A Group Liberationist Approach

Against the Current, No. 10, September/October 1987

Milton Fisk

IN ANY STRUGGLE ideas are important; the struggle for abortion rights is no exception. The anti-abortionist op­ position is highly defined ideologically; it manages to keep its ranks solid with the view that the pro-choice camp is indifferent to the value of human life. How can the pro-choice camp best respond on the terrain of moral ideas?

There are two approaches the pro-choice camp might take. One of them is familiar from the writings of liberal philosophers and medical ethicists. The other approach is implicit in the practice of pro-choice activists, but unfortunately it is rarely articulated as a full-fledged moral justification of the pro-choice position.

My purpose here is to begin the process of articulating this second approach. I am convinced it will serve the struggle for abortion rights, and reproductive rights generally, much better and that it will eventually undermine the ideology of the anti-abortionist opposition.

Two Approaches

I shall call the first approach “liberal” not because of its use by contemporary political liberals. Many of them, in fact, are anti-choice on the issue of abortion, though some of these are, for reasons having to do with the separation of religion or private morality from the state, opposed to legislating an anti-choice position.

Rather, I call the first approach liberal since it harks back to a view of rights and of human nature that was at the root of the great liberal rethinking of morality and politics occasioned by the breakup of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. According to this view of rights and human nature, the individual by him- or herself is preeminent.

Rights are possessed without dependence on social context, and at core humans are what they are independently of the influence of society. This assertion of the individual was a powerful force in breaking down outmoded traditions, and it still has that potential to a certain degree today. A key element in this dominant view of the basis for a right to choose an abortion is the idea that only persons as such have a right to life. A person here is not a socially constituted individual but one that is sentient and self-conscious.

In this liberal view of human nature, the person feels pleasures and pains and is aware that he or she has certain projects that are devised to satisfy his or her interests at some point in the future. A fetus may have detectable electrical activity corning from its brain eight weeks after fertilization of the ovum. But even if this were some indication of sentiency, it is clear that there is no basis for neonate.

Thus the fetus, not being a person in the above sense, has no right to life that could be violated by the woman’s choice to have an abortion. This dominant view takes the liberal approach.

The alternative approach, which I shall call the “group” approach, holds that both rights and human nature are fundamentally social in character. It denies that there are any such things as natural rights, rights possessed outside a social context. And it denies that all aspects of persons derived from the groups they belong to are adventitious, accidental, and irrelevant as far as morality is concerned. In the group approach, humans are at core much more than what they would be in a state of nature, where there are no social groups.

Taking the group approach means giving up on certain familiar strategies. The strategy of debate is one we are taught to employ if we are to be true democrats. But debate has its limits where there is no common purpose; it is designed for working out means where there is a shared conception of ends.

The group approach accepts the fact that there are sharp divisions in society and observes that there is no reason to believe that there can be fruitful debate across these divisions. There is little point to debating with investors the rights of workers to control the conditions under which they produce, since investors see that they or their agents must control the conditions of production for their investment to bring a return.

Nonetheless, it is common for all of us to be drawn into word battles by opponents with whom we share no substantive common purpose. On the group approach, though, there is no expectation that such debates will be fruitful, since it does not start with universal rights but with commitment to a group and hence to its purposes.

A group approach to the abortion issue entails making plain to the anti-choice opposition that one has taken a stand for the liberation of women from their oppression. In face of the charge that the pro-choice position condones murder, one has the option of entering a debate on the rights of fetuses and of women considered as pre-social entities, or of making clear from the outset that what is at stake is the liberation of women.

Entering the debate on rights from outside the standpoint of a group accepts the framework of liberal theory, within which both fetuses and women are treated as pre-social entities. Within this liberal framework the interests of women as a group in overcoming their oppression have customarily been ignored. The rights substituted for these interests are only as solid as someone’s conjecture about what rights outside a social context might be.

Moreover, starting from the liberationist point of view provides a basis for resisting charges that the rights of others — including fetuses — are being ignored. For the liberationist demands something in return for recognizing the rights of others. The liberationist will consider claims about the rights of fetuses only after the champions of those rights make a clear commitment to alleviating the oppression of women.

This no-nonsense demand inherent in the group approach is missing from the strategy of entering debate where there is no common purpose.

The Group Approach

For us as socialists the group approach is nothing new. In the class struggle we make clear at the outset that the ground we stand on is a liberationist ground. We are for the liberation of the working class from the various forms of control exercised by the owning class and the capitalist state. There will be room to take seriously the rights of those who say they are harmed by the demands of the working class only when they are ready to make a commitment to removing the burden of owner control and state coercion from the working class.

Yet liberal reformists want to insist on protecting the rights of owners and of other citizens-rights they derive in a social vacuum from the selfishness of the working class. We have no trouble as socialists seeing which way to go on this class issue. We don’t allow conjectural natural rights to ownership and to profits to stand in the way of the project of liberating the working class.

It should be no different for the struggle to liberate women. In this case, as in the case of the class struggle, we start with the individual as a member of a group rather than with the pre-social individual. Morality is then not something defined for the isolated individual, but for the individual structured by the group. The rights of women as members of an oppressed group will be determined by what they need to make progress in eliminating their oppression.

Abortion, and reproductive rights generally, are not then absolute rights of women. If they are rights at all, women have them because there is a demonstrable link between women being denied reproductive choice and lack of progress in their liberation. That there is such a link has been plain to feminists for some time, and it is on this link rather than on a pre-social conception of human nature that the right to choose should be established.

The link is confirmed in numerous ways. The denial by church or state of the right to choose to have an abortion makes women subservient to these male-dominated institutions in regard to a basic feature of their lives.

Without the right to choose, women will have children who make them more dependent on welfare institutions, which control as well as serve their recipients. Denying the right to choose results in placing obstacles in the way of women acquiring the training needed to get beyond the low-paying jobs reserved for them.

Without the right to choose, women are subjected to the unequal standard that tells them they are to bear greater responsibility than men for the outcome of sexual activity. Denying the right to choose makes women more likely to accept the view that sexual activity is illicit outside marriage and thus makes more likely a restriction of their own sexual freedom. Without the right to choose, women are more constrained in the choice of marriage itself, given the difficulty a single woman has supporting a child and herself.

The combined effect of these results of the denial of choice is a decisive strengthening of oppression.

The group approach is quite modest. It emphasizes the limited ability of morality to solve human problems. Most of us were brought up to think that if there is a dispute, then it admits of a morally correct resolution. We all come to recognize at some point that this is a pious but unrealizable hope.

The liberal approach stands on the pretension that morality is a final arbiter in all disputes. It does this by assuming that people are all basically the same and thus come under certain universally applicable moral principles. However, if there are such principles, then why is it that debates, like the abortion debate, go on endlessly with no one scoring a final moral victory?

The place for fruitful moral debate is within the frame­ work of a common purpose; there debate need not be condemned to interminability, though changing circumstances may yield opposing moral stances at different times.

Immodest claims that there should be moral closure on major issues dies hard. One thing that undermines it is the recognition !hat there is a genuine uniformity in our society. Without major rifts there would be hope of agreement. But with an exploited class, an oppressed gender and various oppressed minorities, our society is deeply divided. People are shaped by these rifts so that there are few if any universal moral principles that can, on the one hand, respect the differences in the natures of people on different sides of these rifts and, on the other hand, resolve the conflicts created by the rifts.

Socialists have of course traditionally thought of societies as divided by class, and they have more recently come to take seriously the view that societies are divided by other forms of domination as well. They do not regard these divisions as adventitious ones that can be removed by minor adjustments. And because the divisions run so deep, socialists have been led to view them as affecting the humans separated by them. As Marx put it, the human essence is no abstraction but “the ensemble of the social relations.”

The social relations that make the worker will be the basis for moral principles that cannot be the principles based on what the capitalist is. And thus a morality firmly rooted in social relations will not resolve the class struggle but intensify it. The struggle for liberation is then ultimate for socialists.

Women as an oppressed group have rights on the basis of that oppression. Any attempt to define rights for them simply as members of the society as a whole, or more abstractly as persons, will fail. Either the attempt will fail to yield a right to choose an abortion because the notion of a member of society or a person is too empty. Or else the attempt will lead to actually prohibiting the choice of an abortion because such a choice does not fit with what op­ pressing members of the divided society are.

Going beyond the oppressed themselves to define their rights either yields an empty result due to excessive abstraction or else yields a negative result for the op­ pressed due to bias in favor of an oppressing sector of society. In giving a definition of their rights there is nowhere for the oppressed to stand but with their oppression.

It might seem a flaw in the group approach that it has no way of undercutting the moral perspective of the opposition. There is an urge to want to say not only that the anti-choice opposition is wrong from the pro-choice perspective but also that the anti-choice opposition is wrong absolutely. This of course the group approach will not allow.

On reflection, however, nothing is actually lost by allowing the opposition its own moral perspective within which it can be fully self-righteous. If the anti-choice opposition is absolutely wrong but doesn’t see that it is, our saying it is absolutely wrong is not going to make it any easier for women to advance their liberation.

The struggle is still on, and for that, what matters is that those supporting women’s liberation be able to say that the ability to choose an abortion is a vehicle for winning the struggle.

From Debate to Struggle

Trying to avoid taking one’s stand with liberation leads to endless debates that immobilize the actual struggle for liberation.

To show this I will consider several claims that have appeared in recent debates on abortion. Each of these claims has a counterclaim that turns out to be just as strongly supported. To hope to prove any of these claims and to disprove the related counterclaim would mire us in a debate from which there is no exit.

First consider the claim that the fetus has no right to life. Within the liberal framework this is defended on the basis of two other claims. The first is that the fetus, not being self-conscious, is not a person. The second is that only a person has a full-fledged right to life.

It is open to the anti-abortionist to claim that personhood is not necessary for the right to life. All that is necessary for the right to life is the potential for self-consciousness at some future time. The reasoning is that rights are not just for the protection of what their bearers  can do now but also for the protection of what they can do later.

Consider the right a child has to schooling. That right has a purpose that goes beyond schooling itself; the reason we don’t deprive children of schooling is that it will make their lives rewarding in their adult futures. Yet children may be unaware of the rewards in store for them resulting from their schooling, just as the fetus is unaware of the rewards of self-consciousness in store for it if it is allowed to live. The fetus has a right to life since this right protects its subsequent self-consciousness.

This doesn’t end the debate. The pro-choice advocate could respond that the analogy with educating children fails. We are already committed to the continued existence of the school-age child, and we should then take care that as he or she develops no obstacles are placed in the way of a rewarding life. But the fetus is different since in its case the question is about its very existence. The alternatives are not between an unrewarding and a rewarding adult future, but between life as a person and no life. We are certainly not committing it to a less rewarding life if it is aborted.

To this the anti-choice advocate will respond that we should start with a commitment to the continued existence of the fetus as well as of the child. So there seems to be no decisive settlement of the argument; the pro-choice advocate demands full personhood as the basis for the right to life, while the anti-choice advocate settles for a potential for personhood. All we can say is that both choose starting points consistent with their practical programs.

Second, consider the claim that the biological dependence of the fetus on the woman gives the woman a right to an abortion under any circumstances. The general idea is that it compromises the autonomy of a woman to have to support a biologically dependent entity. Such autonomy is part of the liberal view of humans as free by nature to pursue their interests. We even find an appeal to such autonomy by a socialist feminist like Nancy Holmstrom in her “The Morality of Abortion” in Against the Current (Vol. II, No. 2, old series, Spring 1983).

The anti-choice advocate comes back with the reply that, in the words of Catholic ideologue John Noonan, the mother has a “fiduciary responsibility” to the child she is carrying. The metaphor here is that the woman has been entrusted-by whom? … God, nature, the male, the woman herself in intercourse? — with a sacred charge and she cannot then dispose of it until it is capable of living by itself.
Is there anything that will decide between the liberal idea of absolute autonomy and the metaphor of the trustee? Each view is too extreme to be the full truth, yet each carries enough partial truth to rule out unqualified acceptance of the other.

Moving the discussion to the level of the group approach, it is easy enough to find what is true in the biological-dependence view. In the context in which women are oppressed in other ways, the insistence that they are to allow themselves to be incapacitated in countering this oppression by being forced to sustain a biological dependency is intolerable.

Matters would, however, be entirely different were oppression to be overcome. For in the absence of oppression it is possible that there could be a legitimate fiduciary responsibility to the fetus, in the same way that in the absence of exploitation there can be a legitimate responsibility for productive work.

It is possible-but not foreseeable-that women themselves, freed from decisions imposed by a sexually mixed state, might put certain restrictions on the right to choose an abortion. They might consider it to be in their own interests to give birth to and rear children, if by so doing they would be reproducing a society in which women are liberated.

In short, the biological dependence of the fetus gives the woman no absolute right to choose an abortion. Whether the biological dependence of the fetus co tributes to a right to abort depends on the perspective of liberation. Is liberation served or hindered by women being forced to sustain a biologically dependent entity? The answer differs according to the circumstances.

Third, and last, consider the claim that at least the viable fetus has a right to life. Again we suppose that this claim is made in a context where rights do not have a social origin and are thus natural rights. So the claim is sustained without appeal to the interest any group might have in potential human life. What is appealed to instead is our conviction that a new-born infant with a good prognosis for a rewarding life has a right to life.

From here it is an easy enough step to transfer the right to life to the unseparated fetus from which such a new-born infant came. Once the right is transferred to the fetus, it can be argued that choosing to abort such a viable fetus — a voluntary abortion is here taken to involve killing the fetus — is illegitimate. In contrast, the woman can legitimately attempt a separation of the fetus from her body by means that stand a chance of allowing it to survive the separation. This separation would be called a premature delivery rather than a voluntary abortion.

Opposed to this is the view that it is not so easy to cross the divide from actual separate existence to potential separate existence with the right to life. Granted that an infant with a good prognosis has a right to life, does this mean that the fetus which can be successfully separated from the woman has a right to life?

The familiar attempt to cross the divide has been the appeal to similarity of emotional responses; the viable fetus evokes the same attachment and sympathy as the corresponding neonate. But in a thoroughly sexist society women are conditioned to feel little attachment to freedoms they are denied, without it being true that they have no right to these freedoms. The argument from similarity of emotional responses overlooks the manipulation of emotions that can distort the picture of genuine rights.

Without the argument from emotional similarity there is little that supports the transfer of the right to life across the divide from the actual to the potential. Why else would we attribute a right to life to the neonate other than the fact that it has for the first time taken on a semi­autonomous existence? By achieving independence of the womb it becomes a bearer of this right, and of course this achieved independence is more than its prenatal ability to become independent of the womb.

There is no sign that this will terminate the argument, though, since the advocate of the viable fetus’s right to life can always retort that entities with a potential for autonomy are being denied a good by being cut down before they realize that autonomy.

In actuality the claim that a viable fetus has a right to life has been advanced where there is some group interest served by fetal life. Justice Blackmun writes for the majority in Roe v. Wade that viability is the compelling point in the development of the fetus at which a state of the United States may take a legitimate interest in protecting fetal life. This is not because of a natural right of the neonate that can be transferred back to the viable fetus; it is rather because of the interest the state has in furthering potential life.

This is a thoroughly social argument. Women in search of liberation may well counter it, not by metaphysical arguments about the crossability of the divide from the actual to the potential, but by an equally social argument.

Their argument would be that the interest of a state in furthering potential life is incompatible with an important interest of women. Women do not want to be forced by government to be mothers when government’s failure to support women in the task of mothering leads to their being further oppressed. Even if it is open to a woman to have an infant adopted into a home or institution in which it is well cared for, her oppression is in no way relieved by being forced to deliver a live infant and undergo the wrenching experience of giving it away.

Morality and Left Unity

I want to end by raising what is perhaps the most serious problem facing the group approach to morality. It is a problem that I can only begin to deal with here. Socialist feminism is committed to overcoming not just women’s oppression but also class exploitation. And it is committed to doing so in an integrated fashion, rather than by keeping the women’s and the class struggle on parallel but separate tracks.

One might wonder if the best foundation for such an integrated struggle isn’t the idea of a common but pre­social conception of human nature that the group approach rejects. The goal of overcoming any form of domination would be the goal of releasing that common humanity.

In contrast, the group approach tells us to base the moral imperatives of each group on its interests, without assuring us that the interests of the various groups struggling for liberation are in any way compatible. Each group could advance its interests without taking notice of the interests of any of the others and in so doing put obstacles in the way of their liberation.

The group approach thus might lead to disunity on the Left. This might be more damaging to the cause of liberation than the immobilization caused by looking for natural rights based on a common human nature.

In dealing with this problem we should try to avoid two familiar extremes. First there is the view that capitalism is the source of all evil. In the case of gender, it takes the form that capitalism has to depend for its reproduction on the oppression of women. This would solve the problem of disunity handily, since women and the working class would have an equal stake in getting rid of capitalism. Men in the working class would freely curb their sexist behavior in order to unify the ranks of workers in the class struggle.
The difficulty with this tidy solution is that we have little evidence that capitalism has such a dependence on women’s oppression. To the contrary, there is a growing body of evidence that capitalism is gradually freeing itself from dependence on some of the forms of sexual oppression. Given time to acclimatize, it might even flourish in a non-sexist society.

Even abortion is not an issue on which capitalists as a class are ready to join with the Moral Majority, since a large pool of female labor, facilitated by reduced family responsibilities, is seen to be in the capitalists’ interest. Of course, they are not ready for equal-pay-for-comparable work, but this is not to say that gradually achieving this economic goal would do capitalism in.

Second, there is the view that men are the enemy. This takes us to the opposite end of the spectrum, where instead of an almost automatic unity of the left we are faced with the impossibility of men and women uniting.

The working class, or at least that part of it organized enough to take collective action, is partly male in membership and predominantly male in leadership. If men oppress women, as the view that men are the enemy implies, and hence benefit from the privileges of being an oppressing group, then male-led groups such as the organized working class will maintain an interest in keeping women oppressed. Such groups might someday be socialist in a narrow sense, but never feminist.

The view that men are the enemy was encouraged by so-called radical feminism, but it deserves little credence anymore. People have begun to ask whether it is really men as a group who are the oppressors. There is no initial reason to assume that all men face women through the same social relations. Some social relations are oppressive and others are not, and some men do not seem to be related to women in oppressive ways.

Who then are the oppressors? Some of them are men and some few of them are women. The oppressing group is made up of those — men and women — who stand to women in oppressing social relations, relations that may be personal, familial or institutional. It is not then the maleness of the working class that is an obstacle to the women’s struggle but a complex set of social relations promoted by both men and women.

Having avoided these extremes, what more can be said? Even though not all men are oppressors, it is true that most men enjoy privileges provided by a system of oppression of women. These privileges might be too great to abandon; men might keep their privileges rather than join with women in a common struggle against exploitation.

However, Barbara Ehrenreich points out in Socialist Review (Number 73, Jan.-Feb. 1984) that certain male privileges derived from the patriarchal past have been and are continuing to be eroded. Greater job participation by women, the availability of fast-food restaurants and the wide distribution of labor-saving home appliances have been the means by which capitalism has reduced the amount of time that women spend providing for men.

This is not to say that males have lost all past privileges and have acquired no new ones. Male privileges remain with their higher-paying jobs and their leadership roles. In bargaining with women over the granting of privileges, men retain an advantage. For, if women do not grant the desired privileges, they face a future with limited chances apart from men. Nonetheless, due to the erosion of important male privileges, it is not clear that the remaining male privileges are enough to get working men to reject solidarity with women.

There is also a key positive factor. The numerical strength of women in the working class makes them essential for advancing the class struggle. This strength together with the erosion of certain male privileges makes feasible the genuine possibility of a unity between women and other workers.

Of course there are no guarantees of a consilience of interests between women and the working class. But we have enough evidence to reject the claim that the group approach leads inevitably to disunity. The rights women have resulting from their being an oppressed group and the rights men and women have resulting from their being an exploited class can plausibly be claimed under present circumstances not to conflict with one another but rather to reinforce one another. Protecting the rights of one will tend to protect those of the other.

Though not guaranteed, the reinforcing character of the rights of various groups opposing domination is given support within a historical materialist perspective. As is clear from my rejection of the view that capitalism is the source of all evil, this does not mean deriving sex oppression from class exploitation.

Using the historical materialist perspective means rather being sensitive to the fact that both the oppression of women and the domination of workers develop and alter their form within the framework of the productive relations of capitalism.

The ceaseless process of the accumulation of capital is one of the major features of those productive relations. And this process has worked in a double way in relation to the oppression of women. On the one hand, it has worked to have a profound modernizing effect on older institutions. It created a demand for more labor to apply to the increasing accumulation of capital. It violated the bonds that held peasants to the land and women to the family, sweeping both into a growing proletariat.

Moreover, the accumulation process required expanded markets through which the surplus embodied in products by labor could be realized as profits. The family as a unit of production was transformed into a unit of consumption, eventually freeing the woman from much traditional drudgery.

On the other hand, the accumulation process retained those traditional elements in the oppression of women that were useful to it. Indeed it amplified them to fit its scale.

The sexual division of labor is an obvious example. Through a variety of mechanisms, women were segregated into jobs at lower pay. One result is that now, when there is growth in job categories where there are large numbers of women, the wage bill for the capitalists is smaller than it would have been had these job categories been dominated by men. The Moral Majority with its traditionalist thrust appears then not as a purely cultural phenomenon but as a phenomenon that benefits capitalism through tending to insure that women’s labor remains cheap labor.

Both the modernizing and the traditionalist effects of accumulation have worked toward a consilience of the interests of workers and the interests of women. On the modernizing side, as a result of the growth of the proletariat and the expansion of the market, men have been deprived of some of the ways they controlled women in the family. In addition, by becoming wage earners in large numbers, women have become increasingly involved in the class struggle alongside men.

Yet due to the traditionalist effects, the issues women face in the class struggle include issues directly concerned with the oppression of women, so that the class struggle and the feminist struggle are melded together and no longer operate on dual tracks.

As part of the class struggle women workers face issues of job discrimination, comparable worth, sexual harassment and child care, which are all issues directly concerned with women’s oppression.

The barriers to workers and to women mutually recognizing each other’s rights have been decisively reduced. This mutual recognition was not made in an abstract world of timeless structures, but in the historical process of accumulation. Thus it is this historical process — rather than natural rights-that assures unity among oppressed and exploited groups.

September-October 1987, ATC 10

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *