Hardness of Heart
Posted by Fiorella Nash on 8 July 2016
Naomi Wolf described the mainstream feminist position on abortion as "ideologically stupid"
The panel discussion focused on a paper written by Naomi Wolf in 1995 entitled Our Bodies, Our Souls in which she criticised the abortion movement for failing to acknowledge the moral gravity of abortion, the loss of human life and the lived experience of women who suffer after abortion, whilst at the same time fully supporting the 'right to choose'.
Wolf admitted during the discussion that she has become 'more radical' since writing the article over twenty years ago and her comments during the panel discussion went a great deal further than the original article in terms of her criticism of feminists for treating women like children and deceiving women about the brutal nature of abortion.
Naomi Wolf was joined on the panel by Dr Angela Ballantyne, President of the International Association of Bioethics and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice, University of Otago, New Zealand and Dr Imogen Goold, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, Oxford. Moderating was Dr Kate Greasley, Stowell Junior Research Fellow in Law, University College, Oxford.
There was a very poor turn-out, possibly due to the timing of the event (immediately post-exams) and little advertising. It took a very long time for the chair to open the discussion to the floor, causing a steady stream of audience members to leave throughout the event. By the end, there were only four of us left in the audience, a male feminist, Josephine Quintavalle, Helen Watt and me. The tone of the debate was good-natured and respectful throughout.
Dr Angela Ballantyne
Dr Ballantyne was by far the most unsettling speaker of the evening. She began by agreeing that euphemisms should not be used when discussing abortion and cited her very recent experience of observing work in an abortion facility. She described witnessing an abortion and the 'amazing privilege' of seeing a foetus that "a few minutes ago was alive and now it was dead." She described its beautiful hands and feet but said that she was not sure yet how she felt about it, admitting that we can dehumanise in the process of defending abortion. She also claimed that there was no 'pro-choice movement' in New Zealand but that nurses were refusing to assist in late term abortions.
Naomi Wolf's main criticism of the abortion movement was its tendency to lie to women and to the public about what abortion really involves, which she regards as having been politically and morally disastrous. She also drew attention to the silencing of women who regret their abortions, acknowledging that we are not hearing the voices of a significant group of women and that feminism is not representing them. Her own college friends who had abortions were, she said "very, very, very sad and they changed." Naomi reflected on her own staunchly pro-choice upbringing in terms of a Capitalism choice discourse very much linked to lifestyle decisions etc.
Wolf's criticism of feminism & abortion
Wolf talked about the separation in society between the lucky and the unlucky foetus (in similar terms to the 'wanted and unwanted' baby dichotomy) She described being challenged by her own experience of carrying a baby believed to be seriously disabled and a Buddhist monk answering her question on whether she should have an abortion with another question: "Would that be the compassionate thing to do?" In her opinion, abortion is always a failure and many women mourn the loss their whole lives.
I was quite surprised by how forceful she was in her criticism of feminism in relation to abortion. She described the mainstream feminist position as "ideologically stupid" in abandoning the common ground by ignoring the grief and complexity of abortion. She spoke of the 'spiritual dimension to abortion', citing the existence of cemeteries in Japan for aborted babies, adding that she believed the feminist position to be more nuanced now and that women needed to be given genuine choices.
Dr Imogen Goold
Imogen Goold admitted that talking about a 'clump of cells' was a coping mechanism. She talked about her own abortion and how she felt unable to talk about it with friends and was barred from 'the pregnancy conversation' even though she had aborted at twelve weeks and had had some experience of pregnancy. She talked about the moment in a female friendship when one talks about an abortion experience and that it is very significant, but that she felt unable to be sad about her abortion or to talk about it openly, feeling 'shut out' by pregnant women who don't want to hear about her abortion. She then went on to highlight the fact that abortion is not a right in the UK, the Abortion Act offers protection against a crime and was meant as an appeasement.
Naomi Wolf explained the Jewish understanding of abortion, allowing abortion up to 40 days and demanding abortion in case of the life of the mother. She spoke of all life being precious, asserting that we have to stop talking about autonomy in pregnancy because a pregnant woman is two bodies not one. Wolf surprised some in the audience by defending pavement counsellors, making the point that gory images are real, women are grown ups and that these are private citizens asserting their right to free speech. They have a right to lobby women and if women are distressed then they have to accept being distressed. She went on to talk about the grief men experience after abortion. Imogen and Kate both tried to argue against the use of images without being able to put together much in the way of an argument.
The pro-life side dominated the Q&A session since virtually everyone else had left by the time the discussion was opened to the floor. The tone remained very positive. Naomi Wolf asked Josephine directly why she worked for a crisis pregnancy charity because she said she was genuinely curious as to why women uphold the pro-life position. Josephine answered very well that she felt women could do better than abortion, leading Naomi Wolf to suggest that in the grand scheme of things, being uncomfortable for nine months was surely worth it to save a life.
I stated that I was a pro-life feminist reapplying for acceptance into feminism, causing some laughter from the panel. During the informal discussion over drinks, Wolf asked if it was 'a Catholic thing' with me and I said that it wasn't as my parents had never spoken about abortion with me since the wrongness of abortion was taken as self-evidently true. I talked about how I had come to the pro-life movement from the social justice side of campaigning and had been shocked by the harassment of pro-life students at university.
Early vs late abortion
Kate Greasley was quite relieved when I said I had been to Cambridge not Oxford (though Oxford has an appalling track record of silencing dissent.) They were all very clear that they would never want to see pro-life women bullied or silenced. I also made the point during the Q&A that focusing on early abortion as preferable to late abortion was surely missing the point. Naomi Wolf is very keen on the idea that women should contracept to avoid unwanted pregnancy and that unwanted pregnancies should be 'caught early' through the provision of free pregnancy testing, more use of the morning after pill and early surgical/chemical abortion. I said that when I suffered early pregnancy loss, it was certainly easier than going through it later but it was still a loss and I still grieved. In some ways, not having a body to hold was almost harder because there was no physical evidence that I had been pregnant at all other than a lot of blood loss. I also mentioned the tendency of people to try to comfort women in my position by saying that there was 'probably something wrong with it' and how much this insults people with disabilities and those who care for them.
The evening made me optimistic that feminists from both sides of the debate can come together to discuss abortion in a mutually respectful manner and it is my hope that Oxford University will organise more such discussions in the future.