A Decison Between a Woman and God

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Just when it seemed the debate over abortion was hopelessly deadlocked, along comes feminist author Naomi Wolf with a magazine article that has stunned supporters of legalized abortion and pleasantly surprised some abortion foes.

Writing in the New Republic, Wolf touched off an international uproar by suggesting that abortion-rights backers are guilty of “self-delusions, fibs and evasions” and that “the death of a fetus is a real death.”

“By refusing to look at abortion within a moral framework,” she says, “we lose the millions of Americans who want to support abortion as a legal right but still need to condemn it as a moral iniquity. . . . And we risk becoming precisely what our critics charge us with being: callous, selfish and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of human life.”


If the words had come from another quarter, they might have been ignored. But Wolf, 33, holds impeccable feminist credentials, not only as the author of such seminal works as “The Beauty Myth,” but as a strenuous advocate of unrestricted access to abortion, a view she hasn’t abandoned.

So her article, seven months after its October publication, continues to make waves.

Newsweek, USA Today, “Firing Line” and various overseas media are among the print and TV outlets to have taken notice. And in recent weeks, the essay has been hashed out on a syndicated radio show, in a religious journal and at a conference of the National Abortion Federation, which represents clinics and doctors who perform more than half of the nation’s 1.3 million annual abortions.

Some observers downplay the long-term impact, but a few predict that Wolf’s commentary--along with several other magazine pieces published around the same time--might help dent the stalemate on abortion.

“Usually when I debate on this topic, I feel like I’m behind a podium speaking French and the other person is behind a podium speaking Finnish,” says Helen Alvare, who represents the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on the issue. “There’s no common ground. But Naomi Wolf allows a conversation to begin.”

Both sides, however, seem rattled by the direction Wolf wants that conversation to take.

To the dismay of those who favor liberal abortion laws, Wolf devotes the first part of her 6,700-word essay to a blistering critique of the rhetoric used to defend the procedure. In short, she contends that scientific advances since Roe vs. Wade--including “Mozart for your belly, framed sonogram photos [and] home fetal-heartbeat stethoscopes”--have made it absurd to argue that a fetus is somehow less than human.

“What will it be?” she asks. “Wanted fetuses are charming, complex, REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere ‘uterine material’? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images [of aborted children] if the images are real?”


She also shreds the idea that women who choose to end a pregnancy do so only with the purest of motives or under the most dire of circumstances.

Too often, she says, the true explanation is laziness in using birth control (the “I don’t know what came over me, it was such good Chardonnay” abortions) or, simply, selfishness (“not so unlike those young louts who father children and run from the specter of responsibility--except that [this] refusal to be involved . . . is as definitive as a refusal can be”).

In the U.S., she notes, repeat abortions account for nearly half the annual total. And 11% of all abortions are procured by women in households with yearly incomes of at least $50,000.

“There are degrees of culpability, judgment and responsibility involved in the decision to abort a pregnancy,” she writes. “Pro-choice advocates tend to cast abortion as ‘an intensely personal decision.’ To which we can say, No: One’s choice of carpeting is an intensely personal decision.”

Abortion, on the other hand, is a good deal more than that: It’s not just a matter between “a woman and her doctor,” she insists: It’s between a woman and God.

But the cartwheels and cheers from abortion opponents tend to stop here.

Because Wolf, despite calling the procedure “an evil,” goes on to say it is a “necessary evil.”


“Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die,” she writes. And how does Wolf reconcile “the humanity of a fetus, and the moral gravity of destroying it, with a pro-choice position”?

Partly by urging acts of redemption.

“In all of the great religious traditions, our recognition of sin, and then our atonement for it, brings on God’s compassion,” she writes. In the case of abortion, proper atonement might mean donating money to prenatal care for the poor, providing contraception and jobs for young girls, or having feminists and abortion doctors hold candlelight vigils at clinics to “commemorate and say goodbye to the dead.”


Reaction from antiabortion forces has ranged from cautious praise to bitter condemnation.

“Listen--with hope--to a voice from the ‘other side,’ ” wrote activist Carol Aronis in the Cincinnati Enquirer, one of many to quote the essay favorably. Wolf’s article also has been debated on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” and reprinted in full by the Human Life Review, which dedicated much of an entire issue to a symposium on it.

But some abortion foes find Wolf’s “honesty” about the topic chilling.

“The movement which looks at a sonogram and sees ‘tissue’ or ‘material’ to be disposed of casually may be lying to itself, but at least it is still unwilling to take innocent life,” writes Rebecca Ryskind Teti, of the Wakefield Women’s Institute, in the Human Life Review. “If that same movement looks at a sonogram and sees a baby--and disposes of it anyway--it may be more honest, but its heart is of stone.”

Another commentary assails Wolf’s idea of atoning for abortion through community service as “a user’s tax on sin: Pay the penalty . . . and you are free to sin another day.”

First Things, a weighty journal of religion and public life, goes further, suggesting that Wolf’s proposal to “admit that [a fetus] is a baby and then kill it, but regretfully” lays a philosophical groundwork for “the extension of the abortion license to born babies and other inconvenient persons.”


Wolf derides the First Things editorial as demagoguery: “That’s the first thing anyone has said that offends me.”

Nevertheless, conservatives have generally been kinder to her than abortion-rights advocates, for whom she has become persona non grata.

“We’d rather grapple with enemies we know than so-called friends in Wolf’s clothing,” wrote Planned Parenthood’s acting co-president, Jane M. Johnson, in a letter to the New Republic.

Other feminists knock Wolf for being “judgmental” about why some women get abortions.

“She doesn’t give women the credit they deserve,” complains Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation. “She hasn’t been in operating rooms thousands of times supporting women as they grieve their lost pregnancies . . . [or seen that] they choose to have abortions after careful thought and make deeply moral, personal decisions.”

Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, concurs: “Her discussion of women is demeaning and insulting. I don’t think she can say she likes some abortions and doesn’t like others. I would never presume to render judgment about a woman’s decision.”

Michelman contends Wolf has played straight into the hands of the enemy: “You can judge someone by who their friends are [and] Naomi Wolf has been embraced by the anti-choice movement. She’s made an enormous contribution to them.”


Perhaps stung by such criticism, Wolf has recently sought to bolster the abortion-defense portion of her essay. In a radio debate with feminist writer Katha Pollitt last month, for example, she rephrased her description of the fetus to “a version of life” and stressed that it doesn’t possess the constitutional rights of a “person.”

And in a telephone interview from her home in Chevy Chase, Md., she compares laws that would “force a woman to bear a child against her will” to having the government “force someone to donate bone marrow to save the life of a stranger.”

Yet, Wolf remains adamant that backers of legalized abortion are slitting their own political throats if they don’t add a moral dimension--a dialogue about life and death, right and wrong--to their defense of abortion.

She says she has “beseeched the sisterhood”--specifically Ms. magazine and NARRAL’s Michelman--to discuss her ideas, “even if it’s to tell me why I’m wrong,” but been turned down.

(Ms. Editor Marcia Gillespie says Wolf asked the magazine to reprint her essay but “we don’t reprint articles.” And Michelman spurned Wolf’s request for a debate because “I’m not interested in helping her . . . promote herself.”)

Some abortion-rights groups seem to wish Wolf and her essay would simply fade away. Three organizations declined to comment and representatives at others invariably asked, “Why are you writing about this?”


“The only uproar,” fumed Michelman, “is in the press.”


But other evidence suggests Wolf has tapped into something deeper than that.

Although the argument she spins is complex, provocative and seemingly illogical at times, that may align it well with the conflicted views of abortion held by much of the American public, a group that her article refers to as “the mushy middle.”

“There’s a lot of foment on the issue right now,” says John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute, which studies grass-roots politics. “And [Wolf] is reflecting the largest piece of public opinion.”

Conservatives have also been angling for the mushy middle.

Responding to Wolf’s piece, Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard magazine advised dumping the Republican Party’s Human Life Amendment plank in favor of a new moral argument that would be a “Democrat’s nightmare.”

“Imagine a united Republican party that dares to do this,” the magazine dreamed: Urge abortion and adoption agencies to join forces by compiling a national registry of potential parents and distributing it to abortion clinics. Then, ask Democrats to “join us in this voluntary, noncoercive effort to save and enrich human lives.”

The effect? Democrats would either kowtow to the left and denounce it, thus “marginalizing themselves as extremists,” the magazine predicted, or they would endorse it and risk alienating one of their chief fund-raising bases.

To further split the Democrats, the magazine recommended arguments tailored for feminists and homosexuals: First, point out that “abortion by choice is anti-woman” because “throughout Asia, with its traditional preference for boys, ultrasound scanners . . . are being used to check the sex of fetuses so that females can be aborted.” Second, argue that if a gay gene could be detected in prenatal testing, even liberal heterosexuals might ask themselves, “Well, do I want my child to be gay?”


Several other recent essays--from the left and right--have also argued for a middle ground, but it is Wolf’s article that seems to be generating the most heat.

Will it last?

Clyde Wilcox, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University, doesn’t think so: “Those kind of arguments don’t work in the real world. . . . You can’t build a movement [for legalized abortion] by saying a fetus is human life.”

Even Wolf concedes it’s “difficult to have a moral discussion about abortion . . . [without everyone thinking] Congress has to get involved.”

But others say the essay has already far outlasted the normal shelf life for a magazine piece. And a few observers predict more fireworks to come.

“In the pro-life community, there are 10 to 12 articles we can name as having had a big effect over the last 20 years,” says Catholic bishops’ spokeswoman Alvare. “My educated guess is that this article will have a long life.”

Indeed, some abortion foes believe Wolf is headed down the same path followed by Norma “Jane Roe” McCorvey, who recently renounced her role in the famous Supreme Court case, and Bernard Nathanson, the abortion doctor and co-founder of NARRAL who quit to narrate the documentary “Silent Scream.”


“Naomi’s on the way to our side,” exulted Missouri Right to Life President Mary Kay Culp, in an interview with the Kansas City Star. “She doesn’t know it, but she’ll be here soon.”

Wolf, however, dismisses such predictions as wishful thinking.

“For women to have equality in society, they need to have some measure of control in their reproductive lives,” she says. “No amount of right-wing love bombing is going to dislodge me from that position.”