The Power of Pregnancy: Tackling a controversial topic, Kelly Hartline explains why abortion harms feminist values


Does abortion empower women?

One of the main reasons pro-choicers advocate abortion is because they believe it empowers women. But does it really?

The feminist movement seeks to advance the autonomy, equality, respect and biological health of women. These objectives, however, are undermined by the widespread acceptance and practice of abortion. In fact, social acceptance of abortion is one of the biggest detriments to feminism.

Clearly abortion is a very sensitive and complicated issue. Some pregnancy situations are so complicated that the feminist “empowerment” issue is wholly irrelevant. This argument is not intended to apply to those cases specifically but to the issue of abortion generally.

Abortion is commonly thought to empower women by allowing them to decide whether to have a child or be stuck with a pregnancy. Yet there are several consequences of abortion that harm women and are often overlooked. Many of these consequences derive from the fact that abortion encourages women to become more like men through surgical termination of a biological attribute that is exclusively female: pregnancy.

Women’s power stems from the biological traits that set them apart from men. Pregnancy is the greatest of those empowering traits because it gives women a monopoly over reproduction. Numerous cultures recognize the immeasurable value of pregnancy and place the highest social status on pregnant women.

In our society, however, the social acceptance of abortion has led us to view pregnancy as a disability. This view has cast a discriminatory shadow on the reproductive differences between men and women. Those who are not pregnant (men, and women who have abortions) are normal and healthy. Those who are pregnant are disabled, entitled to disability benefits and seen as “burdened” by their pregnancy. The social message: The feminine reproductive role is inferior to the masculine reproductive role, and women’s power rests in being like men.

This message is particularly evident in the responses of women entering abortion clinics. The most common reason women give for terminating their pregnancies is, “I don’t have a choice.” How ironic. Wasn’t abortion supposed to increase women’s choices? In one sense, it has. In another sense, it has created a social context in which many women really don’t have a choice. The “choice” is between being “healthy” or being “disabled.”

Ideally, society would treat men and women equally, valuing them for their unique biological and reproductive characteristics. The pro-choice movement attempted to create a shortcut to this utopia by helping women to secure ultimate control over their reproductive decisions.

Yet the shortcut has led us somewhere else. Instead of achieving a utopia, we have come to see pregnancy, the main potential source of women’s power, as a disability and abortion as its cure. Neither is true. Pregnancy is natural and empowering. Abortion may help women out of unwanted pregnancies, but it can also cause them serious harm.

For example, abortion causes many women psychological trauma. I spoke in-depth with a woman who had an abortion in college and became a pro-choice activist shortly thereafter. She rationalized her decision, but her abortion has haunted her for nearly 15 years, causing serious depression, anxiety and humiliation. Had she known the effect her decision would have on her, she would not have had the abortion. She has known many women who, like her, are living in a perpetual nightmare because they had abortions. For these women, their abortions hurt more than they cured.

Similarly, abortion may significantly increase women’s risk of breast cancer. According to the British Medical Association’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 19 out of 23 studies show a substantial increase — a 50 percent increase, according to Dr. Janet Daling’s study — in breast cancer risk among women who have had more than one abortion. (See Congressman and doctor Dave Weldon’s August 24, 1999 memo to Congress at It’s quite possible that, for some women, abortion is deadly.

Abortion also affects the importance society places on a woman’s choice to have sex. Currently, the woman’s “choice” is emphasized after conception, not before. That’s what the whole “pro-choice” movement is about. If society placed greater importance on the woman’s choice to have sex, wouldn’t women be more empowered? It is possible that rapists would receive harsher punishments and women would be more sexually respected. Abortion “cures” unwanted pregnancies, but it exacerbates the conditions that lead to those pregnancies.

By allowing women to be like men in having “total reproductive freedom,” abortion lets society off the hook from equalizing cultural norms that are presently male-oriented. For example, the 40-hour workweek is designed for the man who has a wife at home caring for their kids. In contrast, women who want to advance in the workforce often must choose not to have families and not to become pregnant. If abortion were not acceptable, then the powerful lobbying forces of feminist organizations could be concentrated on reworking societal norms so that women’s situations were simply understood as different norms, thus enabling women to have both careers and families, if they choose.

The feminist values of autonomy, equality, respect and biological health are not achieved by abortion. With the social acceptance of abortion, pregnancy is seen as a disability, equality comes from being like men, and women are exposed to potentially serious physical, psychological, sexual and societal harms. In the interest of all women, social acceptance of abortion must end.

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