Gina Schouten is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University. Before coming to Illinois State, Gina completed her PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013. Her research interests include political legitimacy, educational justice, gender in the family, and diversity problems within the discipline of philosophy. She is currently working on a paper that extends her previous work on stereotype threat in academic philosophy, in which she argues for the expansion of pre-collegiate philosophy instruction as a possible remedy for the underrepresentation of women in the field. Other projects in progress include a series of papers concerning the legitimacy of political interventions to alter the gendered division of labor.
What do we owe the violinist? Some musings on the ethics and politics of abortion
Though abortion is a profoundly controversial ethical issue among the population at large, it seems to be fairly decisively settled among feminists. Feminists who endorse women’s full equality in workplaces, politics, and intimate relationships have generally regarded strong protections for reproductive freedoms as essential to securing that equality. I agree that efforts to achieve women’s social and political equality are likely to be frustrated by restrictions on abortion. My sense is that these facts have been taken by many feminists to settle at least the politics of abortion, if not the ethics as well: Women’s equality is an urgent requirement of justice, and that equality depends upon women having the capacity to decide whether and when to have children. Thus, we must assure women access to the tools necessary to choose freely whether and when to become pregnant; and, at least so long as that capacity cannot perfectly be assured, we must assure their access to the tools necessary to end pregnancies that they do not want.
But the urgency of securing women’s equality, and the fact that abortion restrictions frustrate that goal, do not suffice to settle the ethics or politics of abortion.
There are, of course, many different kinds of people who think of themselves as feminists, and some so called “pro-life feminists” argue that women’s interests are actually furthered by restrictions on abortion. These arguments are unpersuasive. But it seems to me that there are some genuine feminist commitments that challenge the moral permissibility of abortion, and that challenge the impermissibility of policies that aim to restrict it.
I assume that restrictions on abortion frustrate the cause of women’s equality. Even so, I want to suggest, tentatively, that such restrictions may nonetheless be justified, all-things-considered. Judith Thomson’s now iconic defense of abortion asks us to assume that the fetus is a person. Still, she argues, this does not suffice to show that it is impermissible to kill it: If the fetus is a person, then its interest in the use of the woman’s body to sustain its life is a morally relevant interest. But according to Thomson, that interest is, in many cases, decisively outweighed by the interests of the woman whose body it is.
On what grounds is this weighting so decisive?
Some of our most basic feminist commitments entail that, if the fetus becomes a member of the moral community at some point during fetal development, then at that point its interests become morally very weighty indeed. Feminists have powerfully drawn attention to the ubiquity of dependence, and the implications of dependence for our moral and political theorizing. We all rely on the care we receive from others to meet our basic needs and to flourish, and our dependence does not lessen our moral claim to have our interests respected and considered in moral decision-making. Moral theorizing is flawed, for example, insofar as it lacks the resources to secure the status of children, people with disabilities, or other dependents as direct and unambiguous moral subjects. This commitment of feminists also makes vivid the fact that moral obligations can compel us even when those obligations are not voluntarily undertaken. Thus are we owed care during times of dependency even if we have no intimate relations who are intrinsically motivated to provide that care.
Because they have so compellingly drawn attention to these implications of our common need for care, feminists are especially well-positioned to recognize a crucial, if contingent, point about the ethics of abortion: Whether or not fetuses are members of the moral community whose interests must be taken into account, their neediness does not suffice to exclude them from the moral community; nor, if fetuses have morally relevant interests, are those interests rendered less weighty by virtue of the fetuses’ reliance on others to have them met. Presumably, the fetal interest implicated in the abortion debate is something like the interest in receiving the care necessary for survival. That seems, prima facie, to be a strong interest. If that interest is not weakened by the fetus’s dependence, then we have some presumptive reason—conditional on Thomson’s assumption that the fetus’s interests are morally relevant to begin with—to think that interest is morally weighty indeed.
Women have a morally weighty interest in reproductive freedom. But as Thomson rightly points out, very morally weighty interests can be in tension with other very morally weighty interests. Under some conceivable circumstances, then, very morally weighty interests can justifiably be frustrated. If this is right, then the fact that abortion restrictions are very bad for women does not yet suffice to show that those restrictions are unjustified, all-things-considered. I am genuinely unsure whether the fetus’s interests are morally relevant, and if so, at what point during the pregnancy they become so. But contra Thomson, I think that answering these questions is of paramount importance. And if the fetus does have moral status, then one initially appealing strategy for discounting the weight of its claims is ruled out by feminist commitments: Dependency does not lessen one’s moral status.
The slogan “the personal is political” captures another paradigmatic commitment of feminism. The personal is political because intimate relationships can give rise to profound vulnerabilities, and these vulnerabilities can generate claims of justice that are no less urgent in virtue of arising in intimate relationships. On these grounds, feminists have rightly resisted those who would classify the family as a “private” realm and afford families presumptive immunity against political intervention. The vulnerabilities of unpaid caregivers, we argue, generate demands of justice even when those receiving care are intimates whom the caregiver loves, and even when the resulting inequalities occur between intimates, such as between the caregiver and her spouse. Because the personal is political, we endorse political protections to secure women’s equality not only in the workplace but in the home as well.
It is tempting to treat abortion as a personal issue. But the personal becomes political when the choices we make have profound implications regarding others’ lives. I have suggested that even the strongest and most compelling interests—such as the interest in securing women’s bodily integrity through reproductive freedom—can conflict with others that are similarly strong and compelling. If fetuses’ interests are morally relevant, then it is difficult to see how we could avoid classifying reproductive choices as political.
Of course, even assuming that fetuses are members of the moral community whose interests must be accorded weight in moral and political calculations, women’s quite strong interest in exercising control over their bodies may be decisive. The importance of reproductive control in securing women’s most basic equality might render their interest sufficiently strong and fundamental to override any countervailing considerations. But even if women’s reproductive freedom is overridingly important, there are nonetheless reasons to keep track of morally important trade-offs that we make in securing it. The difference between a moral calculus in which the fetus’s interests do not matter and one in which they matter but are outweighed might have relevance for both our rhetoric and our policy endorsements.
If we recognize the fetus’s interests as morally important, though, is it so obvious that they are outweighed, even by the extraordinarily strong interest in protecting rights to reproductive freedom? I worry that we might, after all, have some obligation to stay plugged into the violinist. The needs and vulnerabilities of others generate powerful moral obligations, and feminists have long been banner-carriers in the recognition of those obligations. Moreover, if the vulnerability of the fetus is morally important, then it has many of the hallmarks of the personal and yet still political vulnerabilities that feminists have been particularly adept at theorizing.
In considering this possibility, we must remember that ubiquitous dependency generates ubiquitous moral obligations as well: There are serious costs to doing the socially necessary and morally obligatory work of caregiving. We must develop policies to share the costs of discharging such obligations fairly, and to compensate those who incur costs that cannot be shared. If fetuses are morally significant, then the vulnerabilities of those who care for them are particularly urgent, since the most serious harms are entirely non-transferrable. If fetuses’ interests generate moral imperatives, and if pregnant women are uniquely in a position to provide the care they need, the rest of us have obligations to share the costs of providing care insofar as sharing them is possible, and to take other steps to ease resultant vulnerabilities when sharing is not possible. If sustaining fetuses turns out, under some circumstances, to be morally obligatory care, then feminists should endorse protections and social supports for those who perform it and call for new social and medical technologies to share its costs more broadly.
Thomson was right that the fetus’s having morally relevant interests does not suffice to show that abortion is morally impermissible. But we must also recognize a corresponding—if far less welcome—insight: The moral relevance of women’s very strong interest in reproductive freedom does not suffice to show that abortion is morally permissible, or that restricting it is always illegitimate. If we assume with Thomson that the fetus is a person, then our obligations to care for it are weighty indeed. Even if we acknowledge that restrictions on abortion would frustrate profoundly worthy feminist goals, we should consider whether, after all, the ethics and politics of abortion crucially depend on the moral status of the fetus and the moral weight of its interests.
Because I believe that restrictions on abortion are likely to undermine women’s equality, I want for the ethics of abortion to be settled decisively in favor of the woman’s right to choose, and for the politics of abortion to be settled in favor of strong protections for that right. But when I scrutinize my conviction that abortion is permissible and that robust protections for access to abortion are desirable, I am dismayed to find that conviction in tension with other commitments I have that I take to be distinctly feminist. I welcome any thoughts about whether the tension is genuine or merely apparent, and, if it is genuine, how it is best resolved.
 I set aside questions about what views are properly regarded as “feminist.”
 Thomson Judith J. (1971). “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(1): 47-66.