The Feminist Case for Debating Abortion Ethics

The imminent reversal of Roe V Wade has caused considerable debate in feminist spaces about the best way to advocate for abortion rights going forward. To the surprise of many pro-choice philosophers, some feminists (including some prominent feminist philosophers) have responded by arguing that feminists should not engage further with discussions around the ethics of abortion – ie, to avoid spending time debating about controversies over personhood of the fetus, autonomy rights vs right to life, etc. Rather, they argue that abortion should be seen purely through a political lens, with discussions of abortion ethics actually discouraged.

This position can appear baffling and frustrating; indeed, I believe it is deeply misguided. Many philosophers in abortion ethics may privately wonder if the women making this argument are simply fearful that they do not understand their pro-choice positions well enough to defend them from pro-life counters. Speculation about internal motivations aside, I believe the argument these women are making is more understandable than it may at first appear. However, I maintain it is still counterproductive going forward. But to understand why, it’s necessary to first clearly understand why many feminists hold to a “no debate” position regarding abortion ethics.

Abortion: A Feminist Political Analysis

It is no exaggeration to say that the greatest obsession in history is that of man with woman’s body.

Gilmore, David D.. Misogyny (p. 17). University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.

…Many Brazilian Tukanoan men, as reported by Jackson (1992, 1996), believe that their in-marrying wives practice clandestine and magical birth control, secretly abort fetuses, and refuse sex when fertile, all in order to frustrate the husband’s fervent wish for sons.

Gilmore, David D.. Misogyny (p. 147). University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.

Feminism has traditionally been a political analysis, drawing more from history, sociology, and anthropology than from the classic philosophical tradition. As a political analysis, then, feminists are interested in how abortion restrictions impact the power dynamics between men and women as a class. Feminist theorists have (with some exceptions) been less interested in ethical details about the moral status of fetuses and more interested in how abortion restrictions impact the lives and power dynamics of men and women more broadly. What, in short, do abortion restrictions serve to do?

Feminists have drawn from anthropological surveys of patriarchal cultures to understand what men as a class typically want from women. Very broadly, men throughout various patriarchal cultures traditionally desire sons and sex – sex for obvious reasons, and sons to be male heirs. (Feminists have drawn fascinating connections between these interests and the development of the madonna and whore female archetypes in men’s psychology and writings about women.) But broadly, a central concern among men throughout history has been the securing of these two things. Men, then, are motivated to develop strategies to maximize their sexual and reproductive control in their relationships with women.

Patriarchal religions serve as one such strategy. These religions, which are largely, if not exclusively, organized and run by men, tell women that they must obey their husbands, and that they should always submit to their husband’s demands for sex. Additionally, these religions often stigmatize both female sexuality and female birth control.

Abortion, however, presents a threat to male control over reproduction. If a woman can easily and secretly access abortion, she threatens her husband’s desire for reproduction on his terms. By contrast, in a patriarchal culture where abortion is difficult or impossible to obtain, men retain full power over the reproductive process.

In one of her letters from the field while she was working among the Mountain Arapesh of New Guinea, Margaret Mead described hiding in a house with a native woman as the men’s sacred carvings—which women were barred from seeing—were being carried through the village. Mead writes that the woman, “spent her time showing me an abortive drug and commenting sharply that men could not see the drug, that they could not even hear the name of it. Thus feminine self-esteem was avenged.”

William Buckner, Women’s Secrets

Implications of the Feminist Political Analysis of Abortion

If controversy over abortion stems, at its root, from a power struggle between men and women over control of reproduction, many feminists have concluded that debate over the ethical aspects of abortion (fetal “personhood”, bodily rights, etc.) is a red herring and likely a waste of time.

These feminists conclude that it will be by and large impossible to come up with “arguments” that change the minds of the male intellectual/priestly caste that generates pro-life philosophical arguments. They believe these men, whether they are aware of it or not, operate under motivated reasoning and will be resistant to pro-choice arguments, regardless of how skillfully they are presented.

Moreover, given that the philosophical space is still highly male dominated, it is likely that pro-choice female philosophers will be held to unfair standards relative to male interlocutors. Arguments made by pro-choice women will be constantly and closely scrutinized, while pro-life men will be relatively free to make numerous implausible or offensive arguments and thought experiments (which pro-choice women will be expected to take very seriously). In the eyes of many feminist women, the game is rigged; it is preferable simply not to play.

A Defense of Feminist Debate over Abortion Ethics

I’ll start by saying that feminists like Manne may be perfectly correct in their assessment of the political roots of the abortion controversy, and in their assessment of the likelihood that pro-life people, particularly philosophers, will be receptive to well-crafted pro-choice rebuttals to their arguments. Yet I will still maintain that it is vital for women to not “cop out” but fully participate in these debates. Here are a few reasons why.

Debate is still the most effective tool most women have for propagating feminist/pro-choice ideas.

If women don’t forcefully present pro-choice arguments, what else can they really do to push their cause forward? Certainly, some women can focus on legal and political organizing. But for the vast majority of women, for whom more complex organizing is not feasible, online debate in the age of social media is an easy and convenient way to propagate ideas. Even if one is skeptical that many pro-life minds will be changed, discouraging women from doing so is counterproductive, given that there may be no other way to easily engage mass numbers of women.

Refusal to debate ethics of abortion provides pro-choice opponents an easy win.

One of the most common stereotypes about feminist women online is that they are rigidly ideological and emotionally led. Refusal to debate abortion ethics plays into these stereotypes. It allows pro-life interlocutors to claim that they, unlike feminists, are fearless truth-seekers, able to follow reasoning wherever it may lead. By contrast, rational debate from pro-choice women provides ammunition against those stereotypes.

Philosophical debate is a good in and of itself, particularly for young women.

While debates about abortion, gender, and other emotionally laden topics are often difficult, they also provide an opportunity to explore topics that are genuinely interesting and philosophically rich. Philosophy around personhood and personal identity is gratifying for its own sake, and not merely as a tool to clarify applied ethical issues. As a young woman myself, I know that many women and girls grow up without even understanding that questions around these topics exist. In my life, studying the ethics of abortion served as a “hook” that got me interested in a variety of other philosophical issues, and it helped me clarify my stances on other feminist issues as well. I do think this is an underrated benefit to engagement with the philosophical side of abortion ethics.


It’s critical to understand why many feminists throw up their hands at the thought of arguing abortion ethics, and why many may feel bitterly that the game is rigged. At the same time, I hope to show that this attitude, while understandable, is defeatist and unhelpful. Until a better world is created, feminists will have to work within the constraints of the male-dominated system; they will undeniably encounter unfairness, stereotypes, and double standards. Yet we should not be too pessimistic; the remarkable transformation in women’s position over the last century shows that another world is possible.

Published by KS


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: