NAOMI WOLF, feminist and liberal, has written an absolutely extraordinary article about abortion in the New Republic. The piece, coming as it does from a best-selling pro-choice, feminist writer, is so surprisingly honest and so distant from feminist dogma that it is certain to be seen as a watershed in the (usually) sterile debate between the two sides.
What Ms. Wolf has done is to concede, wholly, that the pro-lifers have a point when they argue that the unborn child has moral standing -- and to castigate pro-choice feminists for adopting a callous, selfish and even cruel approach to what they characterize as mere "fetal tissue."
'A monumental departure'
That is a monumental departure from pro-choice orthodoxy, which has always held that a fetus is not a "life" and that killing it is an act of personal autonomy and self-expression, not an unprovoked act of violence.
Ms. Wolf quotes an illustrative account from Mother Jones magazine. D. Redman writes triumphantly of her decision to have a chemical abortion and quotes her doctor as saying: "By Sunday, you won't see on the monitor what we call the heartbeat." Ms. Wolf is offended. "The pro-life slogan 'Abortion stops a beating heart' is incontrovertibly true," she writes. "While images of violent fetal death work magnificently for pro-lifers as political polemic, the pictures are not polemical in themselves: They are biological facts. We know this. . . . How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real?"
In her Mother Jones piece, Ms. Redman included an account of her infertile friend Judith's plea for the baby the author did not want: "Let me have the baby. You could visit her anytime, and if you ever wanted her back, I promise I would let her go." But Ms. Redman does not see beyond the end of her own very pampered nose and fails even to consider placing her child for adoption.
Ms. Wolf challenges the feminist self-congratulatory view that all women who choose abortion are making morally serious decisions. "Of the abortions I know of," she writes, "these were some of the reasons: to find out if the woman could get pregnant; to force a boy or man to take a relationship more seriously; and again and again, to enact a rite of passage for affluent teen-age girls." Fifty-seven percent of unwanted pregnancies, Ms. Wolf notes, result from couples failing to use contraception. "With the pro-choice rhetoric we use now, we incur three destructive consequences: hardness of heart, lying and political failure."
What propelled Ms. Wolf to reconsider the morality of abortion? She had a baby.
The Wolf article will disappoint those who hope that she will announce her total conversion to the pro-life view at the end. She doesn't. Hers is a plea for a more serious moral rhetoric about abortion but not, alas, for more serious moral policy. She wants pro-choice feminists to mourn the deaths of the fetuses who die in abortions, she wants the women themselves to rediscover a sense of sin, and she hopes all will turn to God for redemption.
But that is no reason not to celebrate this first of its kind of feminist rethinking of abortion. I would even venture to guess that anyone who has reflected so honestly about abortion may not yet have reached her final destination. She has taken pro-life arguments to heart, she has grappled with life and death, and she has allowed something beyond selfishness to color her opinions.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.