The (Dis)Connection Between Mother and Fetus in Discussions of Abortion

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RELATIONALITY, RESPONSIBILITY, AND THE MORAL COMMUNITY: THE (DIS)CONNECTION BETWEEN MOTHER AND FETUS IN DISCUSSIONS OF ABORTION

In discussions of abortion, the most prominent arguments, both secular and Christian,[1] are based on individual rights. However, a factor that is often overlooked in mainstream discussions is the role of community. As such, the aim of this paper is to explore issues of the community in discussions of abortion in both secular and Christian frameworks, specifically those of the relational feminists and the relational Christians. After discussing and analyzing each of these frameworks, I hope to demonstrate that the Christian position holds the human community to a higher standard than that of the relational feminists, making it the more desirable. However, I will qualify this argument, suggesting that there are concerns put forth by secular perspectives that should be factored in to the political context.

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 A commonality between the relational feminists and the relational Christians is the belief that community is a driving factor in the shaping of individuals. For relational feminists, “ ‘I’ am only the distinct person I am because of the relations I have with others that make me who I am.”[2] The shaping power of community is similarly reflected in the Bible in verses such as Proverbs 27:17[3] and in Christian documents such as Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae.[4]This is also a theme that arises in the academic theological literature where it is purported that “community is the chief architect of character.”[5]

However, each framework interprets the relationship between community and individual differently. The primary focus of the relational feminist perspective is the relationship between mother and fetus. According to the relational feminists, this is the most important relationship to consider, as the mother must mediate the experience between the fetus and the rest of the world.[6] In the process of this mediation, the boundaries between mother and fetus become blurred, such that it is not clear that the mother and fetus are separate individuals, as evidenced by maternal language regarding the fetus.[7] Because mother and fetus are taken to be one individual, and the fetus can only relate to the community through the mother’s mediation, relational feminists claim that the community does not have any stake in the life of the fetus unless granted by the mother.

The fetus’s membership in the moral community is contingent on the mother’s psychological and emotional relationship to the fetus; if the mother does not feel that she is (or should be) in an emotional and psychological relationship with the fetus, then the fetus is not its own individual and can therefore be aborted.[8] This also applies in cases where the mother wants to be in a relationship with the fetus but otherwise feels that she cannot because of her current financial, educational, or marital status. The relational feminist viewpoint is most easily defined as an ethical egoist perspective. In the tradition of Adam Smith, ethical egoists hold that, if each person were to look out for their own interests in this way, then the entire community benefits because no one has to look out for anyone else’s interests.[9]

 In addition to ethical egoism, utilitarianism has been used to defend abortion in relational feminist arguments. For example, Jonathan Herring suggests that abortion should be seen as a public good because of the freedom it grants the mother to fulfill her current responsibilities.[10] Abortion allows women to care for other children they have already had, giving these children, and themselves, a higher quality of life. Because the benefit to the mother and her other children is (allegedly) greater than the pain felt by the fetus during abortion, it is in the community’s best interest to allow for abortion in such circumstances. Thus, not only should the community not put any moral stakes on the fetus before the woman has acknowledged a psychological and emotional relationship with it, but the community should appreciate when abortions occur that allow for women to fulfill pre-existing caring relationships.

 Relational motifs are also present in Christian discourse. Relational Christian thinkers emphasize the immediacy of one’s relationship to God and others in moral decision making.[11] According to relational Christians like Bruce Birch, “We cannot and do not muster moral insight for ourselves by ourselves apart from our communities, any more than we are or can be human beings apart from others. Everything we know about morality and the moral life, or anything else, for that matter, is finally a community enterprise and achievement.”[12] This sentiment seems to be quite in line with the viewpoint of the relational feminists. However, whereas the relational feminists draw from egoist and utilitarian ethics to justify their claims, relational Christians draw from Kantian deontological ethics and are thus much more concerned with issues such as justice and duty. By and large, the relational Christian call for duty is one of practicality, as proponents remind us that society itself would be impossible without at least basic agreement on “reliable patterns of expectations and behaviors.”[13] For instance, most societies enforce the responsibilities of truth-telling, respect of property, and respect of bodily integrity. The Christian community is no different, with these duties and others being expressed in the Decalogue.

 Deontological reasoning puts forth that members of society should uphold these duties simply because they are the right things to do. To determine whether something is “right” and therefore holds the weight of moral obligation, Kant suggested that one should examine his/her actions to determine if they can be universalizable. If the actor can accept that anyone else may also act in such a way, regardless of circumstances, then the act can be deemed morally correct and thus obligatory. It is no wonder that the relational Christians adopt a fundamentally deontological approach, as this Categorical Imperative has direct parallels to the Christian Golden Rule: “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.”[14] As such, Christian moral philosophy is often based in principles of reciprocity.

Christian philosopher Patrick Lee makes the case that, if the relational view is correct, doing what is right and fulfilling our responsibilities to others is ultimately in our best interest because of the reciprocal nature of our communities. If we positively influence society, then society will positively influence us in return. Again, this is not wholly unlike the argument put forth by relational feminists such as Johnathan Herring. Both viewpoints are concerned with responsibility—the difference lies in to whom the responsibility is owed. Whereas the relational feminists are concerned with responsibilities owed to parties external to the maternal/fetal relationship, such as children already born, the relational Christians are concerned with responsibilities owed to the parties within the maternal/fetal relationship. The parents are viewed as owing responsibility to the fetus because (1) the fetus cannot itself choose to enter the relationship and is thus at an unfair disadvantage in the quest for wholly consensual relationships[15] and (2) the parents benefitted from their place in the relational community and to withhold this status from the fetus would be hypocritical, creating a rather paradoxical worldview.[16]

Admittedly, reviewing the statistical literature muddies the water even further, as both perspectives, at least in part, fulfill their claims. In support of the relational Christian view, studies indicate that abortion is correlated with subsequent undesirable behavior that is to the detriment of those outside the maternal/fetal relationship. It has been suggested that there is a link between abortion and subsequent child abuse, with mothers who have had previous abortions exhibiting a greater frequency of physical punishment, slapping, kicking, hitting, and beating children born post-abortion than mothers who never underwent an abortion.[17] It has also been demonstrated that, when adjusting for fertility rate, crime in general has increased after the legalization of abortion, and the proportion of single-parent households has increased.[18]

However, on the relational feminist side, studies seem to indicate that abortion does indeed allow women to care for themselves and others. A great deal of this data comes from the Turnaway Studies conducted by Diana Greene Foster of the University of California San Francisco. The Turnaway Studies have suggested that women denied abortions are: more likely to remain in abusive relationships, more likely to suffer from short term mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety[19], more likely to fall below the Federal Poverty Level[20], and less likely to achieve positive life plans.[21] The Studies also concluded that dependent children of women who were denied abortions are less likely to experience economic security and suffer from the effects of decreased maternal bonding.[22] Each of these studies utilized a large sample size and surveyed women in a wide variety of states, giving the studies fair credibility.

However, reviewing the demographic profiles of women seeking abortion, it seems that the relational feminist perspective does not entirely explain the motives behind abortion. This is supported by the results regarding previous births. Of abortions performed in 2014, 40.7% were performed on women who had never given birth previously.[23] If the relational feminist perspective accurately reflected the experience of abortion, then it should be expected that women with several previous births are drastically overrepresented in comparison to those with no previous births. With 4 out of 10 women seeking an abortion not having dependent children, defense of abortion for the sake of pre-existing caring relationships seems to be a bit of a stretch.

Moreover, if abortion could be justified on the basis of improved maternal quality of life, it should be expected that the majority of abortions be performed on very young women with low income and a lack of education. Though it can be said that young, uneducated, low-income women are indeed represented in abortion statistics, the numbers are not as overwhelming as one would expect. For instance, in 2015, 58.9 percent of all reported abortions were performed on women over the age of 25.[24] In 2014, 63.3 percent of women seeking abortions had an associate’s degree or greater.[25] A total of 50.7 percent of women who received an abortion in 2014 had an income above the Federal Poverty Level.[26] The purpose here is not to say that there are not disadvantaged women seeking abortion, because disadvantaged women make up a significant amount of these demographics. However, given that many of the women who received abortions are within demographic groups that are more likely to be able to maintain caring relationships, this data suggests that the relational feminist justifications for abortion are not necessarily the primary reason women undergo the procedure. This suggests that the motives for seeking abortion are not solely due to obstacles to caring relationships such as lack of financial resources or education.

  Numbers aside, the greatest problem with the relational feminist perspective is that it treats relationality as a one-way avenue from the community, to the mother, to the fetus. In arguments such as that put forth by Herring, the assumption is made that the fetus does not exert any influence over the community around it. Therefore, it is assumed that the existence of the fetus cannot have a positive influence on the community which negates the very notion of relationality. The Christian position is a truly relational account, where the community affects the fetus and the fetus affects the community. The principle of reciprocity sets a universal standard that can be used to drive moral progress. This encourages members of the community to nurture their relationships with others in a way that improves the quality of life for all, including the individual. The deontological stance is aspirational. In taking an ethical egoist stance, the relational feminist viewpoint leaves little room for moral progress and allows for individuals to invoke the ability to reduce quality of life for others.

 However, it is essential to note that this discussion has primarily centered on moral ideals, and attention must also be paid to how the pursuit of these ideals may impact public policy. It must be acknowledged that anti-abortion Christian arguments have been used in the past to denigrate, humiliate, and even criminalize and torture women.[27] Even though a substantial number of abortions are performed on mature, educated, high-income women, the reality is that there are still a great number who face the opposite reality. Over time, the proportion of disadvantaged women has increased.[28] For many of these women, abortion appears as the only remedy to avoiding increased poverty and a lack of future opportunity.

To prioritize criminalizing abortion ahead of eradicating these underlying causes is to suggest that the health and well-being of women is not as important as the fetuses they carry. In a relational framework, this cannot logically be the case. Therefore, the key to ending abortion is to first care for women, removing boundaries to success. When these boundaries are removed, there will no longer be an incentive for abortion, and the practice will decline without the need for extremist measures such as abortion criminalization. Removing these boundaries to success also requires a transition away from rape culture. In such a society, abortion can be reserved for matters that truly jeopardize caring relationships, such as threats to the life of the mother.

 Therefore, in applying the Christian position to political discussions of abortion, care must be taken to preserve the mother’s value as a member of the community. Perhaps the first step is in forgiveness, as was suggested by Pope John Paul II.[29] In forgiving women who have sought abortions in the past, we are acknowledging that abortion is immoral but not using the act as a justification for the subjugation of women. As Kyle Fedler suggests, “The agape that Jesus demonstrates is characterized by nonviolent reconciliation between people, that is to say, forgiveness and peacemaking.”[30] Forgiveness of others is the truly Christian way, and any party that prioritizes punishment should be examined with a keen eye. Relationships are not sustainable in such a society, as its members only have the opportunity to negatively reciprocate.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Birch, Bruce C. Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life. Fortress Press, 1989.
  • Browne, Victoria. “Feminist Philosophy and Prenatal Death: Relationality and the Ethics of Intimacy.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41, no. 2 (December 9, 2015): 385–407. https://doi.org/10.1086/682923.
  • Coleman, P, V Rue, C Coyle, and C Maxey. “Induced Abortion and Child-Directed Aggression Among Mothers of Maltreated Children,” n.d., 10.
  • “Evangelium Vitae (25 March 1995) | John Paul II.” Accessed July 8, 2019. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html.
  • Fedler, Kyle D. Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality. Unknown edition. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
  • Foster, D. G., J. R. Steinberg, S. C. M. Roberts, J. Neuhaus, and M. A. Biggs. “A Comparison of Depression and Anxiety Symptom Trajectories between Women Who Had an Abortion and Women Denied One.” Psychological Medicine 45, no. 10 (July 2015): 2073–82. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291714003213.
  • Foster, Diana Greene, M. Antonia Biggs, Sarah Raifman, Jessica Gipson, Katrina Kimport, and Corinne H. Rocca. “Comparison of Health, Development, Maternal Bonding, and Poverty Among Children Born After Denial of Abortion vs After Pregnancies Subsequent to an Abortion.” JAMA Pediatrics 172, no. 11 (November 1, 2018): 1053–60. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.1785.
  • Foster, Diana Greene, M. Antonia Biggs, Lauren Ralph, Caitlin Gerdts, Sarah Roberts, and M. Maria Glymour. “Socioeconomic Outcomes of Women Who Receive and Women Who Are Denied Wanted Abortions in the United States.” American Journal of Public Health 108, no. 3 (2018): 407–13. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2017.304247.
  • Foster, Diana Greene, Sarah E. Raifman, Jessica D. Gipson, Corinne H. Rocca, and M. Antonia Biggs. “Effects of Carrying an Unwanted Pregnancy to Term on Women’s Existing Children.” The Journal of Pediatrics 205 (February 2019): 183-189.e1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2018.09.026.
  • Getgen, Jocelyn E. “Reproductive Injustice: An Analysis of Nicaragua’s Complete Abortion Ban” 41 (n.d.): 34.
  • Herring, Jonathan. “Ethics of Care and the Public Good of Abortion.” Ethics of Care 1 (2019): 24.
  • Hollinger, Dennis P. Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World. Baker Academic, 2002.
  • Jatlaoui, Tara C, Maegan E Boutot, Michele G Mandel, Maura K Whiteman, Angeline Ti, Emily Petersen, and Karen Pazol. “Abortion Surveillance — United States, 2015” 67, no. 13 (2018): 48.
  • Jones, Rachel K., and Jenna Jerman. “Population Group Abortion Rates and Lifetime Incidence of Abortion: United States, 2008–2014.” American Journal of Public Health 107, no. 12 (December 2017): 1904–9. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2017.304042.
  • Kahn, Samuel. “Reconsidering the Donohue-Levitt Hypothesis.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 90, no. 4 (September 1, 2016): 583–620.
  • Lee, Patrick. “A Christian Philosopher’s View of Recent Directions in the Abortion Debate.” Christian Bioethics: Non-Ecumenical Studies in Medical Morality 10, no. 1 (January 1, 2004): 7–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803600490489834.
  • Markens, Susan, C. H. Browner, and Nancy Press. “Feeding the Fetus: On Interrogating the Notion of Maternal-Fetal Conflict.” Feminist Studies 23, no. 2 (1997): 351–72. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178404.
  • The Holy Bible, New International Version : Containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. Grand Rapids : Zondervan Bible Publishers, c1978.
  • Upadhyay, Ushma D., M. Antonia Biggs, and Diana Greene Foster. “The Effect of Abortion on Having and Achieving Aspirational One-Year Plans.” BMC Women’s Health 15 (November 11, 2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12905-015-0259-1.
  • Viterna, Jocelyn. “The Left and ‘Life’ in El Salvador.” Politics & Gender 8, no. 02 (June 2012): 248–54. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1743923X12000244.

[1] Of course, it must be acknowledged that secular and Christian in an of themselves are complex terms, with there being anti-abortion secularists and pro-abortion Christians. For the sake of simplicity, these labels will be used in their more traditional senses, but the intention is not to deny the existence of those who fall outside such traditional confines.

[2] Browne, “Feminist Philosophy and Prenatal Death.”

[3] See The Holy Bible, New International Version, Proverbs 27:17 which reads, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

[4] “Evangelium Vitae (25 March 1995) | John Paul II.”

[5] Birch, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, as cited in Hollinger, Choosing the Good, 147.

[6] Herring, “Ethics of Care and the Public Good of Abortion.”

[7] Markens, Browner, and Press, “Feeding the Fetus.”

[8] Browne, “Feminist Philosophy and Prenatal Death.”

[9] Hollinger, Choosing the Good, 29.

[10] Herring, “Ethics of Care and the Public Good of Abortion.”

[11] Hollinger, Choosing the Good, 141.

[12] Birch, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life., p. 11

[13] Birch, 44.

[14] The Holy Bible, New International Version, Matthew 7:12.

[15] I would like to make it clear here that the relational Christians are neither attacking the concept of consensual sexual relationships or making light of issues of rape and molestation. The “consensual relationships” being discussed are referring to caring relationships where one able-bodied/independent person consents to take care of a disabled/dependent person.

[16] Lee, “A Christian Philosopher’s View of Recent Directions in the Abortion Debate.”

[17] Coleman et al., “Induced Abortion and Child-Directed Aggression Among Mothers of Maltreated Children.”

[18] Kahn, “Reconsidering the Donohue-Levitt Hypothesis.”

[19] Foster et al., “A Comparison of Depression and Anxiety Symptom Trajectories between Women Who Had an Abortion and Women Denied One.”

[20] Foster et al., “Socioeconomic Outcomes of Women Who Receive and Women Who Are Denied Wanted Abortions in the United States.”

[21] Upadhyay, Biggs, and Foster, “The Effect of Abortion on Having and Achieving Aspirational One-Year Plans.”

[22] Foster et al., “Effects of Carrying an Unwanted Pregnancy to Term on Women’s Existing Children”; Foster et al., “Comparison of Health, Development, Maternal Bonding, and Poverty Among Children Born After Denial of Abortion vs After Pregnancies Subsequent to an Abortion.”

[23] Jones and Jerman, “Population Group Abortion Rates and Lifetime Incidence of Abortion.”

[24] Jatlaoui et al., “Abortion Surveillance — United States, 2015.”

[25] Jones and Jerman, “Population Group Abortion Rates and Lifetime Incidence of Abortion.”

[26] Jones and Jerman.

[27] This has largely been the experience of women In El Salvador and Nicaragua, for example. For a thorough examination of the issues in these countries, see Viterna, “The Left and ‘Life’ in El Salvador”; Getgen, “Reproductive Injustice: An Analysis of Nicaragua’s Complete Abortion Ban.”

[28] Jones and Jerman, “Population Group Abortion Rates and Lifetime Incidence of Abortion.”

[29] “Evangelium Vitae (25 March 1995) | John Paul II.”

[30] Fedler, Exploring Christian Ethics, 183.

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