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An excerpt from "Maternal Desire"

By Daphne de Marneffe

February 2005

When my husband picked me up after work during my first pregnancy, I would vomit before I could even say hello. I had to admire, in the glazed aftermath of yet another bout of puking, the sheer will to life displayed by this small cluster of cells. It seemed it would do anything short of killing me to ensure its own survival. I remember learning during my third pregnancy, when I suffered an endless string of flus and colds, that a pregnant woman’s immune responses are partly suppressed to lessen the chance she will develop an immune reaction to her own baby. It seemed that as long as I stayed alive, nature didn’t much care how sick I felt.

Many women, including myself, are unprepared for how abstract their happiness at being pregnant becomes in the face of those first-trimester physical surges—the midsentence stuporous sleep, the racking waves of nausea. But in that brutal and aweinspiring contest of bodies, I also sensed the genesis of a relationship in which the struggle for growth in earnest was at the core, and in which my love — already too ethereal a word — was expressed, and even strangely defined, by my strength and resilience in the face of that struggle. That stage of pregnancy was my best lesson in the unsaccharine nature of mother love, its intimacy with creation and destruction.

Pregnancy begins a relationship. Most essentially, it launches a relationship between a woman and the potential child she carries within. It also initiates a new relationship between a woman and herself — her body, her history, and her future. For these reasons, when a woman considers abortion, the question of whether the fetus should continue to develop does not stand alone; it is a question she wrestles with in the context of whether a relationship should continue to develop between herself as a potential mother and the fetus as a potential baby.

Some believe that the fetus is a full-fledged person from conception. I do not. But the belief that the fetus is not a full-fledged person does not make abortion emotionally easy or morally simple. Awareness of the potential relationship set in motion by pregnancy is one of the most heartrending and ethically fraught issues for a woman considering abortion. Pregnancy’s ineluctably relational nature means that once it begins, it can never be completely negated. A baby comes to term or it doesn’t, through choice or fate. It comes to term, and it is kept or relinquished. In any case, in any outcome, there is a relationship the woman has to do something with— mourn it, celebrate it, try to forget it, embrace it, dismiss it, accept its loss. When a woman feels she must not allow the child and the relationship to develop, it is almost never an easy thing, physically or psychologically. Yet women sometimes feel that as difficult, painful, even tragic as it is, they must do it to survive, or to respect themselves and their situation in life.

This very aspect of the abortion dilemma illuminates a facet of maternal desire. The desire to mother involves the intention and commitment to enter into a relationship of love and care with a child. It represents an attempt to integrate our deepest personal longings and highest human aspirations. There are situations in which a woman does not want to enter into that relationship, or she recognizes she does not have the ability to responsibly commit to it. Such a woman confronts the same basic realities as the woman who chooses to keep a pregnancy does. First, each grapples with the enormous importance of a potential mother’s desire for a child to that potential child’s flourishing and fulfillment as a human being. And second, each faces the reality that when a woman bears a child, she channels her emotional and physical energies in ways that are hugely consequential in defining the person she will become. In light of these facts, what a woman wants with respect to having a child is of absolutely decisive, even sacred, importance.

Desire and Selfhood

There is a stark, almost shocking difference between how one feels when one wants to be pregnant and how one feels when one doesn’t. The same physiological event can be experienced as a blessing or a catastrophe, as being in harmony with one’s body or as being mugged by it. Women’s lives are often described as contextual, but this may be the most contextual aspect of all, “the mother of all contexts.” The extremes of women’s responses in the face of pregnancy, and every ambiguous point in between, puts us face-to-face with how central the issue of wanting is to the abortion dilemma.

We have difficulty knowing how to weigh the mother’s desire for a child; by its very nature, it seems too capricious, too emotional, and too devoid of principle. And perhaps because this desire is so hard to evaluate, its complexity is flattened both by abortion’s opponents and proponents. On the right, the mother’s desire is too often dismissed as a selfish concern with “convenience,” a touchy-feely, morally insignificant wisp in comparison with the sober matter of fetal life. On the left, it seems desire had best not be inquired after too energetically, for fear that women’s ambivalence about their abortions might be used to discredit their decisions and undermine the legitimacy of their right to decide.

In fact, a woman’s desire is absolutely central to the morality of abortion, even though the ways we have tended to talk about it have not always helped us to understand why. In the wrong hands, sometimes in women’s own, the notion of “wanting” has been facilely assimilated into the “we are empowered and can do whatever we want” school of moral nihilism. But desire is actually more complex than our more casual notions of feeling or preference imply. It is not simply about feelings, however complicated or conflictual; it is also about intentions, the coordinated movement of feeling, thought, and action toward a self-chosen purpose. The critic Adam Gopnik aptly described desire as a “thought-through feeling.” The freedom and responsibility to choose the intentions most important to us are central features of what we believe it means to be a person. A woman’s desire with respect to something so consuming and momentous as carrying a pregnancy to term involves just these sorts of intentions.

In Fruitful, a memoir of her life as a mother and a feminist, the writer Anne Roiphe reflected on the folly of trying to ground the ethics of abortion in when life begins, as she and her friends had tried to do in the days before Roe v. Wade. “We should have drawn the line on whether the fetus was or was not wanted and shaped the debate on that issue,” she wrote, “instead of getting mired in metaphysics or theology about the beginning of life.” Roiphe speaks of whether the mother wants the fetus; but she is actually implying something much broader about the fact that the potential mother is the person in the best position to assess her desires and make judgments about them. Whether a child is “wanted” functions as a shorthand to convey two related but distinct meanings: a woman’s feelings concerning having the baby and her prerogative to evaluate her own feelings and come to her own decision.

A woman’s feelings about an unintentional pregnancy are almost always mixed. Even when she is deeply chagrined to be pregnant, she may feel remorse about having an abortion. She may imagine pleasure at mothering a child but see no practical way to support it. She may have no interest in caring for a child but feel swayed by her family’s wishes for her to keep it. She may ultimately hope for a child with her partner but feel that to have a child now would threaten the viability of their relationship. She may ambivalently decide to continue the pregnancy and one day find herself very happy about it. When a woman considers her feelings, whatever they are, she also likely considers them in light of her values. It is almost impossible to have feelings about abortion without those feelings becoming interwoven with ethical concern.

Yet whatever a woman feels about an abortion — whether she feels bereft, suicidal, liberated, that she will go to Hell, or all of the above, whether she has an abortion half awake, half asleep, or completely confused about what she wants — her entitlement to make her own decision does not derive from the content of her feelings. It derives from her own ultimate authority to weigh her own competing desires, intentions, and values and to undertake her own course of action.

In this sense, decisions about continuing a pregnancy confront us with the connection, in its most naked form, between a woman’s very claim to personhood and her reproductive freedom. The reality of pregnancy is that having a baby one does not inwardly consent to is a traumatic offense to one’s integrity as a person; having a baby that one desires is an ultimate fulfillment of oneself as a person. Not being able to have a baby when one wants to is experienced as a great injury to the self. Ending a pregnancy that would have shortchanged one’s other commitments is experienced as a wrenching but necessary act of self-preservation. Each instance bears out just how deeply our reproductive fate is enmeshed with our very selves. Whether abortion is legal or illegal, safe or dangerous, women will always have abortions, not only because practical limitations or social stigma urge it, but also because there are situations where to have a baby represents a compromise of herself or her values that a woman will take great risks to avoid.

The trivialization of this connection between a woman’s integrity and her procreative choice has at times found expression in legal arguments against women’s reproductive self-determination. In her article “Are Mothers Persons?” (note the pointed reversal of the more usual question, “Are fetuses persons?”), the philosopher Susan Bordo demonstrates the stunning desecration of women’s personhood right under our noses in the realm of reproductive law. The principle of a person’s right to physical inviolability has been strenuously protected in cases concerning such issues as whether someone can be legally compelled to donate bone marrow to a dying relative. The import of this protection is not simply physical; it constitutes, Bordo writes, “a protection of the subjectivity of the person involved — that is, it is an acknowledgment that the body can never be regarded merely as a site of quantifiable processes that can be assessed objectively, but must be treated as invested with personal meaning, history, and value that are ultimately determinable only by the subject who lives ‘within’ it.” When this “meaning-bestowing function is in danger of being taken away,” the law tends to interpret “the situation as a violent invasion of the personal space of the body.”

But look what happens, Bordo says, when the body in question is a woman’s pregnant or reproductive body. The right to physical integrity and the protection of subjectivity gives way to the abrogation of a woman’s will for the sake of saving an unborn child’s life. Courts do not order people to make personal sacrifices on the order of a transplant or marrow donation, even to save their own child’s life; for, despite the fact that a child’s life hangs in the balance—a full-fledged person’s life—the potential donor’s claim to inviolable subjectivity overrides the potential recipient’s need for life-giving support. In contrast, where a woman’s specifically reproductive decision making is concerned, courts have ordered caesarean sections, intrauterine transfusions, and the delivery of babies of terminally ill women against their will. Here we see in sharpest relief a particular bias directed not simply against women but specifically against women’s autonomy in pregnancy decisions.

If a woman happens to be poor, pregnant, and of non-European descent, she “comes as close as a human being can get to being regarded, medically and legally, as ‘mere body,’ her wishes, desires, dreams, religious scruples of little consequence and easily ignored in the interests of fetal well-being.” Bordo cites a 1987 study that found that 81 percent of court-ordered obstetrical interventions involved African-American, Asian, or Hispanic women. In the case of Ayesha Madyun, a woman who resisted a caesarean on religious grounds, the judge ruled that “for him not to issue a court order forcing her to have the operation would be to ‘indulge’ Madyun’s ‘desires’ at the expense of the safety of her fetus.” This sort of dismissal of religious beliefs by the judicial system is, as the legal scholar Stephen Carter has argued, part of a more general cultural tendency to treat religious convictions as optional and expendable. But even beyond that, such legal opinions essentially deprive the pregnant woman of the right to informed consent, paternalistically declaring how she should interpret the meaning and value of a given procedure. By so doing, they preempt the very act that forms the core of her entitlement to informed consent: that is, her own subjective determination of what a given intervention means to her.

Bordo helps us appreciate that coercion in reproductive decisions undermines not simply what individual women want but also their entitlement to subjectivity itself. In the polemics of abortion, the pro-life side objects to a woman sacrificing an actual human life merely for the sake of her own “convenience” (that is, reproductive control), whereas the pro-choice side argues that a pregnancy can be terminated with little impact on a woman’s autonomous self. The fact is, a woman’s personhood cannot be disentangled from her reproductive life so cleanly. “The nature of pregnancy is such,” Bordo correctly observes, “that to deprive the woman of control over her reproductive life . . . is necessarily also to mount an assault on her personal integrity and autonomy (the essence of personhood in our culture) and to treat her merely as [a] material incubator of fetal subjectivity.”

Pregnancy as Relationship

The reason freedom in reproductive decisions is so important to women’s integrity has to do with the kind of relationships pregnancy and motherhood are. If requiring a woman to carry a baby to term were on the order of insisting she pay a parking ticket, we wouldn’t bat an eye; no morally weighty abridgment of personal freedom would be involved. Our sense that coercion in reproductive decisions jeopardizes women’s important and legitimate interests in self-determination has to do with what a woman commits to, psychologically and emotionally, by carrying a baby to term.

It helps to consider the unique character of pregnancy. Most obviously, pregnancy is unique in that there is no counterpart in male experience. For the woman herself, it is unique in that it involves a new relationship between “me” and “other,” between “my body” and “not my body.” Women rarely experience pregnancy as a clear matter of “me the mother” and “you (or ‘it’) the fetus.” Instead, we are intimate with the fetus’s otherness early on, and it is an otherness instantly able to alter our own reality. When we are tired or nauseated, we feel taken over by a stubborn force wresting life from our flesh, our bone, our consciousness.

Individual women experience this situation in their own ways, inflected by their psyche, tradition, history, and circumstances. There is no universal norm that guides a women’s experience of it; every pregnancy is different, every woman is different, and each pregnancy for a given woman is different. But there is a basic situation that each pregnant woman is faced with and has to make sense of in her own way, and that is the relationship between herself and the developing fetus.

The reality of pregnancy is that it is a relationship of great, and progressively greater, physical and psychological investment. That is abundantly clear when a pregnancy is wanted; it is why women can become grief-stricken after even an early miscarriage, and why women who choose to have prenatal diagnostic testing want to do so as early as possible. Yet even when a woman does not want to be pregnant, she almost inevitably becomes increasingly involved psychologically and emotionally as the pregnancy continues. To insist, then, that women carry their pregnancies to term, and give the baby up for adoption if need be, makes deciding against involving oneself in the relationship virtually impossible. By the same token, if a woman were compelled to have an abortion, she would be prevented from deciding to involve herself.

Even when women respect the potential of fetal life, one reason they choose abortion over giving a baby up for adoption is their awareness at how deeply attached they will become to their developing fetus as pregnancy progresses. For some, the idea that they would actually manage to relinquish the child at birth becomes increasingly unbearable. During my second pregnancy, I had amniocentesis around halfway through the pregnancy. The baby was already kicking. I walked around in a moral fog, not even quite sure if it was right to have taken the test, since I could barely allow myself to think of any outcome but keeping the baby, no matter what the test revealed. My experience, which I don’t think was unusual, underscores just how emotionally and physically involving the relationship of pregnancy is. For that reason, among others, many women faced with an unwanted pregnancy decide that ending the pregnancy while it is still mostly a potential relationship, is the more endurable choice.

In the view of many of abortion’s opponents, the ethical remedy to an unwanted pregnancy is for a woman to carry the baby to term and either find a way to care for the baby or put it up for adoption. Both of these are honorable, even noble, solutions when they are chosen by a woman herself. But the moment either solution is coerced, by law or overweening emotional pressure, troubling implications follow for both the woman and for her relationship to the child. Consider, for example, a relational “worst case scenario,” where continuing a pregnancy is forced on a woman. In a case described by Bordo, a man was granted an injunction against his girlfriend’s abortion by a judge who ruled that “since the woman was not in school, was unemployed, and was living with her mother, ‘the continuance of her pregnancy would not interfere with either her employment or education.’” He continued, “‘The appearance and demeanor of the respondent . . . indicated that she is a very pleasant young lady, slender in stature, healthy, and well able to carry a baby to delivery without an undue burden.’”

The circumstances in which this woman’s baby will enter the world are really quite horrifying. Are the feelings of a woman who is compelled by the courts to bear her boyfriend’s baby likely to be all that different from her feelings if she were required to have the baby of a rapist? What does it do to the development of one’s relationship to a child to have it forced on one, not simply by biological fate, but by one’s boyfriend, and then by the law? It seems certain that the mother will feel robbed of her will and compromised in her ability to share parental responsibilities with the child’s father. What would it mean to a child to be born into a universe of such contention and total absence of shared goals?

The likely result of such forced childbearing is, in other words, misery for mother and child. But this fact will appear morally relevant only if one considers not just “the life of the unborn” but also what the “born” require to survive and flourish. The judge in the case focused on the former and ignored the latter; by his lights, if the woman was “well able to carry a baby,” why shouldn’t she also be “well able” to devote her life to that child? For the potential mother, by contrast, her ability and desire to devote herself to caring for the child are absolutely central issues. Caring for the child will require an enormous share of her emotional and practical resources; the relationship with her child will become central to who she is. A woman who is rejecting of a pregnancy cannot be forced to find room in her soul to embrace it. If there is a path of discovery that could allow a pregnant woman to transform her resistance into acceptance, it is a path that only she herself can tread.

Only when we understand the relationship as central do we see that a woman’s deliberation about abortion necessarily involves her prospects for caring for the potential child, in the context of her responsibility to other people in her life, herself, and the wider community. When the abortion dilemma is framed solely in terms of the fetus’s right to life, the necessity of this relationship drops out of the picture. But in fact, the fetus’s alleged right to life is completely inseparable from another human’s commitment of enormous resources, time, and energy. Taking into account a mother’s complex and sometimes conflicting obligations to care, we quickly leave the black-and-white world of antiabortion certitude. We enter into the more ambiguous, complicated domain of what obligations a woman has to nurturing this potential child and this potential relationship, in light of her other obligations and the fact that her resources to care for others and herself are not limitless.

One of the many complexities women face in weighing decisions about pregnancy is that, though legal coercion is actually rarely at issue, psychological pressure can exert an enormously powerful force. One college student sought therapy because she was still suffering from the trauma of an experience of pregnancy and adoption two years earlier. When she became pregnant at seventeen, her devoutly Catholic parents never discussed it with her but silently assumed that she would live at home, carry the baby to term, and give it up for adoption. The young woman described her pain at seeing her biological daughter in the care of the adoptive mother. She felt the mother was well meaning, and the family provided all the signs and symbols of a good home, but in her eyes, the adoptive mother seemed somewhat superficial. She was plagued by thoughts of how the adoptive mother wasn’t doing things as she herself would have done.

Relinquishing a child in adoption can be extraordinarily painful in any circumstance. But this young woman’s trauma was intensified by her lack of opportunity to talk honestly and sort out her feelings at the time, and to think through and come to a decision for herself. Likewise in cases of abortion, coercion complicates already difficult emotions. In any unintended pregnancy, there is no pain-free solution. But whatever confusion, regret, or grief a woman feels in the process of making her own decision, when her decision is forced, not only are these emotions compounded, but her sense of self-determination and self-respect suffers harm.

What Is Sacred?

The mystery of abortion is that while at times unspeakably sad, ending a pregnancy can involve love. A woman can feel strongly that to have a child in a compromised situation, in a situation where she is not prepared to devote her full attention and commitment, is not something she would want to do to someone she loved. This paradox is captured in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem about abortion, when she writes “You were born, you had body, you died,” and, only a few lines later, “Believe me, I loved you all.” By dint of their biology, women are charged with the knowledge that life involves ruthlessness, even sometimes toward those we love, or those we could love. We bear children, and we are faced at times with terrible decisions about how to value a life — our own and the one growing within us. We rear children, and we become intimate with the psychological realities of relationships, including their pain and conflict and moral complexity. Recalling her illegal abortion in 1938, the activist Lana Phelan said, “I was laying on that gurney just sobbing my heart out, and I’ll never forget that woman [her abortionist], she was wonderful. She came around, big black lady, she put her arms around me on the gurney, and she put her face down near mine, and she kind of put her cheek up next to mine. And she said, ‘Honey, did you think it was so easy to be a woman?’”

The paradox that we can feel love for a potential life that we choose to end becomes suspect, even incoherent, if we believe that the fetus is a person just like ourselves. For if we regard the fetus as a full-fledged person entitled to rights, the notion of loving a potential life we choose to end becomes indistinguishable from the delusional or grim claim of the murderer to have loved her victim. The passionate disagreements between people about abortion appear to revolve around the rights of the fetus to life on the one hand, and the rights of the woman to self-determination on the other. But perhaps there is a way to think about these issues that does justice to our intuitions both about the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual.

The philosopher Ronald Dworkin has argued that very few people actually believe, even if they think they do, that fetuses have the right not to be killed and an interest in remaining alive. Most abortion conservatives, for example, permit some exceptions to their anti-abortion stance, in cases such as rape or incest. Yet if a fetus had a right to life on par with already-born individuals, ending that life could never be justified on the basis of a crime of which the fetus itself was innocent. Instead, Dworkin suggests, their objection to abortion is grounded on something else: the belief that individual human life is sacred.

According to Dworkin, people with widely divergent views on abortion hold in common a belief in the sacredness or intrinsic value of a human life. We revere both the “natural miracle” of “any human creature, including the most immature embryo, [as] a triumph of divine or evolutionary creation, which produces a complex, reasoning being from, as it were, nothing.” Likewise, we honor the human creative investment, both “the processes of nation and community and language through which a human being will come to absorb and continue hundreds of generations of cultures” and “the process of internal personal creation and judgement by which a person will make and remake himself.”

The sacredness of human life lies in both natural creation—of the natural world, the species of the earth, our human bodies— and human creation, the human creative force that feeds art, culture, and human personality. In Dworkin’s view, the difference between abortion conservatives and liberals often lies in the aspect of sacredness they deem most important. Abortion conservatives tend to rank the natural creative element above the human, though they acknowledge the latter’s importance. Abortion liberals, while recognizing the value of the natural, tend to give greater weight to the human creative contribution. Different positions on abortion can be understood as lying along a continuum of the relative value people place on the natural and human creative contributions to human life.

Any woman considering abortion who regards the embryo not as just a bunch of cells but as a biological wonder and a potential human believes both the natural and human creation to be meaningful and worthy of reverence. Yet many women regard the confluence of natural and human creativity that the desire to have a child represents as itself a sacred feature of bringing a child into the world. Being ready to fulfill one’s procreative potential with a certain person, at a certain time in your shared life, brings to the experience of pregnancy and anticipated childbearing a sense of integration, of being in tune with one’s chosen destiny. This integration of human and natural creation is what many women experience as the “highest form” of childbearing. We feel engaged on every level, physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual; we fully participate in our own life and the life we are creating, in the continuation of the species and the continuation of culture.

Obviously, to require women to carry all pregnancies to term is to thwart their aspiration to this integration. If women do not have reproductive choice, they are frustrated in their ability to exercise their specifically human creativity. This is not because having and caring for children itself frustrates creative aspiration. Rather, it is because preventing women from making their own reproductive decisions curtails their choices with respect to their own human investments. Determining the meaning of having children for women, deciding for them when they will have children and when they will not, effectively takes the choice about how they will use their bodies and what work they will do out of their hands.

Women must obviously be in a position to decide for themselves how they will value the natural and human contributions represented by an unborn child. But it is exactly their powerful sense of the connection between natural and human creation that makes an abortion decision so complicated and so painful. Women throughout history have been in a position to experience that connection in an immediate way, because it is they who have both birthed and nurtured babies. “Conceiving children is not enough for the continuation of human life,” wrote Annie Leclerc; “it is also necessary to feed them, care for them, cajole them, talk to them; it is necessary to live them so that they live.” The primal, psychological truth of relationships is that babies are conceived from sex, but unless they are nurtured and brought into the human community, they die. They need the passionate commitment of another human to become fully human. Women know that if they are able or willing to provide that nurture, to commit huge amounts of their own energy, talents, time, and emotion, the fetus will indeed, under most circumstances, become a fully human child. That is part of the difficult context they confront.

The fact that a woman needs to invest herself for the child to grow is treated as dispensable and all but morally weightless when the natural and the human contributions to life are cleanly separated and placed in a hierarchical relationship, with “nature’s miracle”— conception— as the highest pinnacle. The moral clarity with which some argue the pro-life position seems to depend on treating as part of “nature’s miracle” — and thereby erasing — women’s investment of their humanity, their time, and their love in enabling the flourishing of an individual human life. In this scheme, any intuition women might have about the value to a child’s development of their own desire to mother is deemed completely irrelevant. Yet if our aspiration is to create humans in the highest sense, people who can love, reflect on the world, and bring understanding and compassion to their relation to themselves and others, we should acknowledge and honor both the natural and human aspects of creating a child and view their integration as itself sacred.

On the abortion rights side, the importance of a woman’s reproductive freedom has justifiably been framed in terms of her rights to self-determination, to personal choice, to the inviolability of her body. But in framing the argument almost solely in those terms, pro-choice rhetoric has forsaken a more inspirational discussion of the profound necessity and liberating potential of a desired motherhood. The birth control activist Margaret Sanger wrote in 1920 that voluntary motherhood was “the most sacred aspect of woman’s freedom.” Unashamed to engage the spiritual dimension, she contended that a motherhood that was the “fruit of a deep yearning” was a motherhood “ready to obey its own urge to remake the world.” Through a desired motherhood, a woman brought integrity and joy to her relationships to herself, her children, her mate, and her larger community. The contemporary pro-choice movement would benefit from conceptualizing abortion not only in terms of rights but also in terms of the sacredness of desired motherhood. Through that effort we might deepen our understanding of maternal desire and find a more encompassing, expressive language to describe the seemingly contradictory aspects of women’s reproductive life.

Pro-life Feminism and Saintliness

There are those who fully endorse the sanctity of the connection of natural and human creativity and are at the same time passionately against abortion. “Pro-life feminism” has been one label used to refer to the view that a stand against abortion is a stand for respecting women. As the pro-life feminist Sidney Callahan put it, “I can’t see separating fetal liberation from women’s liberation. Ultimately, I think the feminist movement made a serious mistake — politically, morally, and psychologically — by committing itself to a pro-choice stance, a stance which in effect pits women against their children.”

Almost everyone can agree that as a society we devalue caring for children. We can also acknowledge that pro-choice rhetoric has by and large avoided dealing with the common intuition that there is a sacred dimension of conception and fetal life. We can even concede that there is a spiritual opportunity posed by an unplanned pregnancy, and it is possible to respect the spiritual state of women who are able truly to put the life of a potential baby on par with their own. This admiration is not far removed from how we feel about James McBride’s mother in his memoir, The Color of Water, who overcame the trauma of her early life and her own loss and depression and was able, through faith and love, to raise eight children. Likewise, we tend to regard as enlightened and almost saintly those people who adopt troubled or disabled children, sometimes many of them.

Pro-life feminists legitimately question whether a permissive and even cavalier approach to abortion works to the detriment of women’s interests. Their concern derives from a belief in the immense value of women’s reproductive capacity and extends to a vision of society organized around true recognition of that value. In that sense, their view converges with that of some ardently pro-choice feminists. Both consider what society might look like if our goal was to give women’s concerns the same centrality and respect that men’s have traditionally enjoyed. Both find fault with a society that condemns abortion but does little to make the health and welfare of children a primary goal.

However, I find it problematic when pro-life feminists argue backward from the sanctity (and the rights) of fetal life to a prescriptive, utopian view of women’s lives. They don’t always acknowledge that the key intermediary step must always be women’s ultimate responsibility to make their own abortion decisions. We cannot go directly from an opposition to abortion to a certain vision — even if a freer, more respectful vision, according to its advocates — of women’s lives. We can only proceed through a respect for women’s personhood. It is not enough to insist that women will find their sense of greatest meaning and value in a society that opposes abortion; it is necessary to create a society where women are free to discover that, or not, for themselves.

Recognizing women’s right to self-determination entails accepting that society cannot compel saintliness. It is fundamentally unfair to oblige women to be good Samaritans with respect to their pregnancies. Throughout history, women often have not been free to make and take responsibility for their own decisions about sexuality and motherhood, and it has been easy enough to create identities for them, to make them stand for good or evil. When we finally accept that women must be their own mediators of their conscience or God’s word, we lose a fantasy about the purity of women and a clarity about their rightful destiny. But we gain a fairer, more truthful, more complex view of each other.

mmo : f ebruary 2005

From MATERNAL DESIRE by Daphne de Marneffe. Copyright (c) 2004 by Daphne de Marneffe. By permission of Little, Brown and Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
To purchase copies of this book, please call 1.800.759.0190.

Daphne de Marneffe, PhD is a clinical psychologist and the author of "Maternal Desire: On Children, Love and the Inner Life." She lives with her family in California.

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