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Critical Theory and Abortion as An Act of Oppression

by R. Scott Smith, Published Feb. 29, 2024 Equip.org



SYNOPSIS

Critical theory (CT) has become a major influence in society. It maintains that oppressed groups should be liberated from their oppressors. CT manifests itself in many ways, including critical race theory and feminist theory. That is, CT provides justification for women to be liberated from their patriarchal domination, and a crucial way that can be achieved is through the permissibility of abortion. Yet, on the contrary, I argue that abortion should be construed as immoral based on CT’s own internal logic. By determining the value of their unborn by their own conceptualizations, women arbitrarily exercise power over and oppress their unborn.


Some counter that it is actually the unborn that is an oppressor, restricting the woman’s freedom to make her own choices, as well as to define her own sense of identity via her self-conception. Another objection is that while the unborn are humans, they are not persons, for in order to count as persons, humans also have to have certain functional qualities, such as a self-concept. However, for CT, there is no equality on the basis of self-concepts. According to CT, there are no essences, and thus the claim that we are valuable because we have self-concepts is nothing but an interpretation given from a particular standpoint, which results in an arbitrary imposition of power. It is a much greater oppression for the woman to have the unborn put to death than for her to remain pregnant. Thus, taking CT consistently, the unborn need to be liberated from their oppression by abortion.


Many have argued that women have been oppressed by men, and a central way they can be liberated from this oppression is by having a right to abortion. According to this reasoning, women are free from males’ domination through systemic patriarchy over their choices by being able to have control over their own bodies. This view resonates with the biblical principle that it is wrong to oppress fellow humans (cf. Isa. 1:17). Today, a relatively new view also holds that it is wrong to oppress people, yet it maintains that moral stance on a very different basis.


Critical theory (CT) is an umbrella term that includes, for example, critical race theory, and considering the recognition of many social injustices today, it has gained traction in society. According to CT, there are two groups in which people stand, the oppressors or the oppressed. Our central ethical duty is to liberate the oppressed from their domination. Thus, based on CT’s rationale, it would be our ethical duty to protect a woman’s right to abortion.


However, contrary to this reasoning, even according to CT’s own internal logic, abortion is an act of oppression and is immoral. To show this, I will sketch several major theoretical positions of CT, argue why abortion is immoral according to the logic of CT, and address some objections to my argument. My intentions in this essay are not to endorse CT in all its aspects; as most theories, it has weaknesses, but also some strengths. Rather, I intend to show that based on CT’s own rationale, abortion should be rejected.


A Sketch of Critical Theory

CT developed in the Frankfurt School of the Institute for Social Research in Germany in the 1930s. Key figures included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and other German philosophers and social theorists who were working in the Western European Marxist tradition. They observed that social groups are in opposition, and these groups are the oppressed and their oppressors. Due to their oppression, the minoritized, oppressed groups are alienated from the goods of society. Systemically, social institutions have embedded within them the means of power to impose and reinforce the dominant group’s ideology.


A core moral principle for CT is that the oppressed should be liberated from their oppression. For instance, for Horkheimer, a crucial goal of CT is “emancipation from slavery” and domination to liberate humans and “create a world which satisfies the[ir] needs and powers.”1 Critical theorists, and critical race theorists in particular, presuppose the validity of this principle, along with the goodness of justice and the rightness of treating humans with dignity and equality. For example, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo draw upon CT’s rationale by assuming that inequality is immoral. They argue that CT “recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.”2 Further, by applying the oppressor–oppressed dichotomy to race, the antiracist Ibram X. Kendi also draws upon CT’s ideas when he argues that to maintain that one racial group is superior to another in any way is a racist idea.3

Coupled with this position is the CT acceptance of antiessentialism — a rejection of any real essential natures.4 Now, an essence would define something as the kind of thing it is (its whatness).5 So, given that view, the human soul as our essence would define us as the kind of thing we are (God’s image bearers).6 In contrast, Adorno thought that if there are real essences, they would serve “to establish a single order, a single mode of representing and relating to reality.”7 Yet such a view, according to Adorno, would oppress and inhibit peoples’ freedom to define their “true” selves. This rejection of essences fits with CT’s acceptance of materialism, according to which reality is fundamentally made of matter.8 Thus, humans, as well as morals, are material. Moreover, without an essence that would define something as the kind of thing it is, it seems what something is, as well as what would be morally appropriate, would be a matter of our interpretation. The naturalist Daniel Dennett realizes this, for without essences, there would not be any deeper facts that would constrain our interpretations.9 So, without essences, there would not be an essence to being human, or to justice, equality, or dignity. Thus, there could not be people who actually have the virtue of being just. Rather, there could be only people who we interpret as being just.


This result fits with another key position of CT — historicism: all our knowledge is conditioned by our historical situatedness. We are embedded historically and socially and cannot rise above our shaping influences to get an unbiased gaze into how reality is apart from our interpretive standpoints. For example, Adorno rejected the “distinction between phenomena and noumena” — the difference between things as we experience them, and those things as they are apart from our experiences thereof.10 Sensoy and DiAngelo agree, claiming that “it is not possible to assess anyone outside of our preconceived and often unconscious beliefs about them based upon the groups that they and we belong to.”11


AN ARGUMENT AGAINST ABORTION BASED ON CRITICAL THEORY

As noted, according to CT, due to the oppression of women by men, women should be liberated, and a key means for that liberation is to permit abortion. However, the act of abortion involves another party, the unborn, by which term I mean to include not just a mature fetus, but also an embryo. Thus, the act of abortion involves a peculiar form of liberation from oppression — the intentional killing of a third party that is not her oppressor.12 Ironically, to be freed from her oppression, it seems the woman becomes the oppressor of the unborn child within her. Following the logic of CT, it seems society should, even must, come to the aid of the unborn and free them from their oppression. Moreover, as Kendi argues, we should respect the dignity and equality of all humans due to our “common humanity.”13 Indeed, according to CT’s materialism, surely the unborn also are humans biologically and therefore deserve to be protected.

Now, there will be many objections to this reasoning and my conclusion. To those I now turn.

 

A PRIMARY OBJECTION —FREEDOM TO BECOME A “TRUE” SELF

According to CT, we are to be free from any domination in order to become our “true” selves. Some may counter that the unborn is an oppressor, for his or her presence in, and dependence upon, the woman restricts her freedom to choose not to carry the unborn to delivery. So, abortion protects her freedom and ability to make her own choices, as well as to define her own sense of identity (i.e., her “true” self) via her self-conceptualizations.


Oppression and Obligation

In response, it could be argued that at best the unborn would indirectly oppress the pregnant woman because he or she is not actively choosing ways to oppress the woman. In contrast, CT’s basis for abortion is predicated upon male domination as the direct form of the woman’s oppression. That is, males have created and enforced laws and other cultural norms that have restricted women’s freedoms, including abortion. On the other hand, CT seems more concerned with material outcomes than with intentions of agents. For example, although white individuals may not have racist intentions, white privilege still manifests itself through the results of actions of institutions, according to CT.14 Similarly, while the unborn would not intend to oppress his or her mother, the unborn’s mere presence in her uterus could oppress the woman if she does not have a right to abortion. For not only does her pregnancy affect her range of choices, it alters her body and is also relatively dangerous.


In support of this reasoning, consider Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist argument, in which a healthy person finds that she has been kidnapped.15 Waking up, she finds herself in a hospital, plugged into a world-famous violinist who is dying from kidney failure. Moreover, she alone has the blood type that will save the violinist’s life. She has not given consent to use her body to save the violinist. Though it would be heroic for her to save him, there is no moral obligation for her to do so. To require her to do so would seem to be oppressive of her freedom. Similarly, if a woman is pregnant but did not consent to it, she is under no obligation to let the unborn use her body.


Now, if someone offers to donate a kidney to someone whose kidneys are failing, this is not obligatory, but a gift. Such donation would be an act of supererogation or extraordinary care. Why? The kidney exists in the first person’s body for the sake of that person’s health. Thus, that person does not have a duty to donate it to another. However, a parent does have obligations, morally and legally, to meet their offspring’s basic needs, especially since a child is vulnerable and cannot meet his or her own basic needs. These obligations are not supererogatory. For instance, if a parent neglects their children’s needs, routinely they are charged with violating the law. This obligation applies to both mothers and fathers. Even if a man did not consent explicitly to being a father but only to having sex, courts still rightly hold him responsible for child support. Further, even if he were to declare before having intercourse that he will not care for a resulting child, he should still be legally responsible for the child’s care.


Now, we know that every menstrual cycle prepares the woman’s uterus for the possibility of the presence of another’s body. Thus, the purpose of her uterus is for the sake of her offspring’s body. Allowing the unborn to remain in the woman’s uterus helps meet the unborn’s basic needs.16 Since parents have obligations to meet the unborn’s basic needs, it does not follow from Thomson’s argument that the mother may abort the unborn within her, even if she did not consent to being pregnant. Indeed, due to that obligation, it seems the parent should not be permitted to actively kill her children.


However, for the sake of argument, suppose we grant that the unborn does oppress the woman. Even so, it seems it is a much greater oppression for the woman to have the unborn put to death than for her to remain pregnant. This is so for two reasons. First, there is a well-recognized moral difference between someone unintentionally versus intentionally harming another. For example, if a driver unintentionally hits and kills another, that action is morally less weighty than if the killing was intentional. Likewise, on the assumption that the unborn could unintentionally oppress the woman, it is not as morally weighty as the mother’s intentionally harming her unborn. The latter action involves an intentional act that will terminate the life of the unborn.


Second, the ways in which the woman’s freedoms are affected are limited largely to the duration of the pregnancy, after which she could place her child for adoption. However, the ways in which the unborn will be oppressed by abortion are permanent and deadly. There will be no opportunities for the unborn to form self-conceptions, exercise freedoms, and so on.


One’s True Self?

Having unlimited autonomy to be one’s “true” self is not realistic in any relationship. To expect to have such unbounded freedom would require that everyone else agree with all of one’s ideas and values and even consent to that person’s actions. That is highly unrealistic. What, then, is a “true” self? It seems that given CT, it is whatever we conceive of ourselves to be. It is not “true” in the sense of matching up with the way things are, for according to CT’s historicism, we cannot know reality as it is apart from our interpretations. So, all our claims about reality are just our historically situated interpretations, which are to be understood considering the CT conceptual framework. Additionally, according to CT, without any essential natures, humans are “moldable” however we conceive of ourselves.


Therefore, a “true” self seems to mean being true to one’s self-conception. For example, if some people think of themselves as female, though they are anatomically male, it seems we would oppress them by not embracing and affirming their self-conception. Yet there are limits, even given CT. For instance, not every self-conception and sense of identity should be accepted (e.g., to self-identify as a white supremacist in the United States is to embrace a racist ideology).


Now, the unborn are not yet mature enough to develop such self-concepts. Since CT places its focus on material outcomes, effectively the unborn become regarded as just biological organisms. CT places the moral value on the woman’s sense of identity and her interpretation of the unborn. How she conceives of her unborn in relation to herself determines her unborn’s moral value. As just biological stuff without an essence, the unborn do not have any intrinsic value. (Nor does any human, according to CT, for moral values are our constructs.)


Yet in almost every case, the unborn will eventually be able to form self-concepts at a very early age. Thus, unborn humans have the natural capacity to do this. They basically need time to develop that capacity. But abortion entails that their future self-conceptions and identities, which CT prizes, will never be realized. Abortion eliminates their freedom to become their “true” selves.


Further, CT proponents do not merely cry against the material realities of oppression. They also hate the ability of the powerful to define the worth and existence of the less powerful, and they are right to be disgusted by such abuses. Ironically, that seems to be exactly what is happening when the pregnant woman determines the moral value of the unborn by her conceptualizations. Of course, this happens when men, by their conceptions, define women’s value. This should help us see that, deep down, CT’s cogency trades upon the presupposition that humans are intrinsically valuable. However, CT cannot preserve that key moral principle, for at best it is just an interpretation or construct.


ADDITIONAL OBJECTIONS — PERSONHOOD AND SELF-CONCEPTION

Still another objection made by Peter Singer and others is that while the unborn are humans, they are not persons.17 Since, according to CT, humans are just evolved biological organisms, merely being human biologically is not enough for moral protection. Contrary to my conclusion immediately above, for Singer, humans do not have intrinsic value, for that would be a holdover from a religious view like Christianity. Instead, in order to count as persons, humans have to have certain functional qualities, including having a self-concept.18 As the reasoning goes, without such qualities, they cannot be harmed. Since the unborn cannot yet form a self-concept, they are not persons and whatever is done to them cannot be construed as injury or maltreatment. Therefore, they can be aborted.


On the contrary, having a self-concept is not sufficient for moral protection. For one, there is a fundamental problem for human dignity and moral protection, which is particularly acute given CT: self-concepts are a poor basis for rights, freedoms, and dignity. Clearly, not every self-concept is in fact valued by society. For example, those who self-identify in terms of one political party may be vilified by others. Likewise, some who identity as followers of a particular religion may be dismissed as irrational and bigoted by others. For CT, not only do we not have complete freedom to choose our self-identities, there is no equality on the basis of self-concepts.


For another, since there are no essences, including within Singer’s view, the claim that we are valuable because we have self-concepts is nothing but an interpretation given from a particular standpoint. Yet, for critical theorists and Singer, they universalize this claim to everyone. Accordingly, it is nothing but an imposition of power.


Further, it seems there is no reason why society should bestow dignity and rights upon those whose self-conceptions either do not align with those of the broader public or run afoul of CT’s tenets. Why? Given materialism, it seems reality can be exhausted descriptively in the language of physics and chemistry. But morality is about what should be the case normatively. CT faces the problem of how to derive and ground the moral ought from what simply is the case materially. Thus, by privileging the woman’s freedom and conceptualizations (of herself and of the unborn) over the life of the unborn, we are exercising power without a moral basis. In effect, we are practicing eugenics by deciding whose lives are not worth living. Yet this conclusion runs contrary to CT, which maintains that equality among humans is a fundamental principle.


Surely another counterargument will be that it is more compassionate to end the life of the unborn if they will be born into serious disadvantages. This is a well-known appeal to “compassion.” However, this presupposes that women get to impose their concepts of a worthwhile life onto the unborn. Yet, according to CT, that is a form of domination and oppression. It is especially so since the unborn will be killed and never have the opportunity to choose what would make their lives meaningful or what their sense of identity would be. Instead, it seems the mother’s concept of her true self trumps any self-concepts and dignity the unborn would develop.


FREE THE UNBORN FROM OPPRESSION

I have argued that given CT’s reasoning, abortion is an act of oppression and thus is immoral. While ostensibly serving to protect women from oppression, ironically, abortion turns women into oppressors against another stakeholder, the unborn. Moreover, according to CT’s own logic, it arbitrarily denies equality to the unborn. Thus, to be consistent with CT, the unborn should be treated with equality and dignity and should be liberated from their oppression by abortion.19


Scott Smith, PhD, is a professor in Biola University’s MA in Christian Apologetics program.

 

NOTES

  1. Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays (1972; repr., New York: Continuum, 1982), 246.

  2. Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal?, in Multicultural Education Series, ed. James A. Banks, 2nd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2017), xx.

  3. See Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019), 153.

  4. E. g., see Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 10.

  5. See J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 218.

  6. Cf. how God made each living creature according to its kind (Gen. 1:20–21).

  7. Andrew Fagan, “Theodor Adorno,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/adorno/.

  8. E. g., see Horkheimer, Critical Theory, 24; and Herbert Marcuse, Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 67.

  9. Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 3rd printing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 300, and 319, n. 8.

  10. Lambert Zuidervaart, “Theodor Adorno,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/adorno/.

  11. Sensoy and DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal?, 86.

  12. Camille Paglia, who defends abortion, also agrees with this conclusion: abortion is the “the extermination of the powerless by the powerful.” See her “Fresh Blood for the Vampire,” Salon, September 10, 2008, https://www.salon.com/2008/09/10/palin_10/.

  13. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, 54, 198.

  14. E.g., see George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 66–67.

  15. Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs (1:1), autumn 1971: 47–66.

  16. Thanks to Stephanie Gray for these ideas.

  17. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3rd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 135, 144.

  18. Singer, Practical Ethics, 50, 81, 139. This is reflected in his criteria for being persons, including seeing oneself as a continuing subject with desires and the capacity to experience suffering or happiness.

  19. Thanks to Seth Drayer, Scott Klusendorf, and the editors for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.


 

 

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 4 (2021).

For further information or to support the Christian Research Journal please click here.



 



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