Common Ground? No, Swamp Water

September 1997By Laura Garcia

Laura Garcia is a professor of philosophy at Rutgers.

Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: Moral Diversity in the Abortion Debate.  By Kathy Rudy. Beacon Press. 185 pages. No price given..



Kathy Rudy urges us to tolerate “diversity” on the issue of abortion and to make peace with the “various contextualized standpoints” of the citizens of this country. Rudy teaches ethics and women’s studies at Duke University, and she proposes to address the abortion debate from within the perspectives she affirms — feminism, liberal Protestantism (the United Methodist Church), and “Americanism,” which seems largely identified with maximal personal freedom. The philosophically murky opening chapter seems designed to induce an epistemological blur by claiming that people who disagree about the morality of abortion are really describing “differing realities” and that “there is no one thing adequately or accurately called ‘abortion.’” In more sensible passages, Rudy admits that there is a recognizable subject matter for her book and that our differences about it are largely moral ones. She hopes that by explaining some of the motivations behind the views of various camps in this debate (liberal political philosophers, feminists, Catholics, evangelicals, et al.) she will show us our common ground, where we can work out our differences without bringing in the legal system.

Rudy accuses both prolife and prochoice forces of selective blindness to defects in their positions, and urges them to revise their absolutist approaches in favor of a more nuanced, situational approach. For example, Rudy blames the prochoicers’ emphasis on pregnant women’s privacy for isolating women, thereby relieving the rest of the community of any obligation to assist or even advise them. On the other hand, Rudy claims, prolife forces focus on the rights of unborn children, neglecting the difficult cases where a woman really needs an abortion. Both sides, but especially prolife advocates, need to move away from an “abstract commitment to a philosophical principle,” she says, and toward a more situated approach to each crisis pregnancy.

Rudy lays out a moral theory that combines the “ethics of care” advocated by Carol Gilligan with an ethics of casuistry, which has experienced a recent mini-revival in bioethics discourse. With this guidance, the trek toward common ground quickly lands us in a swamp of moral relativism. First, casuistry merely covers the application of moral principles to particular cases. It does nothing to help us determine the correct moral principles, nor does it tell us whether such principles are absolute or admit of exceptions. Second, Rudy seems to think of casuistry as an alternative to standard moral theories, a kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach which treats each case as an entity unto itself, when in fact it only operates within a moral theory.

With Rudy’s vague situationalism in the background, we can better understand her conclusion that all laws pertaining to abortion (either legalizing or forbidding it) should be repealed. Just as the government neither endorses nor forbids the drinking of orange juice, she says, so it should neither endorse nor forbid abortion: “I suggest that the government should likewise [as in the orange juice example] be silent on the matter of abortion precisely because it cannot take into account the realities of each communal context and therefore cannot pass judgment on the morality of the intervention.” This breathtaking proposal reveals that the moral theory presupposed by Rudy is not primarily an ethic of care, with or without casuistry, but a form of cultural relativism. If moral principles can be defended on rational grounds, independently of their communal contexts, then presumably the government can pass judgment on the morality of various actions. If moral principles have no such justification, then the morality of abortion cannot be rationally decided; but the same will hold for the morality of spousal abuse, slavery, rape, child abuse, and so on.

This book is at its best when pointing up some of the inconsistencies in the proabortion agenda. Rudy is rightly appalled at Tristan Englehardt’s claim that “infants, the profoundly mentally retarded, and other persons who cannot determine for themselves their own hierarchy of costs and benefits” are “entities” who “are not persons in any strict sense.” She sees that this leads to a duty to abort those deemed unworthy of life; and she acknowledges that prenatal testing has become exceedingly coercive in today’s climate, leading women to distance themselves from their unborn children until the test results render them acceptable. Rudy even admits that “the way we relate to our fetuses becomes the way we relate to each other” — a sobering thought indeed.

Rudy fails to draw the conclusions warranted by her own principles, and instead merely reiterates the well-worn rationalizations for unrestricted access to abortion that are common currency in the abortion lobby. She claims that “for many Christian women, abortion may be necessary for survival,” or at least for achieving parity with men in the workplace. Any restriction amounts to denying women full access to the “grace-filled” community that God promises. Disproportionate social and economic burdens would fall on women if “a woman’s right to abortion were restricted for any reason” (emphasis added). Does Rudy grasp that similar considerations would justify infanticide, since children already born can obstruct a woman’s career path in ways unanticipated during pregnancy?

In the end, Rudy shows herself to be a hardline abortion advocate in arbitrator’s clothing. Like Englehardt, she distinguishes humans from persons, and so is able to support any woman in a “crisis pregnancy” regardless of her decision — apparently because the mother is the only person seriously involved. In a flagrant but typical instance of what even Naomi Wolf has called feminist self-deception, Rudy manages to affirm and deny the personhood of the unborn child in the same sentence, by a mere flip of labels: “If a baby is to be born, it will be baptized into their [a church’s] collective world, and will become a part of each member’s life; if the fetus is aborted, it will be represented only by a hole, by a lack of relationship and love in the life of every member.” But an abortion is never simply a “lack” to a community: It is the taking of a human life, a person’s life. Given this, it’s hard to imagine that we can afford to accept Rudy’s recommendation of a moratorium on legal battles while we take time to “examine and map the many moral discourses of abortion” in order to contemplate how we want our “worlds” to look, and “how we want our children to fit into them.” Abortion claims one and a half million of our children every year, and momentum continues to mount for taking the lives of the other “entities” on Englehardt’s list.

While we may not always agree about what abortion amounts to, one thing ought to be clear: It’s not a drink of orange juice.



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