Academic Perceptions of Abortion:
a Review of Humanities Scholarship Produced Within the Academy

Jeff J. Koloze
Reproduced with Permission

What do my colleagues in humanities say when they write about the right-to-life issues? This was the question I posed for research to be presented at this year's annual conference of University Faculty for Life. Hopefully, within the following pages the answers I provide will prove satisfactory. Here is my perspective on the "state of the scholarship" -- at least in humanities -- on right-to-life issues.

The methodology for this year's paper was simple. I wanted to focus on recent humanities scholarship dealing with the three right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. A few items from recent scholarship came to my attention from a variety of sources (such as email lists from pro-life groups in Canada and the United States). However, virtually all of the monographs published since 2000 which I thought would pertain to the life issues were advertised in recent issues of Publications of the Modern Language Association, the official publication of the premiere organization which concerns itself with scholarship in the humanities.

The clause "which I thought would pertain to the life issues" indicates that, sometimes, I was led to "dead ends". Thanks to the immediacy of email, I could obtain responses from the various scholars to ascertain whether their works concern abortion. For example, I thought that Generation and Degeneration: Tropes of Reproduction in Literature and History from Antiquity Through Early Modern Europe, a 2001 monograph edited by Valeria Finucci and Kevin Brownlee, would certainly concern abortion. Finucci emailed to say that "it does not, although there are a few references". Similarly, I thought that Laura Frost's 2002 monograph Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism would definitely concern abortion, but Frost emailed to say that "My book doesn't address right-to-life issues or any related reproductive issues. I focus on fantasy and sexuality/eroticism in literature". Tamar Katz also responded by email to say that her 2000 monograph, Impressionist Subjects: Gender, Interiority, and Modernist Fiction in England, "doesn't discuss abortion". Nancy J. Peterson's 2001 monograph, Against Amnesia: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historical Memory, "discusses history, not abortion." Michelle Lise Tarter confirmed that the 2001 monograph which she edited with Janet Moore Lindman, A Centre of Wonders: the Body in Early America, does not concern abortion at all. "I don't think that any of the essays actually approaches this topic of abortion", she notes. "There is one essay on Elizabeth Emerson (Hannah Duston's sister), but the issue of abortion is not actually discussed." Finally, Elizabeth A. Wheeler replied that her 2001 monograph, Uncontained: Urban Fiction in Postwar America, also does not concern abortion.

Perhaps the problem in identifying abortion passages in current scholarship is one of indexing. For example, in her 2001 monograph, Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934, Rachel Blau DuPlessis does "treat one poem by Mina Loy that in passing mentions abortion. It is not indexed in the book. The chapter concerns representations of sexual intercourse in literature, and is entitled '"Seismic Orgasm": sexual intercourse, its modern representations and politics'".1

Thanks to the Ohiolink interlibrary loan system which includes virtually all of the libraries of public and private colleges and universities in Ohio, I was able to obtain many of the titles I wanted to review. Having obtained these, I quickly determined that the focus of scholarship on the life issues was restricted to the first life issue, abortion.

My critique of some scholarship will primarily concern the absence of discussion of the right-to-life issues in areas where, in my estimation, the scholarship should have addressed the issues or would have been more comprehensive if the right-to-life issues were addressed. Towards the end of my research, I decided that I would contact the authors themselves, asking them questions about their presentation of material -- or lack thereof -- on the right-to-life issues. Finally, I will demonstrate whether ideas from the recent scholarship can be used to help students as they study a representative passage of contemporary literature.

When I reviewed the draft of this paper, the idea came to me that what I would present can be classified into three facetious categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The "good" section will consider recent scholarship which is not hostile to right-to-life interests or persons, but which presents material which right-to-lifers can use in the classroom to support claims made since the founding of the movement. The "bad" section discusses recent scholarship whose hostility to right-to-life interests is obvious. The "ugly" section consists of the application of some ideas from recent scholarship to that representative passage of contemporary literature I referred to in the previous paragraph. I do not mean to say that Juliana Baggott's poem "Seventy Degrees in December" is ugly. Au contraire, I contend that the application of some ideas from recent scholarship itself creates an ugly interpretation of literature.

Review of Selected Humanities Literature

Although academic discussion of the international effects of the first right-to-life issue of abortion is rare in recent literature,2 academics delving into the experience of the United States have much to say. Paradoxically, some academics have contributed to the abortion "discussion" by what they have omitted as much as by what they have written about the subject.

Nancy Bauer's 2001 monograph Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, & Feminism continues recent scholarship which strives to enlighten the ideas of one of the most important women in the twentieth century. Bauer provides extensive footnote commentary on Beauvoir's attitude toward children and abortion. After documenting Beauvoir's commitment to abortion, Bauer writes,

Beauvoir was notorious for her own horror of having and caring for babies. But in interviews, especially toward the end of her life, she was at pains to insist that her own lack of desire to have children did not play a role in her admonishing women to consider carefully the possibility of opting out of motherhood. Tellingly enough, Beauvoir warned that, given the demands placed on mothers in our culture, having children frequently constituted for women a form of slavery. When asked, for example, by Yolanda Patterson in 1985 what advice she would give to women who wanted both to have children and to "maintain their own identity and independence", Beauvoir said, "One must really follow one's deepest desires. Otherwise one feels unfulfilled.... But one should be very careful not to become enslaved." And in an interview (one in a famous series) with Alice Schwarzer in 1976 she said, "I think a woman should be on her guard against the trap of motherhood and marriage. Even if she would dearly like to have children, she ought to think seriously about the conditions under which she would have to bring them up, because being a mother these days is real slavery." (274; ellipsis in original)

In this respect, Bauer is continuing the research by Germain Kopaczynski, documenting the emergence of abortion in Beauvoir's work and how that importance may have been based on faulty readings of Catholic ethical positions.3

While Beauvoir was writing in France, in the United States a new label was given to those writers who were reacting against the tenets of postwar American life: the Beat generation. Most of the major writers of the Beat generation are associated with the culture of the 1950s. Many pro-lifers may associate the Beat generation with support for abortion as well, thinking that any reaction against middle-class American values from the 1950s would obviously include abortion. Since this decade is often cited as the one that Beat writers in the 1950s and 1960s reacted against, one would expect to find some support for the overthrow of the right to life among Beat writers. Ann Charters' 2001 monograph Beat Down to Your Soul: What Was the Beat Generation? is fascinating because it does not establish this connection between an admittedly radical group of writers and an attack on the first civil right to life.

One chapter, especially, is noteworthy for what it does not say about abortion, as Charters herself confirms in an email response that "abortion isn't addressed in" the monograph. Titled "Panel Discussion with Women Writers of the Beat Generation", Charters leads discussion with "a panel of so-called Beat chicks", women who were involved in the Beat movement not only as writers themselves, but as spouses or lovers of male Beat writers such as William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. Although she credits Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique as "the most influential book in radicalizing American women readers" (612), Charters claims that

We women wanted marriage too. Our sexual freedom came at a high price in the 1950s, when most men respected a woman only if she was somebody's wife.... Although we were in rebellion against what we considered our second-class status in American society, we still respected marriage. Ironically, at the time we thought it was the final proof of our independence. A wedding ring was a visible sign to an uncaring world that we weren't immature or irresponsible or unstable, that we had accomplished something of value on our own. (613)

In the interview itself, other panelists speak only of feminism and liberation in vague terms. For example, Joyce Johnson suggests how radically different the Beat chicks were from their 1960s second-wave feminist sisters:

In the late fifties, it was an enormous thing for a young woman who wasn't married to leave home, support herself, have her own apartment, have a sex life. This was before the pill, when having sex was like Russian roulette, really. It wasn't the moment then to try to transform relationships with men. Just to get your foot out the door into the world as an independent person was just such an enormous thing. (629; emphasis in original)

According to Johnson, Jack Kerouac "had a horror of the idea of bringing life into the world because he had seen a child die, that child being his brother" (630-1). That is the closest one comes to finding a passage that can be construed in any way as being anti-child. The final panelist whom I will mention, Joanna McClure, further stated that "I didn't join the women's movement, but I did my personal part in creating freedom for myself" (630).

Sara M. Evans' essay "Sources of the Second Wave: the Rebirth of Feminism", published in the 2001 monograph Long Time Gone: Sixties America Then and Now, has a much more activist section titled "Making the Personal Political". While it is common knowledge that "consciousness-raising groups were seedbeds for what grew into diverse movements around issues ranging from women's health, child care, violence, and pornography to spirituality and music" (201), Evans exemplifies this connection between such feminist groups and abortion:

As groups analyzed childhood experiences for clues to the origins of women's oppression in relations with men, marriage, motherhood, and sex, discussion led to action, and action on one topic led to another. For example, in an early meeting of New York Radical Women, several women described their experiences with illegal abortions. For most it was the first time they had told anyone beyond a close friend or two. The power of this revelation, however, contrasted sharply with the current debates surrounding proposed liberalization of the abortion law in New York, which were conducted with clinical detachment. (201-2)

The one paragraph in her essay solely devoted to abortion is worth closer examination. After discussing the disruptions of legislative activity on abortion, Evans writes that

With this and numerous other actions and demonstrations women's liberation groups made themselves the "shock troops" of abortion rights, joining an already active abortion law reform movement. For the most part, they sought to intervene directly, offering services, public education, and assistance to women rather than lobbying for reform. In Chicago, a group within the Chicago Women's Liberation Union called "Jane", which began doing counseling and referrals in the late 1960s, shifted in 1971 to performing abortions themselves. Between 1971 and 1973, Jane performed eleven thousand illegal abortions with a safety record that matched that of doctor-performed legal abortions. (202)4

What is striking about this section is the absence of discussion about the growth of pro-life alternatives during this same period. Birthright and other pregnancy support groups experienced phenomenal growth in the 1960s and 1970s, in part to help meet the demands of mothers who chose to give birth instead of abortion.5 Similarly, judicial and legislative efforts to retain protective measures are ignored.6

Kevin M. Crotty's 2001 monograph Law's Interior: Legal and Literary Constructions of the Self has several interesting points to make about legal constructs and the language of rights which will be quoted extensively. Crotty discusses the thinking of many prominent theorists whose works impact legal thinking on abortion. The twentieth-century philosopher John Rawls and the legal theorist, and nor federal judge, Richard Posner have profoundly affected their respective disciplines. Crotty critiques some aspects of their thinking vis-a-vis individual rights, the freedom of the individual, and abortion. Stanley Hauerwas had already argued against the application of Rawls' philosophy in his chapter on abortion in the 1981 monograph A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (see pages 216-7 especially). While not expressly updating Hauerwas' research, Crotty does elaborate two decades later some of the ideas mentioned in Hauerwas' work. For example, when discussing Rawls' concept of "public reason", Crotty suggests that, when applied to abortion,

instead of sealing off public debate from intractable problems, the boundaries Rawls envisions may make the debate even more bitter and divisive, for these public terms seem to predetermine the result and to silence opposing voices before the fact. (37)

It should be obvious that pro-lifers can use this line of argument to demonstrate how various levels of political correctivity -- whether in the humanities, law, or other disciplines -- have attempted to silence their own voices.

Similarly, Crotty points out potential problems in Posner's thinking which pro-lifers can use to their advantage. Posner "develops the line adumbrated by Holmes [that "the man of the future" will be "the social engineer, not the legal expert versed in the letter of the law"], and argues that law should be a relatively unselfconscious, 'transitive' tool for bringing about rational outcomes" (153). However, according to Crotty, when Posner's argument involves abortion, recent twentieth century decisions by the Supreme Court such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Roe v. Wade (1973) indicate that such rational development is frustrated. Specifically, if "the normative question of women's reproductive rights -- or the connection between women's autonomy and legislation outlawing abortion -- does not play a major role in his argument" (153), then what, in Crotty's estimation, does?

After Brown and Roe, any concept of rights, if it is to be really plausible, must be responsive to the physical aspect of citizens as beings with a race and gender. By confronting the Constitution with the sexuality of its citizens, for example -- a reality that had previously been obscured or marginalized in law -- Roe requires considerable adjustment to the legal image of ourselves as simply rational and autonomous. It points to a more complex model that situates rationality within a personality that both promotes and undermines it. Naturally, a vision of the human being as deeply sexual and therefore partly irrational is hardly a surprise in a post-Freudian era.7 The point is that Roe made sexuality relevant to an understanding of the Constitution and the political community it structures. (192)

The implications of such a philosophy are clear for Crotty:

As in Brown, autonomy emerges from Roe as something partisan and contested. The majority opinion in Roe struck down the abortion laws at issue in the name of privacy, and in the interests of keeping the government out of necessarily intimate decisions. But preventing states from legislating against abortion did not secure state neutrality. First, by assuring women control over their reproductive functions, Roe leveled the playing field for males and females in the public sector. It also modified the family's internal dynamics on the interests of securing individual autonomy: parents, for example, cannot use law to veto a minor's decision to have an abortion. More deeply, by holding that states could not take away from women the ability to choose, Roe made it likelier that women would be autonomous individuals able to govern their own lives rationally. In other words, Roe did not so much respect an independently existing autonomy in woman as help to produce it, and to do so in the face of deep and pervasive social forces that resisted it. It reflects a troubling view of the Constitution as an aggressive force, bringing about the autonomy it presupposes. Roe and Brown, then, both undermine Holmes's vision of the Constitution as facilitating debate, but existing essentially independent of it. The Constitution, as construed in these cases, is necessarily partisan -- immersed in the political fray, and struggling to bring about its own version of the good. (213)

On these premises, criticism of Roe, a creation of only about three decades, is not only obvious, but also possible, if only because it is on a collision course with a millennia-old construct of the human condition: the family. Crotty states:

Roe replicates in a highly sophisticated latter-day setting the conflict between state and household that drove (for example) the Oresteia, in which a legal system was based on the denial of the woman's role in procreation. The state stands for equality, generality, and legality, while the family embodies specificity, hierarchy, and authority. The citizen has a certain fungibility, for (s)he is conceived abstractly -- that is, apart from the concrete particulars that constitute the individual identity of the person within the household. The citizen, too, has a certain a temporal quality: young and old citizens, qua citizens, are equals. The family, in contrast, is deeply rooted in time and change: age is a highly significant difference among its members, and the household is in a continuing process of generation, growth, and decline. (214)

Crotty concludes his criticism of Roe by saying that

Roe represents the culmination (at least for now) of a development in which autonomy becomes ever more problematic, and increasingly difficult to reconcile with perceptions of the individuals' vulnerability to circumstance and his or her deeply formative relations with others, above all in the household. (217)8

A practical application of Crotty's criticism of Roe will be suggested in the "ugly" section at the end of this paper.

There are many more minor passages which can be culled from current scholarship to assist pro-lifers in the effort to restore the first civil right to life. For example, Claudia Roth Pierpont's 2000 monograph Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World chastises Anais Nin for the deception with which she wrote of her abortion.

This abortion is shocking to read about. The story that Nin made of it, the celebrated "Birth", begins with the line "'The child,' said the doctor, 'is dead,' and goes on for its five brief pages to describe the agony of a woman stretched on a table, six months pregnant, too weak to push the child from her body and too tender of spirit to be fully willing to push it out, "even though it had died in me" and "even though it threatened my life".... The story was drawn from Nin's diary, and reappeared in elaborated but not substantially altered 1966.... There were many clues in this account to what really happened, but they were easily ignored in the light of Nin's insistent claim to truth.... The convolution of lies and editing and reediting is hard to sort out, and here, still, are the luxuriantly sentimental phrases -- "regrets, long dreams of what this little girl might have been", and "the simple human flowering denied to me because of the dream, again, the sacrifice to other forms of creation". This abortion was a sacrifice made to art, and to ensure "my destiny as the mistress, my life as a woman".... In this instance, rewriting her history was probably Nin's best deed for the feminist cause, and her most important lie. For even in an age of hard-won and vulnerable freedoms, the truth we are offered now is recognizably obscene. (76-8)

Anthony Cunningham's 2001 monograph The Heart of What Matters: the Role for Literature in Moral Philosophy includes commentary on post-abortion grief without unnecessarily criticizing the validity of such a concept, as many anti-lifers have done:

The sense of moral diminishment associated with guilt and shame can sometimes be seen in cases where people feel justified, indeed compelled to do what they do. For instance, studies show that a large percentage of women who choose elective abortion because of severe genetic defects or malformations in second trimester fetuses not only suffer overwhelming grief but often experience feelings of profound guilt and diminished self-esteem. This is so despite the fact that they are convinced their course of action is best for the child and their family. (203)

Cunningham concludes his footnote source citation by saying that "Having to aim directly at ending a desired pregnancy can exact a grave toll.9 Unlike other deaths, abortions usually do not attract the same communal recognition and support that mean so much in the grief process" (289).

Finally, Susan Wells' 2001 monograph Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth-Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine can help fill out an important part of nineteenth-century abortion history. If many historians view the effort to safeguard the right to life in the nineteenth century as a male construct, then Wells' research refutes that premise.

All women physicians knew of Madame Rastell, the New York abortionist.... It had been Madame Rastell's profanation of motherhood, in fact, that finally determined Elizabeth Blackwell to overcome her repugnance for the body and become a physician. Early graduates of the Woman's Medical College, writing on such topics as medical jurisprudence and criminal abortion, specified ways of determining whether abortions had been induced and ways of resisting patients' pleas for help in obtaining one. Rachel Gleason, a water cure physician who, with her husband, ran a popular sanitorium in New York State, told women who came to her for abortions that a woman who married was obliged to accept children as they came, and she disputed their belief in the legitimacy of abortion before "quickening", when the fetus could be felt moving.... Gleason's control of her patients' reproduction was all the more effective because she offered an understanding ear to the transgressor.... Gleason's account suggests that, while they practiced a conventional range of therapies, women physicians also understood their medical practice as support for, and regulation of, motherhood. (32-3)

All of these excerpts from contemporary scholarship can certainly be used to advance the pro-life movement. Now, however, I would like to move on to research which is hostile to pro-life interests.

Next Page: Academic Scholarship Hostile to Right to Life
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