Sidney Callahan: Pro-Life Feminist

A bio-ethicist's powerful counter-argument to husband's pro-choice views

by Charles C. Camosy

Sidney and Dan Callahan were pioneers. The efforts of this dynamic husband-and-wife team led to the founding of the Hastings Center, now the premier place in the world to study bioethics. A key moment came in 1968, when Dan received a grant from the Ford Foundation to do comprehensive research and produce Abortion: Law, Choice and Mortality. This came at a time when abortion was just heating up as a national issue, with Roe v. Wade (which would end up citing his book) coming a mere five years later. Month after month, day in and day out, Dan and Sidney would talk and argue about the ideas he was exploring in the book. After the research and arguing was complete, Dan came to a "pro-choice" conclusion, while Sidney decided that she was "pro-life." Indeed, after her husband's book came out in support of abortion rights, Sidney responded not only by providing the intellectual support behind the now widely popular and successful group Feminists for Life but also by responding to some of her husband's arguments.

Sidney Callahan

Perhaps her most famous essay is entitled "Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Pro-Life Feminism." The essay begins by highlighting and explaining what she takes to be the four main principles of "pro-choice" feminism. In what follows, I summarize this section of her essay:

  1. The autonomous right to control one's own body
  • A woman choosing an abortion is exercising a basic right to do what she wishes with her body. If she does not want to be pregnant and give birth, she should not be compelled to do so. Just because it is her body that is involved, a woman should have the right to terminate her pregnancy.
  • This is an especially important right in a society in which women cannot count on medical care or social support in pregnancy, childbirth, or child rearing.
  1. Personal responsibility and reproductive freedom
  • In order to plan, choose, and exercise personal responsibility, one must have control of reproduction. A woman, therefore, must be able to make yes-or-no decisions about a specific pregnancy according to her present situation, resources, prior commitments, and life plan.
  • Abortion is necessary to guarantee women this freedom. Without abortion rights, women's personal moral agency and human consciousness are subjected to biology and chance.
  1. The contingent value of fetal life
  • A woman must want and value the fetus for it to be considered of moral worth. After all, the process by which a fetus gains social and moral significance can only take place in the body of the woman.
  • The meaning and value of fetal life are constructed and defined by the woman. Without this personal conferral, the only thing left is a biological process. Thus fetal interests or fetal rights can never outweigh the woman's prior interest and rights.
  1. The right to full social equality
  • Female social equality depends on being able to compete and participate as freely as males can in the structures of educational and economic life. If a woman cannot control when and how she will be pregnant or rear children, she is at a distinct disadvantage, especially in our male-dominated world.
  • Women should enjoy the basic right of everyone to the free exercise of full sexual expression, separated from procreation. No less than males, women should be able to be sexually active without the constant fear of pregnancy. Therefore, it is necessary for abortion to be available in order for women to participate in our culture on an equal footing with men.

Upon examining the arguments she was having with "pro-choice" feminists, Callahan began to realize that the categories, assumptions, reasoning, and goals with which she was being confronted were not feminist at all. To the contrary, her opponents simply borrowed the categories, assumptions, reasoning, and goals of "pro-choice" men. Indeed, it turned out that the arguments she was hearing from most "pro-choice" feminists were very similar to the ones her husband was making.

In response, Sidney Callahan maintained that each of the above principles must be changed—or even abandoned altogether—if we are to incorporate the insights of an authentic feminism. Again, what follows is my summary of this part of her essay:

  1. A shift from talk about "autonomous control" over one's "own body" to a more inclusive focus on justice and a nonviolent focus on the vulnerable
  • In pregnancy, a woman's body no longer exists as a single unit but as nurturer and protector of another's life. Pregnancy is not like the growth of cancer or infestation by a biological parasite. It is the way every human being enters the world.
  • Debates similar to those about the fetus were once conducted about the personhood of women and girls. A woman was once viewed as incorporated into the "one flesh" of her husband's person; she, too, was a form of bodily property. In all unjust patriarchal systems, lesser orders of human life are granted rights only when wanted, chosen, or invested with value by the powerful. As recent immigrants from "nonpersonhood," feminists have traditionally fought for justice for both themselves and others who have their personhood threatened by the powerful.
  • Rejecting male aggression and destruction, feminists seek alternative, peaceful, ecologically sensitive means to resolve conflicts. It is a chilling inconsistency to see pro-choice feminists demanding continued access to assembly-line, technological methods of fetal killing. It is a betrayal of feminism, which has built the struggle for justice on the bedrock of women's empathy and nonviolence.
  1. A shift from "personal responsibility and choice" to a deeper and more authentic sense of reproductive freedom
  • Morality is sometimes thought of as a matter of human agency and decisive action, but feminists know that we have moral duties we do not choose. Morality is hardly limited to contracted agreements between isolated individuals.
  • A pregnant woman, whether or not she has explicitly consented to the existence of the child, has a moral obligation to the now-existing and dependent fetus. No pro-life feminist would dispute the important observations of pro-choice feminists about the extreme difficulties that bearing an unwanted child in our society can entail. But the stronger force of the fetal claim presses a woman to accept these burdens: the fetus possesses rights arising from its extremely vulnerable situation.
  1. A shift from the "contingent value" of human life to a justice-centered respect for its intrinsic and irreducible value
  • Human beings, from the beginning to the end of their development, have intrinsic value that does not depend on meeting selective criteria or tests. Human rights arise from human needs, and it is the very nature of a right, or valid claim upon another, that it cannot be denied or rescinded by more powerful others.
  • It is particularly odd for feminists, who otherwise have justice-centered concerns to protect the vulnerable from the powerful, to hold that in the case of the fetus it is the pregnant woman alone who has the power to bestow or remove her rights.
  1. A shift of our understanding of "full social equality" to reflect an authentically feminist perspective
  • Permissive abortion laws do not bring women freedom, social equality, sexual fulfillment, or full personal development. They are based on male models of sex, which have long been used to subjugate women. This male-centered understanding pits women against their own offspring in a way that is not only morally offensive but psychologically and politically destructive.
  • Women's rights and liberation are linked with fetal rights. If a woman claims the right to decide by herself whether the fetus becomes a child or not, what does this do to paternal and communal responsibility? Why should men share responsibility for child support or child rearing if they cannot share in what is declared to be the woman's sole decision? Furthermore, if explicit intentions and consciously accepted contracts are necessary for moral obligations, why should men be held responsible for what they do not voluntarily choose to happen? Abortion on demand, often advocated as a response to male irresponsibility, legitimates such irresponsibility.
  • In our male-dominated world, what men don't do doesn't count. Pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing have been characterized as passive and debilitating. Pregnancy is likened to a disease or impairment that handicaps women in the "real" world. Many pro-choice feminists, deliberately childless, adopt the male perspective when they cite the "basic injustice that women have to bear the babies," instead of seeing the injustice in the fact that men cannot give birth to children. Women's biologically unique capacity and privilege has been denied, despised, and suppressed under male domination. Rather than accept this view of the world, women should argue that pregnancy is an exercise of life-giving power that men can never know.
  • Instead of being empowered by their abortion choices, women are instead merely attempting to survive the debilitating reality of not being free to bring a baby into the world in terms that respect their difference from men. A new kind of pro-life feminism is needed in which all of women's reality is accorded respect. This time, instead of conforming to male models and ideas, women must demand that society must make room for the biological reality of women.

When it comes to the insights of pro-life feminism, though she was expanding on what the first American feminists (see quotes below, and download a pdf of selected quotes) had already said about abortion, Sidney Callahan began the movement in the contemporary era. And, for me at least, her arguments remain the best ones out there.

This article is excerpted from chapter 5 of Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation, by Charles C. Camosy (Eerdmans, 2015). It appears here by kind permission of the publisher.

The first feminists—those who fought for the right of women to vote, for instance—were strongly skeptical of abortion, not least because they believed that men (and institutions run by men) coerced most abortions. The groundbreaking group Feminists for Life is one of the few organizations that recognizes and highlights this fact.

Image result for Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony

"We want to prevention, not merely punishment. We must reach the root of the evil…It is practiced by those whose inmost souls revolt from the dreadful deed." ~Susan B. Anthony, The Revolution, 4(1):4, July 8, 1869

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

"There must be a remedy even for such a crying evil as this. But where shall it be found, at least where begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women?" ~Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Revolution, 1(5):1, March 12, 1868

Emma Goldman

"The custom of procuring abortions has reached such apalling proportions in America as to be beyond belief… So great is the misery of the working classes that 17 abortions are committed in every one hundred pregnancies." ~Emma Goldman, Mother Earth, 1911

"When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society—so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged." ~Maddie Brinkerhoff, The Revolution 4(9):138-9, Sept. 2, 1869

Victoria Woodhall

"Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an un-wished for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth." ~Victoria Woodhall, the first female US presidential candidate, Wheeling (WV) Evening Standard, Nov. 17, 1875


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3 Responses

  1. April 10, 2015

    […] to Ask Abortion Poll Questions)," and two articles for Evangelicals for Social Action: "Sidney Callahan: Pro-Life Feminist" and "Our Current Abortion Law as a Product of […]

  2. April 23, 2015

    […] for Social Action ("Sidney Callahan: Pro-Life Feminist"; "Our Current Abortion Law as a Product of […]

  3. April 28, 2018

    […] Sidney Callahan, "Abortion and the sexual agenda: A case for prolife feminism." o Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defence of Human Life. o Patrick Lee, […]

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