This week’s readings center on the abortion debate in the United States that began in the mid 1900s and is still of large concern today. Contested Lives: An Abortion Debate in the American Community by Faye Ginsburg is an ethnography that analyzes the conflict of abortion by utilizing Fargo, North Dakota as a microcosm of a larger American society. The second reading is a chapter excerpt from Hadley Arkes’s First Things: An Inquiry Into the First Principles of Morals and Justice and it explores the ethics behind the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973 and its implications on society. Finally, the last reading, which was published earliest, is Judith Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” which explores the philosophy behind the right to life movement and argues against it. The readings this week encompass the moral reasoning and consequences of the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate in American society throughout the 1970s-80s.
From the onset, Ginsburg states her identity and any biases that might affect her work. She states, “I was concerned, initially, that being a young, unmarried, Jewish, and urban visitor from New York City might pose serious barriers to communication with Fargo residents (5).” She was extremely aware that she was about to enter a conservative and homogenous small city in the Midwest that prides itself for having the “highest rate of church attendance of any standard metropolitan area (4).” It was interesting that Ginsburg found her New Yorker identity the hardest identity to overcome when talking to Fargo residents. I believe this to be a testament to the divide in ideologies across the country and how reactions toward abortion differed even after the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. Thus, I appreciated that Ginsburg started off her ethnography with a couple chapters devoted to the history of abortion debate in the U.S., before delving into her findings in Fargo starting in Chapter 4. Unlike most ethnographic studies, she spends time acknowledging that there is a larger context of conflict that is occurring at a different pace outside of this small city.
Hence, I would like to discuss Thomson’s and Arkes’s works before analyzing Ginsburg’s conclusions because both works were published before Contested Lives and set the larger framework in which Ginsburg conducted her ethnography. Judith Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” defends the right of choice for a pregnant woman to control her own body. This moral philosophy paper was published in 1971 and spurred a lot of discussion and critiques from both sides of the abortion debate pre-Roe vs. Wade. Thomson operates under the assumption that “most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception (47).” She calls attention to the issue that opponents of abortion do not “draw the line” from which a fetus is person to where abortion starts being impermissible.
Thomson uses the thought experiment of the unconscious violinist to explain her viewpoint. She sets a scenario of a famous violinist with a fatal kidney ailment who can only be cured by you and so the Society if Music Lovers kidnaps you. The next day, the director of the hospital informs you that “we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you (48),” but to unplug yourself from the violinist now will kill him. Thomson questions “is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation (48)?” She then mentions the time frame and pushes the reader to determine if the decision would change depending on if you had to be plugged in for one hour (“be a good Samaritan”), nine months (equivalent to pregnancy), or nine years (a much longer time span)?
Thomson uses this thought experiment to walk through several scenarios from the extremist view of never aborting a child even to save a mother’s life to whether or not a mother has a special responsibility for the fetus from conception. At first glance, I found Thomson’s work to be very persuasive. The analogies used throughout the paper and moral reasoning resonated with me and I even found myself nodding my head as I read. I found myself proclaiming, “of course a woman should be able to save her own life” or “it is not her fault she was raped!” Nonetheless, after contemplation, I realized I felt prey to Thomson’s rhetoric strategy of simple analogies to explain the complex issue at hand. She successfully empathized with my identity as a female who hopes to have a child one day to get her point across.
Thus, it is important to put emotions aside and note several criticisms that should be addressed from either side of the abortion debate. First off, Thomson’s argument is solely based on the fetal right to life assumption. This assumption in itself only represents a portion of the larger controversy. Additionally, the violinist analogy obviously isn’t perfect and Thomson tries to remedy this throughout her reasoning. However, nothing can be changed about the fact that the violinist is a stranger to you, unlike a fetus inside of you, or that you were kidnapped in the scenario, restricting the abortion argument to extreme cases such as rape or imminent death for the mother.
- Did you find Thomson’s argument compelling?
- Do you believe that Thomson’s use of analogies was an effective method of communication? If yes, do you think the violinist analogy is representative of getting am abortion? Can any analogy be representative of that decision?
- What do you think should be the role of a third-party in the mother’s decision to abort her child?
In the chapter titled, “The Question of Abortion and the Discipline of Moral Reasoning,” Arkes explores the interaction between morals and the law post-Roe vs. Wade decision made by Justice Blackmun. Arkes states, “Within the space of five lines, Justice Blackmun managed to incorporate three or four fallacies, not the least of which was the assumption that the presence of disagreement (or the absence of “consensus”) indicates the absence of truth (360).” The assumption referenced is that the judge’s decision was the answer to the dispute over when life begins. Arkes spends much of the chapter explaining that the judicial decision did not solve the dispute but rather added to the fuel because it brought to light even more ethical debates.
Arkes stresses the need for justification when making any moral decision. Arkes analyzes Blackmun’s suggestion that the “fetus becomes ‘viable’ somewhere between the 24th and 28th weeks, and he indicated that the state would have a stronger “’logical and biological justification’ to act at this point (376).” The next line is Blackmun’s clarification that “this justification would never be sufficiently compelling in any case to override the interest of the mother having her baby (376).” This judicial stance highlighted the importance of justification and also that the abortion debate by no means would end with Roe vs. Wade.
- Is it possible to create laws without taking morality into account? Is it justified to separate morals and laws?
- How does the need for justification change your viewpoint on the abortion debate from a mother’s, the fetal, and the physician’s perspectives?
- Do you agree with the Ann Landers argument presented by Arkes for a mother to have an abortion?
Finally, I’d like to return to Ginsburg’s work now that the other two readings for the week have set the national background under which Ginsburg was conducting her anthropological study. The abortion controversy that began once the abortion clinic open in Fargo in 1981 is a social drama. Ginsburg states it is a “sequence of phased conflicts typical of “social dramas”: breach, crisis, redress, regression to crisis, and eventually stabilization either through schism or reintegration (121).” There were many waves of strongholds on the pro-choice and pro-life sides throughout the 1980s.
In what she refers to as “procreation stories”, Ginsburg sought out life narratives from both sides of the argument. She found that pro-choice women found inequalities to be rooted in gender discrimination and choose economic and political remedies to solve the issue at hand. For pro-life women, “opposition to abortion, like other moral reform campaigns, is a gesture against what they see as the final triumph of self interest, a principle that represents both men and the market (216).” Thus, I found these overall findings to be interesting as they both point to abortion as an inherent feminism argument. All women interviewed thought that the underlying issue was with the definition of female gender identity and the placement of this identity in society.
It is important note that Ginsburg relays that there isn’t any large gap of socioeconomic class or other prominent identity that separates women on either side of the argument in Fargo. I think this is a remarkable statement because it actually highlights the intrinsic similarities between women on either side of the argument who are all trying to advance feminist values. It seems that it is the ideologies that are in opposition, not necessarily the women themselves.
Ginsburg’s goal in conducting her study was to “understand how this grass roots conflict shaped and was shaped by activists’ experiences of self, gender, family, community, and culture in a specific setting (6).” She was able to portray this inter-sectionality well, but concluded that the issue boiled down to a women’s place in society. She places a lot of significance on the role of nurturance in determining philosophical questions of either side of the abortion argument.
- After reading Ginsburg’s ethnography do you think that pro-life supporters are entirely different from their opponents, the pro-choice supporters?
- Ginsburg sheds a negative light on national media with ABC’s portrayal of the conflict in Fargo. An account is presented from a leader of the LIFE Coalition who is “disgusted and disappointed” because ABC “paid women money to interview anonymously and tell how their needs had not been met when working with the pro life groups.” Do you think the role of media has been positive or negative in the abortion debate today?
- What are your thoughts on Ginsburg’s final conclusion that any type of activist controversy “suggests a dynamic relationship between the construction of self and social action in (American) society (220)?”