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

Academic Scholarship Hostile to Right to Life

Susan Friend Harding's 2000 monograph The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics begins my examination of academic opposition to pro-life interests. Commenting on the opening anecdote of Jerry Falwell's 1986 monograph If I Should Die, Harding writes that

The feminist image of a woman gaining control over her body and her life through abortion rights becomes the other victim of abortion, a helpless girl who is driven to abortion because she has no other way. With a few more strokes of a pen, If I Should Die converts another feminist image, that of men opposing abortion rights to deprive women of elemental, bodily equality and liberty, into an image of a born-again male hero rising up in the country of reproducing women, a man-father-Father figure who will save girl-mothers, as well as babies, from the maw of abortion. (188; emphasis in original)10

This passage can be interrogated from a pro-life perspective on many levels, the first, of course, being language. One can note Harding's preoccupation with "feminist images" -- at least three identified here. In the first image, abortion is defined as "a woman gaining control over her body and her life through abortion rights". Note that "abortion" is not defined as either the medical definition of the premature expulsion of the fetus before viability, or defined as the termination (as in "ending") of a pregnancy by natural or other means, or defined as the killing of an unborn child. I find it curious, too, that Harding has made the overthrow of the first civil right plural. What other "rights" are involved in abortion besides the court-sanctioned opportunity to have the unborn child killed?

The second image which Harding proposes is that opposition to abortion is a male practice -- and not only simply to be described as a male practice, but a practice "of men opposing abortion rights to deprive women of elemental, bodily equality and liberty". Harding proposes that we accept several aspects of the non sequitur logical fallacy manifested here. Thus, if any man opposes abortion, then he also wants to deprive women of political rights ("liberty") and of equal opportunity which is described in such a way that it pertains not only to positions in society ("equality"), but also to their physical integrity ("bodily equality"), which is itself enhanced as being fundamental to their personhood ("elemental, bodily equality").

One gets the impression that Harding is caught up in the earliest avatar of feminist literary criticism, which was (and still is) preoccupied with the idea that a male-dominated society, encapsulated in the term "patriarchy", is one which necessarily oppresses women.11 The language she uses demonstrates that she highly resents males who are involved in the pro-life movement, so much so that the entire movement itself is reduced to the third image that she excoriates, "an image of a born-again male hero rising up in the country of reproducing women, a man-father-Father figure who will save girl-mothers, as well as babies, from the maw of abortion". Even the highly connotative word "maw" suggests that the word is suitable because pro-life activism can be equated with a sentimentalized drama.

Susan Ehrlich's 2001 monograph Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent continues the academic dislike for pro-life terminology. Although her work is primarily concerned with rape, it is interesting to note the biased use of language in her discussion of the case of Boston abortionist Kenneth Edelin:

That the lexical items designating objects and events in a trial can constitute "potentially important social acts" is convincingly demonstrated by Danet (1980) in her analysis of a Massachusetts trial in which a Boston obstetrician-gynaecologist was charged with manslaughter for performing a late abortion. Focusing on the ways that the prosecution and the defence named and categorized the aborted entity, Danet illuminates the ideological and strategic significance of such choices: the prosecution consistently used terms such as "baby", "child" and "little baby boy" whereas the defence used terms such as "fetus" and "products of conception". In other words, the "war of words" waged in this trial invoked and reproduced more general cultural debates about the "living" status of aborted entities. After all, intrinsic to legal definitions of manslaughter, and arguably a conviction, is the concept of "killing" which presupposes the prior existence of a "life". (37-8)

John V. Pickstone argues in his 2000 monograph, Ways of Knowing: a New History of Science, Technology and Medicine, that American and British abortion "histories, especially if they are comparative, may serve to help us understand the presentation of issues in our present, and the prospects of reaching accommodation, if not agreement" (223; emphasis in original). Unfortunately, Ehrlich focuses on the connotative impact of words in order to destabilize the facts of abortion history. Once again, the use of clear and concise language by pro-lifers is apparently the tool which most irritates anti-lifers.

Ehrlich's continuation of the assault on pro-life terminology is nothing contrasted against that of Andrea Slane in her 2001 monograph A Not So Foreign Affair: Fascism, Sexuality, and the Cultural Rhetoric of American Democracy. While most of this monograph is concerned with cultural studies, Slane continues the assault against pro-life ideas on the opening pages:

Outside the 1996 Democratic National Convention, a lone white man in a suit and tie staged a one-man antiabortion protest. Holding an American flag, he clutched a white baby doll to his chest and waved a black one over his head. As a father figure in a domestic tableau, the man likely wanted to be seen as protecting babies from their bad mothers, who, with the approval of the government, would kill them. (1)

This passage can be critiqued on the same bases as that of Harding's earlier. First, of course, is the incorrect identification of the pro-lifer as an "antiabortionist". As long ago as 1987, Faye Ginsburg commented on the difficulty of using biased language in scholarly material. Studying abortion activists in Fargo, North Dakota, Ginsburg was one of a few scholars who chose to use the correct terms which pro-lifers use to identify themselves, basing her argument on "Malinowski's axiom that the anthropologist's task is, in part, to represent the world from the native's point of view, I have used the appellation each group chooses for itself" ("Procreation" 634).12 Slane, however, is concerned not so much about the content of the ideas which the pro-lifer suggests by his actions as much as she is by the gender of the pro-lifer. Obviously, being male makes more of a statement worthy of contemporary critical attention than other aspects of his picketing. The pro-lifer's attempt at racial equality and patriotism are unremarkable to Slane -- at least at this point in her cultural criticism. What is perhaps more disturbing is the presumption Slane makes that the pro-lifer has made a judgment about the mothers who abort: specifically, that they are "bad mothers" and that this judgment, which she thinks that he wholeheartedly adopts, comes from the babies to be killed by their mothers. I know of no pro-lifer who has such a condemning attitude toward mothers who abort. Moreover, Slane may be in one of those scholarly enclaves which sees picketing as the only vehicle for pro-life action, thus eliminating the need to comment on other spheres of activity -- legislative, political, judicial, financial, pregnancy support care, etc. -- which occupy pro-lifers' lives.

More important than this image to be explicated by a cultural studies approach is use of the holocaust metaphor. Slane bristles at the association of the Nazi holocaust and the one occurring in the United States:

The logic of the parallel between Nazi Germany and the United States surely draws in large part on a metaphor of the gigantic human costs of the Holocaust, where state-mandated, scientifically-executed killing is equated with the state-sanctioned legality of elective abortion. This argument of course depends on the equation of the embryo or fetus with the adults and children exterminated in Nazi death camps -- a widespread practice in the antiabortion movement.... By drawing an equation between the murder of millions of Jews and other "undesirables" and abortions, antiabortion advocates hope to succeed in both granting personhood to embryos and casting feminists and abortion doctors as state-sanctioned murderers. (2-3, 80)

The above quote merges passages spanning eighty pages, and yet they illustrate the consistent vehemence with which contemporary scholarship reacts when faced with the pro-life claim of equality between the two holocausts. It is significant that Slane's parallelism grammatically lessens the impact of the abortion holocaust. Where the genocides of Nazi Germany are labelled "state-mandated, scientifically-executed killing", the abortion holocaust in the United States is termed "state-sanctioned legality of elective abortion". The inference should be clear, according to Slane: the various genocides in Nazi Germany were somehow hoisted on the German nation while abortion was simply recognized by the Supreme Court as a matter of the expression of a voluntary choice. Slane is unable to recognize the personhood of the unborn child with the personhood of the victim of the Nazi concentration camps. Commentary has already been given on the inappropriate use of the word "antiabortion" -- itself given in tortured and verbose language which should confuse the logical mind (can one really be an "antiabortion advocate", that is, one who advocates or supports a position against abortion, or one who is against a position of support, or one who...?). Finally, Slane perpetuates the stereotype that pro-lifers attack feminists and abortionists (called euphemistically "abortion doctors") personally and label them "murderers". This fear, of course, is one expression of what she incorrectly perceives as an ad hominem attack made against anti-lifers.

Application of Ideas from Recent Scholarship to a Representative Passage of Contemporary Literature

Juliana Baggott's 2001 collection of poems, This Country of Mothers, contains one poem, "Seventy Degrees in December", which I have chosen for the experiment expressed at the beginning of this paper -- to demonstrate whether ideas from recent scholarship can be used to help students as they study a representative passage of contemporary literature. Here is the full text of the poem:

We've grown accustomed to death,
but today in warm wind
the leaves clamber
to return to their limbs --
not from regret as much as confusion.

And I am pregnant again.
This baby I already know,
stitching itself
inside me, something desperate.
I imagine its birth feet first
ready to steel itself against gravity.

My grandmother believes that bees
are the souls of the dead,
that dead souls
are folded, like eggs
with cake batter, into the infant body or before.
Bees dream of the tulip's sweet cradle.
I pull down a bare limb.
It is covered
with impossible buds.
We never grow accustomed to death,
leaves, perhaps
but not the baby dying in the womb.
Wasn't I the desperate one, steeling myself
against birth?

My grandmother is here again,
this time not with her bees
but to tell me Aunt Effie lost one this way too,
so long inside her, though,
it turned to stone.

I imagine that is the weight
that stays in my belly,
a rock child that could fit
in the palm of my open hand.
And what of the bare limbs?
Did I expect the impossible buds to bloom? (Baggott 39-40)13

A near-parallelism in this poem recalls another parallelism in a more famous poem about another kind of failed pregnancy -- Gwendolyn Brooks' poem about abortion titled "The Mother". A refrain in Brooks' poem incarnates the mantra of the post-abortive mother. "Abortions will not let you forget", the persona says (Brooks 430). After discoursing on conditions under which the abortion was performed, the reader cannot determine if the last claim of fact in the poem is sincere or not: "Believe me, I loved you all./ Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you/ All" (430). I have asked my students to analyze Brooks' poem many times; they mostly come away from the poem with the idea that the persona is a mother who willingly aborted the child, ostensibly because of dire economic circumstances. How would my students react, what would they write, if I asked them to do a one-page paper on Baggott's poem on the condition that they use ideas from contemporary humanities scholarship?

For "fun and games", here are two sample papers that I suggest would be written. The first paper will contain a paper written by someone in an institution which values literature more as a means of cultural criticism (naming any university might do to meet this criterion). The second paper will contain a paper written by someone in an institution which values literature in three ways: as literature, as literature which can be viewed from a multiplicity of critical perspectives, and as literature which manifests the ancient dictum of Horace that all literature not only pleases, but also teaches. Let's say, also, that the student who will write the second paper is a pro-lifer at a community college where, unlike a student at a cultural studies-based university, he or she will be expected to read, write, and think critically and to master certain subjects which may no longer be "privileged" in other institutions -- that is, he or she will be expected to master grammar, rhetoric, and research paper production.

Paper One: Obviously, the woman in the poem is oppressed in several ways: first by the fetus itself; second, by all of male society, whose oppressive demands have forced the woman into another, probably unwanted, pregnancy. No man is mentioned in this poem; in fact, the only actors in the poem are women: the woman narrating this poem, the narrator's grandmother, and the narrator's Aunt Effie, who is mentioned as an authority. Male history, or, rather, the male version of history is eradicated; it is the women in the poem who have authority. Therefore, this poem is a celebration of women's voices which have been suppressed for millennia.

Whatever emotional trauma the woman feels for the fetus is a product of centuries of manipulative male ordering of society which we are only now beginning to overcome. Several contemporary authors such as Ewa Plonowska Ziarek have affirmed the importance of our sexuality as a matter which supersedes other social interests. Moreover, we must be aware of how language can be used to distort reality. For example, Susan Ehrlich has argued that language can be used to attempt to hoist humanity on non-beings such as fetuses. Susan Friend Harding and Andrea Slane similarly caution us against falling into antiabortion language traps, which will enslave women.
Paper Two: Obviously, the mother is suffering from the loss of her unborn child. First, of course, the title suggests that something is abnormal; it is not normal in this northern climate that December should have such high temperatures. The first stanza continues this motif of abnormality: instead of staying on the ground after they have fallen off the trees, "the leaves clamber/ to return to their limbs". The impending miscarriage is intimated by the imagery of "a bare limb" and "impossible buds". The leaves' wanting "to return to their limbs" may personify the hope that the unborn child could somehow restore him- or herself in the womb.

Although the poem cannot be scanned in a regular pattern, certain phrases seem to read as spondees, suggesting heaviness. For example, the line "Bees dream of the tulip's sweet cradle" can be scanned so that the first two words constitute a spondee: "Bees dream". Several similes, metaphors, and personifications help to convey the importance of the loss of the child.

Socially and politically, this poem may have great importance. Unlike many other contemporary literary works, the unborn child is personified as "this baby". The genderless reflexive pronoun is used twice, but it is used in such a way that the humanity of this child to-be-miscarried is not demeaned: "I imagine its birth feet first/ ready to steel itself against gravity". Perhaps the use of this pronoun reflects the anguish of the mother who cannot bear to think further that the unborn child is either a son or a daughter. The mother expresses her anguish poignantly as she affirms that "We never grow accustomed to death,/ leaves, perhaps/ but not the baby dying in the womb".

While many critics hold negative views toward the family (such as Susan Ehrlich and Andrea Slane), others (including Kevin M. Crotty) have recently indicated the importance of the family. In fact, one critic, Anthony Cunningham, suggests that any loss of an unborn child has severe ramifications for the parents. The family relationships of the mother are obscure. While she does refer to some persons in her family who strive to support her (her grandmother, for example), the males in her family are absent. Where is her boyfriend, male partner, or husband?

Finally, this poem can be reviewed through many literary perspectives, for example, psychological criticism, to determine the emotions of the narrator; feminist criticism, to determine how the mother feels oppressed by the loss of the unborn child; or Marxist criticism, to determine the value of the unborn child who meant a great deal to this mother.

Of course, such a reductionism as the above papers exemplify is meant to prove a point. If students are offered only a biased view of one of the major political and social movements of our time, then they will not only produce papers which are reductionist (once one says that a work of literature can be blamed on oppression of women by men, what is left that's important enough to say?). They will also produce papers which will satisfy the political correctivity of the instructor. We are well aware of the so-called liberal bias of academics. A recent online article carried by LifeSite News from Canada mentions, for example, that "a poll of Ivy League university professors in the U.S. has found that only one per cent want a legal ban on abortion" (Westen).14 If an instructor steeps him- or herself only in a biased scholarship -- and if that is one which is primarily derived from an anti-life view of the world, then his or her students will suffer not only from lack of objectivity in writing papers designed for academic use, but also from a stifling political correctivity that will be carried into the world once those students graduate.

Fortunately, once they graduate and realize that various "feminist images" proposed to them are either vapid or false, I trust that these students who have been academically nurtured on anti-life pablum will switch to our side. Nobody feels comfortable in a condition of living a lie -- witness, to her great credit, Norma McCorvey. I hold that pro-lifers are more intellectually honest when it comes to literature discussion. Unlike anti-life academics who may omit pro-life research, we are able to use the best from the bad (anti-life) criticism as well as the best of ancient and modern pedagogy and andragogy. Therefore, we are crucial in academia, for it is our job to see that students are educated not so that they become partisans to anti-life principles, but that they become and remain open to the best that comprehensive humanities research has to offer.

Next Page: Endnotes
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