in taking this view of the situation. Their judgment reflects the same basic attitude of sexist society which is given physical expression in the rapist’s act.

The kind of spiritual counseling that women frequently receive within the “sacred condominium” is exemplified in an article by Fr. Bernard Häring. Writing of the woman who has been raped, he says:

We must, however, try to motivate her to consider the child with love because of its subjective innocence, and to bear it in suffering through to birth, whereupon she may consider her enforced maternal obligation fulfilled [italics mine] and may give over the child to a religious or governmental agency, after which she would try to resume her life with the sanctity that she will undoubtedly have achieved through the great sacrifice and suffering (from “A Theological Evolution,” in The Morality of Abortion, edited by John Noonan).

Fr. Häring adds that if she has already “yielded to the violent temptation” to rid herself of the effects of her experience, “we can leave the judgment of the degree of her sin to a merciful God.” Those who are familiar with “spiritual counseling” have some idea of what could be implied in the expression “try to motivate her.” Despite Fr. Häiring’s intention to be compassionate, his solution, I submit, is not adequate. The paternalistic and intimidating atmosphere of “spiritual counseling” is not generally conducive to free and responsible decision-making, and can indeed result in “enforced, maternal obligation.” The author does not perceive the irony of his argument, which is visible only when one sees the “environment” of the woman’s predicament. She lives in a world in which not only the rapist but frequently also the priest view her as an object to be manipulated—in one case physically, and in the other case psychologically. Machismo religion, in which only men do spiritual counseling, asks her to endure a double violation, adding the rape of her mind to that of her body. As Mrs. Robinson of the once popular hit song knew: “Any way you look at it, you lose.”

Yet when the question of abortion is raised, frequently it is only the isolated material act that is brought into focus.

Feminist ethics—yet to be developed because women have yet to be free enough to think out their own experience will differ from all of this in that it will refuse to give attention merely to the isolated physical act involved in abortion and will insist upon seeing this within its social context. Christian moralists generally have paid attention to context when dealing with such problems as killing in self-defense and in war. They have found it possible to admit the existence of a “just war” within which the concept of “murder” generally does not apply and have permitted killing in self-defense and in the case of capital punishment. They have allowed to pass unheeded the fact that by social indifference a large proportion of the earth’s population is left to die of starvation in childhood. All of these situations are viewed as at least more complex than murder. Yet when the question of abortion is raised, frequently it is only the isolated material act that is brought into focus. The traditional maxim that circumstances affect the morality of an action is all but forgotten or else rendered non-operative through a myopic view of the circumstances. Feminists perceive the fact of exceptional reasoning in the case of abortion as related to the general situation. They ask the obviously significant (but frequently overlooked) question: Just who is doing the reasoning and who is forced to bear unwanted children?

Feminist ethics, as I envisage it, will see a different and more complex human meaning in the act of abortion. Rather than judging universally in black and white categories of “right” and “wrong” it will be inclined to make graded evaluations of choices in such complex situations as those in which the question of abortion concretely arises. It will attempt to help women to orchestrate the various elements that come into play in the situation, including the needs of the woman as a person, the rights of women as an oppressed class, the requirements of the species in adapting to changing conditions, such as overpopulation, the positive obligations of the woman as the mother of other children or as a professional, the negative aspects of her situation in a society which rewards the production of unwanted children with shame and poverty. It will take into consideration the fact that since the completely safe and adequate means of birth control does not yet exist, women are at the mercy of their reproductive systems.

As I have indicated elsewhere (Commonweal, March 12, 1971) the women’s movement is bringing into being a new consciousness which is beginning to challenge the symbols and the ethics of patriarchal religion. The transvaluation of values which is beginning to take place affects not only thinking on abortion, but the whole spectrum of moral questions. The ethic emerging from the movement has as its primary emphasis not self-abnegation but self-affirmation in community with others. The kind of suffering that it values is that which is endured in acting to overcome an oppressive situation rather than that which accompanies abject submission to such a situation.

Although repudiation of the passive ethic of authoritarian religion is not new, what is new is the fact that women are giving expression to it, personally, corporately and politically. Those who have been socialized most profoundly to live out the passive ethic are renouncing it and affirming instead a style of human existence that has existential courage as its dominant motif. In challenging the patriarchal authority structure, women are developing in themselves the quality of courage required to face the ambiguities of the human situation. This courage implies taking intellectual and moral risks. It is qualitatively different from the “fortitude” extolled in authoritarian society and epitomized in the attitude of the soldier who faces death in blind obedience to his superior’s command. The kind of attitude it inspires is not likely to be appreciated by the military-industrial complex.

At this moment in history the abortion issue has become a focal point for dramatic conflict between the ethic of patriarchal authoritarianism and the ethic of courage to confront ambiguity. When concrete decisions have to be made concerning whether or not to have an abortion, a complex web of circumstances demands consideration. There are no adequate textbook answers. Essentially women are saying that because there is ambiguity surrounding the whole question and because sexually hierarchical society is stacked against women, abortion is not appropriately a matter of criminal law. In our society as it is, no laws can cover the situation justly. Abortion “reform” generally works out in a discriminatory way and is not an effective deterrent to illegal abortions. Thousands of women who have felt desperate enough to resort to criminal abortions have been subjected to psychological and physical barbarities, and sometimes these have resulted in death.

At this point it may be appropriate to consider the “pacifist” argument concerning abortion presented by Gordon Zahn (“A Religious Pacifist Looks at Abortion,” Commonweal, May 28, 1971). In its own way, this article is also illustrative of non-comprehension of women’s situations. The response of Commonweal readers to it was apparently positive, praising its lucidity and logic. At least this would seem to be indicated by most of the letters that were printed, all of which were from men, with one exception, which was from a nun. However, it is unlikely that many feminists would be impressed. Indeed, the article is particularly enigmatic because Professor Zahn, in addressing his critique to what he imagines to be the women’s liberationists’ point of view, by his own admission refuses to deal with “the legislative question.” This leads to considerable mystification since the issue being raised by the women’s movement is precisely the repeal of anti-abortion laws. There is not merely one single view of the morality of abortion among feminists. Yet there is an almost universal consensus that it should be removed from criminal law. Pacifists such as Gordon Zahn are free to refuse to defend themselves if physically attacked, but a legal system that would condemn taking the necessary means for self-defense would be inappropriate to the human condition. So also a woman may take a “pacifist” position in regard to an unwanted pregnancy and refuse to have an abortion. However, a woman also might reasonably decide that, in her circumstances, having an abortion would be the better part of valor. Attempting to exclude such decisions by legislation is, I think, unrealistic and inappropriate. It is generally unwise to try to legislate heroism. Feminists point out, moreover, that bringing an unwanted child into the world is even a questionable form of heroism. It would seem particularly unwise to try to enforce through criminal law a species of self-sacrifice whose consequences are dubious at best, and often tragic.

Women—many of them victims also of economic and racial oppression—have just begun to cry out publicly about their rights over their own bodies. That academics find this language unsatisfactory as a complete moral methodology is understandable. Their inability to listen to what is being said, however, is deplorable. Women are making explicit the dimension that traditional morality and abortion legislation simply have not taken into account: the realities of their existence as an oppressed caste of human beings. I think the fact that Professor Zahn just does not hear these voices of experience is indicated by a number of statements. For example, his claim that science has provided sufficient means for avoiding the beginning of the life process is out of touch with the realities of individual situations. His admonition that one should acknowledge the consequences of the sex act is of high moral tone, but it doesn’t have much meaning when applied after the fact to the case of an economically and culturally deprived adolescent. As for the “rights of the putative father”—Professor Zahn really should speak to a few young women who would be willing to tell it to him like it is.

As the movement for the repeal of anti-abortion laws gains momentum, we are rapidly moving into a situation in which open war is declared between feminism in this country and official Roman Catholicism. I use the word “official” advisedly since this position hardly represents the thinking of all Catholics. The anti-feminine discriminations within the Church have, of course, been known in a general way by feminists, but these for the most part have seemed irrelevant to their own lives. As this issue surfaces more and more, however, women are seeing the church as their enemy. For its part, the institutional church is focusing its tremendous lobbying power on the issue. As one woman pointed out, it is well organized and has plenty of money to spend.

Are we going to let “nature” take its course or take the decision into our own hands? In the latter case, who will decide?

Women did not arbitrarily choose abortion as part of their platform. It has arisen out of the realities of their situation. On its deepest level, I think the issue is not as different from the issue of birth control as many, particularly liberal Catholics, would make it appear. There are deep questions involved which touch the very meaning of human existence. Are we going to let “nature” take its course or take the decision into our own hands? In the latter case, who will decide? What the women’s movement is saying is that decisions will be made affecting the processes of “nature,” and that women as individuals will make the decisions in matters most intimately concerning themselves. I think that this, on the deepest level, is what authoritarian religion fears. Surely its greatest fear is not the destruction of life, as its record on other issues reveals.

Declaration of war between the women’s movement and the official Church should come as no surprise. Yet there are certain deep ironies and tragic conflicts here, for there is widespread spiritual consciousness in the movement. Among its leaders and theoreticians are women who are spiritual expatriates. Having seen through the idolatries and the oppressive bias of patriarchal religion, they have found that their sense of transcendence and creative hopes can be expressed within the movement but not in the institutional churches. For such women the movement functions as “space” set apart—a province primarily of the mind—in which they experience authenticity and freedom. It is the space where they need not go through the mendacious contortions of mind, will and imagination demanded of them by sexist society and sexist religion. It is a charismatic community, and its mission is based upon the promise within women themselves, their undeveloped potential. The women’s movement is anti-Church in the sense of being in conflict with sexist religion as sexist. At the same time, it is expressing dimensions of human truth that the institutional churches have failed to incarnate and express.

What can be the role of a living, healing, prophetic church in this situation? I suggest that the work of such a community, wherever that may exist—underground, above-ground, “inside” or “outside” the official Church—will not be to cut off the possibility for women to make free and courageous decisions, either by lobbying to prevent the repeal of anti-abortion laws or by psychological manipulation. I think that it will try to hear what women are saying and to support their demands for the repeal of unjust laws.

In addition to this, and more importantly, I suggest that a living Church will try to point beyond abortion to more fundamental solutions. That is, it will work toward the development of a social context in which the problem of abortion will not arise. As catalyst for social change, it will foster research into more adequate and safer means of birth control. As educative force, it will make available information about the better means now in existence, for example, vasectomy. Most fundamentally, as a prophetic and healing community it will work to eradicate sex-role socialization and the sexual caste system itself, which in many ways works toward the entrapment of women in situations of being burdened with unwanted pregnancies. I think it should be clear that authentic religion will point beyond abortion, not by instilling fear and guilt, but by inspiring the kind of personal, social and technological creativity that can, in the long run, make abortion a non-problem.

Mary Daly was a prolific feminist theologian, author of Beyond God the Father and many more recognizable titles. She taught at Boston College for 33 years and died in 2010.

This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Books