This paper aims to discuss the issue of abortion from a feminist perspective. It argues that the strength of feminism does not lie in its defense of women’s rights vis-a-vis fetal rights, but rather in providing a way for us to think beyond the either/or framework of traditional ethics. Feminism affirms women’s agency in moral reasoning. It develops and advocates a new kind of ethics – an ethics of care – by listening to the moral voices of women. The ethics of care is characterized by consideration more of the factors in a specific context than of universalizing principles, and an emphasis on the entirety of relations than on individual rights. In contrast to traditional ethics which presupposes an opposition between self and others, the ethics of care sees self and others as interdependent. It is not so much about balancing the interests of oneself and others. Rather, it concerns recognizing the falsehood of this polarity and the truth of one's and others' ( including the fetus') interconnectedness.
This paper will be divided into three parts. The first part introduces the ethics of care and shows how women can transcend the framework of selfishness and self-sacrifice in their moral consideration of abortion. Feminism values women's lived experiences and opposes to discuss abortion in an abstract or hypothetical way. It directs us to look at the link between women's needs for abortion and the social practices that oppress women. The second part of the paper will situate the issue of abortion in a wider context of oppression that are faced by women, and hence exposes the problems of limiting the discussion of abortion to the standard questions about the moral status of the fetus. The last part of the paper is an attempt to discuss the issue of abortion in the context of Hong Kong through a feminist lens.
One should not equate feminist ethics with liberal defenses of women's right to choose abortion. Feminist ethics yields a different analysis of the moral questions surrounding abortion than that usually offered by the more familiar liberal approaches. In the discourse of rights, the relationship between women and the fetus is understood as adversarial. An examination of the process of women's moral reasoning allows us to see that their decision whether to have an abortion is often based on considerations of the entire relationship which involves their responsibilities to the fetus and other parties (including their other children), rather than a problem about abstract deontology. Their experience points towards an ethics of care which may help us reconstruct the notion of right.
To conceive abortion from a feminist ethics is to view the issue not as singular but as a set of inter-related issues. The question whether abortion is right or wrong cannot be answered in isolation from other questions which probe into women's experiences of abortion. Why do women need to pursue abortion? What are the causes of unwanted pregnancies and why are they so common across different age groups of women? Why do many women find it difficult to refuse sexual requests? What is the impact of rape on women and why did some victims fail to seek an abortion in an early stage of pregnancy? How would women's lives be affected if they are not allowed to pursue abortion? How shall we explain the phenomenon that most of the aborted fetuses are female? These questions demand us to go beyond focusing exclusively on the moral or legal permissibility of abortion that has preoccupied traditional ethics. Only by reflecting on the actual experiences of women and the conditions of domination and subordination that govern the relationships between men and women can we come to an adequate understanding of the moral issue of abortion.
In Hong Kong, it is legal to perform abortion in private and public hospitals or at the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong. However, local women are not free from oppression or prejudice when they pursue abortion. Women's experiences reveal the existence of social agents in the perpetuation of an institutional power which restricts women's autonomy over reproduction and sexuality. Many medical professionals and social workers discriminate against those who choose to have an abortion. They usually impose their moral judgments and carry out a form of moral policing towards these women. Such discrimination leads women to try very hard in hiding the fact that they have an abortion. It is still a long road ahead to promote a real sense of understanding of and respect for women's choice in abortion. Public education often presents an over-simplified picture and misleading messages. Many women have yet to face the challenge of how to think beyond the framework of selfishness and self-sacrifice. This paper concludes by urging those who truly cares about the issue of abortion in Hong Kong to work hard to eliminate discrimination, to promote an understanding of women's decisions, to advocate women's sexual autonomy, to encourage equality and mutual respect in sexual relationship, and to fight for provision of more affordable quality child care services.