Abortion Care As Moral Work: Ethical Considerations of Maternal and Fetal Bodies, An Interview with Johanna Schoen

The timely anthology from Rutgers University Press, Abortion Care As Moral Work: Ethical Considerations of Maternal and Fetal Bodies, edited by Johanna Schoen, brings together the voices of abortion providers, counselors, clinic owners, neonatologists, bioethicists, and historians. The authors describe their motivations for offering or studying abortion care; discuss how anti-abortion regulations have made it increasingly difficult to offer feminist-inspired services; and ponder the ethical frameworks supporting abortion care and fetal research.

An abstract drawing of a woman and a fetus, with the book title superimposed over it
Book cover of Abortion Care as Moral Work. (©Rutgers University Press)

1. What is the meaning of publishing this anthology in light of the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs?

The articles in the anthology center the experiences of women and abortion providers. The authors describe the impact the antiabortion movement has had on feminist ideals regarding women’s health and abortion care and illustrate how both groups think about ethical frameworks surrounding abortion care. The anthology thus serves as a kind of antidote or response to the Dobbs decision, which fails to consider women as a group with a stake in legal abortion and denies the existence of a moral framework supporting access to abortion. The essays here provide the arguments that prove Dobbs wrong.

2. Some of the stories in your book are intensely personal and emotional, such as the remembrances of abortion provider Dr. Marc Heller. Why do you think personal and emotional stories are important to share?

The reasons that abortion providers do their work and that women have abortions are, at their very core, personal and emotional reasons. Our silence about these personal and emotional motivations has meant that antiabortion activists were able to dominate the rhetoric surrounding abortion care. This has significantly contributed to the stigmatization of abortion, further silencing women and their physicians. Only a public discussion about these personal and emotional aspects of abortion care will allow us to understand abortion providers and women having abortions as people acting in a morally responsible way.

3. So many consider abortion evil work. Can you talk about how you came to your title, Abortion as Moral Work? How do the stories and histories in this volume help readers to see abortion as moral?

In 2012, feminist scholar and abortion provider Lisa Harris, who has an essay in this anthology, published an article that drew attention to the fact that we equate a moral discourse surrounding abortion with an antiabortion position despite the fact that health care providers offering abortion care are motivated by their moral convictions to provide these services. Harris noted that the persistent failure to acknowledge abortion provision as conscientious has had a number of consequences. First, it has resulted in laws and practices that fail to protect caregivers who are motivated by their conscience to provide abortion services, only protecting clinicians who refuse to perform abortions for reasons of religious belief or moral conviction. Second, it has contributed to the ongoing stigmatization of abortion providers, since the equation of conscience with the non-provision of abortion implies that providers act in “bad conscience” or lack conscience altogether. Third, it leaves theoretical and practical blind spots in bioethics with respect to conscience-based claims for offering care. This renders conscience an empty concept and leaves us with no moral ground to stand on. I find this insight, which extends far beyond the provision of abortion care to other health care procedures, profoundly important. Other scholars, too, were beginning to articulate a moral framework supporting the provision of abortion care. I felt it was important to contribute to this conversation by illustrating how abortion providers and their patients make deeply moral decisions in support of abortion. The title, then, summarizes that intent and signals the intervention that I hope this anthology makes.

4. What insights do you hope readers of your book will take away in light of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision?

I hope readers will gain familiarity with the moral argument in support of abortion care and appreciate the connection between personal experiences and moral conviction. Given the Dobbs decision, I also hope that readers will understand what Dobbs denies: that women and abortion providers engage in deep moral decision making about reproduction, and that legislators and judges have no place in this decision. Last but not least, I hope that readers will take the material presented here to educate others around them about abortion care as moral work. Only a shift in our conversation and understanding of abortion care will allow us to work towards a world where women’s moral choices are protected.

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