‘Well,’ the man said, ‘if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘And you really want to?’ [the girl said]
‘I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’
‘And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?’
‘I love you now. You know I love you.’*
Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants
About Essay: Writer’s Note (October 2023): I was sorting through some of my oldest writings when I came across my undergraduate thesis, which I completed in June 2005 at DePaul University. Looking back, while I find the writing and logic can be a bit heavy handed at times and my opinions have nuanced in the intervening years, I believe the essay still offers an interesting take on abortion choice and on the broader questions of ethics and politics even today.
Below is a lightly edited version (mostly for mistakes in spelling and phrasing). Thanks to my original advisors, H. Peter Steeves (Philosophy) and Elizabeth Kelly (Political Science / Women and Gender’s Studies), for their support and help. At the end, I’ve provided a few updated thoughts and ideas. Hopefully the essay can continue to provide some fresh ideas and thoughts on how we frame and approach political, moral and societal situations.
Abstract / Summary: This essay is a critical appraisal of how an abortion choice is framed in much of contemporary society and liberalism. On a theoretical and legal level, it’s either the woman’s right to choose or a fetus’s right to life. This individualist framing obscures a rich ethical and communicative context in which many abortion choices are situated. Using a phenomenological approach based on a reading of a Hemingway short story, I argue that “an ethical evaluation of an abortion choice starts with the immediate situation of certain intimate participants.” I then lay out various scenarios in which abortion choices might transpire. Following a critique of Rawlsian liberalism and this individualistic bias, I then use feminism and communitarism as theoretical aids to evaluate and frame reproductive choice relationally.
A Communitarian and Feminist Critique of Reproductive Choice
Intro: Hemingway’s Challenge to the Abortion Debate
In Ernest Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants,1 a nameless couple, who are drinking beer and “waiting” for the next train, discusses and argues about an explicitly ambiguous and unnamed “operation” for the woman. By the end of the story it becomes more apparent (in spite of the ambiguity in Hemingway’s intentionally simplified language and the entire lack of mentioning any direct signal words) that they (the couple) have become pregnant unexpectedly and that they are discussing the possibility of getting an abortion. Hemingway’s main clue comes early in the conversation following comments about a new drink they are trying:
“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.
“That’s the way with everything.” [the man said]
“Yes,” said the girl, “Everything tastes like licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”
“Oh, cut it out.”
There is a tense and cutting irony to her statement, but clearly this is not a conversation about the taste of alcohol; this thing she has “waited so long for” [my emphasis] is the child she is pregnant with. The man understands the context of her biting comment, which indicates that they have already been discussing this pregnancy and the possibility of getting an abortion well before this subtly disguised and dramatically intensifying conversation. Her ironic comments continually incite him even though no direct language or wording concerning abortion or pregnancy are directly mentioned in the story.
An unwary reader, who misses the fact that this a conversation about an abortion, will find, at worst, total confusion with what is happening in the story and, at most, an intense conversation about this vague “operation” and over the preservation of the couple’s relationship. But the fact that this is a conversation about an abortion reveals Hemingway’s daring as a writer (and even as a moral thinker!) as well as providing a unique example, amongst all the theoretical literature on abortion, of an actual abortion choice undertaken through conversation.
The brilliance of Hemingway’s story makes a single interpretation impossible. Is the man forcing the procedure upon the woman? Or is there something different and unique occurring in the story such that they are engaging in a conversational and communal ethical process?
Since the conversation is entirely stripped of the historical past of each character and of their relationship, knowing from what context each character speaks from is hopeless, and determining one, unique interpretation is not possible. But the manner and subtlety of their conversation shows that there is a rich and storied, though unknowable, context from which these characters speak. Although in the end neither seems to be able to resolve their differences for the relationship, for each other, and for him- or herself, a conversation about a potential child conceived by both potential parents, seemingly within a developed lengthy relationship, does occur.
Both react with very different emotions and from their own moral situations and traditions as each navigates their pregnancy conflict. Ideally, they would reach a communicative compromise and the child would be kept or aborted according to a joint choice, but in reality, such compromises and joint choices are not always possible. Considering the contemporary political scene that is so stubbornly divided by the schism of the abortion question and by the limitation of liberalism, there is something radical and unique about an actual abortion choice and dilemma dealt with and made through communication, through a dialogical community, albeit a single, fictional couple.
Abortion and Personhood: An Interdisciplinary and Societal Battleground
In various fields including ethics, law, biology, sociology, and psychology, the very nature of this abortion choice signifies a massive battleground about the ability to have or not have an abortion. Numerous classic and noteworthy positions have been established relating to how one evaluates the nature of the fetus and the bodily autonomy of the mother.
Some, such as John Noonan, argue that an embryo or fetus at conception possesses an inherent right to life, which, like all human life, should be respected, because since murder is the killing of an innocent human being, an abortion is, on this logic, the murder of an innocent, potential human being.2
Others, such as Michael Tooley, argue that a fetus does not possess an inherent right to life and can be ethically and legally aborted, because it is not, simply by virtue of possessing the same genetic makeup of and/or the same physical resemblance of a human being, a human person and thus meriting of the same protection as an adult human being.
Endlessly debated is the moment when a fetus, embryo, or child becomes a person, and equally confusing is the query into what makes someone a person, what qualities and characteristics mark someone as a person. Theorists argue about which characteristics one should choose to “deem” someone or something as deserving of the status as a person and deserving of protection. Proposals for the characteristics of a person range around ideas of viability outside the womb (complicated by the medical technology’s ability for premature births to extend from simple viability to “medical viability”), sentience (experiencing sensory stimuli or the ability to feel pain), consciousness, reason or rationality, language, and self-awareness—just to name a few. Even the list of characteristics of a person is often uncritically only proposed as hypothetical in order to argue for or against an abortion, because as many remark like Mary Anne Warren, actually finding an agreed upon list would be next to impossible.
The debate over personhood is an attempt to show that the nature of child, infant, or fetus does or does not ethically parallel the nature of a rational, conscious, “normal,” stable adult, and thus they deserve the same rights as an adult. But this paradigm example of the “normal” person is extremely problematic in several ways, but primarily because this paradigm is a model of a static, non-dependent, healthy male body, which, in truth, does not parallel the changing and growing nature of a fetus or even the full scope of any human life.
We are at birth, often near the end of our life, and periodically during serious illnesses entirely dependent upon the care and aid of the other. It seems obvious enough that an adult and a child do not possess the same moral and physical capacities, and thus since a child cannot take care of her or himself, the moral agency of a child is similarly limited. But following the logic and rhetoric of “inalienable rights,” possessing a right to be defended does not seem to require actual moral agency. Rights are to be defended as such. But how exactly does a child’s dependence and need to be cared-for connect with his or her rights as such?
Abortion ethicists such as Tooley, Warren, and English establish and use their characteristics of personhood hypothetically (and even with a certain degree of hesitation) in order to argue about the question of an abortion, but these characteristics are rarely methodically and thoroughly embedded in a complete philosophical inquiry. But can such a “characteristic” portrait of the moral person even be abstractly and in general established?
The importance for the abortion debate is that if someone or something possesses personhood, then their rights stemming from their being a person are to be protected. But while membership in a group, state, or community seems to more easily have rights and privileges that follow from inclusion and participation, can simply “being a person,” which determining as such seems obscure at the outset, provide one with being deemed as “deserving of being protected”?
In contrast to the debate about the nature of the fetus and its rights, the positions in favor of pro-choice or pro-abortion rights often focus on the rights of pregnant woman. According to Judith Jarvis Thomson, the right of the fetus, which may or may not be a person, does not supersede the right of the woman to the ownership and use of her own body. Every human person possesses a unique ownership of her or his own body, according to Thompson’s argument, and since no one can claim control over or against someone else’s body, the woman’s right to her body means that she possess autonomy over the use and abuse of her body. While a fetus may be a human person deserving of rights, this does not mean that the right to life of this particular potential child can surpass the bodily autonomy of the mother.
Problem of Abortion Choice, Situated
Classic abortion pieces continuously “argue” about personhood, when human life first begins, the sacredness of life, the harmful ab/use of one’s own body by another being, etc., but they all seem to fail on some level to address the actual choice of individuals and communities dealing with a potential child, a potential new member of their family or society. In making arguments related to abortion, abortion ethicists have forgotten to consider the moral action of choosing—individually and in common.
These classic considerations about human life, personhood, ownership and use of one’s own body, and murder are important theoretical gestures in relation to an abortion as such. But an ethical approach about abortion should begin with moral agency and moral choice. By simply beginning first with theoretical questions, these classic abortion arguments entirely ignore the role of choice and of actual people engaging in moral dilemma.
It should be always remembered that, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “There is an ethics only if there is a problem to solve.” This “problem” with abortion is not a single problem involved in a single debate at single level, but this “problem” with abortion involves multiple contexts at varying levels; in fact, the abortion question would be better characterized to be encompassing about multiple problems under the guise of one.
On the political level, the abortion question has spiraled away from contexts, individuals, and the strains and joys an additional child puts on lives and communities; and has turned into a rhetorical whirlwind of political polarization. The emotions that individuals attach to the concept of an “abortion” and similar concepts related to the moral boundaries of life (like assisted suicide) are routinely manipulated by politicians to their own unique advantages. The rhetoric bolsters the so-called pro-life/pro-choice divide. But it must be remembered that the ethical “problem” of an abortion takes place on the intimate and close level.
The primary concern in the moral process of an abortion choice should not simply stem from the question of abortion as such, but an ethical evaluation of an abortion should begin with the situated question of the moral agent or chooser and how that choice is made relationally. A pregnancy begins not in the theoretical but in the varied lives, situations, and communities of people. An ethical evaluation of an abortion choice starts with the immediate situation of certain intimate participants.
Generalized List of Pregnancy Situations
Some pregnancies are planned and wanted. These planned pregnancies, of course, contain with them an expectation of a future family that includes the life of that child. They are not moral dilemmas, at least initially. The pregnancies themselves as well as their hopeful expectations can arise an infinite number of specific situation, but in general a planned (natural) pregnancy and parenthood begins in two situations:
- (A1.) a single woman, who wants a child herself; or
- (A2.) some communal situation involving the biological mother and some configuration of others (i.e. a mother and father or even two lesbians in which one of them intentionally gets pregnant for the couple).
Some pregnancies are unexpected and at least mentally unplanned for; these constitute a moral dilemma. In evaluating the moral dilemma of a pregnancy, no choice—whether to keep the child, keep the child but put it up for adoption, or have an abortion—is entirely favorable or desirable, at least initially.
No matter what the context, an unexpected pregnancy is a difficult situation, because the pregnancy was not planned for nor wanted at least at that time. Again, like planned pregnancies, an unplanned pregnancy can arise in numerous situations, but it also can be characterized into a general list:
- (B1.) a single woman who becomes pregnant in casual (non-relationship but consensual) sex;
- (B2.) a single woman who becomes pregnant in a committed relationship of some sort but the potential father is absent or undependable;
- (B3.) a woman who becomes pregnant in the context of a committed but oppressive relationship in which the potential father welds an imbalance of (patriarchal) power; or
- (B4.) a woman who becomes pregnant in the context of a committed relationship.
Along with the divide between planned and unplanned pregnancies, which occur in the realm of consensual sex, it is necessary to indicate a third situation that takes place outside these groups and in a unique moral realm, namely:
- (C1.) a woman who becomes pregnant after being raped.
These lists are not intended to be exhaustive, but they indicate the most immediate personal spheres of choice and moral evaluation. These generalized situations are highly abstracted and do not markedly indicate the numerous communities and social conditions in which a pregnancy takes place.
Theoretical Frameworks Under Consideration: Feminism and Communitarianism
Any number of social-critical positions including Marxism and Race Theory could be used to evaluate the problematic social makeup of every pregnancy, but for the sake of time and topicality, I will limit myself to feminism and communitarianism.
For feminism, every pregnancy takes place, in general sense, in a patriarchal world, and, in a specific sense, every pregnancy takes place as an act that is potentially egalitarian, liberating or suppressing.
For communitarianism, a pregnancy does not simply take place in the context of an isolated, single woman, but it takes place for a woman who is embedded in several passive and active communities.
These two social-critical positions will be evaluated in contrasted to liberalism in more depth in the second half of the paper.
Nuancing Pregnancy Situations Relationally, Bodily and in terms of Power
To return to these generalized pregnancy situations, situation (A1) involves a planned pregnancy by a single woman for whom the entirety of the reproductive choice and reproductive experience is hers alone. While any number of people may be involved in the process of her pregnancy including friends and family, the choice to have a child was hers, the act of pregnancy and giving birth are and will take place in her body, and the future experience of raising a child will be hers.
Even though unplanned and also taking place in relation to communities and social conditions, situations B1 through B3 and C1 seem to be an individual choice. Because, if the child is kept, the experience (and risk) of pregnancy, birth, and the future raising of the child will be primarily hers alone, the choice itself should be the woman’s alone.
At this junction, it seems to two important considerations must be examined, at least in passing, those being: the nature of the reproductive body (particularly following the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty) and power (following Michel Foucault).
Males and females possess different reproductive bodies, and in a phenomenological way, these reproductive bodies, particularly during a pregnancy, act with a different manner of openness to the world. While conception involves the male sperm and the female egg, a pregnancy is an intimately different event for a female and her body.
As feminist phenomenologists Iris Young, Carol Bigwood, and Louise Levesque-Lopman describe, a pregnancy is an experience that is radically different experience than anything else and is an experience unique to a pregnant woman’s body alone. For Husserl, the ‘I,’ the self or Ego is always, in terms of subjectivity, ‘here,’ and the Other as an Ego and a Subject is always ‘there.’
In a remarkable break with the Husserlian understanding, the fetus as a subject developing during pregnancy makes the distinction of the other as always ‘there’ impossible, because in a bodily sense, the child developing inside the woman is the physical ‘here’ of the self.
As Young, Bigwood, and Levesque-Lopman describe, the developing body inside the pregnant woman changes one’s relation to the self as well as to the other. And in a dramatic sense, birth is an action that takes a subject that was ‘here’ and that newborn boy or girl is now, markedly, for the first time ‘there.’
Again, while a phenomenological description of the female experience of reproduction seems to provide a unique experience unparalleled in the male reproductive body, for Merleau-Ponty there is always an openness to the world and to the other; there is always another body or medium touching your whenever when you feel the world. In the case of pregnancy, it is the female’s bodily experience that is unique in one sense, but there is also something like the hand of the other that holds on and shares a degree of feeling through and together.
While a fuller examination of the phenomenology of reproductive bodies and bodies in general would be a beneficial schema through which to consider both reproductive experience and reproductive choice individually and communally, this would clearly take us too far off track.
It is obvious from examining contemporary reality as well as from this generalized list of pregnancy situations that the role of power is closely tied to an ethical account of reproductive choice. Power relations always surround us, but, as Foucault seems to indicate occasionally, this does not mean we are always damned by power and oppression. As Foucault says:
It seems to me that power is ‘always already there’, that one is never ‘outside’ it, that there are no ‘margins’ for those who break with the system to gambol in. But this does not entail the necessity of accepting an inescapable form of domination or absolute privilege on the side of the law. To say that one can never be ‘outside power’ does not mean that one is trapped and condemned to defeat no matter what.
Ethical problems rarely take place in situations of equality and equal power, but does this mean all choices (including reproductive choices) are imbalanced? And does not ethics (and politics) attempt to navigate power relations such that the imbalances in power do not equate to the only denominator in an ethical problem?
While the role of power in relation to choice is clearly a problematic situation for all of ethics, politics and beyond, a close examination of power and reproductive choice lies outside the boundaries of this paper.
Individual vs. Communal Configurations according to Liberalism and Communitarianism
If situations A1, B1-B3, and C1 indicate more individual choices, situations A2 and B4, which involve some personal, face-to-face, lived configuration of others in community, do not seem to so easily fall into a strictly liberal conception of “woman’s choice,” because this communal entity or group—not just the woman—will undergo a communal event, namely their pregnancy and the raising of their child. In short, the expanse of the child’s life, barring any dissolution of the family, will be enacted together. While the right to choose is, according to liberal political theory, hers alone, the future goods will be made and shared together. Does this particular social configuration still mean that pregnancy choice is hers alone since the future life of the child’s raising is shared?
For example, in the case of a marriage, which on symbolic and legal level indicates a certain degree of commitment, does the choice still divert to the wife’s alone? According to the legal configuration of choice, the current husband and potential future father is left completely outside the choosing, but the sexual act as well as the act of marriage financially tie him to the child-that-might-be. His social role and place in the choice seems rather precarious. Ultimately, when there is a pregnancy in a committed relationship, should there in the actual choice be a place or role for the father? And if so, what should that choice and place be? Very little literature exists that even consider such a question. None of which seems to provide a substantial place and role for the male, but equally little literature on abortion considers the process of moral deliberation and in particular beyond the isolated, individual, liberal self.
While the above situations (A1-2, B1-4, and C1) merely considered moral choice in very limited terms of personal isolation or limited spheres of personal, communal interaction (i.e. a family), this does not accurately and completely describe our being embedded in various communities, which include both actual people with various beliefs as well communities that structure who and what we are. Moral choices are not merely enacted by a totally isolated self without history and without lived interaction with communities, but these choices take place in the present as a culmination of the whole history into who we are and what we believe in relation to multiple communities.
To restate this in contemporary political terms: While liberalism considers the self as acting and deserving of rights through one’s isolation and independence from others and community, the communitarian critique of the liberal self views the self more socially embedded in their “constitutive communities,” an enmeshed and socially-constructed self.
For liberalism, the self is primarily an independent, monadic one, who makes free choices in order to reach one’s own personal good or happiness. For the communitarian critique, the self is formulated initially from the communities that we socially inhabit. And, according to communitarian critic Charles Taylor, “There is a distinction largely ignored, or mischaracterized, in post-Cartesian thought: that between matters which are for me and for you, on the one hand, and those which are for us, on the other.” For example, when a person says something about the weather to someone else, Taylor continues, each person’s “awareness” and “attending,” which was separated, “a matter for him and also for me,” is now with “the conversation opener…a matter for us: we are now attending to it together. It is important to see that this attending-together is not reducible to an aggregation of attendings-separately.” Taylor’s conception of attending-together, which he reaches via dialogical character, can through an extension of communitarianism with phenomenology be used to consider goods as appearing and experience intersubjectively and communally.
Roe v. Wade provided the legal reproductive freedom that gave females and potential mothers the legal right to have an abortion. Even though this freedom has been endowed to women legally, the debate still continues about whether morally (and even legally) a woman should have this right at all, specifically over the fetus’ right to life.
For liberalism as formulated through Kant and Rawls, choices are made by always individuals, and thus individual rights should be protected. For liberalism, the freedom of women to have an abortion is a victory for the necessarily protected freedoms of the individual. But for the communitarian critique, the liberal self can be characterized as an “unencumbered self,” and while many communitarians still retain a kind of independent self who makes decisions him or herself, the self must understand contextually in and amongst the formative situations of community. The self is not totally isolated but is infused with the people as well as the language, culture, and beliefs that make them up.
A liberal view is structured such that since there is no universal way to live a good life, everyone should be considered such that no one else’s rights/goods are tramped by someone else. For liberalism, the self possesses the right to freely do as one pleases so long as one does not infringe harmfully or unjustly upon another, but this position fails to take into account, according to communitarians, the values (or what are deemed as public goods) of specific communities to particular individuals.
From this shift, a different understanding of abortion and choice can be conceived. It is quite apparent that not everyone has the same beliefs toward abortion. There is a significant moral divide on the level of moral axioms between those that are pro-choice and those who are pro-life, between those who think abortion is acceptable and those who feel that abortion is the killing of an innocent person. Each side declares the invalidity of the other, and the moral debate about the ethical content of making an abortion choice continues to challenge the current legal right for woman to have an abortion.
This moral division is often deemed irreconcilable, but these positions continue to debate the factors of whether an abortion is ethical as such and never consider the moral process. Abortion is not a single problem with a single framework, but abortion is both different problems for different (personal and political) situations and a problem that takes place in multiple moral frameworks. These classic arguments attempt universally to convey why an abortion is or is not ethical. But many of these beliefs about the ethical nature of an abortion stem from a person’s formative communities.
Differences in belief reveal the fact that people come from different communities. These communities, which help to develop the identity of the individual, have communal values, which are also often the same or similar values as the individual. Individual values are gained through an understanding of the values of the communities one inhabits—presently and historically.
Ethical situations are complicated, and it seems that no better example about the difficulty and complexity of an ethical choice made by situated individuals and communities can be found than a reproductive choice. But unfortunately, while the debate about abortion per se continues to dispute the ethical validity and possibility of having an abortion, there is scant if any consideration of actual people engaged in the ethical situation of a reproductive choice.
Nearly all of the classic arguments about abortion focus on various factors in evaluating the possibility of having a moral or legal abortion as such, but few if any begin with an understanding of moral agency. The abortion controversy has been operating simply around the question of the ethical content of an abortion but has entirely missed the act and process of the ethical choice—an act and process that can be viewed through a liberal and communitarian model.
A vast number of people who are pro-life or pro-choice vehemently defend their view or attack the other side. But this merely reveals an incongruity between their constitutive communities. While the classic arguments for or against abortion provide interesting material to contemplate ethical content, they fail to consider the process of morality; of ethics, according to de Beauvoir, as the process of solving a problem.
The process of morality should stand above a specific universally-applicable morality, because people have different values, but since an abortion choice does not simply end in our communal values, choice must be framed from the protection of (disempowered) individuals in a pluralistic world of difference and oppression. Whether a person accepts or rejects the possibility of ever having an abortion, each moral agent views that choice as participating amongst other people, communities, and communal values that constituted him or her.
There is no such thing as an absolute choice made in isolation. A self that is formulated through community and communal values means choices are made contextually and never universally. Since everyone is constituted through different communities and values, moral values should not be universalized for all but should be considered individually. These individual values, though, still retain a method of choice that contains and includes an entire world of others and ideas.
In this paper, I will review critically both the literature on abortion as well as contemporary manners of choice.
In the first part of this paper, I will look at several classic abortion pieces and address how they fail to consider actual choice and do not contextualize moral agents or choosers. As mentioned in the introduction, the problem it seems to me is that these arguments fail to explicitly consider the moral process in relation to an abortion choice; they merely argue about whether such a choice is ethically possible as such.
In the second part of the paper, in reaction to this lack of considering actual moral choice in the abortion debate, I will look at the major contemporary liberal models of ethical choice (Kant and Rawls) and how the moral agent and choice itself is viewed. I will briefly contrast this right-based ethic of justice with Carol Gilligan’s Ethic of Care and how, while considering choice inter-relationally, it to fails to go beyond individualistic, liberal moral agency.
In the third part, I will then look at how the communitarian critique of liberal self. I will look at a kind of soft communitarianism, which runs into problems like moral relativism and perceived conservatism in relation to traditional, oppressive community, and then how a phenomenological communitarianism might enable a different kind of contextual identity and moral agent and how this affects the manner of moral choice.
I. Critiquing the Abortion Debate: Contemporary Accounts of Abortion Choice
Countless articles, books, and papers have been written on abortion, and a complete survey of everything written on this topic would be beyond the scope of this paper. In this section I will explore several important and highly anthologized pieces from the early 1970s (by John Noonan, Michael Tooley, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Mary Anne Warren, and Jane English) around the time of the 1973 Roe v. Wade as well as a much later piece from the middle 1990s (by Naomi Wolf). These articles from the 1970s do not have the benefit of over 30 years of scholarly and activist work in defining feminist ethics, politics, and epistemology, but as would become apparent if one surveyed some of the general anthologies on abortion, many of the terms and ethical approaches developed in contemporary feminism and political theory have not yet eliminated the impact of these classic approaches. Before examining each article in detail, some prefatory remarks will hopefully frame the overall critique to follow.
It is often said that the abortion debate continuously approaches an insurmountable moral discrepancy on the foundational level; meaning, that the differences between people’s moral axioms make a single, universal agreement about abortion impossible. Yet, as remarked in the introduction, the majority of the literature (anthologized or otherwise) on abortion, excluding a few rare exceptions including a more recent one by Naomi Wolf, centers its ethical evaluations on the possibility of choice and does to go beyond in considering the ethical and personalized process over having an abortion.
Pro-life arguments following John Noonan have focused on determining the status of the fetus as a human person and thus meriting the same protection of the right to life as all other human persons. Pro-choice arguments have either following Tooley and Warren disagreed with the pro-life position of the fetus as a (right-bearing) person and deemed abortion as ethical and legal since according to their own considerations about what is and is not a person; or following Thompson pro-choice arguments have attempted to avoid the predicament of determining the status of the fetus as person entirely and maintained instead that the woman’s right to the ownership and use of her own body always supersedes that another (in this case, the fetus), even if he or she is a person deserving of the protection of its life.
As is somewhat representative of the history of ethics, most of these ethical positions from the 1970s are universal, abstract, non-particular accounts of abortion. These pro-choice positions, as is more typical of first-wave feminism, inevitability seem to turn toward the patriarchal model of the self, which dates from the time of the Enlightenment in figures like Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. In defining the woman’s right to choice, they took on a model of the self that is defined by its autonomy and independence from oppression and control. While liberation from patriarchal control over the female body was a major goal of the early feminist and remains a strong goal even today, the assumption of the liberal model of the independent self has been heavily challenged.
Most if not all of the authors reviewed below entirely avoid any direct confrontation with moral agency, and all of them seem to fall into traditional ethical accounts, specifically an individualistic, rule-based ethical model of choice inherited from Kant. From this model, the ethical debate over an abortion has focused on questions about whether having an abortion is ethically acceptable as a universalizing rule. Each turns toward establishing the overarching rule and entirely avoids the social aspects entwined to the particularities of actual choice and choosers. But not all abortion situations arise in an individualistic world in relation of a universal. Many of the generalized situations in the introduction lead toward a more contextual ethical situation, and this contextualized situation indicates a need to evaluate on the level of particular persons from, in, and contextualized by particular histories.
“Abortion is Morally Wrong” (1970) by John Noonan
In “Abortion is Morally Wrong” (1970), John Noonan argues that an entity becomes a person at conception and that abortion is unethical and should be illegal except to save the mother’s life. According to Noonan and the conservative Roman Catholic position he supports, “the criterion for humanity [is]…simple and all-embracing: if you are conceived by human parents, you are human.” Noonan specifies this by adding that “a being with a human genetic code is man” (sic.). Throughout the piece, Noonan speaks in two manners: first, in a Christian ethical voice and, second, through a humanistic, reasoned voice that follows from the first. A fetus is a person, because, in the first voice, he or she was conceived by two parents in an act stemming from God Himself, and, in the second, humanistic voice, he or she is a human person endowed with the genetic markings provided by human parents. Since, so the argument follows from both voices, “there is a kind of continuity in all life, [and] the earlier stages of the elements of human life possess tiny probabilities of development,” all human life even on the cellular level possess a right to life and must be strictly protected.
For the Christian ethic maintained by Noonan, personal choice and control are only possible in two situations: first, before conception; and, second, after conception, when the life of the mother is in danger. But, markedly, only in the second sense is a kind of moral choosing or “weighing” required, because both lives, the mother’s and the child’s, must be considered with equal delicacy. While, as indicated above, Noonan hedges his argument through two moral voices, one markedly Christian and the other markedly rational and humanistic, he merges both in his concluding remarks:
The perception of the humanity of the fetus and the weighing of fetal rights against other human rights constituted the work of the moral analysists. But what spirit animated their abstract judgments? For the Christian community it was the injunction of Scripture to love your neighbor as yourself. The fetus as human was a neighbor; his life had parity with one’s own. The commandment gave life to what otherwise would have been only rational calculation. The commandment could be put in humanistic as well as theological terms: Do not injure your fellow man without reason. In these terms, once the humanity of the fetus is perceived, abortion is never right except in self-defense. When life must be taken to save life, reason alone cannot say that a mother must prefer a child’s life to her own. With this exception, now of great rarity, abortion violates the rational humanist tenet of the equality of human lives.”
Noonan indicates that by defining a person as genetically human, he has shown abortion to be murder and thus ethically and legally wrong. But the significance of him using two moral voices shows that even if the second, universalized humanistic voice cannot be shown to be universally valid, the message of the first voice from the Catholic tradition, which finds abortion morally deplorable, still remains. Noonan finds his findings universally applicable, but the use of these two voices highlights the moral context he and other Catholics and Christians speak from. From this communal context, an abortion consideration lies outside of personal choice and is entrenched in communal values prohibiting the killing of “life,” which in their case begins at conception. This point about the prohibition being a communal value for and from a particular group or community (in this case Christian) indicates a need to expand beyond totalizing and universalizing approach to ethics. This point will be further explored later in the case of Stanley Hauerwas’ conception of a narrative-based Christian community.
“In Defense of Abortion and Infanticide” (1984) by Michael Tooley
In “In Defense of Abortion and Infanticide” (1984) Michael Tooley argues, counter to Noonan’s conception of a person, that a fetus and even a newborn child do not have the “properties a thing must possess in order to have a right to life”; and thus abortion and infanticide, in theory, are permissible. At the very beginning of his article, Tooley asks, “at what stage in the development of a human being does it ceases to be a morally permissible to destroy it, and why?” He qualifies this question by saying:
The problem is not, as some have thought, that since there is a continuous line of development from a zygote to a newborn baby, one cannot hold that it is seriously wrong to destroy a newborn baby without also holding that it is seriously wrong to destroy a zygote, or any intermediate stage in the development of a human being. The problem is rather that if one says that its is wrong to destroy a newborn baby but not a zygote or some intermediate stage, one should be prepared to point to a morally relevant difference between a newborn baby and the earlier stage in development of a human being.
While an adult human possesses a right to life by possessing certain tangible properties, a zygote and a newborn baby do not possess, strictly speaking, the same qualities of (social) personhood as an adult human being. For that fetus or newborn to have the same right to life as a full, adult human being requires a proof that there is not “a morally relevant difference” between the adult and the fetus. Initially Tooley specifies his position by appealing to Joel Feinberg’s interest principle (“‘the sorts of beings who can have rights are precisely those who have (or can have) interests’”), and thus accordingly, he concludes that “a zygote cannot be properly spoken of as a subject of interests.”
Tooley, throughout the rest of his piece, examines what beings (including some animals) can possess a right to life, which he qualifies as an “interest in its own continued existence.” Tooley argues that for a being to possess an interest in continuing live, that being must have a temporal time-consciousness, which includes a desire to continue to live. This consciousness to be person must include the “concept of its continued self or mental substance.” In short, since a fetus does not, according to Tooley, have a mentally-constituted interest its own continued existence, it is not a person, and thus, an abortion is not unjustified homicide (i.e. the killing of an innocent person). While, to the moral outrage of many, Tooley argues that abortion and infanticide should be morally and legally permissible, he does not examine or consider how, for some people, an abortion is an ethical event occurring in their lives.
Again, in relation to general rules-based system of morality, even though Tooley has maintained that beings, which contain the mental desire to live beyond the present, temporal instant should be deemed a person and their rights protected, something or someone that does not have this mental cognition of their own continued future can be justifiable aborted. Tooley has presented a sophisticated argument that applies to what he considers to be the characteristics of a person in order to declare abortion ethically acceptable, but he also entirely avoids the act of moral choosing by the moral agent. His characteristics of a person seem to indicate a conception of a person whose being as moral chooser is highly individualized and in which the method of choice, at its best, acts outside of particular relationships and contextualized history; moral choice is situated on a mentally abstract and non-particular level.
“A Defense of Abortion” (1971) by Judith Jarvis Thomson
In “A Defense of Abortion” (1971), Judith Jarvis Thomson attempts to avoid the problem of determining the personhood of a fetus and even grants, at least for the sake of argument, the premise that “a fetus is a person from the moment of conception.” For Thompson, in contrast to both Tooley and Noonan, the ethical implication concerning an abortion rests not on the status of the fetus as a person but on the woman’s right to her body. Unlike Noonan, she argues that abortion is still ethical permissible, because the right of the woman to her own body proceeds the fetus’s (supposed) right to life over and against that of the mother’s right to abort. In her now-famous thought experiment, Thompson imagines that during the night a “famous unconscious violinist” dying of kidney failure is deceptively hooked up to you without your permission; the next day, when you awake and discover the situation, a doctor informs you that if you and your kidneys are unhooked from the violinist during the next 9 months, the unconscious violinist will die.
While somewhat absurd and fanciful, this example forces an ethical dilemma, because this unconscious violinist now depends on your body to live, even though him being hooked up to you was done unwillingly and without your consent, is it morally permissible to unhook yourself in spite of the fact that unhooking him will most likely result in his death? According to Thompson, you can unhook yourself against the violinist’s right not to be killed, because no one can take a prior claim to the use and/or abuse of your own body.
In like manner to the unconscious violinist and his use of your kidneys, a “woman houses the child,” and consequently, a child depends upon the body of the mother in order to survive. In the same way that “the violinist has no right against you that you shall allow him to continue to use your kidneys,” a child, though possessing the same right to life as the mother, does not have the right that is prior and before the right of the mother to the control over the use of her body. As Thompson writes, “if a human being has a just, prior claim to anything at all, he has a just, prior claim to his own body” (sic). Since the child’s right to life does not supersede the mother’s right to controlling the use of her body, abortion is ethically permissible.
Thompson’s conception of the self is strong individualistic and the abusive and infringing demands of others should be restricted. This conception borders on being deemed libertarian, such as Ronald Dworkin, such that nothing and no one else should be able to prevail over the use of one’s own property including one’s body. This is even more apparent in the case of rape, because “unborn persons whose existence is due to rape have no right to the use of their mothers’ bodies, and thus…aborting them is not depriving them of anything they have a right to and hence is not unjust killing.”
While “nobody is morally required to make large sacrifices, of health, of all other interests and concern, of all other duties and commitments for nine years, or even for nine months, in order to keep another person alive,” Thompson’s conception of the moral demands of the self seems to be less libertarian and self-centered according to something she calls “Minimally Decent Samaritans.” Her intention is deal with late-term abortion (particularly if the motivation for getting an abortion is that the pregnancy and birth would require delaying a trip to Europe), which require a significantly smaller use of the woman’s body in order to bring the child to term. Even though a mother is not required morally to bring any child to term, the minimal requirements in the later terms of a pregnancy and her moral sentiment as a decently moral Samaritan should influence her to have the baby.
Thompson is hedging her position on abortion by saying that legally there should be no restrictions on a woman’s choice, but morally an individual woman should feel minimally obliged to. Thompson provides a very important feminist argument for protecting the prior and primary rights of the woman before and against any external controls and demands (including that of an unborn child) that have traditionally oppressed women’s rights and controls. But to reiterate a feminist point made earlier, has Thompson’s model of the self, though liberating, falling into a model of the ethical self that is traditionally patriarchal—self-directed, self-standing, a-historical, and non-particular?
“On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” (1973) by Mary Anne Warren
In “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” (1973), Mary Anne Warren argues counter to Thompson that one cannot, in all cases of unwanted pregnancies, defend the women’s right to an abortion without considering the fetus’s status as a person. She follows this up by again looking at the factors that define personhood (like Noonan, Tooley, and English). Warren argues that a fetus, particularly at the earlier stages of pregnancy, is not a fully a person and thus does not possess “full moral rights.”
Determining the morality and legality of an abortion, Warren claims, requires considering two stages: (1.) the status of the fetus as human and (2.) if the woman is “unwillingly” pregnant, the relation of conflict demands between mother and fetus. Thompson’s argument entirely ignores the first stage about the personhood of the fetus and attempts to assert that the woman’s right to an abortion can be maintained through the second stage alone (an abortion is acceptable, because the child is violating the woman’s bodily property). Warren sees Thompson’s analogy of the violinist to be problematic, because, excluding in the case of rape, a woman becomes unwillingly pregnant through her own “carelessness.”
Even though Warren finds Thompson’s analogy to provide justification for an abortion in the case of rape, the analogy fails to apply to cases in which the woman engaged in sex willingly and has become pregnant accidentally, because the fetus was not, in the strictest sense, forced him or herself upon the woman’s body. In the same way that killing is prohibited even when someone is trespassing on one’s property, removing a fetus, which is in the woman’s body, can be considered murder.
the fact that restricting access to abortion has tragic side effects does not, in itself, show that the restrictions are unjustified, since murder is wrong regardless of the consequences of prohibiting it; and the appeal to the right to control ones body, which is generally construed as a property right, is at best a rather feeble argument for the permissibility of abortion. Mere ownership does not give me the right to kill innocent people whom I find on my property, and indeed I am apt to he held responsible if such people injure themselves while on my property. It is equally unclear that I have any moral right to expel an innocent person from my property when I know that doing so will result in his death.
When a woman becomes pregnant during willing sexual intercourse, one cannot ignore the first stage of moral consideration about the status of the fetus as a person, because if a fetus is a person, then abortion is murder.
By rejecting Thompson, Warren is forced into returning to the question of the fetus’s personhood. Unlike Noonan who saw the genetic human as a person, Warren is looking to determine who or what is “morally human,” and by morally human she means those who are part of the “moral community [which] consists of all and only people, rather than all and only human beings.”
Warren, after rejecting an anthropomorphic conception of the “morally human” person, uses the example of an alien and its status as a moral human and proposes several “traits which are most central to the concept of personhood, or humanity in the moral sense.” Her traits, which she quite admittedly deems as problematic, are:
consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;
reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);
self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control);
the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics;
the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.
Warren concludes from these characteristics that, while an alien and an adult human being qualify as moral persons, a fetus does not. Consequently, by deeming a fetus not a moral person deserving of the same protection of its rights, Warren is able to deduce that a woman’s right to an abortion should in no way be restricted legally.
It is worth noting how these characteristics reveal a particular kind of person as its paradigm. This person is defined by its self-identity outside of others. Self-awareness, consciousness (of him or herself), (abstract) reasoning, and, the most-telling, self-motivated activity reveal a type of person that is defined by its independence and autonomy, all of which is synonymous with the liberal, enlightenment model of the self. This model of the moral self, assumed by Warren and other pro-choice theorists, depends upon a particular conception of the self (or citizen) as universally and inherently possessing certain “inalienable rights.”
“Abortion: Beyond the Personhood Argument” (1975) by Jane English
In “Abortion: Beyond the Personhood Argument” (1975), Jane English looks at all of the major works about the personhood of the fetus (including Noonan, Tooley, and Warren reviewed above) and concludes that, while each proposes different factors (biological, psychological, rationality, social, and legal) for personhood and, in turn, deems a fetus as a person or not-yet-a-person accordingly, the concept of personhood is too obscure to be a decisive factor in determining the morality of abortion. In relation to being a person, she remarks, “There is no single core of necessary and sufficient features which we can draw upon with the assurance that they constitute what really makes a person: there are only features that are more or less typical.”
Equally problematic, since “[b]iologically, a human being develops gradually, [w]e shouldn’t expect there to be any specific time or sharp dividing point when a person appears on the scene.”. After abandoning the question of personhood and the fetus as too ethically problematic, English looks at Thompson’s libertarian view of the mother’s ownership of her body, and she concludes that “a self-defense model supports Thomson’s point that the woman has a right only to be freed from a fetus, not a right to demand its death.” Even though Thompson argued that the fetus does not have the right to the use of the mother’s body, English counters that this does not mean that the mother (through a medical doctor) has the right to kill that child.
English reasons that a “self-defense can be used to justify abortion without necessarily thereby justifying infanticide;” a mother can, in theory, abort a child but this does not entitle her to the right of killing that child.
While English earlier concluded that the previously used factors concerning the personhood of the fetus were too unclear for use, she seems to have again at the end been forced to slip these terms into the debate. She claims that personhood for the fetus, at least in terms of a visual-resemblance factor, begins sometime after conception and before birth. Abortion should be permissible in the early months but not in the later ones. English summarizes her moderate position at the end of her article:
In the early months of pregnancy when the fetus hardly resembles a baby at all, then, abortion is permissible whenever it is in the interests of the pregnant woman or her family. The reasons would only need to outweigh the pain and inconvenience of the abortion itself. In the middle months, when the fetus comes to resemble a person, abortion would be justified only when the continuation of the pregnancy or the birth of the child would cause harms—physical, psychological, economic, or social—to the woman. In the late months of pregnancy, even on our current assumption that a fetus is not a person, abortion seems to be wrong except to save a woman from significant injury or death
In short, English finds early-term abortions acceptable, because the child does not resemble a person, but late-term abortions ethically wrong, because at that stage, the child “comes to resemble a person.” English’s moderate position, while avowing against the various factors determining personhood, retains an argument that depends upon a visual recognition of the child’s personhood. Again, like the previously mentioned authors, English entirely avoids ethical considerations about how actual people make an abortion choice; she is attempting to apply an ethical/legal rule applicable to all situations.
In a totalizing sense, English has framed the early-months of pregnancy as acceptable for that abortion choice, the late-stages as ethically not acceptable except in the case of danger to the mother’s life, and the middle-months of pregnancy as markedly unclear about whether an abortion choice is acceptable. Again, though like all the others, the situation is not about making the choice, but whether it is at all ethically possible, according to the rule of protecting persons and according to the criteria the define rights-barring persons, to choose to have an abortion. English reviews all of the standard criteria to the abortion debate and, like Warren and Tooley, simply assumes the traditional premises of the moral agent and society, in which the rules apply to all equally, no matter what the particularized situation.
1970s: Individualized moral agent and universalizing ethical considerations
All of the above pieces on abortion were published during the 1970s around the time of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Central to all of them was a conception of morality and the moral agent that is very traditional and universalizing. The focus of the struggle is in questions of ethical right and wrong particularly tied to defining personhood and concerning the competing rights of the mother and fetus. Varying nuances and criteria about what exactly is personhood and who this included have changed, but except for a few minor additions (like Don Marquis’s concept of a person being someone who has “a future like ours” and a latter piece by Mary Anne Warren on how the actual event of giving birth has morally significant consequences), much of the terminology from these classic abortion ethicists remains in use.
Roe has been in the law for over 30 years now, yet why does abortion remain an ethical dilemma? Or even does it? The press and politicians remind us that abortion remains a controversy in this country. But is abortion really an ethical dilemma anymore or is the controversy over a highly politically-enflamed question, a question that continually supplements and solidifies a political polarization?
The divide is marked (or intentionally and repeated demarcated), but scant thoughtful meditations have been pursued in understanding exactly what the divide is. Each side attempts to prove (often through a heavy barrage of rhetorical, political arguments) the rightness of their view through the negation and moral evil of the other.
In relation to Simone de Beauvoir’s guiding words of their being ethics only when there is a problem to solve, has the political discussion over abortion seen the ethical aspect of the debate entirely dropped out of the conversation such that all we have left is the political polarization?
Abortion remains a controversy for politics, but an overt ethical account of abortion requires one to consider the contingent and contextual nature of an abortion “problem.” These early theoretical pieces about the possibility of an abortion overly simplify the issue into a contest about who is universally correct and do not consider the communal contexts from which people come to their beliefs.
Again, while she avoids the actual moral process of considering an abortion, Naomi Wolf’s piece for the mid-1990s offers a view that considers the “moral framework” of the majority of Americans in order to tailor a more moderate and more sentimentally neutral view of abortion and the designation fetus for pro-choice feminists.
“Our Bodies, Our Souls” (1995) by Naomi Wolf
In “Our Bodies, Our Souls” (1995), Naomi Wolf avoids many of the theoretical questions about personhood and bodily ownership that have plagued much of the abortion debate, and instead she pursues a more political agenda about how to be a pro-choice feminists yet not fall into the trap of “defin[ing] the unwanted fetus as at best valueless; at worst an adversary, a ‘mass of dependent protoplasm.’” Wolf fully embraces the freedom of reproductive choice but sees the rhetoric used by feminists to define an unwanted pregnancy as politically dangerous and damaging toward the experience of mothers.
Previous generations of feminists had pursued the freedom of reproduction as a counter to patriarchal control over their bodies, but words and descriptions of these feminists toward the fetus had, according to Wolf, surpassed how most females view their body and their pregnancy. In short, they had dehumanized the fetus and the child’s relation to their body. Wolf argues for the support of a pro-choice position, which does not simply find having an abortion as an everyday process, because, as she says, “There is a hunger for a moral framework that we prochoicers must reckon with.” The key word is “moral framework,” because this reveals, in contrast to the previous theoretical pieces, that an abortion occurs in the personal context of a real someone.
Wolf goes on to observe how various cultures and religions, which permit abortions, personally and communally respond and mourn the death of the child. She is searching for a feminist position, which responds to the contextual experience of woman in which the death of the child in an abortion is a significant and unique event but not necessarily warranting a restrictively-binding pro-life view.
While Wolf, like the previously reviewed writers, avoids looking at the process of an abortion choice, she places having an abortion as a contextualized and even communal-understood act. Even her language, particularly in responding to the spiritual difficulty many potential mothers and fathers feel after an abortion, is molded around Judeo-Christian language of moral failing (sin) and moral redemption (forgiveness). For Wolf, abortion should be permissible, but this does not mean that it is an event that does not deeply affect the lives of actual moral agents in actual moral contexts.
As will be explored in the next section, the actual lives and experiences of women and men dealing with an abortion choice is central to defining moral choice outside of a purely liberal conception of the self.
Summary: Avoiding actual lived context of moral choosers
In summary, one saw how the classic pieces on abortion by Noonan, Tooley, Thomson, Warren, English and, to a lesser extent, Wolf fail to go beyond the ethical possibility of having an abortion and, as such, lead to an endless debate about the abstract factors in which one determines personhood and whether and how one deals with competing interests between mother and fetus.
Choice for these theorists is about determining the moral rule in the theoretical, but, in general, they avoided the actual lived context of moral choosers. In Nooan, while arguing for a universal view prohibiting abortion, one finds a particular communal in the Catholic tradition, which prohibits the death of the fetus after conception.
In Wolf, one finds on the surface another moderate position about abortion, but coupled with this position is an appeal to consider the “moral framework” that an abortion takes place in. For her, abortion should be legal, but that does not mean there are not moral consequences for the people that have them. All of these theorists fail to consider actual abortion choice, but Noonan’s actual positioning himself in a moral tradition and Wolf’s point about understanding moral evaluations in the context of moral agents and moral frameworks are crucially important in expanding the realms in which choice takes places.
To this end, one must look at the contemporary, liberal model of choice witnessed in most of the pro-choice views, and in turn, attempt to look at an abortion choice (as Hemingway did) as taking place in the richly personal and communal moral context of the choosers. And finally see how the liberal model of choice stands up to a communitarian account of a reproductive choice.
II. Three Liberal Models of Choice
Hemingways’s Radical Contextualization of an Abortion Choice in Hills Like White Elephants
In shifting from these canonical pieces on abortion, let’s return to Hemingway.
Hemingway, through an intentional process of cutting and narrowing the prose of his literary language, created stories that are primarily driven by the realistic dialogue. He often seems to provide more details about the settings in which the stories take place than about the details of the characters’ past histories and their present motives.
In a similar fashion to how people realistically speak, Hemingway’s characters speak with direct, artless, allusive, and ambiguous sentences. Much of the Hemingway text is left for the reader to intuit from the tip of the iceberg to what is under invisible, under the water. And even after a reasonable interpretation, a degree of uncertainty remains.
In “Hills Like White Elephants,” a couple is sitting outside, drinking, waiting for the train, and talking. In the conversation, they seem to be talking centrally about three things: a baby, an abortion, and the relationship (All of which are ambiguously referenced through the use of “it”). The couple’s individual desires are split yet they still remain together (at least in the span of the story) throughout the decision-making process. They each have different wants and desires—he wants her to have this “awfully simple operation” while she hesitates about getting an abortion and losing this child—but still an attempt at constructive conversation is made.
It would be easy to view the male character in this short story as traditionally patriarchal, domineering, and close-minded, but his words, offered with few clues to the manner and mood of their delivery, still seem to leave the end choice with her. While arguing that an abortion is “the best thing to do,” in the very same line he says, “I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.” He has provided his opinion but not eliminated her choice or so one interpretation of the story could be made.
While the actual abortion itself is part of the struggle, the pivotal difficulty in the story is the interwoven conflict of this potential child with that of the committed, “happy” relationship they have or at least have had. One could argue following an ethic of care that the woman in Hemingway’s story wants to bridge her desire to sustain the relationship with her desire to have this child. But even arguing this interpretation is not entirely clear. The woman’s terse and sometimes impassioned responses offer a difficult challenge to the reader and to interpretation as well, because when, after agreeing to have the “operation,” she is attempting to silence her partner, he continues to plead and she finally and viscously screams at him, “Would you please please please please please please stop talking?”
How should we view this series of screamed “pleases”? There is clearly a heavy burden (perhaps a sad one?) to the decision she has reached, but what to make of this episode? They have been discussing an abortion-decision that seems clear, but the emotion and the context from which each speaks are left entirely void. Is this a scream of submission to what he wants and, thus, a persuaded abandonment of her personal autonomy and desire? Was her decision a forced and unequal one? Or, has she, through the dialogue, reached a compromise with the situation and herself (including her previous beliefs), such that having an abortion is now something she too wants?
The woman’s strident question for him to stop talking is immediately followed by two, potentially-telling, sentences about the male in this situation: “He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” In looking at these bags instead of at his partner, has he simply diverted his eyes away from her in a heavy frustration or is his look at this these objects a kind of hope that his female partner could simply be objectified?
An interpretation of the male character as enforcing what he wants (having the abortion) but feigning the accepting of responsibility that it is his choice (he wants her to say it is something she wants) could be made, but this would take us too far off track and undermine the significance that this is a conversation about and over having a reproductive choice in and amongst a long-standing relationship.
The male character of the story is attempting to have the girl accept the choice as her own personal choice, as something she wants, but the female character repeatedly dodges his desire and attempts to navigate her own wants with those of her companion. She tries to persuade him, the potential father, to take the abortion choice as something he wants and as something he is responsible for:
“…But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?” [the girl said]
“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.” [the man said]
“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”
“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”
“Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t care about me.”
The girl makes a dramatic gesture by claiming an entirely altruistic attitude; she will get the abortion for him and for the betterment of their future. He baulks at her gesture and says, “I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way;” he wants her to have the abortion but not if it is an act she won’t take as her own choice.
Each speak through encryption and, while a conversation about an abortion is had, this is clearly not entirely open and honest conversation, but a sapping conversation about deferment, deferment of responsibility, of honesty, and of togetherness. Their words oscillate ambiguously and somewhat awkwardly between each character’s personal plight with the pregnancy, their disagreement over the future choice (to have the child or to have an abortion), and questions about the state of their relationship together (will and can they even stay together any longer?). All three of these tensions are also conveyed through their setting (waiting for a train between two foreign cities) and their physical actions (looking at the scenery and drinking).
This is not the ideal manner to discuss on abortion choice. Their distancing from speaking directly about their situation, about their personal wants, and about the operation (this is an abortion!) indicates a degree of moral and social immaturity; they are talking about an abortion but their continual deferral of honesty and responsibility points to the necessity of speaking in truth and not in ciphered codes.
As the previous section on some of the canonical pieces on abortion indicated, there is a serious lack in the abortion debate about considering the moral process of an abortion choice. Hemingway’s story offers a unique and difficult portrait of an ethical decision-making process over an abortion, which many of the abortion ethicists leave entirely out.
Upon a closer scrutiny of the characteristics that define personhood in each abortion argument, one can interpret a general idea about the nature of the moral chooser, but in each case these models of the (moral) person leave much to be derived. Many of these arguments seems to be catered toward simply proving or disproving the ethical validity of an abortion, and thus finding a model of choice is next to impossible.
It seems that only in the case of Thompson’s libertarian model of the mother do one gains a more nuanced view of the moral agent in an abortion situation. According to Thompson, the mother possesses a stronger property right over the use of her body than the child and, consequently, an abortion is permissible; but even this model cannot be assumed as engaging in a moral process, but instead the mother has been defined such that an abortion is morally and legally permissible according to the defined rights and privileges of that moral agent. In order to re-ground the ethical questions and implications of an abortion choice, one must first develop a fuller account of moral choice and of the moral chooser.
These classic arguments about abortion, which I examined above, offer a limited portrait of how to do ethics, but in abandoning these direct, though ultimately unsolvable questions (specifically about the personhood of the fetus and the competing interests between mother and potential child), one enters a far more complex political and ethical situation. By leaving the familiar, abstract ethical arguments, vocabulary, and questions contained with the abortion debate, one must to examine how best, in a normative sense, to ethically approach a reproductive choice.
The history of ethics offers a vast range of nuanced approaches to ethical choice, but following the abortion arguments in the previous section, one must look at the major liberal models of ethical choice formulated by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and by John Rawls (1921-2002) in order to see how these liberal models of choice function in an abortion choice.
Both Kant and Rawls reject a teleological view of morality and politics found in Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics and J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism, such that a particular purpose or end inherently defines the end point of moral choosing. For Kant and Rawls, an abstract, disconnected conception of the self pre-exists the actual social self. Individuals are defined as possessing certain rights, and ethical choices are made by this individual, rational moral agent according to certain principles of justice including the protection of the rights of other agents.
In response to this rights-based ethic of justice, which depends on a rational disconnection from lived relationships, I will look at the ethic of care provoked by Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice. Gilligan counters this one-sided model stating that there are two moral perspectives or voices—a justice or rights-based perspective (Kantian or Rawlsian) and a care perspective. Gilligan, though she attempts to remain gender-neutral, characterizes the former as a male morality and the latter as a female morality. While the ethical choosing in an ethic of care differs dramatically from those of Kant and Rawls, the chooser during the act of choice ultimately remains situated in the liberal conception of self, though with choosing according to different universal principles (or as some term it, “a woman’s morality”).
In this section, I will try to lay out each liberal model of choice in the abstract particularly by paying closest heed to two considerations: (1.) the nature of the moral agent or chooser; and (2.) the manner of moral choice and, to a lesser extent, the overall moral system (universal or contextual); and then, after generalizing a basic, liberal position, I will attempt to consider an ethical process involving an abortion choice in relation to this liberal model.
From here, in the next section, I will then begin an initial sketch of a communitarian response to the liberal model of choice and how a more communitarian approach in some ways is better suited to evaluating an abortion choice.
Kant is an Enlightenment thinker, who, though developing his own unique philosophical approach, retains many of the classic, liberal notions and concepts that emerge from this time period like freedom, equality, and independence. While Kant’s primary focus as a philosopher was an epistemological one (What can I know?), Kant’s Critical Project also contains a sophisticated ethical system (What ought I to do?).
In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant self-examines and inventories the limits of what is and can be known. From a radically new methodological beginning called the transcendental turn, Kant says that an understanding of the world can be made in two perspectives: as noumenal or in-itself; and as phenomenal or for-me. According to Kant, the world and the things of this empirical world can only be seen, understood, and known by and through me, and thus the phenomenal world is one defined as being for-me.
Because the world can be viewed in these two perspectives, the self can be completely determined in one sense and yet be can also be, in an entirely different sense, free and thus be held morally responsible. Kant concludes that certain central and reoccurring questions of philosophy (Does God exist? Is the soul immortal? Am I free?) cannot be definitely answered through an examination of pure reason alone nor through an examination and inventory of the world itself. But, for Kant, this limitation in the ability to know does not mean conclusively that God does not exist, the soul is mortal, and humans are completely determined, but simply that one cannot know these things phenomenally as such.
On a metaphysical level, this moral agent is defined by its autonomy and it individuality separated in an idealist manner from the rest of the world and other moral agents, but on the empirical, bodily level, he or she is entirely determined such that physical actions are mechanical, causal, and predicable according to physical laws. In short, our physical actions are completely, causally determined, but our internal motivations are radically free.
Through the Second Critique, the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant is able to eventually show that a rational, moral agent (i.e. you and I as transcendental agents) is radical autonomous and free, and, in turn, can be held responsible for his or her actions. While Kant seems to be merely engaging in an epistemological and metaphysical quest, it is also an attempt to connect the individual to a higher order of moral law. For Kant, our individual, rational subject, detached from particular social situations, provides the key in developing a universal morality.
In Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, the individual, autonomous, free moral agent deals with moral choices according to a universal, categorical framework of justice. As Kant says, “a rational being himself, must be made the ground for all maxims of actions;” and thus, “man is subject only to his own, yet universal, legislation and that he is bound only to act in accordance with his own will, which is, however, a will purposed by nature to legislate universal laws” (Kant 39, 433). The self is both metaphysically as well as ethically limited to its own autonomy, but this does not mean that morality does not place certain demands and duties upon the self.
For Kant, who spent much of his life as a teacher of logic and metaphysics, universal ethics is developed from a subject capable of an autonomous will. The moral agent, for Kant, elevates him or herself above the contingence of empirical life to judge ethics upon the same level of consistency as logic. Through “pure practical reason” we as transcendental subjects reach the most important universal principle of ethics, the categorical imperative, which stated briefly is that an individual action is ethical if and only if that action could, without logical contradiction, become a universal maxim for all. The moral law, argues Kant, is not continent but categorical, and it is established universally through the autonomous, individual, reasonable will.
Through his idealist, transcendental theory, Kant reaches many of the same universal conclusions as his Enlightenment contemporaries like John Locke and J-J Rousseau. For these Enlightenment thinkers, the ideal of society was the protection of individual personal right including a defense of individual life, liberty and for Locke, property, and for Thomas Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness. For Kant, a person’s rights exist before any pursuit of what he or she deems good, and thus ethical choices involve primarily, first respecting the rights of others before any individual or communal pursuits of the good life.
To summarize in relation to our two central factors: agency and the moral deliberation process. For Kant, the chooser is a transcendental self that is defined by his or her metaphysical and ethical separation from others and from the particular, continent world. The moral law and individual choices are only reached through an abstraction process that reveals what can be, without logical contradiction, universalized. Moral choice is made ahistorically, noncontexually, at distant from everyday situation, and according to the universal, categorical moral law, which is applicable to all and in all situations.
But in relation to an abortion choice, can a woman (or a woman with some communal relation of others) really abstract herself outside of her circumstances?
An abortion choice is made almost entirely according to contingent factors. While universalizing principles and laws provide an important level of protection to the individual an unplanned pregnancy enters into contextual lives, which are formulated by communal, shared values, histories, and narratives.
Abstracting to the categorical imperative still leaves the transcendental subject debating whether the fetus is a rational person deserving to be treated like all other transcendental subjects. And, as I explored in the first section, a consensus over the personhood of the fetus still seems impossible to reach.
Rawls’ Re-Foundation of the Liberal Self
In his 1971 landmark work A Theory of Justice, John Rawls attempts to retain the Kantian political and ethical foundation while rejecting both Kant’s complex transcendental metaphysic and J.S. Mill’s ends-directed utilitarianism. Inheriting from social contract theorists, Rawls primary intention is a political one in which he wants to establish universally-acceptable principles of justice for the foundation of a just, liberal democracy. Rawls writes that “[a]mong individuals with disparate aims and purposes a shared conception of justice establishes the bond of civic friendship; the general desire for justice limits the pursuit of other ends.”
Society, according to Rawls’ perception, is a pluralistic one of vastly different life desires and individually-chosen goods, but this situation does not mean that there cannot be an agreed-upon basis for a so-called “political morality.” Rawls attempts to formulate this public, political morality according to certain principles of justice derived in a similar manner as social contract theorists like Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, and Kant.
Rawls argues that this public morality cannot be gained simply from our inherent, contingent moral characters, because what each of us deems to be good and true differs too much. The principles of justice for a just framework of society, Rawls contends, can only be formed by “free and equal” individuals from an initial, abstract premise of fairness. According to Rawls, “the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement.” People cannot solve their disagreements from their current, contingent situation (as rich, as poor, as male, as female, as a certain race, etc.), and thus Rawls, in the same spirit as previous social contract theories, argues that people must “agree” to certain principles before (and outside of) actual society.
Using a more Anglo-American, empirical-rational basis than Kant’s transcendentalism, Rawls proposes his now-famous “original position” in order to reach certain universal principles of justice. According to the “original position,” this “purely hypothetical situation [is] characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice,” Rawls writes:
Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conception of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of nature chance or the contingency of social circumstances.
Since the “original position” is formulated by free, equal, and rational individuals in a setting of fairness, Rawls is able to argue for “justice as fairness.” Formulating both the individual and other individuals through Kantian rationality, Rawls shows that self-determination pursued through self-interested choices could only be gained through a just, fair, and free society that respects everyone else’s pursuit of their self-determination. An individual could only formulate himself or herself if others respected his or her freedom.
Rawls thus overcomes J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism by showing that the self-determination of the individual was only possible if the freedom of all was secured. Rawls did not simply declare that “all men are free” but instead showed that the individual could only determine him or herself by allowing others to determine themselves as well. Society as a whole needs to be just and fair in order to respect the individual. Rawls’s theory established both this liberal notion of rights as well as identified the nature of the self as created through rational, individual choice.
Two basic principles of justice are derived from Rawls’ “original position.” The first is the principle of political justice and revolves around the protection of basic individual rights and freedoms. The freedoms protected according to the first principle derive from classic, liberal theory, but the second principle that Rawls derives is the “difference principle” and it finds its origin in Marx’s critique of capitalism, specifically the exploitation and oppression of the lower, working class. Rawls specifically rejects the Lockean right to the protection of one’s property and claims that a just society requires that all individuals be treated to a certain standard of live. Rawls argues for economic justice by claiming that the “difference principle” dictates that a type of welfare society, in which the lower, working class are not so completely exploited by the capitalist class that their standard of living pertains to an injustice.
According to Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, “our social situation is just if it is such that by this sequence of hypothetical agreements we would have contracted into the general system of rules which define it.” The principles of justice that emerge from this “original position” are just, because they were determined according to agreement of “rational and mutually disinterested” individuals. For Rawls, the individual is constructed and framed in a similar fashion to that of Kant, but the principles are assessed not from the transcendental but from behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ of the ‘original position.’
While Rawls’ goal is primarily the establishment of the rules of justice for the political structuring of society, he in section 9 indicates that these rules of justice could also be applied to moral questions, because “a correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms and standards cited in everyday life.” Rawls does not specify exactly how to derive principles of “rightness as fairness,” but it is apparent that these rules would also follow from a universalizing premise of fairness.
For both Kant and Rawls, moral choices are made by an abstract, reasonable individual according to certain rules and principles, which are determined through justice or rights approach to ethics. The moral and legal law is universal and is structured around the defense of individual liberties. The individual, according to Kant and Rawls, is autonomous and free to choose what he or she wishes to do, so long as it does not infringe upon the protected rights of other individuals.
But this liberal position is also an incredibly individualistic model (personally and mentally). The liberal position can only approach choice in personal isolation to others and with an interpersonal silence. The role and participation of the other (even an active, caring husband) is periphery, because the pregnancy and the birth is biologically and legally hers alone. A moral conversation (like the one seen in Hemingway), which fundamentally involves other persons as part of the choice/choosing, cannot occur within the liberal model; one merely declares one’s wholly personal intention and then enacts one’s a-historical, individualistic choice.
There is a lack of inclusion at the core of the liberal position, because while framing the right to an abortion (and all rights) as hers alone, the situation in which one would choose to have or not have an abortion is contingent. Rights may frame the political sphere but the personal sphere is infused with future ends, goods, desires, and purposes which find their roots in shared, communal values. The liberal position does not frame choice such that motives are actually motivated by values and not merely framed by rights.
An “Ethic of Care” as Challenge to Liberal Ethics?
Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice mark an interesting moment in the Second-Wave feminism, and in her critique of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, she seemed to have stumbled upon a radically new manner of ethical choice. In her book, Gilligan, a NYU psychologist, examines the difference between how males and females go about moral reasoning. While she confirmed Kohlberg’s finding about higher level male, moral reasoning that is associated with distancing the self from the situation and appealing to certain universal, rights-based rules, Gilligan found that females typically use an entirely different mode of moral reasoning than males, which she and later theorists termed an “ethic of care.”
While her findings were gathered from surveys down on all girls, Gilligan, at the time, avoided using gendered terms, and simply associated each morality as “typically” male or female. Moral choices, for an ethic of care, are made according to an “activity of care, which maintains and sustains caring and connection in relationships.” As one sees in Kant and Rawls, the justice perspective depends on distance, disconnection, and objectivity in making moral choices. But a care perspective is characterized as a “connected self,” and instead of reliance on rules and roles, this connected self is grounded in “interdependence” and “interconnectedness.” Moral choices for an ethics of care are evaluated according to one’s relationships.
While initially many found the “discovery” of Gilligan to provide a radical new position to establish a feminist ethics from, it would seem that Gilligan still retains much of the principal characteristics of the liberal mode of choice, though she has established two modes of universal principles for judgment. In justice and rights-based ethical systems like those of Rawls, Kant, and even Kohlberg as well as in the contemporary ethics of care formulated by Carol Gilligan and other feminist theorists, the moral choice and dilemma is still individualistic. The individual is trapped in the moral dilemma and is only able to resolve it through individual problem solving.
Interestingly enough, while the ethics of care “connotes responsiveness or engagement, a resiliency of connection that is symbolized by a network or web,” the individual is still an individual chooser. He or she may make the choice “in terms of attachment or engagement,” but it is only a single person that makes the choice. Both Kohlberg and Gilligan base their research of moral development and judgment on case studies and interviews with individuals, and while participants may admit to considering others in their moral dilemmas, he or she chooses alone.
For example, the classic moral dilemma in Lawrence Kohlberg’s model of moral development, in which he evaluated one’s moral standing, one is asked whether Heinz should steal the medicine for his dying wife. According to how one explained his or her choice determined either what one’s moral development was for Kohlberg or for Gilligan what type of perspective—care, justice, both, or none.
For Gilligan, there are two modes of morality, and individual choice is made by an individual chooser according to one or both of these universal modes of choice. Gilligan, as a psychologist, avoids hypothesizing the relative strengths or weaknesses of each position, but simply claims that these are two modes of moral choices. Like the principles of justice derived by Kant and Rawls, the ethic of care maintained by Gilligan and others remains an ahistorical account of moral choice. Though the voice is different, this mode is still contained within the liberal model; choice remains individualistic, a-historical, decontextualized, and rule-bound.
But in an abortion choice, one is struck not by the ability and even necessity to abstract to universal rules and modes but by the impossibility and impetuousness of abstraction and decontextualization. An unexpected pregnancy occurs most intimately in the particular, in actual lives and relationships, in value- and good-ridden histories.
The liberal model provides an ethics of disengagement that functions which functions quite expediently on the political arena of strangers, but a reproductive choice occurs in the most familiar of the intimacy. The liberal model is decontextualized to allow a universalizing viewpoint, but in Hemingway’s story, the couple is dramatically engaged in a context and coded language in which the reader is excluded from knowing the details. The dialogue in Hemingway’s story is particularly difficult to understand not because the author intentionally constructed their interaction as ambiguous but because in reality the intimate and familiar language between close friends, family members, and lovers occurs according to a kind of shorthand; the object of the dialogue is, in general, for the participants entirely clear, but externally this shifting object of conversation is not always as clear.
Hemingway’s story portrays the actual event of a moral dialogue over an abortion, a potential child, and their relationship except that we have only the event and not the personal details of each character. The reader attempts to wean from their spoken interaction who and what each character is like. Hemingway has shown a moral process in action but the details that construct the context in which in takes place is missing for the reader. While the liberal view ignores the contingent context, Hemingway’s story reveals how ignoring the context would make an intimate conversation about abortion impossible.
III. Communitarianism: Situating Choice, Chooser, and Community
For Kant, Rawls, ultimately Gilligan, and the liberal political theory in which they all find their roots, the moral agent or chooser is defined a-historically by its very humanity as possessing certain rights and liberties. These rights and liberties, which are chosen and agreed upon through the social contract, frame the individual in relation to others such that he or she cannot be exploited or abused and such that contrived equality and liberty are made possible. The state is structured to protect the rights of the individual so that he or she may freely choose what he or she wishes to do or be. In the same way that rights and liberties are universally derived for all rational individuals, the principles of justice (and the ethic of care), in theory, apply to all equally.
At least for Rawls and Kant, ethical choices are made abstractly and at a distance from the particular situation. The liberal self is defined outside of social relationships and contingent contexts. This means that all choices are made, in theory, as if all individuals were strangers.
If one uses the liberal model to look at an abortion choice, the situation becomes somewhat problematic, because though the principles derived according to universal reason apply to all rational agents, not all abortion choices can be entirely individualistic, a-historical, distant, non-particularized, non-intimate, and decontextualized. Rarely do abortion choices take place amongst strangers, and it is difficult to formulate a choice that does not consider, particularly in certain familiar and communal situations, the question of a (future) good.
The liberal model of choice has abstracted moral choice to take place within an atomistic conception of the self, who, according to liberal theory, possesses certain inalienable rights. Moral choices are made such that your choice does not impede the rights of other rights-barring citizens. These rights are granted according to a universalism in which rights exist and must be judged before chosen goods. But, as should be apparent from some of the hints above, the liberal conception of choice and chooser does not provide the best orientation for considering most choices and in particular an abortion choice. As such, one must attempt a critical response to liberalism.
In this section, I will use the communitarian critique to indicate a different moral and personal approach to a reproductive choice.
Communitarian Critique of Liberalism
The communitarian critique of liberalism has an extensive list of critics behind it including Michael J. Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Michael Walzer, and it would take an entire book to summarize their entire (individual and cumulative) critique of liberalism and their unique responses.
For Sandel, who takes on liberalism most directly, liberalism fails, because its foundational premise of rights before goods and common-ends fails to provide a viable means of politics and ethics. For MacIntyre, who sees the failure of liberalism as participating in a larger, modern failure of the Enlightenment project, the liberal model as well as other modern, ethical models fail, because modern morality is focused on a subject who is stripped of a common tradition and context and that the removal of this shared context makes ends- or telos-directed impossible.
Instead of rehearsing their critiques, I will use the setup provided by my explication of liberalism and its problems to provide two communitarian responses to the liberal model of choice.
The first is a communitarianism derived and rooted in particular traditions, histories, narratives, and constitutive, moral communities. This kind of soft communitarianism can be witnessed in the example of Stanley Hauerwas’ communitarian account of a Christian understanding and response to abortion. The second version of communitarianism I wish to examine is a communitarianism founded in and derived from phenomenology.
The first, soft version of communitarianism often stands as the primary representative of communitarianism, even though it reveals a number of problems including being characterized as conservative and being seemly trapped in moral relativism. These two problems along with a number of others brought up by feminist critics and skeptics of communitarianism can be overcome through a phenomenological communitarianism.
Through a phenomenological reduction, one can posit the self and the other as intrinsically and fundamentally intertwined. The nature of intersubjectivity means we always experience our own self in fundamental relation to the world and to others. This means that there is always the experience of a world in common, a world of intersubjectivity, a self always with others and in the same world as others.
This also means that, in contrast to the liberal, individualistic conception of good, one’s conception of good is always experienced in common; your good and my good are different perspectives on the same, common good. Like our examination of liberal models of choice, I will focus on two important features that merit closest attention: (1.) the nature of the moral agent or chooser; and (2.) the manner and relationship of moral choice.
Communitarianism Rooted in History and Tradition and its Problems
Rawls formulates the individual according to a self-determination that one makes alone, but in the most familiar sense a person is born into a world that he or she did not and could not entire chose, a world of parents, siblings, of economic, sociological, and historical situations. Simply put, every person is enmeshed in a world that forms our identity; everyone is part of communities and commitments that are not exclusively of individual choosing.
The communitarian conception of self is formulated by certain constitutive and formative communities. These include language communities, familiar communities, communities of place (local and national), communities of morality, etc. One gains certain values that are constituted and can only be understood and enjoyed communally as shared. These values not only help to formulate who and what we are but they provide a person with sens, a direction pointed something communal and futural. These ends and purposes are particular and carry with them a certain kind of future, a future that is understood and shared in the context of community.
For this first version of communitarianism, which I will call “soft communitarianism,” the self is constituted and formulated according to various communities—historical, local places, narrative, . These communities form the background and the horizon upon which the individual self is socially constructed. The self is constituted socially.
This communitarian self is enmeshed by these communities and, in turn, his or her moral compass, framework, and orientation is gained through understanding his or her place and position in those particular (moral) communities. Both Sandel and MacIntyre appeal to a whole list of groups and communities that one can be find this communal positioning or situating including family, church, clan, team, club, etc.
While the kind of communities and groups that are “constitutive communities” can be to equal absurdity as the abortion debate over characteristics that constitute personhood, it is most important to note that the self for communitarianism is a situated and embodied self and that the self is constituted by community (or communities). The communitarian self, which is described above and throughout in contrast to the liberal self, is a self that finds its origins and its identity in social construction. A person’s body image, beliefs, and desires are socially constructed by the structures that he or she came in contact with and developed through like education. There is, in this sense, no self that is not constituted by and gains his or her values through society and its components.
This communitarian self is enmeshed self, and his or her moral compass, according to this soft version of communitarianism, is oriented according these moral communities. While liberalism found moral guidance in an appeal to universalism, communitarianism deems that it is impossible to view moral and political questions outside of history. Thus all moral evaluations must be judged contextually and historically. For MacIntyre, when the moral agent is in a moral dilemma, he or she should choose and judge according to his or her place in community and its communal-moral narratives.
Stanely Hauerwas’ Christian, communitarian response to abortion
Before examining some of the problems of this first version of communitarianism as historically and traditionally rooted, Stanely Hauerwas’ Christian, communitarian response to abortion provides a good example of soft communitarianism.
In A Community of Character and “Abortion, Theologically Understood,” Hauerwas looks at the abortion not through liberal, universalistic theory nor through American law nor through questions of personhood and the mother’s libertarian autonomy but through what an abortion means to a Christian community. Hauerwas argues that the abortion issue should not be framed in terms of the liberal, legal terms of rights but that “the church face the issue of abortion in a distinctly Christian manner, which for him means in terms of Christian communal and individual responsibility.
While “both sides of the controversy have tried to develop arguments that would compel agreement from anyone’s point of view” construing the argument in terms of pro-life and pro-choice, Hauerwas deems this very division problematic, because it fails to appeal to looking at the issue of abortion “as church,” as a Christian community.
when you live in a liberal society like ours, the fundamental problem is how you can achieve cooperative agreements between individuals who share nothing in common other than their fear of death. In liberal society the law has the function of securing such agreements. That is the reason why lawyers are to America what priests were to the medieval world. The law is our way of negotiating safe agreements between autonomous individuals who have nothing else in common other than their fear of death and their mutual desire for protection.
And from this rejection of liberalism, Hauerwas attempts to formulate how a Christian community deals with abortion.
While Noonan used two voices to reach first the Christian why abortion should be prohibited and then the humanistic voice of why, Hauerwas appeals only to how a Christian community should respond to a child. He is not attempting anything universal but simply constituting a Christian, communitarian way of approaching the choice over an abortion. In a rejection of liberal individualism, he claims that when a child is conceived and eventually baptized by a Christian woman in a Christian context, this child is part of the entire Christian community and not simply the woman’s alone.
Thus, while liberalism and the pro-choice/pro-life dichotomy promote the idea of rights—including the right to life and the right to abortion—in individualistic terms, Hauerwas says that a Christian community should be constituted around responsibility in which every Christian in the community is a parent to every child of the community.
One of the crucial issues here is how we learn to be a people dependent on one another. We must learn to confess that, as a hospitable people, we need one another because we are dependent on one another. The last thing that the church wants is a bunch of autonomous, free individuals. We want people who know how to express authentic need, because that creates community…those who do not marry are also parents within the church, because the church is now the true family. The church is a family into which children are brought and received. It is only within that context that it makes sense for the church to say, “We are always ready to receive children. We are always ready to receive children.” The people of God know no enemy when it comes to children.
For Hauerwas and the Christian communitarian position he writes from, children are to be welcomed by all in the community, and thus, abortion is not rejected according to a Christian principle of the sacredness of all life, but because the Christian community does not reject any child; it welcomes all.
While Hauerwas provides a great example of how values and responsibility can be promoted and understood in community, his view also reveals many of the central problems of this soft communitarianism.
For Hauerwas and this view, one can appeal to these communal values and communal understands or one cannot, but if one is not Christian or there is a disagreement with one’s constitutive communal values, then there is the problem of moral relativism.
Moral Relativism and Communitarianism
Moral relativism is one the central problems that haunts communitarianism, because if one follows a communitarian account, then choices involve values that need to be viewed, at times, historically and in relation to constitutive traditions, but what of the problem of relativism which arises from most communitarian models? Outside of historical origins based on tradition, there is no universal standard to judge from, at least ethically, and in these moments of moral relativism, it seems difficult not to need an overarching system of politics that is geared at protecting the individual (or citizen).
The contextual approach of the communitarian move works well in the intimate ethical situations, but are not political safeguards still needed against questions of power and individuals that can no longer simply agree with their community’s beliefs?
While our communally-constituted values root our identity and beliefs, there is no single community of values that we all inhabit (excluding perhaps a vague sense of humanity), and conflicts in values and in communities often stand on the surface of our ethical divisions such that an appeal to the roots of morality does not alleviate the division.
While liberalism is an ethics of autonomy and disunity from the other, communitarianism focuses on our unity with the other such that our decisions have a shared context and sensible horizon. For the communitarian view, there is no averting our communal, contingent identities and choices made according to that shared moral horizon, because our enmeshment in community (as opposed to separation from in liberalism) means that our responsibility is tied to community values. While the liberal model revealed a model of disengagement and distance, a communitarian view is an ethics of closeness and inclusion with others such that disengagement is impossible.
But this view of soft communitarianism also carries the potential problem of at least perceived conservatism. If one can only appeal to historical and traditional roots, then many of those roots including Christianity carry numerous social and feminist problems, because many traditional communities are highly oppressive and limiting to the role of women in choice and power.
According to political feminist writers Elizabeth Frazer and Nicola Lacey, many communitarian thinkers and theorists provide scant commentary concerning the problems of political power imbalances and of gender bias and blindness associate with community.
Both of these problems of moral relativism and perceived conservatism with soft communitarianism have the potential to sink the entire communitarian position. While this communitarian framework about what is deemed a common or communal value contains an important perspective on actual abortion choices, it would seem that one cannot abandon the liberal, pluralistic model that is structured around protecting individual rights, because people are not eternally contained within their community and these communal values; there is always the possibility of disagreeing with these communal beliefs.
If this version of soft communitarian position fails, then one would be forced to attempt a kind of mitigated, contextual ethics, in which problems of liberalism are bolstered by communitarianism and the problems of communitarianism are aided by a periphery, universal, social contract theory to protect individuals. But before abandoning this first version of soft communitarianism, there is the possibility of using phenomenological understanding of the self and the community to overcome moral relativism and perceived conservatism and, in turn, show how the liberal self and liberalism in general misdescribes reality.
The liberal conception of the self, which finds its predecessors and forebears in Descartes and Locke, is individualistic and isolated in the moral process through a rational abstraction from others, but if one considers the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger briefly, they claim that our being is “thrown” into an “always, already present world”, into a pre-running “Life-world,” into a pre-existing world of roles and relations.
While soft communitarianism quite rightly appeals to social construction and context as the definition of the self, their appeal requires a more rigorous exploration and explanation of how this communitarian self is constituted for one to avoid the problems of moral relativism and perceived conservatism. To overcome these problems and formulate a phenomenological communitarianism, one must understand how the (communitarian) self is constituted.
In his Cartesian Meditations, Husserl in undertaking a complex phenomenological exploration of subjectivity and subject or self rejects the Cartesian, monadic model of the self. In his famous mental doubting experiment that culminated in his cogito ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am), Descartes was able to “prove” the existence of the self, but Descartes also birthed an entire philosophical tradition of problems. From Descartes’ position, the self is reduced to a radically isolated Ego. This Ego, divided from his or her body, in turn, is left doubting everything else (besides the existence of the self) including the existence of the world and whether every other human person one perceives is a real subject or a robot.
According to Husserl, Descartes cannot reject the actual experience of the world by an individual subjectivity as a valid form of experience. For Husserl, Cartesian doubt does not result in a radically isolated and cut-off self but, rather, in an enmeshed, human self, a self always, already in the world. For Husserl, Descartes was “on the threshold of the greatest of all discoveries,” but he did not understand that this radical doubt revealed the impossibility of understanding the self outside of the world and without the relation of others in the world. Thus, in relation to the communitarian position, Husserl’s rejection of Descartes results in a self that cannot reject the world and is always with Others.
While Descartes’ conception of the subjectivity made any conception of intersubjectivity doubtful, problematic, and next to impossible, Husserl describes our experience of the world as:
essentially such that the “others”—for-me do not remain isolated; on the contrary, an Ego-community, which includes me, becomes constituted…as a community of Egos existing with each other—ultimately a community of monads, which, moreover, (in its communalized intentionality) constitutes the one identical world
If one posits a phenomenological move of intersubjectivity such that we experience a world in common; a self always with others and in the same world, then liberalism and the liberal conception of the self would be a misdescription of experience and thus there would be no need of a social contract, because we are already together, already connected, interconnected, and inter-related. One could not use an “agreed-upon” morality or political justice fabricated from abstract agents and strangers, because this is not the nature of experience; we exist, are constituted, and participate in a world in common.
The self is always, already in a common world of others. The other is not isolated and intrinsically individualistic. Moral situations in liberalism inevitably derive from individualistic desires and wants and goods, but this communitarianism established through phenomenology would mean that we are all inherently communal beings, beings constituted by and always in commune, in common, in community.
Ultimately, one cannot understand one’s goods and desires (as well one’s conception of personal identity) with reference to others and the common good; my good thus is a perspective in the common good.
While soft communitarianism seem posits historical and traditional roots to judge and understand moral and political choices communally, their position fails to properly the depth of our communal selves. Thus, phenomenological communitarianism reveals the reality of our being as communal and ultimately showing the impossibility of liberalism as a viable model for the self and for understanding moral choices. It remains debate which communities and exactly how the self is constituted, but the conception of the self is fundamentally a communitarian one.
Conclusion: Reproductive Choice is never in isolation, never simply a “woman’s choice”
To return to the Hemingway story:
They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.
‘You’ve got to realize,’ he said, ‘ that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.’
‘Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.’
‘Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else. And I know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘It’s all right for you to say that, but I do know it.’
‘Would you do something for me now?’
‘I’d do anything for you.’
‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’
The fact that the girl has stopped the conversation presents a problem to the ethic of conversation seemingly supported by the Hemingway story.
The ideal of an ethic of discourse is an openness in speech and in hearing, which, in turn, is an openness to others who are also conversing and their views, but to end conversation is to close the openness and submit to an isolated and broken standing with the others present. Has the girl broken from the discourse because she is simply tired of talking? Has she turned silent to accept the choice, in a liberal sense, as her own? Or is something ethically irresponsible occurring?
There are numerous difficulties with how Hemingway presents power in this conversation. The female lead is titled throughout as “girl” and the male as “man” eliminating the idea of this being an egalitarian conversation. Hemingway displays the main male as shifting away from accepting responsibility in the choice. He (the male character) skirts numerous opportunities by the “girl” to talk directly about what is going on but simply says things like “cut it out.”
The female is equally evasive about what is on her mind and often only provides jarring, ironic statements instead of confronting him. While there is something unique morally about a communal discussion over an abortion, it seems that the obscurity and ambiguity in which the conversation takes place is extremely difficult to render as an ethically, open conversation. They speak in code and in disguised language, perhaps because they have already attempted to discuss this in more direct and open dialogue but perhaps not.
Obviously, before this scene waiting for the train, there had to have been the direct mention of her being pregnant, her desire to keep the child, and his desire for her to have an abortion. But in this scene, they are discussing their pregnancy, the possibility of an abortion, and the strains on their relationship, but none of these words occur. This is not an open and honest conversation, and it fails to be an ethically responsible act. Ultimately, this seems to be one of the central weakness, which occurs throughout the abortion debate
In this paper, I showed how the classic articles on abortion failed to talk openly and directly about abortion and reproductive choices in particularistic terms. Theorists debate the ethical possibility of having an abortion, but reproductive choices are personal, particular events, and abstract questions of personhood and moral and legal autonomy hide central questions of how people and communities choose to deal with new children and with abortions.
In the second section, I looked at how liberalism and liberal theories of choice might address an abortion choice and eventually how these models fail to consider choice contextually and beyond individualistic and universal perspectives.
In section three, I looked at how two kinds of communitarianism to eventually show that it is impossible to constitute moral agents and their choices in individualistic terms. Ultimately, this conception of a communitarian self reveals that all actions occur upon the horizon of community and communal goods.
Even though many circumstances in which a pregnancy occurs are individual woman, pregnancies and their potential difficulties and pleasures are communal events that effect an entire society.
While liberalism promotes the victory in constituting abortion choice as a “woman’s choice,” this is a dangerous situation to place a woman, because it leaves her alone and isolated in her choice and often latter in the raising of that child. There has also recently been some debate about the man’s place in an abortion particularly about the “man’s right” concerning an abortion. Again, this view fails to reach beyond the individualistic model of liberalism and carries with it many patriarchal models of oppression and control.
Reproductive choice and the subsequent results never occur in isolation. These are communal events which require a communal understanding. While a small minority of vocal males clamor for their “right” to be involved in the “woman’s choice, pro-lifers and pro-choicers haggle over the realm of a child’s right to life and a woman’s right to life, these debates need to open the conversation up, turn away from the terms of rights and liberties inherited from liberalism, and begin to consider reproductive choices and the potential choices in terms of responsibility; a responsibility which is ultimately a communal one.
Writer’s Reflections (October 2023):
Re-reading this nearly 20 years after I completed it, I’m struck by a few aspects and ideas in this essay.
First, why abortion?
As a young male barely 21, it seemed like an odd topic for me to write on. People have asked me since then, if I had some personal encounter with abortion that led me to research and write on the topic. The honest answer is no.
Instead, as I recall, I had been a long-time fan and reader of Hemingway when I somehow stumbled into this particular Hemingway story around the time I was reading an anthology of essays on feminism.
Abortion choice is one of the key ethical questions and political concerns in feminism and American politics in general. This story struck me both as a literary gem of Hemingway’s and as an interesting moral scenario to explore abortion choice from.
I find that abortion and reproductive choices often gets framed quite abstractly and moral and ethical debates move too quickly into absolutist and legalese terms. By having a couple and this story in the back of my mind, I was continually forced to think through this particular moral dilemma as situated. Situated is interestingly enough one of the benefits of phenomenology as an approach and discipline too.
Second, what still resonates?
Looking back on this piece, I found much in that still resonates with me, especially poignant is the tension between communities of values, i.e. morals, and our universal legal and ethic frameworks. I still struggle to admit that certain disagreements are due to challenge inherent when communities of value see the world and situations differently. Much of our conflicts stem from different communities of value. We have yet to reach a state of the world with any singular moral or ethical worldview and I doubt we ever will.
I still find that my original formulation of attempting to carve out a relational space for abortion choice to be an interesting thought experiment. It forces many of the different perspectives on right and wrong into a shared, discursive choice space. Too often we align ourselves with a belief, opinion or value that largely comes from communal beliefs, values, morals, etc. And it remains important to reminder ourselves that we are largely a product of our communities, both those of our birth and upbringing and those of our choosing.
Third, what’s missing?
Unfortunately while this essay did a great job of explaining (admittedly longwindedly) a number of perspectives on abortion and liberalism, it is missing a full articulation and exploration of what I tentatively titled phenomenological communitarianism. In retrospective, I think I was trying to carve out an alternative to liberalism’s weak form of choice through representative democracy and government. I would love to have spent more time probing what phenomenological communitarianism meant and some of the challenges therein. So I feel like it’s missing a full articulation of what such a philosophical position such as this entails and why it might offer a solution for moral communities and moral configurations seeking pluralistic empowered agency and shared choice.
Fourth, what makes me cringe? Wish I could change?
In retrospect, this piece has some cringy turns of phrase. I don’t particularly like the section title “never simply a woman’s choice’” which feels poorly worded and not quite my point. Overall the essay or thesis
is pretty long-winded and repetitive in places. It would benefit from a decent trimming down and refining in places. There are quite a few repetitive passages. Part of the essay involved a literature review that fits well as an academic exercise but feels overly explicit and detailed.
Fifth and finally, do I still agree and adhere to the views in this piece?
Moral Relativism is one particular specter that hangs over this piece, but it might be framed also in terms of nihilism via Nietzsche, postmodernism, existentialism, etc. My subsequent travels and living abroad where I witnessed various forms of alternative values, worldviews and life experiences tend to lend more credence to core ideas in this piece related to intersubjective communities of heritage, language or value.
Personally I find the piece doesn’t fully argue as firmly as it should for female’s agency and its primacy. It is a bit of a miss, but it is a nuanced point to hit when my stated goal in the piece was to define what shared choice might look like through theoretical frameworks beyond liberalism. Additionally, I feel that we should never fully disenfranchise a certain primacy of self and agency.
All in all, this essay still holds a number of interesting ideas and I especially like the contrarian points where I hopefully, perhaps naively, argue philosophically for configurations of shared choice amongst differing values. This struggle from balance and a simple answer between two individuals or two communities with different values and choices remains largely true today as when I wrote this 20 years ago.
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Ibid., p. 5.
Ibid., p. 11.
Ibid., p. 12
Ibid., p. 13
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Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants,” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966.), pp. 273-278. ↩
Noonan, John. “Abortion Is Morally Wrong,”The Abortion Controvery : A Reader edited by Louis P. Pojman & Francis Beckwith (Boston : Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1994), pp. 179-185. ↩