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.
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