It’s Not About the Egg/Zygote/Embryo/Fetus: Re-claiming the Abortion Debate

For those of us who have come of age as feminists in the past few decades, the opposition to abortion we’ve encountered has virtually always centered on the life of the (choose one) fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus. In the not so distant past, however, anti-choice rhetoric came from a very different place. Up until the latter half of the twentieth century, arguments against abortion focused primarily not on the notion of saving an innocent life, but on enforcing traditional gender roles for women.

Historically, abortion—as well as all forms of contraception—was typically seen as an evil not out of concern for the unborn, but rather out of the belief that allowing women to separate sex from child-bearing would lead to a complete collapse of womanly morality, allowing women to have sex willy-nilly for no other reason but pleasure. In other words, contraception and abortion would allow women the same sexual freedom enjoyed by men. There also was a widely accepted view that any woman who wished to avoid motherhood was inherently some kind of deviant; shunning the “natural” role of mother was viewed as a serious gender transgression. And of course, no attempt to maintain gender roles has ever been merely about preserving tradition for the sake of it, but rather about upholding the patriarchy. Social and economic equality are virtually impossible for women whose lives are circumscribed by compulsory motherhood.

After the gains won by feminists in the 1960s and 70s, however, it has been increasingly difficult to garner widespread support for any stance based blatantly and openly on the notion that women should fulfill their “natural” roles by staying home and serving as submissive wives and dutiful mothers. And so the anti-choice movement has gradually—and effectively—changed its strategy. Instead of talking about deviant, promiscuous women, the anti-choice movement today speaks about saving babies—indeed, a much more palatable goal in the 21st century than the subjugation of women. From fetal pain bills to personhood amendments, the proliferation of anti-choice legislation we’ve witnessed in the past few months serves as frightening evidence of just how effective this line of anti-choice argument has been.

Unfortunately, many of us who wish to defend reproductive freedom fall into the trap of bending to counter these arguments on their own level. When anti-choicers talk about saving babies, an extremely common pro-choice response is to talk about the horrible life of the child born into poverty if abortion were not an option. But there are a few problems with engaging in this line of argument. First, when we start talking about the suffering of children born into poverty, what is this saying about the women living in poverty—disproportionately women of color—who do choose motherhood? Obviously, no one wants to see children living in dire economic circumstances. But we walk a line dangerously close to eugenics if we argue that the solution is abortion rather than arguing for the improvement of the socioeconomic conditions that place so many women in poverty to begin with. It can of course be useful to point out the hypocrisy of conservatives who would claim to care so deeply about saving fetuses, but who then refuse to support any kind of social welfare programs to support babies once they’ve been born. And we can’t deny that poverty—and the already limited ability to care for already-existing children—is a factor in many women’s abortion decisions. But we must be careful not to speak about abortion and poverty in ways that shame poor mothers. Any dialogue about reproductive justice must also include the right of a woman to be a mother, regardless of her class position.

Another problem with this defense of abortion lies on the exact opposite side of the coin: if we defend abortion solely from the perspective of saving a potential child from suffering, then where does that leave a woman who has every imaginable resource to care for a child, but simply does not want to be a mother? Are we really prepared to say that abortion is only morally defensible in circumstances where the potential baby in question would lead a so-called miserable life?

What gets left out of these arguments—on both sides—is the woman. When we respond to anti-choicers with our own counter-arguments about the life of the fetus, we have already allowed them to win a large part of the victory simply by allowing them to take the woman and her autonomy out of the equation. For too long, we’ve been willing to fight this battle on the opposition’s turf. As feminists, it’s our responsibility to bring women back into the discussion. We need to reclaim this argument, to focus on the fact that equality is unimaginable in a society where women cannot choose how and when and if to bear children.

I am firmly convinced that at its core, the anti-choice movement has never actually stopped being about the enforcement of traditional gender roles. Anyone who genuinely saw abortion itself as a tragedy would, logically, also support things like contraception and comprehensive sex-education. But if the goal is to prevent women’s liberation, to maintain the patriarchal order, then the apparent contradiction between opposing both abortion and the means to prevent unwanted pregnancy disappears. This is not to claim that an individual person who claims to be against abortion is coming from a position of being anti-feminism or anti-woman. I’m confident that many are reasonable human beings, who have simply bought into the well-crafted “pro-life” message of saving the unborn. Anecdotally, I know a handful of individuals who were once active in anti-choice movement, who reversed their position on abortion when they realized that the movement was not actually pro-child, but anti-woman. I believe that many more anti-choice activists are capable of making such a change, if only they can see the reality of what the movement is really about. That can only happen if we reclaim the argument, and make it once again about the lives of women, not fetuses.

This shift in focus has the potential to impact not only those who are firmly on the anti-choice side of the fence, but also to inspire activism among those who already identify as pro-choice. I believe many young feminists and others on the left have somewhat ambivalent feelings about abortion; they might feel strongly about supporting choice, while at the same time they view abortion with a degree of discomfort—a natural reaction for those of us who have grown up with the language of “killing helpless babies” instead of the language of defending women’s rights. Too often, even defenders of reproductive freedom speak of abortion as kind of necessary evil. And it’s exactly that middle-ground position which allows for the conditions we seem to be heading toward: a country where abortion is legal, but so highly restricted it is rendered virtually unavailable.

The National Network of Abortion Funds’ profiles of women who rely on NNAF services and Amplify’s 1 in 3 campaign are both excellent examples of re-centering the abortion dialogue on the lives of women, not fetuses. This woman-centered approach is one we should view as a model not only for our activism, but for the language we use in conversations and debates with family and friends, and on our personal blogs and social networking sites. We have played defense, allowing those who oppose abortion to set the terms of the debate, for long enough. It’s time to take back the conversation, and to spread the message that opposition to abortion today is about the same thing it has always been about: not the humanity and personhood of fetuses, but the humanity and personhood of women.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • tamarack99

    This is a great post, and thank you for bringing it back to what the truth is. It’s about women making choices for themselves, with their partners, and about their own personal lives. It’s NOT about government or anyone else dictating what women should or should not do. That’s the bottom line.


  • goatini

    Women who cannot choose when they want to start a family, and cannot choose the number of children they will have, cannot compete in the world of professional business and higher education.


    This War On Women *IS* the GOTP “Jobs Plan”.


    Get the women OUT of the workplace, OUT of higher education and voila – Jobs For Teh Menz.  


    The Handmaid’s Tale – the GOTP 2012 Platform. 

  • goatini

    Championing fatherhood rights for rapists would seem, at first glance, to be a politically suicidal position for any candidate for office in America. After all, who would champion any rights for rapists? Rapists aren’t exactly a powerful political lobby in Washington, one would think. But this year’s Republican nomination race seems to be testing this, in a big way. Maybe they’re trying to get out the rapist vote, or something.

    more at:

  • forlife

    It depends on what year you are referring to. Sojourner Truth was not always a woman. She was once a zygote, fetus, toddler, teenager, etc. as well. I don’t see how that could possibly be insulting to anyone…it is simply called a mammalian life cycle.

    Also, the term “fertilized egg” is not only biologically inaccurate (a “fertilized egg” is not an egg at all), but sexist as well. You make it sound as if the male gametes go out and do all the work and succeed in penetrating an egg, which is just chilling there doing nothing. In reality, the egg plays a much more active role in the reproductive process. So if you are going to use nonsense terms, I would sugget calling a zygote “eggified sperm.” It is more feminist.

  • forlife

    Your comment makes no sense. Keeping people out of the workforce does not mean there are more jobs for everyone left.  That is not how an economy works; jobs are not a piece of pie where the number of pieces are fixed and you get more the less people are competing against you. A macroeconomics course could become your new best friend. It would be a huge economic disadvantage to everyone (not just women) if women were purposely excluded from working.

    Women (and men, you still need a male to create a child) can choose when to start a family. I do not want a family now, hence I am online and not having sex. Even if a woman were pregnant she would not have to raise the child.

  • forced-birth-rape

    Quotes from pro-forced birthers.



    “Anders Behring Breivik christian terrorist, pro-forced-birther.

    What he thinks about womens rights, women need to breed, breed, breed.

    He has the same ideas for women as republicans, conservatives, and pro-lifers.


    1. Limit the distribution of birth-control pills (contraceptive pills): Discourage the use of and prevent liberal distribution of contraceptive pills or equivalent prevention methods. The goal should be to make it considerably more difficult to obtain. This alone should increase the fertility rate by 0,1 points but would degrade women’s rights.

    2. Reform sex education: Reform the current sex education in our school institutions. This may involve limiting it or at least delaying sex education to a later age and discourage casual sex. Sex should only be encouraged within the boundaries of marriage. This alone should increase the fertility rate by 0,1 points.

    3. Making abortion illegal: A re-introduction of the ban on abortion should result in an increased fertility rate of approximately 0,1-0,2 points but would strip women of basic rights.

    4. Women and education: Discourage women in general to strive for full time careers. This will involve certain sexist and discriminating policies but should increase the fertility rate by up to 0,1-0,2 points.

    Women should not be encouraged by society/media to take anything above a bachelor’s degree but should not be prevented from taking a master or PhD. Males on the other hand should obviously continue to be encouraged to take higher education – bachelor, master and PhD.”


    Self-Described ‘Christian Counterpart To Osama Bin Laden’ Arrested In Plot To Bomb Abortion Clinic

    Justin Carl Moose describe “himself” as the Christian counterpart to Osama bin Laden. Moose wrote: “I have learned a lot from the muslim terrorists and have no problem using their tactics.” ”




    “St. Augustine said, “Any woman who acts in such a way that she cannot give birth to as many children as she is capable of, makes herself guilty of that many murders.”



    ”Martin Luther wrote: “God created Adam lord of all living creatures, but Eve spoiled it all. Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear children. And if a woman grows weary and, at last, dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing; she is there to do it.”


    Pro-lifers favorite piece of literature of all time.


    Genesis 3:16

    “I will greatly multiply your grief and your suffering in pregnancy and the pangs of childbearing; with spasms of distress you will bring forth children. Yet your desire and cravings will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”




    ”Church excommunicates mother of 9-year-old rape victim – but not accused rapist.”

     A senior Vatican cleric has defended the Catholic Church’s decision to excommunicate the mother and doctors of a nine-year-old rape victim who had a life-saving abortion in Brazil.”

    “Police believe the girl was sexually assaulted for years by her stepfather, possibly since she was six. That she was four months pregnant with twins emerged only after she was taken to hospital complaining of severe stomach pains.”


  • jennifer-starr

    ForLife said: 

    Even if a woman were pregnant she would not have to raise the child.

    Gee, thank you for telling me that, ForLife. Some 30+ years watching soaps, ABC Afterschool Specials,  made-for-tv movies and Lifetime Original movies and I had no idea that adoption  even existed. *snort* But all snark aside, I just love how pro-lifers like to pretend that women are clueless about their options when it comes to an unwanted pregnancy.  

    Adoption, by the way, is a solution to unwanted parenthood.  It won’t do a thing for a woman who no longer wants to be pregnant. 


  • beccam

    I couldn’t agree more.I have been dismayed about how the pro-choice message is being delivered- by our own proponents. Abortion is simply not the issue- and although I am adamantly pro-choice-even I am often turned off by the seeming “pro-abortion” message- which seems to be prevalent. I don’t believe it is a right of privacy either – as set forth in Roe.

    I believe the issue is a woman’s inalienable right to self determination, to determination and full ownership of her person, of her conscience and of her own moral choices.

  • colleen

    Women (and men, you still need a male to create a child) can choose when to start a family. I do not want a family now, hence I am online and not having sex.


  • z3ncat

    First of all, women do NOT need a male partner to become pregnant.


    Secondly, ‘family’ does NOT equal ‘have children’. 


    And finally, believe it or not, it is not just a choice of WHEN they will have children.  People can, and do, decide IF they will have children.  And – this might blow your mind – sometimes that decision is that they will NOT have children.  Ever.  Are you seriously suggesting that a cisgendered, heterosexual childfree couple should remain abstinent their entire lives?