1. Opinion

Column: The abortion debate and the morality of personal choice versus natural law


Special to the Tampa Bay Times

The recent abortion bans in Alabama and Georgia have brought the controversy of abortion back to the center of public discourse. Debates on the issue are rooted in two different perspectives. Pro-choice advocates function within the framework of personal rights; they judge the morality of government intervention through the lens of consent. In other words, women should have the right to make their own choices about their own bodies. Anything that prevents women from doing so, according to this ethical framework, is unjust. Thus, limiting access to abortion is unjust.

On the other side, pro-lifers envision morality through the lens of natural law and virtue. Ethical action is not about increasing autonomy or free choice, per se. Instead, it is about protecting intrinsic values — life, community, health, knowledge. The virtuous individual would not act in such a way that intentionally undermines these values. Willful ignorance is unjust because it hinders the intrinsic value of knowledge. Abortion is unjust because it undermines the value of human life. Clearly, each side stands upon different ethical foundations — choice and the intrinsic value of human life, respectively.

Now, the pro-life side, because it prioritizes certain intrinsic values over choice, is often depicted as anti-women. While pro-lifers do not regard choice as the fundamental ethical value, they are not anti-women. In fact, abortion has shaped our modern culture in ways that have not empowered women. Instead, abortion has been used as a tool to reinforce patriarchal ideals.

First, let us analyze the notion that restricting access to abortion would keep women from positions of power economically and socially. Society believes this because economic and social power has been defined by masculine ideals. If women have a child, this means they will have to spend more time at home. They will have to take care of a baby. It is assumed that women have to drive their children to soccer practices and prepare the meals. It is assumed that women will have to meet with teachers and plan social outings. The professional lives of women are interrupted by children because women are supposed to be more involved in their children's lives than men. As fathers, men are expected to prioritize their work over their children. As mothers, women are expected to prioritize their children over their work.

All of this being said, women are measured by an ideal of masculinity that has been formed by industrialization and capitalism. The ideal is this: Put your home life in a box and forget about it while you are at work. The assumption is that fathers can do this and that mothers cannot. Aside from the fact that this is an unhealthy expectation, women are expected to "be like men" in the workplace. Instead of challenging these masculine ideals, women are told that abortion is the means to their liberation and success in the workplace. It is a tool of reinforcing capitalistic values and masculine ideals about professional character.

Furthermore, let's consider the fact that not all abortions are freely chosen. Young women are manipulated by parents or guardians who do not want to carry the shame and financial burden of having a pregnant teen. Men in charge of sex-trafficking rings drag abused women to abortion clinics so they can continue exploiting their bodies. Some men have forced women into getting abortions so they can avoid scandal and maintain appearances. Are women liberated by their abortions here? No, they are controlled and told they are useful insofar as they provide men pleasure. This hardly seems like a means for female empowerment.

To be clear, the pro-choice movement is not pro-women; it is pro-choice. On the contrary, the pro-life movement is not anti-women; it is pro-life. I think there are far better ways to empower women than by sending them to abortion clinics. For starters, put an end to the exploitation and commodification of women's bodies, even if sex sells more cologne and buffalo wings. Maybe, just maybe, we can dare to see value in emotional vulnerability, even though this is not a traditionally masculine trait. Maybe we should demand more family-friendliness from our employers, our universities, and our public spaces. At the end of the day, should we use abortion to reinforce oppressive values that enable the abuse of women and reinforce patriarchal ideals or should we protect the intrinsic value of human life, female and male?

Lily Abadal is director of experiential learning at St. Petersburg Catholic High School and is a Ph.D candidate in philosophy and religion at the University of South Florida.