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Abortion as Women's Entrance Fee to Society
Dobbs, debates, and walking away from Omelas
I hope folks had a good Thanksgiving and safe travels. On Thursday, I’ll post highlights from your discussion of how the good of children spill over beyond their immediate families.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Dobbs, a case that directly challenges the viability framework of Roe and Casey. I wrote a little on the incoherence of our viability standard in The New York Times this summer:
A decade before Roe v. Wade was decided, President John Kennedy lost his son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy when he was born five and a half weeks prematurely. The boy weighed just under five pounds, and he did not survive because of a breathing disorder. Thanks to advances in neonatology, Patrick would almost certainly have survived if he were born today. A baby born at five and a half weeks prematurely isn’t considered at high risk, merely “moderately or late preterm.” […]
Viability can’t be pinned down to a precise cutoff. The children featured in TwentyTwoMatters are the lucky ones — more than half of babies born at 22 weeks who are treated in intensive care don’t make it home from the hospital. Viability depends on where the mother delivers — an extremely premature baby born before 23 weeks or one facing complications might be viable if the baby receives care in a Level 3 N.I.C.U., but probably not if the baby doesn’t. If the Supreme Court jettisons the viability standard in Dobbs, it will acknowledge that our dignity, before and after birth, does not depend on our ability to stand on our own. Every baby has a demand on its mother, and the mother’s need creates a just demand on the society around her.
The NYT editorial board would like to see abortion access preserved, but is skeptical that Roe’s reasoning will survive, or that it deserves to. The board wrote:
This moment is also an opportunity to recast the fight over abortion and reproductive rights generally. It should be centered on women’s equality and liberty, not on their privacy, the right on which the Roe decision was grounded. The problem with that rationale, which was conjured by a court consisting of nine older men, is not only that it does not appear explicitly in the Constitution, but also that it carries insinuations of secrecy and even shame. That’s a rickety foundation for such a fundamental right. It is far harder to refute calls for equality and liberty, as evidenced by the struggles and successes of the L.G.B.T.Q. movement.
RBG made similar arguments, preferring to see abortion access guaranteed on equal protection grounds, not privacy reasoning.
This Thursday, I’ll be one of Braver Angels’ debate moderators for a Dobbs-inspired debate that is centered on this question. Our debate resolution is:
Resolved: Women’s Equality Requires Access to Abortion
That’s the question that determines whether people believe “pro-life feminist” is a contradiction in terms. In her most recent newsletter, Tish Harrison Warren makes her case for a big enough tent to include pro-life feminists like herself.
Her own core definition of feminism is one she learned as a child: “A feminist is someone who thinks women have been oppressed and continue to be oppressed, and that that is wrong.”
She hopes that it would be possible for women to work together to combat some forms of oppression, even if they disagree about how abortion fits into their framework.
I’d add a little to her definition of feminism:
A feminist is someone who thinks the world is hostile to women. Sometimes that hostility takes the form of active animus, and sometimes it’s a matter of not leaving space for women to be women. We’re asked to fit a male default, and we’re expected to make whatever compromises or sacrifices necessary to adapt ourselves to norms that don’t fit.
That’s where RBG and I are nearly in agreement. Abortion is the price women are asked to pay to “catch up” to men, who don’t bear the same risks from sex. The ability to “stop” a growing child is treated as equivalent to a man’s ability to walk away from a child he has fathered.
It’s a double burden, where both halves fall more heavily on women. We run the greater risk from sex, and we are expected to “solve” that problem with a more violent solution than the one available to men.
We deserve better. Women deserve a society that has room for women as women. And a society that fears children will always wind up hating women.