Bringing the body back to feminism

Bringing the body back to feminism

By Emma Wood

Like NSW, Queensland, and Victoria before them, South Australia is now considering a bill to allow abortion up to birth.  In statements from the politicians involved, one sees the familiar employment of pro-woman rhetoric in the name of the abortion cause.  Abortion is a “health issue”.  Abortion is necessary for women’s health, and so the ethics of abortion should no longer be a talking point.

At the same time, we hear of eight major Australian sporting bodies embracing transgender inclusion guidelines that will allow biological men to compete in women’s sports.  Despite the well-known athletic advantages that men have over women, and the dangers this presents to women, “women’s health” does not now seem so important.  What’s going on?

Oddly enough, I believe there is a connection between these two events.  Behind both is an idea increasingly prevalent in our culture: biology is irrelevant.  It is this idea, rather than pro-woman sentiment, that motivates the push for abortion just as it motivates the push for transgender inclusion in sport.  Biological realities need not give any guidance to the choices we make or the policies we adopt.

The irrelevance of biology is centre stage in the famous justifications for abortion of Peter Singer and Michael Tooley.  The fetus’s humanity - her biological membership of the human species - is not enough to render her worthy of the same care we otherwise believe is owed to vulnerable persons.  But there is a second way in which the animus toward biology is present in pro-abortion thought, and which renders the idea that abortion is health care a curious one to say the least.  

What do all forms of health care, traditionally understood, have in common?  What does heart surgery, cancer treatment, blood-pressure medication, or prescription for glasses have in common?  I think a clear answer presents itself: the purpose of health care is the restoration of the natural biological function of one of the body’s parts or systems.  But abortion clearly fits outside this picture.  Abortion sabotages, rather than aids, the natural function of a woman’s reproductive system.  Often, this act of sabotage has long-term implications for fertility.  To define abortion as “health care”, then, seems to involve a radical change of the term.

On close inspection, what is really meant by the claim that abortion is “health-care” is that abortion allows one to conquer biology’s inconvenient constraints over our choices.  The majority of abortions today happen not out of medical necessity (nor even after rape) but for other reasons: because babies are conceived within relationships that are not well-prepared for them, or because (as #ShoutYourAbortion made clear three years ago) abortion allows one to have parenthood-free sex while pursuing life plans that a baby would complicate.  This has always been the philosophy of the pro-abortion movement: biology and the facts of reproductive life are a hindrance that the autonomous woman must overcome.

In his book, Why Liberalism Failed, philosopher Patrick Deneen argues that one of the hallmarks of modern Western society is this idea that our freedom consists in conquest over nature.  We can see this mentality present in the extraction mindset that has led to the climate crisis.  This animus toward nature runs deep: not even the biological realities of human bodies, such as the humanity of an unborn baby, should put limits on our choices.

It is hardly surprising, then, when this same animus toward biology plays out in the push for transgender inclusion in sport.  Apparently, nature’s realities do not matter, and should not inconvenience biological men who choose to compete in women’s sport. There is a lesson in this.  When the significance of biology is denied, vulnerable people whose needs and interests are inextricably tied to their biology - such as women - are harmed.  Equally, another vulnerable group of people, the unborn, are harmed when the significance of biology is denied.  When blindness to biology justifies a license to kill, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that blindness to biology results in other, less serious harms, like the destruction of fair competition in sport.  As we face the threat of the erasure of biological womanhood, perhaps this will finally unmask for us the pathology inherent in the pro-abortionist’s dismissal of biology. 

And perhaps this illustrates the need to recover the ethic of the first wave feminists.  They recognised the centrality of female biology to women’s needs, all the while standing in solidarity with the unborn.  For them, both women and unborn babies were part of the same human family, each with unique biological needs that demanded respect.  Who knows?  If the lives of the unborn were taken more seriously, it might reintroduce the world to the relevance of female biology as well.

Dr Emma Wood holds a PhD in moral philosophy from Victoria University of Wellington. She is a philosophy teacher, executive member of the Common Good Party Australia, and the mother of three girls.