Ritu Shah, Unit 8: Abortion

The concept of abortion has been around for centuries and inevitably the question is asked of whether abortion should be legal at all. In the years since the landmark decision by the Supreme Court on the case of Roe v Wade, the abortion debate has intensified as part of the political discourse in America. The question of abortion, of whether a woman should or should not be able to terminate her pregnancy, has many ethical, moral and religious arguments. In the current political climate of the United States, the question of abortion is incredibly polarizing, and data from the Pew Research Center suggests that the divide is increasingly falling along political party lines. The readings for this unit present both sides of the debate and the central arguments behind each side’s position. Judith Jarvis Thompson presents an argument supporting abortion in her essay “A Defense of Abortion” through an interesting series of hypothetical situations and analogies. On the other hand, Faye Ginsburg’s ethnography Contested Lives offers insight into both sides of the abortion debate in America through the rise of the debate within the microcosm of Fargo, North Dakota.

In “A Defense of Abortion”, Judith Jarvis Thompson argues that there are situations in which abortion is not immoral and therefore that abortion should not be entirely illegal. Her essay uses two central arguments to illustrate her point as well as multiple hypothetical situations and analogies to put abstract situations regarding the effect of pregnancy on a woman’s body into perspective. The first argument Thompson makes is that the fetus itself does not constitute a person in the same way we regard ‘you’ or ‘me’ as a person. She makes the specific point that while development from the moment of conception is a continuous process, and any line that we draw to say when a fetus becomes a person is arbitrary, we cannot feasibly say that the amalgamation of cells that arises just after conception constitutes a whole person. The majority of the essay follows Thompson’s second argument regarding the effect of the fetus on the mother’s body. She uses a hypothetical situation in which she prompts the reader to imagine being held against their will and hooked up to a well-known violinist so that he may survive by using the reader’s kidneys to illustrate the idea of carrying a fetus through nine months of pregnancy. Thompson first nullifies the argument of those against abortion even in the case of direct harm to the mother should she carry the pregnancy through to term. Thompson then presents the case of involuntary pregnancy such as that which occurs through rape. Lastly, Thompson discusses the case in which a woman simply is not in a position to be responsible for the fetus.

While Thompson’s logical arguments were sound in her defense of abortion, I found that her use of hypothetical situations and analogies took away from the arguments she was trying to make. Many of the analogies she used, such as the involuntary attachment to the violinist, the hand of Henry Fonda as a life-saving measure, or the boy keeping chocolate from his brother, were oversimplifications of the ideas of pregnancy and abortion. A violinist attached to you that you have never met would most likely hold a much different value when compared to a fetus that is made from your own genetic material. In this sense, I found that her methodology was not as effective as it could have been if, perhaps, she had used more apt analogies or built further on her logical arguments. Additionally, Thompson mentions at the end of the essay that she argues for abortion in some circumstances only and not all situations, however, to illustrate this, she uses the example of a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy considering an abortion as the pregnancy is affecting a planned trip. I found that this example did not help to further her argument, because the general population and the government agree that abortions from the sixth month to the end of pregnancy are not generally allowed unless in the case that the mother or child’s life is at risk. The argument for allowing abortions after six months is not a political argument, but more so a medical argument, thus, I feel that it doesn’t fall within the scope of the abortion debate that Thompson is discussing in her essay.  

Faye Ginsburg’s ethnography Contested Lives centers around the community of Fargo, North Dakota in the years after the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v Wade in 1973. After the opening of the first women’s clinic performing abortions in Fargo in 1981, the abortion debate quickly picked up steam in the community, and Ginsburg uses this as a model to illustrate how the debate takes place in the United States. Ginsburg’s first goal with the ethnography was to “understand the [abortion] debate at the community level,” which is why she chose the community of Fargo as it is small but large enough to comprise “diversity in class, ethnicity and religion” (3). Ginsburg’s second goal for the ethnography was to “understand the [abortion] debate from the ‘actor’s’ points of view” which is why she chooses to interview both female pro-life and pro-choice activists, as she believes they offer the most relevant insight into the abortion debate (3). Ginsburg accomplishes these goals by first detailing the rise of the contemporary abortion debate in America beginning when physicians began to seek to control over access to abortions in the late nineteenth century and continuing through to the historic decision of Roe v Wade in 1973 and the rise of the right-to-life movement in the following years. She then shifts from the macro view of the debate at the national level to stories of activists within the community of Fargo following the opening of clinic in 1981. Ginsburg uses the narratives of the women that she converses with to arrive at the conclusion that women on both sides of the debate are fighting for the same issues, and their differences in how to resolve the issue are governed by their contrasting life experiences.

Ginsburg’s purpose with her ethnography was not to argue for one side of the debate or the other as we saw in the Thompson reading; instead, she sought to present both sides of the debate in a truthful manner as it plays out in real communities. For this reason, I thought that her method of interviewing women who are actively participating in the debate was a convincing way to portray both sides in a non-biased manner. Often with pieces of literature discussing controversial topics which are as polarizing as abortion, it becomes difficult to report in an unbiased manner. Ginsburg mentions that she posed as a journalist in the community, and this allowed her to build connections on both sides of the spectrum as they all saw Ginsburg as a publicity mechanism (5). Her position as a reporter allowed her access to information from both sides of the debate without being regarded or judged as being pro-life or pro-choice. She discusses her positionality as an unmarried, Jewish woman entering a largely conservative, Christian population, and I found that this gave her more credibility in her reporting. She states this herself that since she was Jewish, she did not have to ‘prove’ her Christian beliefs. Overall, I thought that Ginsburg did an excellent job of reporting both sides of the debate and did so in a manner that can be extrapolated to the national level of debate.

Abortion is an extremely complicated topic in the United States, and far too often with controversial issues such as this one, individuals will take one side and refuse to listen to the other’s point of view. From this standpoint, I enjoyed reading Ginsburg’s Contested Lives because it presented both the pro-life and pro-choice arguments in a clear and concise manner. As someone who is staunchly pro-choice, reading both sides of the debate only strengthened my own view on the subject. Ginsburg presented both sides of the argument with support from discussions with women which allows the reader to understand why people believe that abortion should be legal or not. This forced me to consider my own life experiences and what leads me to believe in the choice argument, and by relating my own experiences to those discussed in the book, I was able to confirm my belief in a woman’s right to choose. In contrast, I found myself rethinking the pro-choice argument while reading Thompson’s essay due to the lack of evidence to support the logical argument. Even though Thompson’s goal was to present an argument as to why abortion should be legal, I was not fully convinced by her argument, because I personally did not relate to the hypothetical situations and analogies she used.

The readings for this unit build a solid foundation to understand the complex nature of the abortion debate in America. As someone who is looking to work on reproductive health policy in the future, it is crucial to understand the origins of arguments from individuals on both sides of the debate. Personally, I have always thought the pro-life argument was based in religion, and while it largely is, there is something to be said for the moral side of the argument. While the readings did not change my own position on the subject, I found that together they did an excellent job of presenting the similarities and differences in people’s mindsets on both sides of the debate.

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