If you had asked for my views on abortion while I was a sophomore at my Catholic university in Philadelphia, I would have told you I was a feminist, which necessarily meant I was pro-choice. I would have argued that women need access to abortion to overcome the oppression we endure.
At this same Catholic university I fell in love with Catholic social teaching, which led me somewhat unexpectedly — and without changing my position on abortion rights — to enter the Church the year after I graduated.
If you had asked me five years later, while I was teaching theology on a reservation in South Dakota, I would have said, “I’m a Democrat,” which, for me at that time, meant being pro-choice. Even after witnessing several students carry pregnancies to term and parent during my tenure, I’d have said that abortion is a necessary evil, that it must remain an option for women to live as independent, self-actualizing individuals. Pressed to choose between women and children, I’d have chosen women. Yet during that same time I experienced the depth of my own vulnerability and brokenness as well as that of others, and I began to understand the challenge of the personal and communal transformation that embracing the Church’s social doctrine entails.
If you’d followed up with me when I entered the Master of Divinity program at Notre Dame, I would’ve evaded the question, complaining instead about how irritating I found those pro-life people who only seem to care about the issue of abortion but can’t be bothered with capital punishment, immigration, poverty or racism. One afternoon I did that in the company of a good friend and professor during a directed readings class on Catholic Radicalism. As I finished my impassioned critique, the professor, whom I regarded highly for his commitment to social justice, said, “If you believe these are human beings, you might feel differently.”
The comment stopped me in my tracks. He added, “If the unborn child is a human being, then we are talking about a history of unparalleled, state-sanctioned killing in excess of 300 million souls worldwide.”
In June the Supreme Court handed down a momentous ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The decision effectively overturned the Court’s decisions in Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) and returned the question of abortion to state legislatures. In doing so, it rekindled our longstanding national dispute over abortion — a dispute that preceded Roe and will surely survive Dobbs. Many states like Indiana moved to restrict abortion access, while many others like California acted to expand it. Far from settling the abortion question, Dobbs has ushered in a new era in this seemingly deadlocked debate. Few other issues are met with the same mutual incomprehension between opponents. Few have been used so effectively to polarize the electorate.
On one side, which often describes itself as “pro-choice,” are those for whom the most fundamental issue is women’s autonomy as self-directed persons: free from what pro-life feminist legal scholar Erika Bachiochi describes as the asymmetrical burdens and contingencies of childbearing; free to pursue the same educational, economic and personal goals available to men. For them, the Dobbs decision represents a devastating attack on women’s bodily autonomy and equality
On the other side, which identifies as “pro-life,” are people convinced of the fundamental goodness of existence. For these people, human life, because it is a dynamic succession of changing forms of dependency and vulnerability, requires protection. Progress in the pursuit of justice and the exercise of freedom cannot be bought with its destruction. For them, Dobbs represents a major advance in protecting the rights of unborn human beings.
We all know of advocates on either side who exemplify our lesser angels. Some pro-choice activists celebrate abortion as a positive social good that ought to be embraced and celebrated, not merely kept “safe, legal, and rare.” Some pro-life advocates seem to love human life abstractly but not concretely. Like Dostoevsky’s woman of little faith in The Brothers Karamazov, they will kiss the sores of lepers in their dreams but not in reality. Their love of human life never seems to make its way to policies that would enable human flourishing.
In their worst forms — and in opposed ways — both sides offer to help women only on their own terms: either by securing the social and economic expedient of abortion, rather than challenging larger structural inequalities, or by going only so far in advocating policies that would protect and celebrate the biological, social and religious good that is motherhood.
We may also see real human goods at the heart of these oppositions: concern for women, concern for children. Yet it is precisely here that the tensions seem insurmountable. “At some point,” we say, “you have to choose.”
Or do you?
As I reflect on my own journey in light of Dobbs, what I’ve come to find intolerable is the false dichotomy of our discourse: We must choose either women or children, either mothers or babies, either autonomy or life. I was reminded of the perniciousness of this assumption as I listened to a well-known reproductive justice advocate — notable for her relative hospitality to pro-life voices — insist that we’re all “gonna have to decide, who do you stand up for — the women or fetuses? . . . Are you going to violate the human rights of the people already here to protect the human rights of the people who are yet to be born?”
It was a chilling if honest statement. Its unstated hypothesis is that we cannot protect both women and the unborn.
The virulent reaction to the Dobbs ruling makes clear that this dreadful either/or is our shared point of departure. Unwillingness to choose a side is viewed as naïve at best or as moral failure and political treason at worst. Discussions about abortion remain limited by this binary framework of competing rights, the terms of debate accepted as immutable.
But they are not.
I have been on both sides of this issue. I remain committed to women’s equality and full participation in society. I am also committed to the protection of life, especially where it is most vulnerable. These two beliefs are not only not irreconcilable. They are mutually dependent.
The fiction that a woman’s freedom is incompatible with the life of her unborn child is evidence of a deeper anti-woman sentiment that sets the rules of social and economic participation and measures equity based on male normativity. Take as a recent example the comments of Jon Mills, the spokesperson for an engine manufacturer that employs close to 10,000 people in Indiana. In August, when the Indiana legislature passed SB 1, a bill championed by three female legislators that restricts abortion access statewide, Mills told The New York Times that “the right to make decisions regarding reproductive health ensures that women have the same opportunity as others to participate fully in our workforce and that our workforce is diverse.” The bill’s provisions “impede our ability to attract and retain top talent,” he said.
Mills’ statement implies that a woman’s full participation in the workforce depends on her ability to “make decisions about reproductive health.” Given the context, we can assume he means access to abortion, not the decision to conceive and bear a child. Corporate statements like this one have become standard. The misogyny of it, and of our current industrial culture, lies in what is left unsaid: that the normal functioning of a woman’s body — in particular, her fertility — impedes her participation in the workplace. George Orwell called this “doublethink” in 1984: the holding of two mutually exclusive beliefs. In this case, employers avail themselves of the rhetoric of women’s rights and equality while saying that female bodies are problematic in ways that male bodies are not.
Here we see the cynicism of our moment: Abortion is an economical expedient. It solves for social and professional inconveniences rooted in biological asymmetries. As one pro-life feminist put it, “Those advocating legal abortion concede that pregnant women are intolerably handicapped [and] cannot compete in the male world of wombless efficiency.” Even so-called “perks” like insurance policies that subsidize egg freezing are a not-so-subtle cue to women to long delay or forgo having children.
Modern autonomy, it turns out, is counterfeit; a deficient form of a fuller freedom that would not require women to act like men to participate equally in social, economic and political life.
To grasp the notion of freedom’s interdependence with the value of life, we need only look at the early history of the feminist movement, which exposes the false dichotomy between autonomy and life given us as our perverse social order, the “way things are.”
Today’s pro-life feminists understand that combating abortion requires a holistic response that transcends polarization and develops policy based on what society owes women and children as a matter of justice.
Today, the broad movement called feminism is largely defined by its adherence to abortion rights as essential to women’s equality. In 2017, when Georgetown University professor Elizabeth Velez defended the removal of a pro-life feminist group from the list of Women’s March sponsors, she told The Washington Post that “feminism is . . . a political movement, and if you are not part of the political movement, you can’t be a feminist. If you are pro-life, you are certainly not looking at the struggles across all of us.”
Many feminists believe abortion has always been integral to women’s freedom and development. But feminists have not always endorsed abortion, and the fact that so many women still think that full-throated feminism entails insistence upon unrestricted access to abortion shows how profoundly we have forgotten its origins.
Feminism’s shift from contesting abortion to advocating for it crystallized around the middle of the 20th century and baffled women like Alice Paul, a suffragist and co-author of the first Equal Rights Amendment legislation in 1923. Toward the end of her life, Paul described abortion as the “ultimate in the exploitation of women” and wondered, “How can one protect and help women by killing them as babies?” Paul’s words undoubtedly sound naïve to many mainstream feminists today. Yet hers was far from the minority position of the day.
Pioneers like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are known for inaugurating the long struggle for women’s right to vote. Less well known is the suffragists’ advocacy for opportunities in higher education and the professions, for equal pay and marital rights — and their staunch opposition to abortion. They fought, in short, for women’s full participation in society as women, which for them included bearing children. This meant rejecting abortion as the expedient answer to women’s oppression, a view so out of step with mainstream feminism today that it is often dismissed as old-fashioned and thus dispensable, rather than as a social critique intrinsic to the feminist cause. Yet the anti-abortion advocacy of early feminists was once the principled norm. It appeared consistently in the work of feminist writers and activists, who tied it to other fundamental concerns such as education, economic independence and opposition to sexual exploitation.
For these feminists, abortion constituted an act of violence against women and children. They believed the oppression of women and the “murder of children” were intimately linked. Freedom bought with the bodies of children was a devil’s bargain — oppression disguised as liberation for a society that could not countenance justice for men and women in equal measure.
Writing in 1868 in the pages of The Revolution, a leading feminist newspaper that she co-founded, Stanton identified women’s subjugation and the destruction of children as the rotten fruit of the same tyranny. “We are living today under a dynasty of force,” she argued, “the masculine element is everywhere overpowering the feminine, and crushing women and children alike beneath its feet. Let woman assert herself in all her native purity, dignity, and strength, and end this wholesale suffering and murder of helpless children.”
A year later, Mattie Brinkerhoff asserted that abortion was a symptom of women’s subjection, not the key to their autonomy. “When a man steals to satisfy hunger,” she wrote, “we may safely conclude that there is something wrong with society — so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged.” Brinkerhoff and Stanton advocated the reform of a society that failed to meet women’s needs or acknowledge their rights. These included education access, full participation in public and private life, freedom from sexual exploitation and the right to refuse intercourse, including within marriage — a right, it is worth noting, that was not recognized across the United States until long after Roe. For these writers, a society in which abortion was deemed necessary for women’s equality was a society in which women were irredeemably unequal.
The language of 19th century feminists may sound foreign and off-putting to modern ears. Nevertheless, their trenchant critiques demonstrate that, contrary to current claims, abortion was not merely unnecessary for women’s equality but was a grave impediment to it, a Faustian bargain struck with the lords of industry and culture. As an act of violence against the female body and prenatal life, it signaled the injustice of patriarchal structures that oppressed and exploited women. For such feminists, abortion was emblematic of society’s fierce resistance to reconfiguring itself around the reality of women.
To combat the violence that turned women against their own embodied existence and their children, the early feminists supported the legal suppression of abortion and the enforcement of relevant laws. But they also demanded aid for women who had resorted to abortion or who found themselves pregnant and vulnerable to abortion profiteering. They railed against economic dependency, exclusion from the professions, the stigmatization of unwed pregnancy and the “culturally enforced ignorance” surrounding reproductive physiology and fetal development. Authentic freedom meant women participating in society as women, which required nothing less than a reordering of society.
Such a revolution could not be bought at the expense of unborn children with a cynical solution that sidestepped the real work of uprooting all that perpetuated systemic injustice.
We cannot simply graft early feminist views about abortion onto our own time, but their insights may change the scope of what we think possible. They help us imagine new ways to engage the post-Dobbs moment and to reframe the dangerous binary of either women or children as an unflinching commitment to both women and children. It would be all too easy to retreat to our ideological corners. Instead we have a rare opportunity to reconsider the integral vision of early feminism — particularly the insight that abortion is symptomatic of endemic injustice.
The echoes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton may be heard in contemporary feminists like Sidney Callahan, who observe that “women’s biologically unique capacity and privilege has been denied, despised and suppressed under male domination.” According to Callahan and others, the fact that abortion is considered necessary for women’s equality proves its inadequacy in addressing systematic inequality, because it concedes that maleness is normative in social and economic life. Today’s pro-life feminists understand that combating abortion requires a holistic response that transcends polarization and develops policy based on what society owes women and children as a matter of justice.
As early feminists understood, no single response will be sufficient to eradicate abortion. Rather, we must change the way we think about and organize our lives. This necessarily includes legal restrictions as well as direct assistance to abortion-vulnerable women. But, as Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1995 “Letter to Women,” it also requires “systems to be redesigned” in order to advance “real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights.” Motherhood constitutes the most demanding “part” in the work of parenthood, he argued elsewhere, emphasizing that “it is the woman who ‘pays’ directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul. . . . No program of ‘equal rights’ between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account.”
Women cannot attain genuine equality if it means suppressing their unique capacity to carry and bring forth new life. And yet, as things stand, specific, chronic issues pressure women to get abortions. So, if abortion is a counterfeit mode of equality, what might genuine equality look like? In addition to legal restriction and direct assistance, we must address three essentials: economic inequality, intimate-partner violence and maternal health outcomes.
Much must be done to advance authentic equality. Many women seek abortion because of financial concerns, which include lack of access to high-quality daycare, lack of affordble housing, and the real costs of raising children. Addressing this reality requires multilateral action from government and business, such as eliminating taxes on essential items like diapers and formula, raising the minimum wage and implementing pro-family policies like on-site, subsidized child care and expanded child and child-care tax credits.
A second step would ensure equal pay for equal work. According to the Pew Research Center, although the pay gap has narrowed in the past 40 years, women ages 25 to 34 still earn less than their male counterparts today — roughly 93 cents on the dollar. The gap is even greater for women of color. Women overall earn 84 percent of what similarly employed men earn.
Third, pregnancy discrimination must be eliminated. Though it is illegal to discriminate against women based on pregnancy, “soft” forms of discrimination abound. They range from unhealthy working conditions to a lack of essential resources like the space to pump breast milk, to subtle cues that women are expected to stop working after childbirth — an unthinkable option for most American women — or that hiring managers shouldn’t interview or promote pregnant women. No federal legislation requires employers to provide temporary accommodations for pregnant workers.
Fourth, many women are not guaranteed paid parental leave, a lingering circumstance that is economically unjust and endangers women’s health. Even the easiest labor and delivery requires time for a woman’s body to heal, to say nothing of the benefits of fourth-trimester bonding between mother and baby. Most maternal deaths occur postpartum, when women are at risk of infection and other complications.
Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to another concern — intimate-partner violence — which several studies have shown to correlate with abortion decisions. One recent study suggested that women who are denied abortion are more likely to stay in abusive relationships; unsurprisingly, the researchers concluded that abortion access is necessary for these women to leave their partners.
In 2021, the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology reported that the leading cause of death for pregnant women is homicide. This study also found that Black women who are pregnant or were recently pregnant are three times as likely to be murdered than those who are not pregnant. Overall, the murder rate for women who are or were recently pregnant is 16 percent higher than for women who are not pregnant. This disturbing finding begs a question: Is a woman seeking escape from intimate-partner violence through abortion making a fully free decision, or does she feel she has no other choice? Abortion as a “solution” doesn’t address the lack of resources for abuse victims: shelters, subsidized counseling, risk-monitoring and intervention in doctors’ offices and hospitals, and financial support for women who are economically dependent upon abusive partners.
Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. far exceed those of other industrialized nations, most of which have more restrictive abortion laws than we do. The Centers for Disease Control’s Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System shows that national maternal mortality rates rose 140 percent between 1987 and 2018 and continue to rise. For women of color, the situation is even more dire. Recent figures indicate that the maternal death rate for Black women in the U.S. is three times higher than that for white women. Abortion is often put forward as a solution for our scandalous maternal mortality rates; conversely, a recent Commonwealth Fund study prioritized substantive improvements in maternity and postpartum care. Notably, the researchers did not recommend abortion access in their policy suggestions but focused instead on health care access, insurance coverage, postpartum care and parental leave.
We do, however, have a choice to make: We can continue to leave women to bear a disproportionate burden in the choice to have a child, or we can put people first by restructuring our social and economic arrangements and investing in women, children and families. For far too long we have stacked the deck against women and then offered them abortion as a remedy. Really choosing life holds enormous collective implications for law, the marketplace and medicine, but it will help us to see that the authentic flourishing of women and children means the flourishing of all.
Jessica Keating Floyd is program director of the Notre Dame Office of Life and Human Dignity in the McGrath Institute for Church Life.