Could women actually know what they’re doing?

A priest, a rabbi, and a doctor walk into a bar.

The rabbi says, “Doctor, do you think that women know enough to make moral, financial, and medical decisions about their lives?”

The doctor says, “Borensteinbergenthal, good question! I’ve seen it time and time again, and it’s so very sad. When women terminate their pregnancies, they get depressed, poor, and cancerous.”

Then the bartender says, “Wait a second. Didn’t you catch Annaee Newitz’s piece on new research indicating that women who seek abortions are correct about what childbirth would do to their lives, finances, and bodies?”

And the priest says, “But what would happen if we let women make their own choices about their lives?”

The bar shushes contemplatively. A few women turn red and poke at their ice with skinny straws.

Check it out, friends. The first longitudinal study comparing women who get abortions and women who wanted to but were turned away. We’re only 2 years into the 5 year study, but so far we’ve learned that “turnaways” are more likely to be on public support, to have experienced domestic violence, to be unemployed, and to have medical complications from pregnancy and childbirth.

So far, it looks like women actually know what they’re doing when they make these decisions. Even low-income women.

For more kicks, here’s a lovely piece on Riot Grrrrl and Kathleen Hanna.

Legislate that, Mr. Anti-Choice Politician.

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7 thoughts on “Could women actually know what they’re doing?

  1. sancrucensis says:

    As perhaps the only pro-life Catholic priest who reads this blog, I was particularly struck by your priest, rabbi, doctor story. It has got me thinking a bit. Does my opposition to abortion conceal a hidden callous indifference to the oppression of women, or worse a misogynistic fear of women’s liberation? I’m sure many so-called “pro-lifers” are indeed far too indifferent to the fate of women, but let me try to explain why I don’t think that pro-life necessarily = anti-women.

    Given that the dominant model of freedom in our late-capitalist economy is a kind of supposedly neutral freedom of choice, and given that sexual liberation is understood in our culture as the “freedom” to have sexual intercourse with people with whom one is not intending to have children, it is clear that the present system unfairly disadvantages women. A woman who gets an unintended pregnancy loses control in a way in which no man does. Thus I can see why abortion must seem like an unfortunate but necessary means of rectifying this injustice.

    To me though the underlying question is whether the capitalist version of freedom inscribed in out culture is even right? Often the abortion debate is seen as a debate between a woman’s right to freedom and the fetus’s right to life. But the question for me is this: doesn’t the apparent necessity of abortion on our current account of freedom call our current account of freedom *itself* into question? Doesn’t the fact that so many women feel that they have to abort the vulnerable life within them raise questions about what true freedom would really look like? I know a woman who works at a crises-pregnancy center here in Austria, and she tells me that for many women the decision to abort is an agonizing one. The question for me is what are the structures in our society that bring this agony about; wouldn’t true liberation involve ending such structures? Is it possible that legal abortion tends to perpetuate those structures by giving an “easy” way out?

    I am strongly convinced that the notion of freedom inscribed in our culture by capitalist economics is not true freedom. (Take a look at this wonderful talk on the illusion of the free market: ). True freedom is the freedom for the good, the freedom to do what is really best for us as human persons. I wish that my fellow pro-lifers would do more to foster a culture in which people would be free to have children without the terrible consequences documented in your study. I think this would include (to bring up the topic of one of your previous posts) a new cultural attitude toward sex, in which sexual liberation would not be identified with the ability to have sex outside of a committed relationship. I think that my Church’s position that sexual intercourse is most human and fulfilling when it is lived in the context of a committed relationship open to new life (as expounded eg. here: ) has more to be said for it than one might think.

    One of the central paradoxes of Christianity seems to me that true freedom involves commitment and sacrifice and yes, horribile dictu!, even subordination. Of course you can say that this paradox has been and is used as a hypocritical mask for oppression and especially the oppression of women. I certainly admit that there is a lot of truth to that. And yet and yet. The deepest elements of the Christian tradition of kenosis and subordination have always been against patriarchal oppression of women, as Sarah Coakley for example has shown:

    So while I think I can see why you are so passionate about your support for abortion, I remain opposed. It seems to me that support for abortion tends to perpetuate the deeper structural problems of capitalist society. A truly pro-life politics would I think be a truly pro-woman politics. It would be the sort of anti-capitalist virtuous practice politics proposed by the likes of Alasdair MacIntyre.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you so much for your long and thoughtful reply to what was admittedly an overly glib post. I did not in any way mean to imply that clergy are de facto misogynist.

      However, I did want to suggest that many pro-life positions are expressed in terms of concern for women. Yours does the same. And the findings from this study show that in many cases, women are right about the problems an unintended pregnancy, carried full term, would cause. That denial of an abortion leads to far greater harm than getting one. And that women can be trusted to make the decisions that are best for their lives.

      But your comment and my post agree that abortion law is in many ways about sexual freedom. Should women and children suffer more than men from straight sexuality? (Whether in or out of marriage, since married people get abortions too.) And how can we make straight sex more equitable? You imply marriage. I argue, well, more equality for women in every area.

      Here is the only way I can make sense of your assertion that legalized abortion perpetuates a false sense of choice/freedom in an inherently exploitative late capitalist society: that women’s choices to have non-procreative sex are bad for them. And that legalized abortions perpetuate women’s ability to take “the easy way out” of responsibility for these bad choices.

      There’s just no way that I can believe that the state forcing a woman to carry an unwanted baby to term gives her more freedom than the state allowing her to terminate. Pregnancy is very difficult, even for those who want to have a child. And it’s dangerous. And it can have grave consequences for a woman’s health, finances, and relationships.

      There’s also a creeping essentialism in your comments as I interpret them (which, you know, maybe I misunderstand you). That a woman is happiest and most fulfilled when she has a baby. Your intimations about real freedom suggest that to me.

      Do I misunderstand you? I’m really curious to learn more about how you think of abortion rights in terms of late capitalism. Please explain more!

      As for me, I’m still a bit of a sucker for the 60s fantasy that sexuality can be the one area of human life that cannot be fully commodified. Make love, not war.

      Finally, I absolutely agree with you that if we had a sane, family-friendly social support system, with affordable health care, ample family leave and child care, and less wage discrimination, we may see fewer women wanting to terminate their pregnancies. And I’m all for that! But it’s never gonna happen here, even if Hillary C gets elected.

  2. sancrucensis says:

    Thanks for your gracious response.

    I guess we can probably agree that Capitalist culture’s rhetoric of purely empty/formal freedom serves as a mask for various kinds of imposition of power. Every one has freedom of choice but the power dynamics force them to make certain choice. One way this works is old fashioned exploitation of labor, which is all based on supposedly free agreement, but is really profoundly unfree both on the part of the worker who has no choice but to work for less than a living wage, but also on the part of the company executives who would “like” to pay their employees more, but “can’t” because of “market forces” and so on. The later case is interesting because of course while some of the people involved are aware of their unfreedom and feel coerced, others aren’t, but are (I would argue) therefore even less “free” in the true sense (which I think would mean both knowing what is really good for oneself and society and being able to contribute toward that good).

    Another way in which this works though is through very strong societal pressure to conform to certain moral ideals, ideals of the good life. In the old days these were the ideals of bourgeois respectability, which prizes hard work, discipline, the transcendence of human limits through technological progress and so on. This ethic had certain advantages (or it wouldn’t have been attractive to people), but I think we can agree that it favored the interests of the powerful, tended toward the destruction the environment, and was intolerably sexist.

    In late-capitalism we have the oft-noted phenomenon of the co-opting within the capitalist system of originally anti-capitalist elements (the commodification of revolutionary posturing seen in rap music etc.). In the moral realm this means the modification of the implicit capitalist ethic by the inclusion of elements of the anti-capitalist 1960s “ethics of authenticity” (to use Charles Taylor’s expression).

    The separation of sex and procreation through technology is I think a central element of the late-capitalist ideal, that allows the synthesis of the ideology of progress and the “free love” ideal of the 60s.

    Now, I am convinced that this late capitalist moral ideal is (despite its attractive sides) is not much better than the old capitalist ideal, and that it too favors the powerful and disadvantages women.

    And I think that many supposedly “free” choices that people take, are partly coerced by the pressure to conform to this false and exploitive ideal.

    I just read an interesting blogpost by Eve Tushnet, which perhaps you will forgive my quoting a longish bit of (despite its being from a “conservative”):

    We don’t have a marriage crisis in this country because everybody has stopped following the rules. We have a marriage crisis because the rules don’t work. There are all kinds of strict rules: Don’t marry before you’re “economically stable” (an endlessly-retreating horizon), don’t wait until you’re married to have sex, don’t wait until you’re married to live together, don’t move back in with your parents. And, for the upper classes, don’t have kids too early and don’t have too many. I’ve written about these issues before (here and here) but I want to emphasize how the rules rely on completely bourgeois impulses to achieve and preserve. They’re based on fear–primarily fear of divorce, but also fear of loneliness–but also on the intense, poignant desire to do the right thing.
    A woman who has sex with multiple partners (maybe hooking up a lot if she’s at a more elite college), contracepting throughout and having at least one abortion, then cohabits, then marries in her early 30s if at all, might be a hedonist or a relativist. In my experience she’s much more likely to be trying to do everything right, finish her education and start climbing the economic ladder and make good rather than hasty choices in her men. Her mother usually supports or even pressures her in her decision to abort, and many of the decisions I’ve described are made not in the service of personal sexual liberation but as a means to preserve her relationships. A lot of the time it doesn’t work–the marriage or cohabitation she really hoped would be “the one” still breaks up–but she sees all the alternative choices as even riskier, and therefore irresponsible.
    I don’t know that I have “solutions” really. You can’t solve somebody’s heart. I would suggest that explicitly naming the new rules and explaining how and why they fail may help. We need to offer a broader array of vocations, rather than capitulating to a culture which upholds marriage and motherhood as the only two paths to adulthood. (Motherhood, not fatherhood–a man can stay a boy as long as he wants, and often much, much longer than that.)
    ( )

    I found some of this very suggestive of what is involved in the implicit late-capitalist ideal.

    Coming to the abortion question. I don’t see the problem only in the fact that society pressures women into choosing non-procreative sex in a way that is contrary to their true good, and that abortion allows society to avoid facing the issue. But more importantly my problem is that the “free” choice for abortion is in important respects not free at all. I mentioned how it seems that for many woman the decision to abort is an agonizing one. I think the agony often comes from opposing moral demands, on the one hand they see the abortion as the responsible and good thing to do (and as the study you link shows there are lots of reasons for this), but on the other hand they often see the destruction of the life within them as tragic, and having a moral appeal of its own. Even those who don’t think (as I do) that an unborn human is a person, still think that it is sad that they have to abort their “potential” child.

    Of course not all women see abortion this way, but I would argue that those who don’t are even less free in their choice than those who do.

    I think this is terrible situation, and merely banning abortion would certainly not be enough to solve it, but simply having abortion legal is I think in many ways even worse.

    Now I admit that my position is essentialist, that it requires a strong “objective” view of the human good, and that it looks scarily totalitarian. But it seems to me that the pretense of neutral “freedom” is just a mask for the advantage of the stronger and that a strong account of the good and positive freedom is necessary for a truly humane society. The big Q of course is how to determine what the true good is, and who gets to determine it. That indeed is the rub and I wish I had a solution.

    Sorry that this post was so long; you’ve got me thinking hard!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks once more for your thoughts! I’m very grateful for this discussion.

      There are a variety of explanations of the rise in divorce, my favorite being that women entering the workforce became less dependent on spouses and marriage for their livelihood. That freed them up to make life choices that were good for them–in many cases, divorce. Liberalized divorce laws also contributed. Increased visibility of domestic violence also contributed. In general, I’m not bothered by high divorce rates. To me, they indicate the increasing plurality of family configurations, and I generally think such a plurality is morally good. I know how hard divorce is for people, but I also know of so many cases in which it has helped the families enormously. After the pain clears away.

      I’m not sure what woman Tushnet feels so sorry for. In many ways I fit her parameters (“at least one abortion”? Seriously?) and yet, I have been happy. And people on the social conservative side of things tend not to get too bothered when men have sex outside of marriage. The level of hand-wringing about women who are supposedly betrayed by feminism says more to me about the hand-wringers than about the poor, lonely women who just can’t get married, despite all that sex. Tushnet’s straw woman is some kind of fantasy that serves her need to defend a traditional family structure that is waning in cultural power. But from my perspective, it’s good that this structure is on the outs. Men and women have more socially sanctioned possibilities, and that’s great.

      In short, I think that feminism and the sexual revolution have been largely good for women. (And men.) Persistent masculinist power structures have not. Problems that women face today have more to do with the latter than the former. So it looks from my perspective.

      I don’t agree with you that there are constrictive social pressures on women to have sex. On the contrary, the general lifting of strictures against women’s sexuality has been good for us. Women can have sex when and how they want, and they can work if they want (if they can get a job these days.) This would be bad if you think that women’s true happiness lies in maternal domesticity. But I have seen reams of evidence that while this traditional model still works for some women, it decidedly doesn’t work for all of us. (Also, again, are you worried about pressures on men to be “conquerers”? Where’s the widespread handwringing about them?)

      Finally, let’s prevent unintended pregnancy. Not by returning to the old ways of shaming women for wanting to have sex. Nor by denying the reality that people have sex because it feels good, no matter the state of their romantic (or moral) life. But instead by offering comprehensive, science-based sex ed and widely accessible, inexpensive contraception.

  3. sancrucensis says:

    Well, I certainly agree with you that the lack of hand-wringing over male promiscuity among social conservatives is hypocritical. (Though Tushnet is perhaps less guilty in this respect than others). I think it is a genuine achievement of the feminist movement to have exposed that hypocrisy, but the solution seems to me to cut in the wrong direction: extending libertine standards of sexuality from men to women, rather than trying to lead everyone, men and women, to a more holistic, arete based integration of sexuality and life.

    My thinking has been that the separation of sexuality from procreation (and from total commitment) is in league with the Cartesian estrangement of the self and the body. It seems to me that there is a kind of “deep” experiential wisdom that leads to a rejection of libertine sexuality – a reading of the “meaning” of the human body. Wendell Berry has some things to say on this in his essay “The Body and the Earth“. Let me paste in a few snips:

    To last, love must enflesh itself in the materiality of the world —produce food, shelter, warmth or shade, surround itself with careful acts, well-made things. […] Marriage and the care of the earth are each other’s disciplines. Each makes possible the enactment of fidelity toward the other. As the household has become increasingly generalised as a function of the economy and, as a consequence, has become increasingly “mobile” and temporary, these vital connections have been weakened and finally broken. And whatever has been thus disconnected has become a ground of exploitation for some breed of salesman, specialist, or expert. A direct result of the disintegration of the household is the division of sexuality from fertility and their virtual takeover by specialism. […] This division occurs, it seems to me, in a profound cultural failure: the loss of any sense that sexuality and fertility might exist together compatibly in this world. We have lost this possibility because we do not understand, because we cannot bear to consider the meaning of restraint.‘ (Footnote: At the root of this failure is probably another sexual division: the assignment to women of virtually all responsibility for sexual discipline.) […] One of the fundamental interests of human culture is […] to subject fertility to moral will. Culture articulates needs and forms for sexual restraint and involves issues of value in the process of mating. It is possible to imagine that the resulting tension creates a distinctly human form of energy, highly productive of works of the hands and the mind. But until recently there was no division between sexuality and fertility, because none was possible. This division was made possible by modern technology, which subjected human fertility, like the fertility of the earth, to a new kind of will: the technological will, which may not necessarily oppose the moral will, but which has not only tended to do so, but has tended to replace it. Simply because it became possible—-and simultaneously profitable-we have cut the cultural ties between sexuality and fertility, just as we have cut those between eating and farming. By “freeing” food and sex from worry, we have also set them apart from thought, responsibility, and the issue of quality. The introduction of “chemical additives” has tended to do away with the issue of taste or preference; the specialist of sex, like the specialist of food, is dealing with a commodity, which he can measure but cannot value.

    Sorry for the long quote, but really the whole essay is worth looking at. I would be particularly interested in hearing your thoughts on Berry’s argument since I’ve looked at a paper of yours were you argue that there is a mode of the bio-medical that helps overcome Cartesian estrangement from the body.

    Finally I do agree with you that there are more ways for women to have happy and fulfilled lives than through maternal domesticity – among the women that I know the one who seems happiest to me is a cousin of mine who is a Carmelite nun.

  4. […] my pseudo-hiatus I had a long exchange with Sacrucensis about who gets to decide what’s up with the cell-clusters that sometimes form after hetero […]

  5. […] while ago I had an exchange with a feminist blogger, Elizabeth Freudenthal, about abortion and related matters. In a later […]

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