Naomi Wolf on Abortion - Pro- Choice Feminist

The pro-choice movement often treats with contempt the pro-lifers’ practice of holding up to our faces their disturbing graphics....[But] how can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making a judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view is unworthy of feminism.16

16 Naomi Wolf, “Our Bodies, Our Souls,” The New Republic, 16 October 1996.

I decided to share this classic piece on abortion from Naomi Wolf, the third wave feminist scholar and sociologist - perhaps the leading feminist thinker in America. Wolf is pro-choice - and though she is married and a mother, she holds to more progressive feminist beliefs, discarding the old feminism as something that had many countereffects in the whole collective ambition for women's rights.

Her famous piece in "The New Republic" was revolutionary in the sense that it posited that feminists look at abortion "honestly" for the first time, yet at the same time retain the issue of "abortion" as something moral and acceptable. In classic Hegelian logic (thesis > antithesis > synthesis), Wolf tried to come up with an honest synthesis which possessed many problems for the pro-choice movement.

I have reprinted it here, with a "letter to the editor" from a prominent abortionist:

OUR BODIES, OUR SOULS : Rethinking pro-choice rhetoric

NAOMI WOLF is the author of Fire with Fire: The New, Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century (Ballantine).

By refusing to look at abortion within a moral framework, we lose the millions of Americans who want to support abortion as a legal right but still need to condemn it as a moral iniquity. Their ethical allegiances are then addressed by the pro-life ovement, which is willing to speak about good and evil.

But we are also in danger of losing something more important than votes; we stand in jeopardy of losing what can only be called our souls. Clinging to a rhetoric about abortion in which there is no life and no death, we entangle our beliefs in a series of self-delusions, fibs and evasions. And we risk becoming precisely what our critics charge us with being: callous, selfish and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of human life.

I still maintain that we need to contextualize the fight to defend abortion rights within a moral framework that admits that the death of a fetus is a real death; that there are degrees of culpability, judgement and responsibility involved in the decision to abort a pregnancy...Norma McCorvey should be seen as an object lesson for the pro-choice movement -- a call to us to search our souls and take another, humbler look at how we go about what we are doing. For McCorvey is in fact an American Everywoman: she is the lost middle of the abortion debate, the woman whose allegiance we forfeit by our refusal to use a darker and sterner and more honest moral rhetoric.

With the pro-choice rhetoric we use now, we incur three destructive consequences --two ethical, one strategic: hardness of heart, lying and political failure. Stories surface regularly about "worthless" babies left naked on gratings or casually dropped out of windows, while "valuable," genetically correct babies are created at vast expense and with intricate medical assistance for infertile couples.

If we fail to treat abortion with grief and reverence, we risk forgetting that, when it comes to the children we choose to bear, we are here to serve them -- whomever they are; they are not here to serve us....those footprints are in fact the footprints of a 10-week-old fetus, the pro-life slogan, "Abortion stops a beating heart," is incontrovertibly true. While images of violent fetal death work significently for pro-lifers as political polemic, the pictures are not polemical in themselves: they are biological facts. We know this.

So, what will it be: Wanted fetuses are charming, complex REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere "uterine material"? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism. Free women must be strong women, too: and strong women, presumably do not seek to cloak their most important decisions in euphemism.

There is only one reason I've ever heard for having an abortion: the desire to be a good mother"-- this is a falsehood that condescends to women struggling to be true agents of their own souls.... there were two columns in my mind -- "Me" and "Baby " -- and the first won out. Now, freedom means that women must be free to choose self or to choose selfishly. There is no easy way to deny the powerful argument that a woman's equality in society must give her some irreducible rights unique to her biology including the right to take the life within her life. Grief and respect are the proper tones for all discussions about choosing to endanger or destroy manifestation of life.

Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or necessary to minimize the value of the lives involved or the sacrifice incurred in letting them go. Only if we uphold abortion rights within a matrix of individual conscience, atonement and responsibility can we both correct the logical and ethical absurdity in our position and consolidate the support of the center.

In a time of retrenchment, how can I be so sure that a more honest and moral rhetoric about abortion will consolidate rather than scuttle abortion rights? Look at what Americans themselves say. When a recent Newsweek poll asked about support for abortion using the rare phrasing, "It's a matter between a woman, her doctor, her family, her conscience and her God," a remarkable 72 percent of the respondents called that formulation "about right." This represents a gain of thirty points over the abortion rights support registered in the latest Gallup poll, which asked about abortion without using the words "God" or "conscience."

When participants in the Gallup poll were asked if they supported abortion "under any circumstances" only 32 percent agreed; only 9 percent more supported it under "most" circumstances. Clearly, abortion rights are safest when we are willing to submit them to a morality beyond just our bodies and our selves.

But how, one might ask, can I square a recognition of the humanity of the fetus, and the moral ravity of destroying it, with a pro-choice position? The answer can only be found in the context f a paradigm abandoned by the left and misused by the right: the paradigm of sin and redemption.

We have no ground on which to say that abortion is a necessary evil that should be faced and opposed in the realm of conscience and action and even soul; yet remain legal. But American society is struggling to find its way forward to a discourse of right and wrong that binds together a common thic for the secular and the religious. When we do that, we create a moral discourse that can exist in its own right independent of legislation, and we can find ground to stand upon.

We on the left tend to twitch with discomfort at that word "sin." Too often we have become religiously illiterate, and so we deeply misunderstand the word. But in all of the great religious traditions, our recognition of sin, and then our atonement for it, brings on God's compassion and our redemption. In many faiths, justice is linked, as it is in medieval Judaism and in Buddhism, to compassion. From Yom Kippur and the Ash Wednesday-to-Easter cycle to the Hindu idea of karma, the individual's confrontation with her or his own culpability is the first step toward ways to create and receive more light.

How could one live with a conscious view that abortion is an evil and still be pro-choice? Through acts of redemption, or that the Jewish mystical tradition calls tikkun or "mending." Laurence Tribe, in Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes, notes that "Memorial services for the souls of aborted fetuses are fairly common in contemporary Japan" where abortions are both legal and readily available. Shinto doctrine holds that women should make offerings to the fetus to help it rest in peace; Buddhists once erected statues of the spirit guardian of children to honor aborted fetuses (called "water children" or "unseeing children"). ....if pro-lifers did to women what they do to abortion doctors... The pro-life movement would have to address the often all-too-pressing good reasons that lead good people to abort. That would be intolerable, a tactical defeat for the pro-life movement, and as sure to lose it "the mushy middle" as the pro-choice movement's tendency toward rhetorical coldness loses it the same constituency. *(NOTE: Regarding Laurence Tribe's allusion to the memorial services in Japan where "atonement" is procured see the following in First Things Apologizing to the Babies

Now imagine such a democracy, in which women would be valued so very highly as a world that is accepting and responsible about human sexuality; in which there is no coerced sex without serious jailtime: in which there are affordable, safe contraceptives available for the taking in every public health building; in which there is economic parity for women -- and basic economic subsistence for every baby born; and in which every young American woman knows about and understands her natural desire as a treasure to cherish, and responsibly, when the time is right, on her own terms, to share.

In such a world, in which the idea of gender as a barrier has become a dusty artifact, we would probably use a very different language about what would be -- then -- the rare and doubtless traumatic event of abortion. That language would probably call upon respect and responsibility, grief and mourning. In that world we might well describe the unborn and the never-to-be-born with the honest words of life. And in that world, passionate feminists might well hold *candlelight vigils at abortion clinics, standing shoulder to shoulder with the doctors who work there, commemorating and saying goodbye to the dead." ~ END

*This imagery of the "Abortion Clinic" as a shrine is interestingly foreseen by Aldous Huxley in his book "Brave New World" (1930s). As to whether or not Ms. Wolf was aware of the parallel I know not.

Next, I have reprinted a "letter to the editor" which was written to the New Republic from a prominent abortionist who was utterly confounded by Ms. Wolf's piece of pro-choice honest reflection. Lately, Ms. Wolf has been confounding many in the feminist community on a number of issues.

Dear Editor,

I am saddened by Ms. Naomi Wolf's claim to speak in a revolutionary new moral tone about abortion. Her article makes short shrift of people like myself who have been doing abortions for over 20 years and who have quietly believed and acted in what I thought was a moral way for all those years.

Perhaps if Ms. Wolf had taken the time to speak with some of us, she wouldn't have felt so alone in her views. Her claim that pro-choice rhetoric has arrogantly demeaned women is suspect in view of her own arrogant dismissal of her high school classmates' having abortions as being like "getting a fraternity pin"! Whatever Ms. Wolf may believe, she clearly has not stood in the operating room thousands of times watching and supporting these same young women as they grieve their lost pregnancies. For many of these women, it is also a time of loss of a relationship, of the support of their families, of the life plan that they had for themselves. As a physician, I have a grave but welcome responsibility to honor and validate my patients when I see them at such vulnerable and psychologically defenseless moments in their lives.

I have performed abortions for many tens of thousands of women and I have supported them in their grief and sorrow and have tried to allay some of their universal feelings of shame. Women are to be honored for making these difficult decisions; they do not make them in haste or in a moral vacuum! My clinic has long offered women the opportunity to see the embryos or fetuses after the abortion, to see the ultrasound picture before or after the procedure, and to own the full spectrum of their feelings around this most intimate decision. To choose to abort a pregnancy is indeed an intensely personal decision. That it is personal does not somehow deny that it is also deeply moral as Ms. Wolf seems to imply.

I do agree with Ms. Wolf that an abortion is a traumatic event, but that does not mean that it is not also possible for it to be a major life-affirming event for the woman as well. I also agree with Dr. Elizabeth Karlin that a woman is doing the best that she can at that moment in her existence when she chooses an abortion -- even if that sometimes can be expressed only as "I just know I couldn't be a very good mom right now". I wish that Ms. Wolf could have acknowledged in her "soul" that many of us in the prochoice movement have been quietly living her "new morality" for over 20 years.


Suzanne T. Poppema, MD
Medical Director, Aurora Medical Services
*My Note: "I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy." ~ The Hippocratic Oath