Is Support for Abortion Essential to Feminism?

November 1990By Celia Wolf-Devine

Celia Wolf-Devine is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stonehill College in Massachusetts.

Both feminists and those not involved in the feminist movement have come to regard support for abortion rights as essential to feminism. Those feminists who oppose such policies are branded as "self-appointed" feminists and "so-called" feminists, and are made to feel unwelcome by other feminists. As a result, abortion has come to eclipse other issues which have been more important to feminists historically.

Furthermore, support for abortion is in serious tension with other aspects of feminist thought which are currently receiving lots of attention. I have in mind feminist thought that tries to articulate what is called the "feminine voice." Many of the feminists in this tradition were inspired by the work of Carol Gilligan. I remember well how excited I was when I first read her book In a Difference Voice, in which she tries to articulate and affirm the value of the "feminine voice" in moral reasoning and to contrast it with the "masculine voice." Her general thesis, and I still find it persuasive, is that psychologists such as Freud and Kohlberg understood what is normal in terms of traits that are characteristically masculine, and judged women to be defective because they do not fit. In her description of the feminine voice and the way girls grow up and develop morally, I recognized my own experience articulated for me for the first time.

The feminine voice is one which speaks of caring and taking responsibility for others, of preserving relationships among people, of resolving conflicts by communication instead of violence, of egalitarianism and interconnectedness. Girls play in small groups and focus on the needs of the particular other, instead of on the impartial application of abstract principles more characteristic of the masculine voice. If a disagreement arises about how to play some game they are playing, girls will discontinue the game, since it is more important to maintain friendship.

Boys generally play in larger groups, become fascinated very early with elaborating rules, and think in terms of fairness. They tend to be more individualistic and competitive, focus on individual rights rather than responsibilities to others, and think more in terms of hierarchy and authority. Ethics is understood by men more in terms of formulating abstract principles, ranking them in order of importance, and applying them impartially to particular cases.

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