From Dobbs v. Jackson to Rights v. Obligations

Nancy Folbre
24 July 2022

What’s wrong with Ross Douthat’s interpretation of the world in general and abortion rights in particular?

Lest we forget the time-hallowed misogyny fueling anti-abortion activism, the cartoon character known as Matt Gaetz pops up to remind us in Trumpian fashion that women who support abortion rights are too ugly to need them. At the other extreme, the NYT’s token conservative Ross Douthat is utterly convinced that feminists are over-reacting, because many opponents of abortion today (including him) are “gender egalitarians.”

Douthat’s argument so much more interesting because its flaws are (at least relatively speaking) more subtle. It is easy to identify widespread hypocrisy regarding the sanctity of life and social responsibility to protect and nurture it.  Yet Douthat himself is consistent in his emphasis on tensions between individual choice and social obligation, and his account sometimes echoes points made in Kristin Luker’s 1985 classic, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Some social obligations can and should override individual rights: this is a basic principle of family and community life. I learned from Jia Tolentino’s recent essay in the New Yorker that advocates for abortion rights in the U.S. in the 1930s seldom framed the issue in terms of rights to choose, emphasizing rights to health and well-being.  I can’t remember if Luker made this point as well, but she did observe that treating motherhood purely as an individual choice seems to deny its social contribution and its moral value.

I’m sensitive to this point because the neoclassical economic theory of utility maximization often treats commitments to the wellbeing of others as choices just as “selfish” as any other: If you choose to do something, it must be because it makes you happy; if it is a costly choice, you must be compensated by the subjective satisfaction you derive. This choice-theoretic approach is also explicitly amoral. People are simply endowed with certain preferences, and there is no objective or scientific means of ranking them; everyone should be free to choose, within the boundaries of the law.

These formal underpinnings of liberal individualism helped undermine traditional patriarchal norms, with some very positive consequences for women. However, they also enabled men to portray fatherhood as a voluntary choice—one that could easily be abrogated. Barbara Ehrenreich tells a very good story about the cultural consequences in the U.S. in The Hearts of Men.  I tell a more academic story about the gendered double standard of political economy in Greed, Lust and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas.

Liberal individualism works best for those unencumbered by any sense of responsibility for the care of dependents—that is, anyone in need of help from others. Some of the slogans of the anti-abortion movement, such as “Babies Over Bottom Lines,” reflect anxiety about living in a world in which women are gaining more freedom to act like men. Other slogans seem to extend the rhetoric of individual rights, such as “Equality Begins in the Womb.” One doesn’t have to agree with these slogans in order to engage in larger process of cultural bargaining over the definition of rights v. obligations.

So, what’s wrong with Ross Douthat’s interpretation of the world in general and abortion rights in particular? He fails to acknowledge the history of patriarchal institutions (including the Catholic Church) that enforced double standards of social obligation based on gender. Nor does he understand that the persistence of these double standards remains a profound obstacle to “gender egalitarianism.” Still, I like him better than Matt Gaetz (and he has a nicer face).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *