Distinguishing Rights: Feminism’s Misconceptions on Abortion

The Catholic Church is sometimes charged with holding positions and doctrines which derive from a desire to enforce male dominance. Many feminists currently claim that the church, as an institution, intentionally creates and preserves policies which support and encourage the suppression of women and their rights. In particular, the Church’s positions on marriage, birth control, and abortion are accused of being constructed to serve best male interests. It may well be true that many a male chauvinist can be found within the ranks of clergy, religious, and laity. However, it is a more serious and difficult task to uncover any teaching of the Church which is genuinely derived from a proposition which affirms male superiority. One would simply commit the fallacy of composition if one concluded that a few high placed chauvinists represent the teachings of the Church. In fact the feminist critique of the Catholic position on abortion rests on a simple confusion which, once it is understood, will clear the Church’s position from any further accusations of male chauvinism.

Many arguments for the moral permissibility of abortion center on the woman’s right to determine what happens to her own body. The argument goes like this: a woman has a genuine right to decide what happens to her own body; included in that right is the choice to become pregnant; therefore a woman has a right to abort a fetus if she does not choose to bear the child. It is thus claimed that an anti-abortion position flies in the face of a woman’s sovereignty over her own body. This argument is flawed because its second premise masks a confusion which rests on the failure to distinguish the right to become pregnant from the right to choose not to carry to term.

The first claim, that of sovereignty, means that a woman has a right not to be forced into manual labor, sexual acts, or to bear children against her will. This last point is the focus of the argument. A woman should not be forced to become pregnant if she chooses not to. The problem is, what happens once she has become pregnant against her own will? Does her right not to become pregnant in the first instance guarantee her a right to abort the fetus if she becomes pregnant as a result of force or accident?

This point has been the source of confusion. If a woman becomes pregnant, the right of abortion is not implied by her right not to become pregnant. This is because her action no longer concerns only herself. What she now chooses to do will seriously affect the life of another human being. The right of the woman to determine what happens to her own body has never been at stake. It is the right of the woman to determine what happens to the unborn child that raises the moral question.

In such a case, a conflict of claims is present. The right of the mother to her body is stacked against the right of the child to live. One way of posing the question is as follows: under what conditions, if any, is it morally permissible to kill the unborn child? A popular framework for an answer is: when no rights are being violated, or the mother’s rights override those of the fetus, it is morally permissible to take the life of the child. Now the whole issue of rights is at hand. Who has rights?

A contemporary answer is that persons have rights. Thus anyone who meets the criterion for personhood has defensible rights. The most accepted criterion for personhood includes three factors: self-awareness; an awareness of others; and the ability to reason. Whoever meets this criterion is a person and thus has rights. A major problem with this view is that such a class would exclude not only infants up to the age of three, but also the senile, severely retarded, and the insane. None of these creatures would have rights under the criterion listed. Thus no one would be violating any rights if these were to be killed. It would be morally permissible to kill them because they are not persons and therefore have no rights. If a decision were made not to abort or kill, it would derive from some position other than the issue of rights.

The rights issue would allow that a woman has the right to abort. If she chooses not to, it would be by appeal to some other position, e.g., utilitarianism. However, if one refers solely to the rights criterion, those who do not have rights simply do not have any rights to be violated. Thus, the determination of exactly who does have rights is paramount. (And the rights issue, as we have seen, also has implications for the question of euthanasia and infanticide.) On the abortion issue, the question of moral permissibility is easily handled by simply denying that the fetus has any rights. The rights criterion solves the problem. The best attack on this position would therefore be the defeat of the rights criterion.

The seductive aspect of the rights argument lies in the fact that we are often called upon to make excruciatingly difficult moral choices. If a young, unwed girl is raped and becomes pregnant, it seems that asking her to carry the child to term is unfair, even cruel. The “rights” argument makes it easier to justify the killing of the unborn. If the fetus has no rights because it is not a person, then she would not be doing anything wrong if she were to kill it. Furthermore, since it is not a person by this criterion, the rights of a person would supersede any rights of another kind of being. Thus even if the fetus had rights, the rights of an actual person have more moral weight. However, with all sincere sympathy for the genuine hardship and trauma that would be borne in this situation, the legitimate questions are: does the violence against the girl justify the violence against the innocent child? does the real trauma to the mother outweigh the value of the child’s entire life?

To ask a young girl to bear the child, whether as a result of rape, incest, or one night’s “reckless passion,” is not to deny her the freedom to choose to become pregnant. Rather, it is to recognize the right of the child to live. The right to life outweighs the right to avoid trauma. No one would deny that a great deal of courage, love and faith would be necessary for the ordeal of bearing the child. At the same time, it is unique to Christian philosophy that we understand and bear suffering for the love of Him and His.

It is always difficult to settle conflicting claims. That problem is the crux of moral philosophy. The Christian must be true to the teachings of the Church as well as to the simple rules of logic. To recognize the right of the unborn is not to deny the sovereign right of a woman to her own body. Furthermore, the Christian “right to life” is not grounded in an artificial or arbitrary criterion. Rather, we recognize God as the creator of all beings, regardless of the situation under which life was conceived. It is God, not the rapist, who gives life. This sanctity of life is the ultimate justification for a defensible right. The child’s “right to life” is simply our belief that God alone is the giver of life.

Once a woman carries life within her, in spite of the circumstances of conception, she no longer has only her life to consider. The plea for her to bear the child reflects the Church’s great respect and confidence in her ability to act with courage and conviction. It reveals our Church’s faith in her daughters. No one would minimize or be insensitive to the tragedy of bearing an unwanted and forced pregnancy. Nonetheless, we cannot betray our obligation to protect the innocent and the helpless. Our strongest moral obligations are to those in need. The Catholic position on abortion has its roots in our most basic theology. To see this position as a desire to subjugate women to male dominance is shortsighted, misguided, and dishonest.

The fallacy in the argument for women’s sovereignty lies in the simple fact that once a woman has become pregnant, under whatever circumstance, she is no longer dealing only with her own body. The rights she has concerning herself are different, as are all moral rights, when they concern and affect another. Clearly, with the very life of the unborn child at stake, a careful account must be made of the conflict of claims and the genuine ground of a right to life.

The argument that the fetus is only a potential person results in an even stronger moral obligation for the Christian. It is we who have been charged with the care of the least among us. Surely the innocent, the defenseless, and the unborn are the least among us. Even if the “rights criterion” were acceptable, that would put the “non-persons” as the least among us and thus create a stronger moral obligation to protect them. If any non-person needs defense, it is the Christian who must provide it. The confusion of women’s rights and the rights of the unborn is easy to understand. After all it is she who must bear the child. However, the distinction between her right not to become pregnant and the right of the child to live, is the critical element of an honest Christian position.

A genuine search for the truth in this moral problem will reveal two distinct rights: that of a woman’s sovereignty over her own body and that of the unborn child to be brought to life. The first right does not constitute a right which overrides the latter. Accordingly, the objection to the Church’s position on the grounds that this is a feminist problem is fallacious because it fails to distinguish the two rights.

  • Jane Mary Trau

    Jane Mary Trau was an ethics, philosophy, and religion scholar who taught in the University of Miami’s philosophy department . She passed away in 2008.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...