Abortion doubts redefine debate

Naomi Wolf’s spirited rethink of abortion has embroiled her in an international clash. Karen Kissane writes that the author’s compassion for her baby may have left little over for mothers.  

ANY WOMAN who has felt a baby stir inside her, any man who has seen the tiny heart pulsing on an ultrasound screen, knows that abortion is about ending a life. Welcome to the club, Naomi Wolf.

The US writer and feminist had her first child, a daughter, six months ago, and the experience has left her recoiling from abortion and from the language used by America’s pro- choice movement. Abortion is a sin, she says in a controversial essay in the magazine The New Republic; it is not a matter for choice, like choosing a new carpet, but a matter for conscience.

It is not so much between oneself and one’s doctor as between oneself and one’s God.

Wolf argues that feminism refuses to acknowledge that abortion is a moral issue about good and evil, relying instead on “a political rhetoric in which the foetus means nothing”. This undermines the pro-choice movement by forcing those who feel ambivalent about abortion to side with the religious Right, which does engage in moral debate, she says.

She also attacks the abuse of the right to abortion, saying that many women irresponsibly get pregnant to prove their fertility or test out their boyfriends without ever intending to see the pregnancy through.

But Wolf still says she is pro-choice and fuzzily tries to justify the right to abortion on the grounds that it can be atoned for after the act. (Now there’s a concept. Was it a libertine St Augustine who said, “Grant me chastity, Lord, but not yet”?) Abortion activists think Wolf has portrayed women as silly and selfish while conservatives attack her for being self- obsessed; feminist writers are forever making grand political statements based on whatever’s happening in their personal lives, sneered Britain’s Spectator.

But so they should. One of the great furphies of the intellectual world has been the notion that an individual’s philosophical stance is based purely on rational argument. People bring to intellectual debate not just their intellect but values and beliefs formed as a result of their experience of life.

(Tell a roomful of female philosophy students that Sartre believed that there was no such thing as love, only the desire to be loved, and they quite rightly start to ask what sort of relationship the man had with his mother). One of feminism’s great contributions to public debate has been its acknowledgement _ at times, its brandishing _ of this truth.

As a best-selling author with an established audience, there is an obligation for Wolf to publicly own a change of heart and the reasons for it. In the process, she has done the abortion debate a great service. She has enlarged the middle ground.

It’s probably where most Australians have been for a while now. A Morgan Poll in February showed that 82 per cent approved of abortion in cases where the mother’s health was at risk, with only half that number approving of it in cases where the mother was unmarried. A majority (53 per cent) disapproved of abortions by married couples who thought they already had enough children. They, like Wolf, believe that abortion is more justifiable in some cases than in others.

IT TAKES the ability to tolerate painfully conflicting facts, and a certain generosity of heart, to own the truth about abortion: that a foetus is much more than just a bundle of cells that does not grow in a physical or emotional vacuum.

Unborn life should be treated with respect, but full-grown people should not be used as a means to an end by being forced to play human incubators.

It should be a grave decision, and Wolf is right to condemn the casual consumerism of women who would discard a pregnancy like a used tissue. But is Wolf’s social circle representative of women generally? The women I know who have had abortions have done so with anguish and soul-searching, and it would be sad and wrong if Wolf’s re-examination of the issue results only in trivialising their pain.

Wolf seems to believe that material poverty is just cause for having an abortion but, in the original Republic piece, fails to address the many other problems that lead to it.

The emotional poverty of lone pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood would be more terrifying to many women than the prospect of material struggle. There will always be victims of rape, incest and that old faithful, contraceptive failure.

Those who do seem hopelessly irresponsible _ who act impulsively without stopping to use contraception, or get pregnant because they think it will cement a relationship _ have managed to grow up without learning how to deal with the powerful forces of sexuality and the longing to be loved. As a society we are getting better at explaining the anatomical facts to children and young people, but they need to be equipped with much more than this if they are to conduct their intimate lives responsibly.

Wolf is still in aftershock, appalled by her realisation, and is so caught up in compassion for the baby that, in some passages, she seems to have little left over for the mother.

This is frightening for American activists in particular because the fight for the right to abortion in that country continues to be so vicious. In political debate, acknowledging shades of grey can equate to losing ground if the other side refuses to do the same.

But in holding fast to the principle that abortion must remain legal even if it is not desirable, in owning that abortion is about ending the beginnings of one life in order to protect another, Wolf speaks for a great many people who would consider themselves feminist and pro-choice. Among them is US President Bill Clinton, who has said that in an ideal world, abortion would be freely available, safe – and rare.

First published in The Age.