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Lust and Murder in Weimar The Fetus as Invader
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Illustration by Blair Drawson

Rape. Alien intrusion. Deadly force. Self-defense. Words with these overtones are more common in a horror novel than in a discussion of the relationship between a pregnant woman and her unborn child. This intimate and sensitive subject usually evokes cautious and coded terminology: fertilization, pregnancy, ending a pregnancy, choice.

But Eileen McDonagh, a visiting scholar at Radcliffe College's Murray Research Center, seeks to rewrite the "feminine" self-sacrificing language of pregnancy and replace it with "masculine" terms of self-defense in an effort both to strengthen a woman's right to abortion and to win universal government funding for the procedure. In her new book, Breaking the Abortion Deadlock (Oxford), McDonagh argues that doctors who perform abortions should be paid by taxpayers to stop unwanted fetuses from "kidnapping" women's bodies, just as the government pays police officers to prevent rapists from invading the bodies of women.

"I understand the feelings associated with pregnancy--we all want to think about it as a very beautiful, symbiotic, loving time. I felt that way myself when I was pregnant," says McDonagh, a 54-year-old married mother of two who is an associate professor of political science at Northeastern University. "But we should also recognize that there are some situations--for example, when a pregnant woman is threatened with serious injury--in which a woman has a right to say, 'No, I do not want to sacrifice myself.' And the state should be obligated to help these women defend themselves."

The Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 established the right of women to abort until the fetus is old enough to survive outside the womb. It also allowed women to have late-term abortions if their own lives are at risk. This right to abortion is based on a woman's right to privacy in making choices about her life. But the courts have also ruled that the Constitution does not require the government to pay for abortions, even for the poorest women, because the state has some interest in protecting the "potential life" of future citizens.

McDonagh's theory holds that, if the government is going to make an effort to protect "potential life," it is even more obligated to protect the existing life of the mother from being harmed by that "potential life." To do otherwise would be to grant more privileges to fertilized ova than to full U.S. citizens, and violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution. "While it is true that preborn human life is dependent on another person's body for its survival, it is hardly true that it is weak and helpless," McDonagh writes. "To the contrary, preborn human life is a powerful intruder upon a woman's body and liberty which requires the use of deadly force to stop."

The fact that this "powerful intruder" doesn't have the brainpower to form the conscious intent required for the execution of a criminal in our legal system is irrelevant, McDonagh believes. Our legal system allows people to shoot mentally incompetent attackers to death to stop them from invading homes or raping people.

Not all legal scholars buy McDonagh's reasoning that a fetus created through consensual intercourse can be considered an invader if the mother doesn't want it. At Harvard Law School, Schipper-Gray professor of law David Westfall finds it "remarkable" and illogical that McDonagh would compare rapists to fetuses. "By definition," he says, "a rapist does not get consent to enter a woman's body. Whereas, if a woman consents to sex, then she consents to having that intruder in her. If she doesn't have sex, that's a foolproof method of keeping the intruder out."

But McDonagh believes that a woman's consent to sexual intercourse, or even her consent to intercourse without birth control, is not the same as her consent to pregnancy. In rewriting the terms of the abortion debate, McDonagh would replace the slogan "right to choose" with "right to consent." And to illustrate how strongly men would want the right to "consent" to the use of their bodies, she fabricates a colorful analogy. She imagines conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, LL.B. '60, in a position as painful and horrifying as that of a woman undergoing a potentially crippling childbirth. Suppose, she says, that Scalia has a child who wants to use his body--but in this case the child is a fully grown man, a 35-year-old son who needs a bone-marrow transplant. The son kidnaps the father, ties him up, whips out a scalpel and--without killing Scalia--extracts the bone marrow the younger man needs to survive. Yes, the operation might save the son's life. But, McDonagh asks, wouldn't Scalia want to be asked for his permission? And, if Scalia didn't give his consent, wouldn't he want government-funded officers to answer his call for help?

~ Tom Pelton

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