A feminist gaze on Abortion—Equal rights or Patriarchy?

In light of the 2016 United States presidential election debate, which saw Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump go head-to-head on the ethics of abortion, the age-old topic of controversy was brought to the forefront of public discussion and media coverage once again.

Maureen Shaw’s ‘Becoming a Mother Made Me Even More Pro-Choice’ (2016), Erika Bachiochi’s ‘I’m a feminist and I’m against abortion’ (2015), and ‘Why Women have a right to sex-selective abortion’ (2013) by Sarah Ditum, are a combination of three opinion or ‘views’ journalism articles that reflect the various conflicting perceptions and opinions that have formed around the heavily-debated topic.

A comparative analysis of the choice of words, world views, persuasive tactics and labels used by the authors lend profound insight into how the media landscape and the wider public portray and perceive abortion, and its implications on gender equality and women’s rights.

According to media spokesman, John Buckley, “[Abortion] is the first issue since the Vietnam War in which some journalists’ instinctive ‘allegiance to their own social class and generational world view is stronger than their professional allegiance to objectivity.’” (Shaw, 1990, n.p.)

Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that abortion has now become a catch-22 conundrum for women and feminists supporting equal rights; for without the right to choose, women would be forced to into the role of mothers, but if given the right to choose, they would be forced to bear the responsibility of raising a child in a hostile society that provides no support for mothers, or take on their ‘duty’ to rid of the pregnancy by undergoing invasive procedures.

Maureen Shaw utilises the very title of her article, ‘Becoming a mother made me even more pro-choice’, to subvert reader expectations by assuming the ‘untenable’ position as both a mother and an advocate for women’s reproductive rights. Shaw derives this from the warrant, or assumption she expects her readers to possess, that all mothers value children and therefore cannot empathise with other women who choose to abort their own. This attitude is suggested as being typical or expected, and Shaw manipulates this to fashion a shock tactic in order to demand readers’ attention and elucidate why such an unconventional positioning as both a mother and pro-choice advocate is logical.

Indeed, Shaw exposes this unstated warrant and challenges it by claiming that mothers, who perhaps know best just how demanding a feat motherhood is—“from pregnancy, labor, and delivery to meeting the endless demands of other human beings”—should support other women who respect the institution of parenthood enough to choose abortion over inadequately and insufficiently raising a child. Shaw claims that women who choose abortion instead of raising a child she is not equipped nor ready to raise is indicative of their maturity and sense of responsibility, effectively characterising and portraying these women in a positive light. Shaw founds this argument on the underlying world view that all children deserve parents who are willing to be responsible and accountable. Also underpinning this world view is the warrant that women are the primary caregivers for children.

Shaw continues her argument by highlighting the social stigma and prejudice associated with abortions and women who choose to exercise their reproductive rights. Evaluative language is used to condemn anti-choice activists and politicians who look down on vulnerable women from their “high horse”, and perpetuate the misconception that women who undergo abortions are usually “thoughtless teenager[s] or a young woman who uses abortion as birth control.” Shaw characterises these politicians as bigoted, patronising and unsympathetic, and claims that this is reflected in their lobbies for “anti-choice legislation requiring waiting periods, counselling, and forced ultrasounds for people seeking abortions”, which suggest that women are incompetent to make informed and conscious decisions about their own bodies and lives without the interference of others.

By characterising anti-choice activists and politicians as powerful and ruthless in contrast to women deliberating abortion, who are portrayed as vulnerable and oppressed by social dogmas, Shaw appeals to her audiences’ sense of emotion and justice, persuading them to support the individuals who recognise their own inadequacy versus self-righteous “right-wingers” who oppose abortion simply out of religious sensibilities or inaccurate stereotypes.

The opposing argument—that abortions are undertaken predominantly by immature, young girls who abuse it as a form of late contraception—is challenged and refuted by factual argumentation. The statistical evidence provided by Shaw demonstrate that the majority of abortions—61%—are “obtained by women with at least one child, and the majority of these women (60%) are in their 20s.” This factual evidence serves to reinforce Shaw’s claim that the opposition’s “supposition is laden with baseless judgements.”

Another important element to note is Shaw’s methodical use of the terms ‘Pro-choice’ and ‘Anti-choice’, which serves to dichotomise the two opposing sides. The word ‘choice’ is laden with emotional and empowering implications; thus by attaching either ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ to the term, Shaw subtly casts one side of the argument with positive connotations, and the other with negative.

In a similar fashion, Erika Bachiochi uses the tactic of establishing herself as being of two ‘contrasting’ positions—a feminist and pro-life advocate—, but to assert an opposing viewpoint to Shaw’s. By pitting against each other two social standpoints or perspectives, which audiences would typically see in antithetical association, Bachiochi attempts to convince readers how an individual can be against abortion without renouncing their feminist values and principles. This also suggests that the author is addressing an audience comprised of feminists who Shaw believes would initially be in opposition to her stance on the matter.

By first asserting that she was once an abortion rights supporter, Bachiochi positions herself as being sympathetic to and understanding of why women choose to undergo abortions. She goes on to list a myriad of plausible and logical reasons why a woman may choose to terminate their pregnancy and how such reasons may lead one to associate childbearing capacity with the inequalities and injustices imposed upon women. “Abortion would seem to provide women with a practical response to the disproportionate responsibility sexual intercourse can lay at our feet.”

In this, we see how Bachiochi attempts to challenge the warrant implicitly conveyed in Shaw’s article, that childbearing is solely a job for women. Bachiochi appeals to her readers’ sense of justice by claiming that abortion purports gender inequality, and imposes women with an unfair responsibility to “care for—or dispense with—the life of a nascent, developing human being.” She further bolsters this evaluative argument by suggesting that abortion-rights advocates assert the notion that women must adopt the characteristics of men and be more like them—not pregnant—in order to be equal with them socially, economically, professionally; women cannot possibly give birth to and raise a child and simultaneously perform the same duties and responsibilities as men. This would suggest a direct contradiction to feminist ideals, which stipulate that women can perform the same roles just as adequately, and perhaps even more sufficiently, than men if given the opportunity, in addition to all the extra biological functions given to women.

As such, Bachiochi fashions a sarcastic criticism of modern society, which she claims has gone “beyond sex in the brave new world of ‘gender fluidity’”, where traditional constructs of male and female have collapsed. Bachiochi employs evaluative language to accentuate the innate differences between males and females, and prompt readers to celebrate the idiosyncratic qualities and attributes given solely to women. For instance, Bachiochi utilises emotive and evocative words, such as ‘courageous’, ‘sacrificially’, ‘wondrous’ to characterise women and mothers as altruistic, heroic and adept. This contrasts to the author’s description of men as “wombless, unencumbered”, and the underlying warrant expressed in the line, “it is time to demand more, far more of men”, which suggests that men are passive and lazy; merely taking advantage of social codes that exempt them from responsibility.

Also in contrast to Shaw’s article, readers can see how Bachiochi avoids the term ‘anti’ in her article; instead, employing the label ‘pro-life’ to categorise those who oppose abortions. According to Clair Pomeroy (2008, n.p.), “’Pro-life’ is widely perceived as an emotionally loaded term that stacks the deck by implicitly suggesting the other side is ‘anti-life’—or ‘pro-death’”. This reveals how the media landscape employs and utilises such terms to implicitly assert differing viewpoints.

Furthermore, the author continues to plays on her readers’ sense of equality and justice, particularly in regards to gender, by making an appeal to analogy and comparing the rights a woman has over her body and unborn foetus to property rights husbands once has over their wives. This also serves to suggest that abortion-rights advocates try to justify abortion by objectifying the foetus, which Bochiochi opposes through her use of emotive language such as, ‘nascent’, ‘miracle’, and ‘developing unborn child’ instead of the scientific term ‘foetus’, to humanise it and suggest that it is alive and growing.

Like Shaw’s article, Bachiochi also shares the underlying world view that women and motherhood should be respected and commended, as demonstrated in her call for a “culture where women’s childbearing capacity is recognised not as an impediment to our social status and certainly not as the be-all and end-all of women’s capacities.” However, this evaluative presumption assumes that all women who choose to undergo abortions do so to achieve equality with men, overlooking the multitude of other plausible reasons for why a woman may terminate her pregnancy.

Sarah Ditum takes an even more controversial approach on the already-sensitive topic of abortion by addressing the practice of sex-selective abortions. Published in The Guardian to a British audience, Ditum makes explicit the primary claim of her article: that while sex-selective abortion is not a justified means for abortion in an ‘equal’ society like the UK, it is reasonable—even rational—in societies where having a girl will be of detriment to the health and wellbeing of both the mother and child.

The entire article is centred around refuting and negating a specific opposing argument that pro-choice activists and feminists are often challenged with: “’You love women so much you want them to be in charge of what grows inside their bodies, but what about the women who are aborted?’”

Ditum positions herself as pro-choice through explicit evaluative language, such as “rank brutality”, to describe the act of forcing a woman to carry and give birth to a child “against her will” in a society where technology makes the termination of pregnancy possible, safe and legal. The author uses the term, “against her will” instead of ‘does not want’ or ‘wants to terminate’ to suggest that there are many plausible reasons a woman may want to abort a child without reducing it to simply something she does not want; the term ‘want’ gives the impression that the mother is driven by selfish motivations and has only her own interests at heart. This also reveals that like Shaw and Bachiochi, Ditum shares the underlying world view that women deserve rights to their own bodies. But instead of using this world view to assert merely a pro-choice or pro-life stance, Ditum goes one step further and contends that we must give women the right and power to have absolute free agency over their bodies, including the right to sex selective abortion.

Ditum makes an appeal to authority by citing the 1967 Abortion Act, which states that abortion is legal when two doctors agree “the continuation of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, to the physical or mental health of the woman or any existing children of her family.” She also makes an appeal to analogy by questioning, “What’s the difference with sex selection?” after listing a range of ‘acceptable’ reasons why a woman may choose to terminate her pregnancy. These include rape and incest to hampering the woman’s education, which are, much like sex selection, not explicitly laid out in the 1967 Abortion Act, but are “nevertheless accepted as legitimate causes for termination.” However, it is evident Ditum is drawing a false analogy here as the legislation she refers to is only applicable in the UK, where, as the author stated before, giving birth to a specific gender does not threaten the security or health of either mother or child.

It appears Ditum recognises and acknowledges the redundancy of this argument as she claims, “this whole scandal is based on a totally fictive set-up.” Instead, she asserts in an either-or argument that all women, regardless of the culture or society in which they reside, be given the choice to exercise their reproductive rights; if women in developing countries have rights to sex-selective abortion, so should everyone else. Much like Bahchiochi, Ditum adopts a feminist standpoint, and wields the underlying world view that women deserve rights “to decide what happens within the bounds of their own bodies.” This is also reflected in Ditum’s characterisation of women as “conscious and legally competent”, in contrast to the author’s references to unborn children in the objective term, ‘it’. This is also evident in Shaw’s article, which scarcely mentions the foetus, instead, referring to it as simply an “unwanted pregnancy.” Moreover, while Bachiochi’s article does employ emotive labels, such as ‘unborn child’ to describe the foetus, the focus remains centred solely on women and their reproductive rights, eschewing from moralising readers on how the ‘baby’ will be affected by an abortion.

A close critical examination and comparative analysis of these three articles thus reveals that the media has generally accepted the notion that foetuses are not actually ‘alive’, but considered ‘potential persons’—and therefore, have no constitutional rights. This is reflected in the language founds in the articles, which are geared towards convincing readers to embrace and protect the rights of women. The foetus and men become a part of the background as the authors assert this argument.

This trend found in the media landscape also stems from the authors’ shared world view, which reflects those held by the general public, that women deserve rights to their own bodies and equality to men. However, while Bachiochi contends that this can be achieved by providing social, government and employment support to women who choose to have children, Shaw and Ditum argue that equality can only be attained by giving women the choice to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, just how men can walk away from their childbearing responsibilities without consequence.

Accordingly, abortion in the media is often portrayed as an issue of gender equality that, regardless of which stance an individual takes, is symptomatic of the patriarchal social norms and sexist ideologies that continue to exist in the Twenty-First Century.

By April Kwon.

 

References:

Bachiochi, E. (2015), ‘I’m a feminist and I’m against abortion’, CNN, accessed 23 Oct 2016.

< http://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/22/opinion/bachiochi-abortion-roe-v-wade/>

 

Ditum, S. (2013), ‘Why women have a right to sex-selective abortion’, The Guardian, accessed 23 Oct 2016.

< https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/19/sex-selective-abortion-womans-right>

 

Pomeroy, C. (2008), ‘Abortion and women’s rights: unification of pro-life and pro-choice through feminism’, Serendip Studio, weblog, viewed 24th Oct 2016

< http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/serendipupdate/abortion-and-womens-rights-unification-pro-life-and-pro-choice-through-feminism>

 

Shaw, D. (1990), ‘Abortion bias seeps into news’, Los Angeles Times, accessed 22nd Oct 2016

< http://www.latimes.com/food/la-me-shaw01jul01-story.html>

 

Shaw, H. (2016), ‘Becoming a mother made me even more pro-choice’, Rewire, accessed 22nd Oct 2016.

< https://rewire.news/article/2016/05/02/becoming-mother-made-even-pro-choice/>