Published on September 19, 2021
Are women human?
That was the question Dorothy L. Sayers posed in the title of a famous and witty essay. Her answer was a resounding yes, because women and men share a common humanity. Today, such a simple answer would not pass muster, for the question of what it means to be human is itself contested.
When discussing abortion, our debate over what it means to be human or to be a person tends to focus on the baby in the womb. Is the embryo a human being? Is there a meaningful distinction between a human being and a person? Parsing such questions is critical to determining abortion’s morality. This makes intuitive sense, because the answer to these questions determines whether abortion is merely a medical procedure or a form of homicide.
Yet our fundamental disagreements over abortion involve additional questions. How does a society that regards abortion as legitimate understand the humanity of the woman involved? Indeed, how does it understand humanity in general? These questions are pertinent to the moral discussion because the issue of abortion cannot be reduced to the narrow question of the status of the child in the womb. The answers rest upon broader assumptions about the purpose, the telos, of human existence in general.
If we are to believe those who defend a right to abortion, it is nothing less than the power to end the life of her unborn child that guarantees a woman her humanity—that is, the autonomy befitting her status as man’s equal.
Is Consequence-Free Sex the Path to Human Fulfillment?
The morality of a society is part of a shared way of imagining the world, held in common by members of said society. For abortion to be plausible, let alone acceptable, a society must hold certain ideas intuitively. One is the idea that a woman must have control, specifically sexual and reproductive control, over her own body. Most legal-abortion proponents defend their position in the language of women’s rights, arguing that, without legal abortion, women would be unable to control their bodies. This argument indicates a deeper, often unstated assumption: that sexual activity is the normative way in which human beings find fulfillment.
In our society, we are catechized in this principle from childhood. The fact that explicit sex education, detached from any larger moral framework, is promoted even in elementary schools is one obvious example, though far from the most influential. Movies, internet pornography, reality TV, even commercials present a vision of being truly human in which the satisfaction of sexual desire is seen as a quintessential element of what it means to flourish.
This is reinforced by society’s commitment to the notion that sexual desire is foundational to individual identity. This is not only an explicit principle of the LGBTQ+ movement but also an increasingly common cultural intuition. In such a world as ours has become, the failure to find sexual fulfillment or gratification is considered a failure to be fully authentic and therefore fully human. We need look no further than the way popular culture derides virginity and celibacy for proof of that reality.
Given this, our debate over abortion—and the related rhetoric of women controlling their own bodies and sexuality—requires broader context than our narrow disagreements over how to define personhood as applied to the baby in the womb. Instead, both the medical procedure itself and the rhetoric surrounding it reinforce a notion of what it means to be human that places sex—cost-free, liberated from commitment, and devoid of relational content—at its heart.
The Quest for “Reproductive Control”
Defending legal abortion as a necessary means by which women can control their reproductive decisions requires assuming that unlimited, consequence-free sex is a prerequisite for human freedom and flourishing. Both contraception and abortion are necessary, in this view, because they enable women either to avoid or to destroy the natural consequences of sexual activity; controlling one’s reproduction by avoiding the act that leads to conception isn’t so much as considered. What is billed as “reproductive control” is in fact merely the ability to pursue sexual gratification and dispose of the consequences.
This view emerged among leading thinkers of the second-wave feminist movement, who advocated contraception and abortion as essential means of liberating women from men, from the family, and from their own bodies. These thinkers regarded women as inherently disadvantaged by their ability to bear children, and they sought to free women from, as feminist writer Shulamith Firestone put it, the “tyranny of reproductive biology.” Their insistence on birth control and abortion indicated this deeper premise: that in order to be free and fulfilled, women must be able to participate in sex at will and walk away from its natural consequences. Because men are able to enjoy sex while avoiding its natural ends, women must be enabled to do the same, with the aid of technology that prevents or erases any child that might result.
This thinking persists among today’s advocates of legal abortion, who defend abortion as essential for female autonomy and deride laws protecting the unborn child as unacceptable limitations on a woman’s right to, in their language, “make decisions about her own body.” They describe pro-life laws as restrictions on a woman’s ability to decide whether to become pregnant or to control her reproductive future—despite the fact that, with or without legal abortion, most women in the United States remain perfectly free to decide whether and when to become pregnant. But in a society that assumes consequence-free sex is an essential part of human flourishing and identity, the notion that a woman might control her reproduction by declining the act that leads to pregnancy never bears mentioning. According to pro-abortion feminism, therefore, it is the right to individual irresponsibility that really makes a woman a woman. And that is a denial of what really makes us human: our natural dependence upon, and obligations towards, one another.
To return to Sayers’s question: Are women human? Not according to the logic of today’s pro-abortion feminists, it seems.
Carl R. Trueman is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a Visiting Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.