Each month, the Wheel will publish an editorial focusing on issues in feminism. This month’s opinion comes from an Executive Board member of the Feminists in Action (FIA) at Emory.

Author’s Note: This editorial frequently uses the word “woman” and “she/her/hers” pronouns to refer to people who can become pregnant and need abortion services. FIA recognizes the cisnormativity of this language — or its exclusion of trans* and gender non-conforming identities — and uses it only as a rhetorically familiar placeholder for all bodies and gender identities who become pregnant and seek reproductive care and justice.


Current reproductive politics are comprised of two opposing political positions — pro-life and pro-choice — that inform separate ethical frameworks. Pro-life politics are informed by an ethics that places inherent value in life. On the other hand, an ethical framework that privileges women’s agency and bodily autonomy informs pro-choice politics. While these positions are competing on a political level, the grounding ethical frameworks that inform these differing politics do not directly clash in the sense that neither answers to nor negates the ethical claims of the other.

Moreover, pro-choice politics are not informed by the same life-valuing ethics of pro-life politics, but these ethics nonetheless permeate most political conversations surrounding reproductive politics. Even the words we use to represent these differing political positions, “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” expose the apparent lack of ethical clash. Being “pro-choice” is not the same as being “anti-life,” and being “pro-life” is not the same as being “anti-choice.” Yet although pro-choice is not anti-life, the pro-choice movement is often forced to answer ethical questions and accusations grounded in an application of pro-life ethics that have little to do with the political impetus for pro-choice movements: fighting for women’s bodily autonomy. Conversations about women’s autonomy are displaced by a reactionary politics demanded by the pro-life push to focus on the fetus’s right to life.

Pro-life politics’ domination of reproductive justice conversations is symptomatic of a patriarchal understanding of women — that their lives are duty-bound to domesticity and child-rearing. The decision to carry a child to term involves an assortment of health, financial, mental and other fundamental lifestyle considerations, not to mention the potential for another 18 years or more of childcare. At least in a world where women are the primary caretakers of children, this decision can monumentally affect the entire course of a woman’s life. The right to freely make this decision is imperative to preserving women’s quality of life and our autonomy as political subjects.

Ethics that extend rights to a fetus at the expense of its mother’s are so pervasive because they are the norm. Women’s lives have been historically devalued due to the privileging of other lives. The ethics of pro-life exists within a cultural context where such ethical imperatives are deployed politically to reinforce oppressive, patriarchal norms of motherhood that dictate that a woman must always be defined by and accountable to her children.

For instance, in some states, the laws for non-traditional family structures dictate that women are by default responsible for their children, regardless of the burden that responsibility may bear on them: “The mother of a child born out of wedlock is the natural guardian of the child and is entitled to primary residential care and custody of the child unless the court enters an order stating otherwise.” (Florida Statutes, 744.301). Further, women were referred to and defined exclusively by their marriage status (Mrs. versus Miss) until the mid-twentieth century before the advent of “Ms.” Thus, pro-life politics effectively silence women by dominating political conversations about their agency with an ethics that by nature reduces a woman’s body and the value of her life to her reproductive utility.

On a political level, pro-life politics dominate reproductive politics at the expense of women’s political agency. Pro-choice advocates are constantly forced to defend themselves on pro-life terms and answer accusations of being anti-life and supporting murder. There are few discussions where pro-life advocates are forced to defend why their politics reinforce patriarchal norms — that take a heavy toll on women’s lives — and are by consequence anti-women.

On an ethical level, pro-life politics devalue women by viewing their bodies as a means to an end. Movements attempting to redefine women as political subjects outside of the cult of domesticity are displaced by value judgments that re-entrench their subjectivity in heteronormative and exclusionary familial roles. Thus, pro-life movements are both politically and ethically oppressive toward women.

Reproductive politics’ accompanying legislation serves to almost exclusively answer to the ethical claims raised by pro-life movements. Legislation restricts legal abortion to only a narrow window of time, promoting an ethics that decides at some point during a pregnancy that the fetus is now a rights-possessing life. Regardless of the personhood status of a fetus, formulating a politics that tries to delineate between when a fetus qualifies as a rights-bearing life and when it does not effectively proposes a politically informative ethics that treats women like incubators.

With the way these restrictions operate, a woman wanting an abortion is afforded a moment of agency not because she is understood as a person with a life outside of domesticity and child rearing, but because for only a certain amount of time her role as a mother is suspended since the “life” inside of her is suspended. The moment the fetus is understood as a human life, the woman has an obligation to be responsible for it, and in our culture that responsibility manifests as a means of oppression that relegates women to coerced positions of domesticity and motherhood.

When the value of a fetus is compared to the value of a woman’s life, the fetus will always be understood as more valuable than the mother’s life in a culture that views women as in service to the propagation of families. Because of this, pro-life politics as an ethical position legally reinforces systematic forms of oppression that render women’s lives disposable.

Carly Moore is a College sophomore from Warner Robins, Georgia.

+ posts