Three Views: The Battle Over a Woman's Right to Choose

Get Your Hands Off our Bodies, 1963 - 2011

Susan Gutwill discusses her belief that the current attack on abortion – an assault on women’s right to control their own bodies and maternity – attempts to scapegoat women, their sexuality and children.

By Susan Gutwill, MS

I believe the current attack on abortion – an assault on women’s right to control their own bodies and maternity – attempts to scapegoat women, their sexuality and children. This assault is part of the “culture wars,” a right wing ideological movement intentionally meant to distract us from our anger at today’s devastating economic, social and political realities. As Jane Mayer reports, the billionaire Koch brothers secretly donate millions to movements, including the Tea Party, which call themselves “pro-life,” but are in truth dedicated to shaming women, threatening their human rights, and cutting the social welfare programs that support the reproduction of life.

Ideological disinformation makes us project our fears and rage— appropriate responses to the systemic violence done to us--onto social scapegoats, such as women and girls whose “sexual immorality” and pregnancies lead them to “murder babies;” illegal immigrants; “lazy” Black people parasitic upon welfare; and “greedy” public workers. Anti-choice rhetoric contributed to watering down the health care bill last year by dividing Americans, most of whom are either uninsured or oppressed by the huge expense of private health care, from uniting behind the bill. Limiting abortion rights is still central to the new Congress, with, on the one hand, its punitive rhetoric about pregnant women’s “sex crimes,” even in cases of rape and incest, and its cynical legislative efforts to withdraw funding for women and their dependent children, on the other hand. Poor women, especially those of color, face cruel domination of their bodies and pregnancies in hospitals, prisons, and the public health systems. But only when “the fetus” is in “the womb” is the right wing concerned about “their” welfare. The woman’s and baby’s lives are not the real issue.

I do not advocate abortion as a birth-control policy and recognize that the decision to have an abortion is often very painful for a woman; nevertheless, when birth control has failed and a woman is not prepared to nurture a child, I strongly support her right to choose. The current ideological assault on that right affects all women, those on the political right, as well as liberal women concerned about women’s issues. Moreover, in the face of war and domestic disregard for life and human rights, perhaps it is because people are being deprived of social power to protect life, that they embrace the “right-to-life” discourse, insofar as it purports to stand for life.

How can historically contextualized, feminist psychoanalysis, account for why people let themselves be swayed by the assault on reproductive choice? Feminist thinkers begin with the understanding that the development of capitalism “engendered” a split in society between production (the world of men and paid labor) and reproduction (the world of women and unpaid labor), along with the necessary ideological assumptions to justify this split. According to this ideology, because women’s bodies “naturally” reproduce, so too, women want, naturally and without reservation, to nurture their offspring. However, according to feminist psychoanalysts and social theorists from the 1960’s through 1990’s, human dependency on women, in a culture characterized by the denigration of and lack of social support for the work of reproduction, leads to a profound, narcissistic injury to men and women alike. Primitive defenses cause us to want to deny our dependency by projecting it onto others whose vulnerability we then despise, e.g. women, the poor, the needy, the racial “other.” In our world, rather than being truly respected, mothers are idealized as the “Madonna.” But when mother needs or requires something of others, she inevitably falls from grace, sometimes even being degraded from Madonna to Demanding Whore. Moreover, as Dinnerstein: (1963) argues, we envy the mother’s capacity to give, which is beyond our own control and inevitably imperfect; and so our own envy makes us want to destroy that “bad breast.” Feminist analysts of a more object relational school, such as Eichenbaum and Orbach, and Chodorow, suggest that mothers are unconsciously taught, both ideologically by the socio-symbolic environment and by their own parents and families, to inculcate the patriarchal/ capitalist division of labor between men and women in the next generation. Thus, even as they provide nurture, women also pass along a gendered psychology in which they and their daughters are treated as objects rather than being “recognized” (Benjamin) as full subjects. Moreover, like Eve, women carry the taint, rather than the pleasure, of sexuality, and with it, shame and disgust. These theories help to explain why and how it is that women, their sexualities and their bodies all become targets of projection which then are easily scapegoated. Denial, disavowal and even dissociation are defenses employed throughout this process.

In practice this leads anti-abortion activists to attack vulnerable women, by (a) threatening women who seek abortions; (b) requiring their doctors to shame them by insisting that they--even the very young--look at their fetuses; and (c) demanding that young women notify their parents and obtain parental consent, even when the pregnancy is a result of incest or rape. “Some pro-lifers systematically support and organize violence: bombing, murder, arson, harassing phone calls, stalking, kidnapping and even assault. Their so-called “crisis centers” knowingly give misinformation to pregnant women, such as that abortion and birth control lead to breast cancer and sterility. These policies are not “pro-life.”

At present we increasingly fail to be a society that recognizes or supports women’s work or that honors Winnicott’s idea that “there is no child without the mother.” Instead, we are a society whose ideology, political economy and gendered psychology all combine to teach us to despise women, rather than to grieve the truth, that dependency is a necessary human condition, and therefore, achieve the capacity for the depressive position. Only then can we honestly and realistically value both the women who care for us, as well as necessary and nurturing social programs that everyone needs to mature beyond persecutory anxieties.

- Susan Gutwill, MS, LCSW, CGP


Dinnerstein, D. (1963) The mermaid and the minotaur: sexual arrangements and human malaise. New York: Harper Colophon Books