Abortion: Anything New to Be Said?

Registration just opened for a mostly academic conference on abortion to be held at Princeton University on October 15 and 16.  The conference was inspired by Obama’s  Notre Dame commencement speech in which he called on those who support and those oppose abortion to engage vigorous debate, find points of agreement and make the case for what they believe passionately  – but without making a caricature of those who disagree with them.  RH readers have more than a passing acquaintance with efforts to find new ways to talk about abortion.

Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words
A Conference on Life & Choice in the Abortion Debate
Princeton University – October 15 & 16, 2010
Inspired by President Obama’s call during his Notre Dame address for those on different sides of the abortion issue not only to work together where we agree, but also to engage in “vigorous debate” with “open hearts, open minds, and fair minded words.” More information, including speaker bios, here.

At the same time, if you’ve followed the abortion issue for longer than a year or two, you probably could finish the sentence of every leader – on either side of the issue. And you may discover that beyond reading Politico, HuffPo, Religion Dispatches and similar sites and newspapers, you’d never know there are scholars out there still thinking and writing about abortion. I just finished a brilliant piece in the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics about being prochoice and having a miscarriage. The author uses her personal experience to think about personhood and pregnancy in a new way. Check it out.  

The Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words conference aims to do the same thing. Some issues on the program are old hat: The Moral Status of the Fetus for one, A re-examination of the very old classic argument about “duties” to the fetus based on Judith Jarvis Thomson’s classic story of the woman who is kidnapped and wakes up attached by various tubes to a famous violinist who now will die if she refuses to provide life support to him.  Some issues are newly contentious ones, although with historic origins – should abortion be a matter for court or legislatures to decide. What to make of Roe in an age when new theories about democracy and about human rights have developed over the last decade. How do we reconcile our respect for the disabled people among us and for women with abortion decided when the fetus is a girl or disabled? What are the limits to the right of conscientious refusal to provide services?  Do we know when fetuses might feel pain, what would the significance of pain be and what, if anything should we do about it?

Are there new ways or even different ways to think about these issues?  Do we have anything to learn from people who disagree with us about abortion? What’s good in their arguments? Weak?  Are the  people who think abortion is simply one of those intractable issues where no one ever changes their mind cynics or realists?

Even as someone who has occasionally stepped over the orthodoxy line, I don’t know. I invite you to join a brilliant set of presenters at the Princeton conference and find out. And along the way I hope you’ll keep an open mind as well as speak you mind at the conference. Registration is a modest $75.00 and the hotel is only around $90.00 a night. And you’ll get to rub elbows with Dawn Johnsen, Art  Caplan, Maggie Little, David Garrow, Anita Allen, Lynn Paltrow, Ruth Macklin, Rebecca Cook, Vanessa Gamble on the choice side and perhaps even have an illuminated exchange with David Gushee, Helen Alvare, Father Joseph Tham, John Finnis,   Sidney Callahan and Kristen Day – and me.

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  • ruth-m

    Here’s where I wish we could go back to the days when women had total autonomy over their reproductive decisions and that it wasn’t up for discussion by those self-righteous busy-bodies who obviously didn’t have enough to do. 


    Women of Plains Indian tribes spaced their births seven years apart and made sure that they weren’t pregnant when they were beginning to move from their winter camps in the spring.  They used herbs for birth control and abortions.  Men, who’s partners did this, were honored as it was about placing the survival needs of the community above their own ego needs. 


    In Europe, as the Catholic Church was becoming more powerful in the Middle Ages, the women healers who distributed abortifacient herbs began to be called witches and the Church was able to take more control over medicine and 100,000 or so female folk healers were killed. 


    I guess we really started getting into trouble when women and minorities began to be considered of less intellectual worth than white men.   Is this just all about the Catholic Church, or have women elsewhere on the planet suffered these same indignities?  It seems when you allow a whole bunch of men to run things without the leavening influence of women, they really just revert to adolescence and all sorts of trouble ensues. 

    • arekushieru

      Ruth, I firmly believe that ever since the patriarchy first arose, men had trouble with women controlling their reproductive capacities.  It’s just that there was nowhere near as much scientific knowledge about pregnancy and childbirth back then, as there is now and that translated, fortunately, into a lesser ability to enforce and control prevention and a lack of a movement that focussed on that issue.

  • vera

    Or maybe it’s about the fact that pro-lifers belive that 4000 American children are killed every day.


    You might disagree, but that doesn’t change their motives for wishing to stop abortion, which coincidently, have nothing to do with being “busy bodies who obviously didn’t have enough to do.”

  • julie-watkins
    Do you believe women and poor families are 2nd class? Are you OK with women and poor families having a larger burden put on them?  That burden wouldn’t be there if attempting to bring a pregnancy to term is a choice not an obligation.
  • julie-watkins

    My thought about the “problem” of abortion — if it’s a problem — is that it’s conditional. So long as the greater ethical problem of women’s oppression and classist oppression of the poor exist, it’s going to be hard to debate the nuances of abortion, what the implications might be in a society was not sexist and classist.


  • colleen

    Or maybe it’s about the fact that pro-lifers belive that 4000 American children are killed every day.

    Indeed those who do have no basis for complaining that Max or anyone else “has a screw loose”.

  • vera

    No obviously I do not believe they are 2nd class. That does not mean I support them, or anyone else, having abortion. 

    • catseye71352

      Obviously, the “busybody” comment hit a nerve…..and a target.

  • vera

    Please explain where the pro-life  conclusion is errant.


    Also, of course you don’t share this belief. That is immaterial. The post was explaining the pro-life belief, as a counter to a claim of false motive.

  • julie-watkins

    The way human biology works, the burden of the next generation is predominantly on the mother — the father isn’t biologically forced in the same way. This isn’t to say evolution has any sexist agenda. However, the result is sexual discrimination in effect. Societies, though, tend to take advantage and increase biology’s sexism and also put more burden on poor families, having policies and law that punish the poor and give advantages to the rich — so society is both sturcturally sexist and structurally classist — treating women and the poor as second class. It is not deliberate, but that’s the outcome of saying a pregnant woman has an obligation to the fetus, rather than a choice to attempt to give birth (give life).


    Any time anyone asks poor families & poor comminities open ended questions — what will help? what do you want? — the ability to choose when or weather to have children is up there with: shelter, food, fair pay. There always has been abortion — sometimes it’s exposure, if another form of abortion is not available or failed. Exposure still happens in the poorer areas of some countries. It’s usually not done for evil reasons so much as for self-defense: the family can’t feed the children they already have. Or the mother is too weak or died in the birth.


    Follow the money. It helps Big Businesses to have a desperately poor source of cheap labor. When you’re OK with women and the poor having a larger burden, by definition, that’s treating them as 2nd class.

  • princess-rot

    Julie, give it up mate. You’re trying to argue coherently with someone who won’t listen. They don’t rationally think about the logical framework of their soundbite arguments and the politics they support, and what damage they do in reality. “4000 American (why only American children worth caring about? Is that a dog-whistle for “white, middle-class with American great-grandparents”) – ahem – children killed every day” should be a huge giveaway. Who is Vera to sit on her high horse and demand those four thousand pregnancies be brought to term, no matter the cost to existing people? Who is Vera to imply she knows what is best for those four thousand women’s individual situations and only she knows that the only reason those women eventually chose to abort is because they don’t believe the same things she does:  that abortion is icky and what do you mean, examine why I think all women should be obliged to risk their health and wellbeing against their will, bring to term no matter what the cost, or go through pregnancy and birth to provide babies for some nebulous concept of duty or other third party – they just should! What’s reproductive slavery? What history of reproduction being used as a tool of social and political control?  Wharrgarbl, etc.

    • julie-watkins

      Which I think is indicative. When I point out how The System is both sexist and classist, the people who like to tell other people they have all sort of handwaving reasons why pregnancy is an exception and etc. — we’ve heard it all before — but they are wrong seem to have a hard time figuring a way to respond to the classist angle except ignore it. It’s hard to say the rich aren’t robbing the poor when they so obviously are.

      • crowepps

        It absolutely boggles my mind that looking around at the circumstances of so many kids today, living in homeless shelters, living in domestic violence shelters, in foster care, in orphanages, people can continue to loudly insist that, A, women have an obligation to remain pregnancy because the zygote is a ‘person’,  and, B, society doesn’t have any obligation to help them FEED and SHELTER those children after they’re born.


        They just can’t seem to address the  dissonance between those two positions, ‘zygote is a ‘person’ from whom location and nourishment cannot be withdrawn by pregnant woman’ and ‘child after birth and existing as an ACTUAL person isn’t entitled to claim safe location and nourishment from society’.


        If it was really all about the ‘baby’ and its ‘rights’ then this disconnect would not exist.  Shoot, if it was really all about the ‘baby’ and its ‘rights’ then safe prenatal care and delivery, both of which benefit primarily the baby, would be free.

  • arekushieru

    Maybe it’s the fact that there are no children involved in abortion.  Or that you place more importance on a fetus than any other human?  Even when given comparable instances to show why you do?  The loss of an actual person’s life should be far more important to you than the loss of a fetus who lacks everything that an actual person HAS.

  • saltyc

    I don’t know why I put this here, but

    I wish we were descended from birds.

    Not only do male birds do as much or more parenting as female birds do, but the whole dropping of the egg thing, it would make the question of whether or not one has an obligation to brood very different. I mean, anyone could do it, not just the mother, and there wouldn’t be any surgery involved in simply abandoning a fertilized egg. And it would be called a fertilized egg, I believe, without anyone screaming discrimination. No shame or worry about pregnancy…

    I wonder if it was the same for dinosaurs, birds’ ancestors. Ahhh the days…


    Back to our unfortunate predicament, how was the conference, Ms. Kissling?

  • arekushieru

    Salty, that would still require the female to LAY the egg, though.  Sometimes, I wish we were directly descended from pipefish.  The male carries the eggs, but, the thing is, he can ALso self-abort.

    But, yes, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

    Edited to add:  Has anyone, here, ever heard of the anime Junikokki (Or, in English, “Twelve Kingdoms”)?  I know, I know, I’m really making my obsession obvious, aren’t I?  Twelve Kingdoms (for those who don’t know) is about a parallel (yes, parallel, again) dimension that a young high school student from Japan visits.  It turns out that she was born on that world.  But, there, children are not born from a woman’s body but from a fruit (yes, fruit, lol).  A couple ties a string around a branch of a certain tree and prays for a child.  If their wish is granted, a funny-looking fruit will start to grow from that tree, and, when it is time, the fruit will expel a fully formed infant.  I thought that was rather analogous to the discussion we are having, here.

  • tony-waring

    According to Frances Kissling it’s OK to abort an unborn baby because it is “not self aware”. Presumably then if you kill someone whilst he/she is fast asleep it does’nt count as murder ! What a load of hogwash this woman speaks.

  • prochoiceferret

    According to Frances Kissling it’s OK to abort an unborn baby because it is “not self aware”.


    O RLY? Where did she say that?


    Presumably then if you kill someone whilst he/she is fast asleep it does’nt count as murder !


    Or even whilst they are scrivening inane anti-choice posts on ye olde reproductive-health Web site !


    What a load of hogwash this woman speaks.


    It’s funny that you should bring up the suject of speaking hogwash…

  • arekushieru

    Or even while they’re waiting on the transplant list!  Tell me, how many organs have YOU decided to share… lately?