Responsibility for Life: How Abortion Serves Women's Interests in Motherhood

64 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2009 Last revised: 14 Sep 2013

See all articles by Priscilla J. Smith

Priscilla J. Smith

Yale Law School - Information Society Project

Date Written: April 30, 2009


The loss in Gonzales v. Carhart and the rhetoric the Court employed point to a significant vulnerability in the movement for legal protections for women’s reproductive health care - its conflicts over motherhood. This Article argues that the movement’s failure to emphasize that abortion serves women’s interest in, and respect for, motherhood divides it from its constituents and creates the vulnerability that the anti-abortion movement now exploits, contributing to the reduction of constitutional protections for abortion. Embracing abortion’s supportive relationship to motherhood is essential to the survival of the abortion right, as well as to the vitality of our continuing battle to redefine motherhood in conditions of equality.

In Section I of the paper, I explore the ways women’s respect for the importance of motherhood and “bonds of love” with their children inform their decisions to obtain abortions. In Section II, I summarize the state of abortion jurisprudence, paying particular attention to the Court’s vision of women’s need for, or “interest in,” abortion. I trace the emergence of the Court’s discomfort with women’s decision-making about abortion, linking it with decreasing protections for the right and increasing recognition that abortion serves an interest in women’s social and economic equality. I demonstrate that the Court’s increasing recognition that abortion serves an interest in self-determination that could result in a rejection of the role of mother, accompanied a decreasing recognition of abortion’s importance to women’s interests in motherhood itself, an interest in how any child they bear is cared for. This sense in which abortion serves women’s interests in motherhood was last seen in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, where the Court acknowledged that the choice to have an abortion could be seen as reflecting “human responsibility and respect for [human life].”

In Section III, I discuss Gonzales v. Carhart and argue that while the ruling itself is limited and much of the Casey standard remains intact, the decision reflects this diminishing sense of abortion as serving the woman’s interest in motherhood. The Court’s opinion reflected a view that abortion destroys motherhood, rather than the view that abortion enhances motherhood and enables women to mother their children in the best conditions possible, and in conditions closer to equality.

Finally, in Section IV I explore resistance in the feminist movement to stressing the ways abortion serves a woman’s interest in, and respect for, the importance of motherhood. Despite real risks of appealing to and thus supporting regressive notions of motherhood, I make both normative and prescriptive claims that given the centrality of concerns for motherhood in women’s decision-making about abortion, we must emphasize that women’s interest in abortion in a constitutional sense includes not only her interest in her choice not to be a mother (an aspect of her decisional autonomy), her interest in her personal dignity, her interest in her health and life (an aspect of her bodily integrity), and her interest in privacy of the information about her decision, but also includes her interest in motherhood itself and in deciding how she will mother any child she bears. I contend that these arguments about why women choose and why women need abortions can and should be made within, and not as an alternative to, a rights framework. Stressing that abortion serves women’s interest in motherhood in a constitutional sense very clearly falls within such a framework, and is necessary to drawing a complete picture of the importance of abortion to women’s liberty, equality, and dignity. It strengthens the woman’s right to abortion and is vital to continued protection of the right under any level of scrutiny or in any constitutional framework.

Suggested Citation

Smith, Priscilla, Responsibility for Life: How Abortion Serves Women's Interests in Motherhood (April 30, 2009). 17 J.L. & Pol'y 97 (2008), Available at SSRN:

Priscilla Smith (Contact Author)

Yale Law School - Information Society Project ( email )

Yale Law School
New Haven, CT

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