A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
Language and the Abortion Debate
by Kathryn Getek and Mark Cunningham, Princeton Progressive Review, February 1996Abortion stops a beating heart.
The cry is familiar to one of our nation's most divisive debates, but now there is a stranger among the voices. In an October 16, 1995 article in The New Republic, prominent feminist pro-choicer Naomi Wolf sent tremors through the abortion rights movement when she broke ranks by casting abortion in life and death terms, placing it within the moral context that attaches accordingly, and calling upon her fellow activists to do the same.
Arguing for a new "pro-choice rhetoric," Wolf appeals for the termination of all euphemism and denial in the hope of securing to the pro-choice movement the essential "ethical core" that it has lacked. She believes it both a necessity and an obligation that there be "an abortion-rights movement willing publicly to mourn the evil - necessary evil though it may be - that is abortion." The movement's refusal to do so, she claims, has sacrificed a mass of political support; but more importantly, it has produced "a series of self-delusions, fibs, and evasions," forcing the men and women who are part of it to run the risk of losing what "can only be called [their] soul." For human beings, "[g]rief and respect are the proper tones for all discussions about choosing to endanger or destroy a manifestation of life."
Wolf traces the origin of the pro-choice "lexicon of dehumanization" to the 1970's epoch of the larger battle for the equality of women. In the quest for the liberation of the female self, the fetus was reduced to nothing more than a parasitic mass. Much as the pro-life movement has been accused, sometimes fairly, of treating pregnant women as mere receptacles for life, pro-choicers have tended to the opposing extreme. In one of her finer moments, Wolf articulates the clearest vision, namely, that a "pregnant woman is in fact both a person in her body and a vessel."
Wolf is troubled that the majority of her pro-choice allies will not acknowledge this undeniable dualism. And even if they do so at some personal level, perhaps as a result of having had children, their public abortion rights rhetoric has become so sterilized that the fetus is never spoken of as the human being that it is, whose death "is a real death." Wolf, though, is willing to recognize the harsh truth at the center of abortion, oft-depicted in the images of killed fetuses wielded by pro-lifers: though such images "work magnificently ... as political polemic, the pictures are not polemical in themselves: they are biological facts. We know this."
The products of this denial in the eyes of Wolf are "brutality" and "hypocrisy." The former is evidenced in Joycelyn Elders' call for our society "to get over this love affair with the fetus ..." The latter manifests itself in a pro-choice culture's double standard of greeting a wanted fetus with "Mozart for your belly; framed sonogram photos; home fetal-heartbeat stethoscopes" and reducing to "material" the unwanted fetus. Wolf is brave enough to denounce both. Each is absolutely unworthy of feminism, insofar as it is an ideology which rightly demands both the truth and the recognition of the intrinsic worth and dignity of each and every human being.
For those of us who approached, and, more importantly, who depart from, Wolf's project with pro-life convictions, the response is of course bittersweet. To be sure, Wolf's honesty is refreshing and welcome: someone at the forefront of the pro-choice movement is finally willing to publicly acknowledge what the legitimate elements of the pro-life movement have always taken as their starting point: the humanity of the unborn child.
But though presumably some pro-lifers will find the urge to utter a few "I told you so's" irresistible, the somber reality is that Naomi Wolf, much like supposed-pro-life-convert Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe), remains, at heart, pro-choice. Granting the evil that is abortion, Wolf and McCorvey remain willing to believe and to say that a woman must be free to choose it; and Wolf at least - we're not sure about McCorvey - is willing to say that such a choice is in some circumstances the right, even obligatory, decision. Clearly, she and we still part ways, even if it is somewhere farther along in the debate than previously.
By Wolf's own analysis, then, it would seem that we must not be part of the political center, that "mushy middle" that she hopes to convert to the abortion rights cause. But we would still like to say why, for all her passion and newfound forthrightness, her new pro-choice rhetoric remains uncompelling to us. To be fair to Wolf, in this article she is not so much making a strict moral argument as she is urging, if you will, a new sensibility. She alludes to the variety of pro-choice arguments that are well known to the debate, though she does not take care to make or rehearse any in their entirety. We won't respond fully or rigorously either; that is a none too simple task for perhaps another day. But we do offer a thought, in what are now Wolf's own terms, that goes to the heart of why we remain unmoved.
Though willing to grant the dimension of personal morality which attaches to abortion as a consequence of the humanity of the unborn child, we believe Wolf fails to carry through fully in her analysis; through to the conclusion that if the fetus is indeed human, then its harm or destruction must fall under the reach of any just society's public morality. And that public morality is manifested in a society's laws. So when Wolf declares that "freedom means that women must be free to choose self or to choose selfishly," even though this means the death of another human being, we cannot help but respond that this simply is not, or should not be, the unqualified response of our society to the destruction of innocent life.
From a pro-choice culture which seemed to have become convinced that the question of right and wrong is one used merely as a tool to stifle personal rights, Ms. Wolf dramatically emerges with the concession that evil is at the essence of abortion. To use her own overtly spiritual language, she endeavors to save the soul of the pro-choice movement by forcing it to confront this evil. But to this we must say that one is most at risk of losing their soul when they look into the face of evil and refuse to stop it with all legitimate power. Ironically, for all our newly found common ground, it is this greater evil that Ms. Wolf now asks of herself and of us.
We must say no.