In his blog post “What if it Really is About the Babies? On Anti-Abortion Motivations“, pro-choice philosopher Nathan Nobis critiques the popular feminist sentiment that abortion restrictions are motivated by a desire to control women rather than to save babies. He writes:
[Pro-choice people’s] suggestion is that anti-abortion advocates are not really concerned about stopping embryos and fetuses (what they often, mistakenly, call “babies”) from being killed via abortion: that’s not their real motive or goal. Rather, their real goal is controlling women: men controlling women.“What if it Really is About the Babies? On Anti-Abortion Motivations”, Nathan Nobis
These suggestions, however, are, unfortunately, absurd. The sooner this is all recognized as absurd, the closer anyone fixated on this theory of the motivations of anti-abortion people will be to doing something potentially more productive for defending abortion.
To be clear, I agree with Nobis that statements like “Pro-lifers just want to control women” are not necessarily the most persuasive way for pro-choice advocates to make their case in debates. However, some statements that are not rhetorically convincing can still be accurate. Here, I will offer a defense of the idea that anti-abortion activism is motivated by a desire to control women. In order to do so, we should clarify exactly what is meant when feminists say that abortion restrictions are motivated by a desire to control women.
What do feminists mean when they say abortion restrictions are about controlling women?
On one level, abortion restrictions are uncontroversially about controlling women: anti-abortion legislation seeks to prevent women from being able to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Thus, women would be “controlled” in the sense they won’t be able to make use of procedures that they once could freely and legally access.
However, it seems obvious that something else is implied when feminists say that abortion restrictions are about controlling women: they mean that the primary concern anti-abortionists have is not with saving the lives of embryos and fetuses but with enforcing a particular status (motherhood) on women. If the feminists are correct, the pro-life position that abortion is wrong because it destroys embryos or fetuses is just a pretext; pro-life activism is really motivated by conservative or religious beliefs about the proper role of women.
I agree with feminist theoreticians about the underlying motivations of the pro-life movement. To show why this is true, I’m first going to explain why I think Nobis’ reasons for not believing abortion restrictions are motivated by a desire to control women are not convincing. I’ll then offer some historical and anthropological data that supports the feminist position.
Responses to Nobis’ arguments
Dr. Nobis offers several reasons for thinking that anti-abortion restrictions are motivated by a genuine desire to save fetuses. Here I will show why I don’t find any of these reasons convincing.
1. Anti-abortion advocates state that they are motivated by a desire to save babies.
It is certainly true that pro-life messaging revolves around a desire to save fetuses. Nobis seems to be assuming that, if pro-life people say they are motivated by a desire to save fetuses, no other motivation is likely; we ought to believe them when they say that. Is this a reasonable conclusion?
We might look to other social issues in the United States to answer this. It is uncontroversial to say that pro-segregation policies in the United States in the 1950s were motivated by racism. But did pro-segregationists explicitly say that they were motivated by a belief that African-Americans were inferior? Largely, they did not. Instead, they claimed to be motivated by other beliefs – for example, the right of local communities to determine school policy or the freedom of businesses to determine their own clientele. Similarly, many people believe that anti-immigration policies or pro-Trump sentiments in the United States are motivated by racism or xenophobia. They believe this despite the fact that many, or most, supporters of those policies do not personally believe that they are motivated by racism and outright deny claims of being motivated by racism. In other words, it’s uncontroversial to assert that policies can be motivated by racism even when those people supporting those policies genuinely believe that they are not racist and that their motivations are something different.
In fact, we should expect that people and institutions that are motivated by racist and/or sexist sentiments will claim that their motivations are something more benign. Most people believe that racism and/or sexism are immoral, even if those same people harbor racist or sexist views themselves. So it’s politically expedient to develop justifications for sexist and/or racist policies that do not reference obvious sexism or racism.
In conclusion, the fact pro-life advocates claim they are motivated by a desire to save fetuses is not enough to dismiss the claim that pro-life policies are motivated by misogynistic desires to control female reproduction.
2. If anti-abortion people were motivated by a desire to control women, they would focus on other, easier ways of controlling women.
This relies on the assumption that, if pro-life people want to control women, they must be equally invested in all methods of controlling women. Further, it assumes that there are other means of “controlling women” that are easier to implement than anti-abortion restrictions.
But feminist historians and anthropologists have often pointed out that men are not necessarily equally invested in all means of controlling women. Most patriarchal societies have not sought to control, say, what color socks a woman puts on in the morning. Rather, men are more invested in controlling certain aspects of women’s lives than others. In particular, men in patriarchal cultures focus on controlling women’s sexuality and reproduction. Some anthropologists have suggested that the emphasis on controlling these aspects of women’s lives results from men’s interest in both having children and ensuring the children they have are theirs. Thus, for example, the vast majority of cultures have punished women far more severely than men for adultery; the double standard derives from the fact men wish to have as many children as possible, but also wish to ensure that the children their wives bear are theirs.
It is also not necessarily clear to me that there are “easier” ways to control women’s reproduction and sexuality in the United States than through anti-abortion laws. Laws against birth control or sex education may now be less popular and more difficult to pass than laws restricting abortion. It may be that it is politically impossible to, say, remove the right to vote from women, or even to make birth control hard to get. It could very well be that the “easiest” way for men to control large scale control of women’s reproductive lives is through passing laws restricting abortion.
3. Women support pro-life policies, so those policies must not be motivated by misogynistic attitudes.
This relies on the assumption that pro-life women would not be motivated by misogynistic beliefs; in other words, that women would not support policies that exist to give men control of women’s reproductive or sexual lives.
In fact, women frequently support policies that explicitly give men control over women. Many women are Christians, for instance, and the Bible explicitly tells women that they should submit to their husbands. Many women are Muslims, even though the Quran states that women have no right to refuse their husbands sex within a marriage.
Are women who support anti-woman policies irrational? Maybe, but maybe not. Feminist authors like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon have pointed out that conservative women are often highly rational – they believe that traditional patriarchal societies offer women more security and safety than leftist or sexually liberal spaces, even though women in patriarchal cultures may lose certain freedoms, like the freedom to have sex with whom they please or the freedom to have an abortion.
Right-wing women accuse feminists of hypocrisy and cruelty in advocating legal abortion because, as they see it, legal abortion makes them accessible fucks without consequence to men. In their view, pregnancy is the only consequence of sex that makes men accountable to women for what men do to women. Deprived of pregnancy as an inevitability, a woman is deprived of her strongest reason not to have intercourse….Right Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females, Andrea Dworkin
[Right wing women] face reality and what they see is that women get fucked whether they want it or not; right-wing women get fucked by fewer men; abortion in the open takes away pregnancy as a social and sexual control over men; once a woman can terminate a pregnancy easily and openly and without risk of death, she is bereft of her best way of saying no— of refusing the intercourse the male wants to force her to accept. The consequences of pregnancy to him may stop him, as the consequences of pregnancy to her never will.
Thus we can see that women may have an interest in promoting anti-abortion policy even if it does enforce patriarchal control of women’s reproductive lives. If women feel that the alternative to a patriarchal culture is a more damaging culture of sexual liberalism, they will support the patriarchal culture.
In summary, I don’t find Nobis’ reasons convincing as to showing that anti-abortion policies must not be motivated by misogyny. But what reasons do we have to think that anti-abortion policies are motivated by a desire to control women?
Reasons to believe anti-abortion restrictions are driven by patriarchal control of women
Anti-abortion activism is driven primarily by conservative Christianity
While a minority of pro-life people are atheists, anti-abortion policies in the West have been driven largely by conservative Christianity, in particular Catholicism. What are some notable features of Catholicism? It has an all-male power structure, and it specifically celebrates virginity and motherhood as important features of one of Mary, one of its few noteworthy female figures. Catholicism’s central text, the Bible, clearly and explicitly tells women that they should submit to their husbands; the Bible also says that women will be saved through childbearing.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.1 Timothy 2:11-15
Anthropologists note that a driving fear in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is that of “female birth nihilism”, or the idea that if women are given full control of reproduction, they will choose not to go through the pains of childbearing and humanity will go extinct. Paradoxically, despite Christian propaganda that suggests women naturally want children and are happiest as mothers, Church fathers have been historically very concerned that liberated women will not have enough children to sustain the population.
The biblical scholar Jacob Lassner…speaks of an underlying fear, in both biblical myths and Arabo-Muslim texts, that women, given a free hand, will rescind the covenant of motherhood, defying both their husbands and their God by abrogating His decree to propagate. The implications of this course are made self-evident in the texts that warn about women refusing motherhood, “humankind will not be able to sustain the species and in time will become extinct”…Misogyny, David Gilmore
Thus we have evidence that members of Abrahamic faiths have motivation to control women’s reproductive lives and in particular prevent women from accessing abortion. Of course, this doesn’t by itself mean that anti-abortion attitudes are driven by a desire to remove reproductive control from women, but it suggests that the major forces behind anti-abortion legislation have at least a major interest in removing control of reproduction from women.
Feminist theory best explains anti-abortion attitudes towards embryos and fetuses in other contexts
If anti-abortion attitudes are driven primarily by a genuine belief that zygotes are equal persons with a right to life, we would expect anti-abortion activists to care about zygotes and embryos generally as well as within the context of abortion. For example, we would expect that anti-abortion activists would think miscarriage was at least as serious a human tragedy as the COVID pandemic; we would also expect serious and sustained opposition to IVF, a procedure in which women who are trying to get pregnant implant healthy embryos (unhealthy embryos are discarded at high rates.) While the Catholic Church nominally opposes IVF, there are no major legal initiatives to ban IVF and few, if any, public protests against IVF clinics. In El Salvador, IVF clinics and surrogacy are perfectly legal even though the country has some of the harshest anti-abortion policies in the world. Nor do we see major efforts in these places to reduce the risks or rates of miscarriage; there appears to be little scientific attention paid to preventing miscarriage anywhere.
Under the assumption that anti-abortion activists are driven primarily out of concern for the welfare of fetuses, these data are hard to explain. But under the feminist view that anti-abortion activism is driven by desire for patriarchal control of childbearing, with concern for fetuses as a mere pretext, these data are easily explained. Women who undergo IVF are trying to become mothers; they are fulfilling the role patriarchy wants of them. Miscarriage is usually unwanted; women who have miscarriages are likely trying to have children; they are also fulfilling their proper role under patriarchy. Thus patriarchal systems will not be motivated to do much about either of these things; that is exactly what we see.
I want to reiterate that I agree with Dr. Nobis that the statement “anti-abortion activism is about controlling women” is not a good one for engaging in debate about the topic. Analytic philosophy offers much better responses than that. However, that does not mean that the statement that anti-abortion activism is driven by “desire to control women” is not true.
While analytic philosophy offers important tools for understanding and engaging about abortion, it also has some drawbacks. Analytic philosophy sometimes ignores historical and anthropological context in favor of focusing strictly on arguments, but the insights history and anthropology provide can be essential to understanding the origins and (actual) motivations behind a particular social phenomenon. Feminist approaches to abortion and women’s rights more generally should use insights from both.