Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Ph.D.
Modern feminism contains attitudes along a spectrum between those
who believe in a promotion of equality and those who believe in
a celebration of difference, between those who press the case
that women and men are essentially alike and those who believe
women have a special mission by virtue of greater tenderness.
Grounding the case for abortion in the rhetoric of "rights"
can lead to a deadlock between competing rights while ignoring
respect for life. If we look at abortion from the perspective
of life, we may recognize that it concerns relationships and responsiblities
that cannot be captured by a language of individual rights, and
we may even come to conclusions that will better enhance the well-being
All of those who care about women's position in society must treat each other with empathy and respect. We are still far from agreement, but if we do not learn to attend to each other, how can we expect others to attend to us?
In the past decades, feminism has arguably emerged as the most influential movement of our time, primarily because it implicitly touches upon all aspects or our social, political, and cultural lives. But the past decades have also revealed that, as a comprehensive movement, feminism can be no better or worse than we make it. The foundations of feminism lie in the irreversible, secular changes that are transforming our society.
Today, the technological and contraceptive revolutions of the twentieth century are decisively challenging traditional assumptions about the social consequences of the biological differences between women and men. Today, the economic transition from a predominantly rural to a predominantly industrial society is pushing or pulling a growing number of women into the workplace as individuals like other individuals, that is, in direct personal competition with men. Women are, in effect, stepping into roles that were designed by men, for men, and that do not easily mesh with men's expectations of women.
As a result, most men, and many women, do not expect or like to think of women as "boss." Today we have much talk about the "glass ceiling," that invisible but nonetheless real barrier to women's advancement into the ultimate positions of power. We also have much talk about the "mommy track," the ways in which women might combine new and traditional roles. Then there are the issues of "protective" legislation. All of these issues, in one way or another, compel us to confront the question of how we should think about and what we should hope for for women--equal, or different?
In writing Feminism Without Illusions, I primarily tried
to bring some minimal order to my own thinking about feminism:
the theoretical debates within academic feminism and the responsibilities
of, or relations between, academic feminists and what, for lack
of a more graceful phrase, we might call women in the real world.
The book, which embodies the results of that thinking, touches
upon a variety of matters from feminism's own myths, to issues
of policy, to pornography, to the intellectual debates over the
canon. In the end, I came to believe that these diverse topics
were especially linked by their common grounding in the theory
of individualism, of which feminism constitutes the radical edge,
pretenses to the contrary notwithstanding.
Equality and Difference
Feminism today wrestles with two deep-seated, apparently contradictory illusions. For some, feminism necessarily means the promotion of equality between women and men; for others, it just as necessarily means the celebration of the differences between women and men. If some feminists unambiguously press the case for women's absolute equality with men, others no less ambiguously insist upon women's special mission as women. Not surprisingly, attitudes toward feminism vary considerably along a spectrum between these two positions.
Some women, as well as many men, blame feminism for all of the woes of our times: the destruction of family values, the defiance of divine and natural order, divorce, latch-key children, teenage alcoholism, domestic violence, the sexual abuse of children, the collapse of academic standards and the decline of Western Civilization. On the other hand, many young women simply consider feminism outmoded, a relic of former times that no longer constructively affects their lives.
Even those of us who call ourselves feminists frequently disagree about the meaning and implications of feminism, and the differences among feminists reflect the larger confusion of our times. Less the cause of the unsettling changes in our world than their symptom, feminism embodies a variety of dissatisfactions with things-as-they-are, and a variety of visions about how they could be improved.
Above all, feminism represents different attempts to come to terms with women's changing position in society, particularly the economy. In increasing numbers, women are working outside the home, in many cases by preference, but in many cases because they have to -- because they and frequently their families depend upon their doing so. They are also getting divorced, or remaining unmarried, in steadily increasing numbers. With the increase in the numbers of divorces has come the collapse of alimony and the erosion of child support.
The most dramatic change in the lives of young women, although many have no wish to recognize it, is that marriage is not a viable career. Under favorable circumstances it remains a rewarding personal relation, but not a career. Today, no law, no father, no brother can force a man to support a woman, and even the law is not successfully forcing him to support their children properly.
These facts lead to the following conclusions: 1) the changes of which feminism is a symptom will not be reversed; 2) feminism is having a broad and profound impact on our society and our ways of thinking; 3) young women must be trained to support themselves, preferably by work that draws upon their talents and enhances their self-respect.
If the substance of feminism constitutes a response to harsh social and economic realities, much of its rhetoric and that of its opposition have focused on problems of sexuality and identity, rather than on problems of livelihood. Sexual freedom, sexual preference, and abortion figure prominently in public consciousness of the implications of feminism. At the center of those discussions lies the dilemma posed by the juxtaposition of equality and difference.
How can women, if they are different, ever hope to be equal? How can women, if they aspire to be equal, continue to insist that they are fundamentally different? The more I have thought about these issues, the more I have become convinced of the importance of difference. Even after accounting for all of the ways in which it is our specific culture that has constructed and represented difference, a biological difference remains.
But the recognition of difference does not dictate the social consequences of difference. The consequences are a matter for the collective determination of society as a whole. We live in a world in which women must be able to support themselves, and in which the survival of our species depends upon their bearing children. It is, accordingly, of the most pressing social concern that our laws and institutions permit them to do both.
In the end, I am not so much arguing for a chimerical equality,
as for equity -- arguing, that is, that equity requires a broader
and more generous social vision than individualism alone can provide.
In sum, the argument is that this realization of equity for women
requires a view of individual right as derivative from collective
Feminism and Rights Talk
As the confrontation between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas has demonstrated, the tension between equality and difference lies at the heart of feminist programs. Women, in protesting sexual harassment, are asking for something more than equality in the simple sense. The political language of equal rights cannot encompass the complexity of sexual harassment. The challenge for feminism today is to find or develop a compelling language or ethic that combines necessary protection for those in vulnerable situations with our inherited respect for individual rights.
It also seems to me instructive that the public discussions of abortion, with all their complexity, have remained bound by the theory and rhetoric of rights, notwithstanding growing impatience among many feminists with what they perceive as the male cast of logic and rationality. In recent years, growing numbers of feminists have engaged in a sustained critique of many of the premises -- and, in some cases, to the very project -- of Western intellectual traditions, which many view as inherently hostile to women's experience and interests.
In the hands of some, this project amounts to little more than a rejection of male values, which are charged with having oppressed and silenced women. In the hands of the more sophisticated, notably such feminist legal theorists as Jennifer Nedelsy and Martha Minow, it has resulted in a sharp and nuanced critique of our inherited conceptions of rights, or what Minow calls the concern with boundaries, and to a new emphasis upon "difference" as central to any viable conception of human justice. But even these thoughtful arguments, with their explicit concern for the immense variety of specific human experience, reveal the abiding influence of individualism on feminist theory. For, from a policy perspective, it would be child's play to reconcile the emphasis on diversity with conservative social policies that insist upon the primacy of the discrete individual, and that individual's responsibility for his or her destiny. This, indeed, is the irony of postmodernism, and it is also another question.
As a general rule, feminist theorists have naturally gravitated to an insistence upon the significance of the concrete as against the abstract. They have, that is, tended to evoke the immediacy of women's experience in order to expose and combat the ways in which men's theoretical abstractions deny it. Carol Gilligan, in particular, argues that women's sense of morality derives from their assessment of the best way to resolve specific conflicts. Feminist theory abounds with arguments that women, in some way, are closer to nature, closer to the tending of specific bodies, closer to life as it is lived in specific bodies than men.
In other words, much feminist theory has pressed the claims of the concrete or empirical against those of the abstract. Its so doing does not, of course, make it any less theoretical and, in many instances, any less abstract. But it does signal a problem, namely the difficulty of constructing a dialectical, or abstract, theory of an empirical reality that is presented as defying all previous (male) dialectics.
The full measure of this temptation can only be grasped by recognizing the extent to which feminist theorists view the project as, in some measure, one of loosening that stranglehold that man, or men, have maintained on human possibilities and prestige, from earning a living to running the world to representing the deity. Most feminist theory almost inevitably defines itself in some way against prevailing theories, which it frequently defines as male, or against prevailing institutions, cultures, and customs, which it frequently labels patriarchal. From its origins, in other words, feminist theory, whatever its guise, has been committed to promoting the interests of women within a world dominated by men and to establishing the voices and visions of women within a culture largely shaped by men. Even when feminist theory has most strenuously emphasized women's association with the diversity of life as it is lived in different bodies, and even when it has most vociferously attacked the male predilection for abstraction, it has itself tended to privilege dialectical over rhetorical thinking.
Listen to Angelina Grimke. "The investigation of the rights
of the slave," she wrote to Catherine Beecher, had led her
to a better understanding of her own.
I have found the Anti-Slavery cause to be the high school of morals in our land -- the school in which human rights are more fully investigated and better understood and taught, than in any other. Here a great fundamental principle is uplifted and illuminated, and from this central light, rays innumerable stream all around. Human beings have rights, because they are moral beings: the rights of all men grow out of their moral nature; and as men have the same moral nature, they have essentially the same rights. These rights may be wrested from the slave, but they cannot be alienated: his title to himself is as perfect now, as is that of Lyman Beecher: it is stamped on his moral being, and is, like it, imperishable. Now if rights are founded in the nature of our moral being, then the mere circumstance of sex does not give to man higher rights and responsibilities, than to woman. To suppose that it does, would be to deny the self-evident truth, that the "physical constitution is the instrument of moral nature." To suppose that it does, would be to break up utterly the relations of the two natures, and to reverse their functions, exalting the animal nature into a monarch, and humbling the moral into a slave: making the former a proprietor, and the latter its property. When human beings are regarded as moral beings, sex, instead of being enthroned upon the summit, administering upon rights and responsibilities, sinks into insignificance and nothingness. . . 
In this single paragraph, Grimke uses "rights" six times and "moral" or "morals" eight. She evokes fundamental principles and self-evident truths, bathing the former in a dazzling stream of light that implicitly emanates from God Himself, and juxtaposing the latter onto the constraints of monarchy and human property. She contrasts rights that are wrested with those that are alienated, insisting that the alienation of human rights is impossible since they are grounded in the moral nature that all men (a designation that she takes to include women and slaves) share. In a skillful maneuver, she divorces rights from material being (one interpretation of nature) and human law, thus reducing sex and legal status to mere accidents of circumstance. She claims, in short, a divinely sanctioned, internal and immaterial truth as the foundation of political justice. Notwithstanding her rhetorical evocations of such concrete phenomena as schools and the American Revolution, she ends by claiming for women and slaves an absolute human right that abstracts alike from women's bodies and slaves' legal condition. In the struggle for individual rights, history, politics, and society disappear, leaving souls to stand naked before the bar of divine justice. Yet the goal of the struggle, human rights, is unabashedly formulated in the language of history and politics.
Grimke does not specify the positive content of the rights she evokes, but it seems clear enough that what she intended by rights was self-determination; equal prerogatives and standing with free white men. Beyond that, it is clear that she was willing to harness her own interpretations of God's intentions to the cause of securing human rights for women and slaves.
In the end, the most illuminating feature of Grimke's rhetoric consists in its reliance upon abstractions and symbols. She and other antislavery feminists might turn to concrete referents to evoke responses of pity and horror to the oppressed condition of women and slaves, but when it came to evoking positive goals, more often than not they fall back on abstractions.
Their silence with respect to the specific goods they were struggling for is understandable. In their time, as in our own, the most powerful justification for opposing hierarchy lay in the modern doctrine of rights. That doctrine, as it developed in the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth centuries, above all embodied a struggle against authority. There are limits on what you can do to me. Originating in a series of political struggles against hierarchical governments, the doctrine of rights understandably assumed a political form. In time and place, the defense of individual political rights was literally revolutionary, but it was also limited. The victors of revolutions normally moved rapidly to inscribe rather stringent limitations in the law of their lands. But in defending individual rights, however narrow their intentions, the political revolutionaries unleashed a powerful metaphor, the implications of which radically exceeded their own limited goals. Not least, their own emphasis on defense of individual rights as a struggle against unlawful tyranny, and their evocation of nature to defend that revolt, left a portentous legacy.
From the social contract to the evocation of human rights, the emphasis has so insistently fallen on the defense of individual rights as natural (or in Grimke's case, divine), as to permit the speculation that the proponents of those rights above all protest any restrictions on the freedom of the individual. In fact, most successful defenders of individual right have expected the constraints of history and society to obtain. The "customes of the country," to borrow John Locke's evocative phrase, rarely tumble as rapidly as governments. The hold of one generation on the next proves more intractable than Grimke's rhetoric of moral equality would concede. Sex is more than a mere circumstance. Even attributes and institutions, which may logically appear but circumstantial, have a wondrous way of constraining the absolute freedom of individuals.
Since the 1960s, the contemporary women's movement has relied
heavily on a language of freedom and rights, even, and perhaps
especially, when it has sought to take account of the differences
between women and men. Nowhere are the problems associated with
this practice clearer than in the debates over abortion. The defense
of woman's right to choose to have an abortion has been squarely
grounded in the defense of woman's absolute individual right and
in the related argument of privacy. At its most extreme, the rhetoric
in defense of this position evokes the Declaration of Independence,
suggesting that a woman's right to freedom and equality as an
individual supersedes all other considerations. Thus, even as
many feminists are increasingly insisting upon the differences
between women and men, they reinforce feminism's political commitment
to individualism. The position abounds with ironies, not least,
because, as Ethel Klein has argued, most women actually came to
the movement more from a sense of personal grievance than from
a sense of justice in the abstract.
Rights Talk as Male-Based
Clearly we should not draw the distinction between personal experience and a sense of justice too sharply, but it does help to explain something of the tensions and mounting frustration that many feminists have experienced with the practical politics of rights. Initially, and with telling polemical force, women could argue that they had been excluded from the equal rights of the constitution, notably equality before the law. But as the barriers to their inclusion in equal rights began to fall, many women found their situations less improved than they had hoped, and some women found them worse. Not surprisingly, some feminists began to express some disillusionment, even arguing that the very conception of equal rights derived from men's experience and, accordingly, could not adequately address women's specific disadvantages and grievances. This disillusionment led some feminists implicitly to extend the language of equal rights beyond its solid legal foundations, frequently toward an ideal of liberation. It led many women, whom feminists do not normally take seriously, to doubt that the language of rights held any promise for women, who primarily needed protection.
The growing disillusionment was, significantly, accompanied by a stream of works that began to call attention to women's differences from men. From Carol Gilligan's insistence that women speak in a different voice than men to Sara Ruddick's insistence that women engage in a distinct "maternal" thinking, feminist theorists began to stake out their claim that women's personal experience yields a markedly different vision of the world and its proper ordering than men's. These theorists have, in effect, countered Angelina Grimke's claim that sex is a mere circumstance with the claim that sex of considerable, perhaps essential importance.
However, quite significantly, their claim has not led them seriously to revise the substance of the discussions of feminist political strategy. They have uneasily combined the emphasis on the difference between women and men with an emphasis on the rights of women as individuals.
In the case of abortion, the contradiction has become acute. Let us, for a moment, focus upon the implications of the claim that a woman has an absolute right to choose to have an abortion. Does such a claim imply that a woman has an absolute right to be equal to a man? If so, in what sense? Is the argument, in Angelina Grimke's sense, that sex is a mere circumstance?
Is the right to abortion intended to free women from the consequences of their own sexuality? There are those who would argue that that is precisely what it is intended to do: to free women to engage in sex in the manner of adolescent men. Such arguments lead into the treacherous and conflicted realm of personal morality. It is hard to dispute that, for our (recently puritanical) society, women's sexuality still evokes complicated feelings, not least among women themselves. In this perspective, there are grounds for seeing the debate over abortion as, at least in part, about that sexuality and as a part of a larger struggle to free women from men's control.
But the defense of what we might call "no fault" sex is only part of the story, and the less significant. The other, and more troubling, part of the story apparently concerns freeing women from their own reproductive capacities -- freeing them from their ascribed and frequently self-proclaimed special responsibility for and connections to children in particular and human life in general.
The struggle for the freedom to choose to have an abortion is primarily being waged on the terrain of law. Most feminists want women to enjoy the legal right to choose to have an abortion, subject only to their private personal decision. But if this is so, it seems fair to ask what story the laws that the feminist movement seeks to defend or implement tell us about women, and about our society.
It is, from some perspectives, a rather depressing story (worthy, in its way, of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale) of women as free and autonomous, even isolated, agents. It is a story of women for whom pregnancy and childbearing constitute unacceptable emotional and economic burdens, not least because they are so disconnected from society, including sexual partners and families, that they cannot safely be held to consult anyone else about their decision. It is a story of women who are still minors for whom consulting parents means risking physical and sexual abuse. It is a story about women who are so uncertain of themselves that they cannot be asked to postpone their decision for as little as twenty-four hours. It is a story about women, daughters and wives, for whom incest and rape are a predictable cause of pregnancy.
The story told by our laws is one of desperate loneliness and anomie that is very difficult to reconcile with the prevailing feminist stories about women's special sense of interconnectedness and responsibility. On the face of it, the intrinsic connections between a woman's absolute individual right to abortion and maternal thinking, or women's special sense of morality, are elusive.
Some, notably Carol Gilligan, have at least recognized the problem and attempted to defend a woman's choice to have an abortion as the product of a complex assessment of the respective claims of the born and the not-yet-born. Such arguments lead easily into arguments about quality of life -- what world would the woman be bringing the baby into? Robert Goldstein has even drawn upon the psychoanalytic discussions of the symbiotic relation between mother and child to defend abortion. How, he would ask, could we condemn a child to come into the world without being able to count on that mother love which is essential to its survival?
The arguments from quality of life for women and children command
attention. But they are empirical rather than abstract arguments
and, as such, exist on a different plane from the argument for
abortion as a woman's absolute individual right. For the defense
of abortion is not grounded in an empirical assessment of the
situation of particular women. If it were, it would have to be
cast as an argument that, under determined conditions, a woman
should not be required to carry a fetus to term. Such an argument
would, however, presumably require certification on the part of
some group that the inauspicious conditions indeed prevailed.
Those who defend abortion as a woman's absolute individual right
apparently do not trust any representatives of society at large -- even
members of their immediate families, ministers, judges or doctors -- to
make such a determination fairly.
Abortion: Rights vs. Connection
Theoretically and intuitively, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile any argument for absolute individual right with an argument for binding connectedness among two or more individuals. If this is correct, then we need to acknowledge that the arguments for absolute individual right are, as they always have been, metaphors for, or abstractions from, a much more complex human reality. In defending abortion on the grounds of absolute individual right, feminists are (however inadvertently) adapting to women's purposes precisely that individualism and abstraction which they so distrust in men. In this perspective, they are, at the very least, falling into a serious theoretical inconsistency.
More importantly, the individual right to abortion will not do anything to change the social atomization and family break down that have led some women to demand it.
One of the strengths of feminist thinking, in fact, consists in precisely the emphasis on human interconnectedness which the argument from absolute individual right seems to deny. Sadly, most feminists have not followed the logic of that insight to its full conclusions. Rather than arguing for the interdependence of all members of families, communities, and societies, they seem simply to be arguing that women's experience endows them with a superior form of understanding. If that is all that they mean by women's speaking in a different voice, then it is understandable that they attribute the sense of interconnectedness to individual women's minds rather than to society as a whole. For if society really is as interdependent as women picture it, then society has claims upon all of its members -- all individuals -- and absolute individual right must be recognized as a fiction.
Another great strength in feminist thinking lies in the value that women are supposed to attribute to life in all of its diverse manifestations. If women are indeed the nurturers of life and the tenders of sick and dying bodies, then they, above all others, must understand the claims of the weak and the dependent. Such an understanding is difficult to reconcile with the insistence that women have an absolute individual right to terminate developing life at will. If they have that right in the case of pregnancy, why should they not also have it in the case of the handicapped, the elderly, and the terminally ill? In each instance, the implied argument is that one individual has a right to determine quality of life for another individual.
Feminists do not usually defend the right to abortion on the grounds that women have a right to kill babies. To the contrary, the more sophisticated invariably argue that women who refrain from carrying fetuses to term are above all concerned with the proper care of babies. Yet even those who show most concern in this regard normally rely upon individualist arguments that assume, when they do not openly assert, that there may be conflict between the quality of life for the mother and for the potential baby. The underlying assumption is that for a woman to develop her full potential, she must be free from the burden of an unwanted, or unplanned, child. In this respect, the logical conclusion of the individualist argument is the recognition of conflict between the interest of two individuals, and the assertion that a woman has a right to put her individual interest first.
Such assumptions, even when not openly stated, seem to derive from the belief that women have, for centuries, been forced to live out roles that men have imposed upon them. In this thinking, the role of mother and the responsibility for children becomes another male ploy to keep women in their place. There is, accordingly, a certain perverse logic in the view that to free themselves from men's domination women must reject everything that men have imposed upon them. Yet in accepting this view of individual freedom, women remain hostage to the most robust aspect of western male thought--the emphasis upon individualism.
Ironically, the view that women have a radically different view of the world than men, that they are especially nurturing, also derives from the tradition of male individualism that has cast woman as the other. So does the view of those who oppose abortion on the grounds that the fetus has an individual right to life.
The language of individual rights is simply inadequate to the situation of a pregnant woman and rather than trying to distort it to fit one or another position, we would do better to accept its inadequacy to this exemplary situation as an indication of its inadequacy to capture the complexities of the relations among human beings. The question of life is central, but rather than continuing to speak of the rights of life, which perpetuates the illusion of individual right, might we not do better to think simultaneously of the sanctity and the social context of life?
In our time, neither scripture nor science clearly suffices to offer us an absolute definition of life in the abstract. Some people would insist that one or the other does; but if we consider human life as a continuum from birth to death the lines of its beginning and end are blurred rather than sharp.
It should make us thoughtful that, throughout the continuum, social resources play a decisive role. Today, premature babies, who as recently as twenty-five years ago would not have survived, live, thanks to medical technology for which society pays. Today, people who as recently as twenty five years ago would have died of heart or kidney failure, live, again thanks to medical technology for which society directly or indirectly pays.
Most of us find it difficult to accept that any single individual take the life of another individual, and usually we call the willful taking murder. Many of us oppose capital punishment, even for those who have been convicted of murder, on the grounds that such barbaric measures demean our sense of ourselves as a civilized people. Yet we remain understandably loathe to admit that innumerable factors resulting from our social interdependency impinge upon any definition of life.
With respect to abortion, this means that many of those who most resolutely oppose abortion are also among those who are most prepared to let babies, once they have been born, die, or live at a level of social deprivation that should demean our sense of ourselves as a civilized people. This assuredly challenges any complacent claim to respect the right to life. The right to life means nothing without the means to sustain it; a commitment to the sanctity of life may mean something independent of the means to sustain it. But even a commitment to the sanctity of life is difficult to defend without some consideration for social context.
James Boyd White has suggested that law is most usefully understood not as a "system of rules, but as a branch of rhetoric. . . as the central art by which community and culture are established, maintained and transformed." In this perspective, Mary Ann Glendon has argued that the laws on abortion in the United States are working to create a society of atomized individuals. In fact, the U.S. stands effectively alone among industrialized nations in defending and combatting abortion on the grounds of absolute individual right, just as it stands effectively alone among industrialized nations in failing to enforce a social context that can truly value and support reproduction. Not surprisingly, it also ranks first among industrialized nations with respect to violence. Glendon's book is thoughtful and well worth reading.
If nothing else, the debate over abortion should leave no doubt that women's reproductive capacities, their irreducible differences from men, cannot simply be collapsed into existing theoretical models. Here we have the essence of the "equality-difference" dilemma. How, that is, can a human society protect women's difference as women without curtailing their access, as individuals, to equality?
Historically, women's specialization in motherhood has normally depended upon an individual man's ability and willingness to pay for it. Men have paid women to be mothers. When men have been unwilling or unable to do so, women have tended to have abortions, commit infanticide, abandon or give up their children for adoption, or struggle along the best they could.
Today, the proliferation of divorce has virtually liberated men from the obligation to support women and children. The collapse of what many view as repressive sexual norms, combined with the improved standards of health and nutrition, has liberated children to have children. The growing acceptance of single motherhood is virtually liberating men from any stake in children at all.
American society, with its special commitment to individualism, has long consigned to women the primary responsibility for the values that embody our humanity, but for which we are unwilling to pay: nurture, care, patience, self-sacrifice. Today, at least some women are saying that they cannot assume those responsibilities without some support -- saying, that is, that they must be able to assure their own survival. Other women refuse to accept that shattering of dreams; refuse to accept that the essence of our humanity can be reduced to individual right or a market transaction. Abortion has emerged as the central issue that divides them, and as the central metaphor for the nature of our society.
The question remains, can women be requested or required to shoulder the burden of our humanity alone? It is a lot to ask. It may be impossible.
In the end, we must perhaps confess that none of us has the perfect story. Our messy reality defies tidy solutions. Our times call for new stories that acknowledge the inescapability of our common life, and our interdependence, which is the essence of any life. Long ago, Aristotle argued that the disposition of "present and definite issues" often involves "love, hate or personal interest. . . The foundation of Rhetoric, then, is to deal with things about which we deliberate, but for which we have no systematic rules." Rhetoric consists in acts of proper presentation and persuasion and, ideally, should be a subtle, even a narrative, form of argument rather than a form of polemics.
Abortion, perhaps more than any other issue, demonstrates how much we need a collective discourse of problem solving, a practical ethic. We need a story that can lead women to feel compassion for one another's vulnerability and hard choices, to show respect for one another's different assessments of our common situation.
Above all, we need a recognition that we have no rights independent
of responsibilities, except perhaps the right to insist that society
recognize its obligation to permit us to meet our responsibilities.
Yes, abortion commands our rethinking, if only because the very
existence of abortion as an issue betokens what we, as women,