Posted by: bridget | 14 November 2006

Reviewing Backlash, Part I: Feminism and Reproductive Rights

A review of Susan Faludi’s Backlash, from the Pachyderm. The first installment will deal with the last part of the book, and the weakest part: feminism and abortion.

To start, the pachyderm does not accept the proposition that abortion is good for women, nor that abortion rights are a vindication of women’s rights. She does acknowledge the disparity between men and women in regards to the consequences of sex, but does not think that the law needs to operate to rectify that disparity. (In some cases, it is not only sane but nearly mandated that any fair law acknowledge the differences between the sexes, such as by not mandating unisex bathrooms, sports teams, or prisons.) While the pachyderm does not quarrel with the goal of equality between the sexes, she thinks that the mechanism of abortion is not the appropriate method to secure equality, especially when the disparity is biological and not legal in nature.

Ms. Faludi takes great pains to point out the legalising abortion did not lead to a dramatic increase in the abortion rate (excepting a time from 1973 through the mid-1980s). The abortion rate has remained constant at 1/3 of the pregnancies for the past 100 years. This is hardly a victory for feminism. If the only thing that advanced medical care, slews of prophylatics, and lowered risk of pregnancy has brought us is the exact same abortion rate as during the 19th century, then we are failing ourselves. What was conscionable in 1900 is not conscionable now. Women (excepting rape victims) have few reasons these days for becoming pregnant at inconvenient times; those pregnancies are largely very safe. Planned Parenthood states that 70% of women who seek abortions do not use any form of birth control. (Look about 7/8th of the way down the artcile for it, under “Abortion and Contraception.”) The LA Times (hardly a bastion of conservatism, either) found that 70% of women who have had abortions believe that the choice is immoral. (Skelton, G., “Many in Survey Who Had Abortions Cite Guilt Feelings” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1989.)

One of Ms. Faludi’s chief complaints about the pro-life agenda is its insistence upon father’s rights. Obviously, some men use their rights to gain power over women. However, this issue figures into all aspects of civilised life: almost any law is open to abuse; any right given to one person can be used as a weapon against other people. Men who seek to use the slogan of “father’s rights” do not render the entire father’s rights movement invalid. Whether or not men want a child, their involvement in fathering, for the first nine months, has always ended as sex has ended. This hardly renders them to be secondary parents; in fact, feminists have been trying for years to get fathers to be more proactive and involved with their children. Regardless of one’s political affiliation with the pro-choice or pro-life side, the rights of the fathers will have to be dealt with, as we cannot tell men that they are acceptable at some points and unacceptable at other points.

One of the pachyderm’s main criticisms of Backlash is that Ms. Faludi insists on using anecdotal evidence, while neglecting to fully characterise the social, political, and legal landscape of the 1980s. Her criticism of pro-life leaders is very similar: she picks a few who are underemployed, unemployed, or otherwise not the poster children for feminism and uses them to attack the entire philosophy. In doing so, she ignores the very valid issues brought up by the pro-life side, from the effect upon women, father’s rights and responsibilities, avoiding abortion in the first place, or the ways in which our laws can (and should) be changed to give women more options that don’t involve infanticide.

Ms. Faludi also strings together unrelated events to bloster support for her “backlash” theory. Among them: a 13-year-old girl who was raped by her father. Her mother was unable to find a person who would perform a second-trimester abortion that they could afford (Ms. Faludi presumes this to be a feminist issue, although economics tend to be gender-neutral). When the mother finally found a doctor willing to perform the abortion, the young girl’s father shot her, simply because, according to Ms. Faludi, he opposes abortion. Ms. Faludi extends this one example of a psychopathic father to represent the entire pro-life movement.  For her argument to be logical, it must follow that every pro-life male would shoot his daughter if she aborted a child born of incest.  A more logical conclusion would be that the man who rapes his daughter and then shoots her is not acting out of anti-choice animus – he cannot be said to be pro-life, when shooting an innocent individual – but is a psychopath who is usurping a valid movement for a power trip.

Backlash also criticises (again, assuming without question that such things are anti-feminist) fetal rights legislation. Anyone who has read Keeler v. Superior Court (Cali. 1970) understands the need for such laws. The Laci Peterson case only underscores the importance of protecting both women and babies.

It will always be difficult to justify abortion, but permit the State to prosecute those who attack pregnant women, from a legal/philosophical standpoint. A woman who is attacked in the first trimester and miscarries cannot claim more than mere assault against her assailant: after all, her child has the same legal status as that of a mother who chooses to have an abortion. It does not make sense to ascribe more value to the baby of an assaulted woman; one’s value and protection should hardly hinge upon whether or not a third party gives value to one’s existance. (Likewise, we do not allow people to kill the homeless under the theory that they really aren’t wanted, anyway.) It is hardly anti-feminist to ask that people not turn the legal system on its head to suit their own conveniences.

While Ms. Faludi does cite some horrific examples of how “fetal rights” has been used as a bludgeon against women (See pg. 425), she again fails to acknowledge any sense of proportion. The reader does not know if those are the only nine cases involving this abuse or if those abuses are endemic to such laws. We would hardly overturn medical malpractice law for the few exceptional miscarriages of justice from, say, John Edwards’ trials: American jurisprudence has never demanded perfection in exercise of a law as a prerequisite to its enforcement.

Backlash hits a low when it comes to the defense of drug-addicted women, under the theory that only outright misogyny would compel someone to want to stop women from mistreating their bodies during pregnancy. Ms. Faludi misses the very basic point that a woman who does drugs or drinks during pregnancy will ultimately do permanent harm to her child. Such harm is not acceptable after birth; our society reserves its deepest contempt for parents who maim their children. Such abuse is no more acceptable – and certainly not less harmful – because it happens to occur during pregnancy. A large part of Backlash is enamoured of the idea that pregnancy gives women rights that no parent or stranger would have otherwise.

Ms. Faludi hails a 1980 Cosmopolitan study which found that 41% of women engage in extramarital affairs. Three cheers: women can be just as horrible as men! Instead of insisting that men do something like be faithful to their wives, in exchange for their faithfulness, Ms. Faludi praises adultery. Is there any wonder why there is a backlash? The very feminine pachyderm deeply resents the notion that she would only be equal to a man if she were to engage in adultery. The “backlash” has nothing to do with sexual and reproductive freedom and everything to do with the noxious notion that anyone should be proud of marital infidelity.

On-the-job fetal protection: While the pachyderm agrees that the American Cyanamid case was horrific, she does not think that the root cause is anti-feminism. The past few decades has seen a remarkable growth in litigation and jury awards for physical harm; babies that are harmed result in the largest verdicts. Many OB-Gyns have trouble staying in practice because their insurance premiums are so high. Some doctors (such as those in Florida) will refuse to carry malpractice insurance and insist that their patients sign waivers to that effect. Any wise company is aware that personal injury claims, especially those for harm to women during pregnancy, can render it bankrupt. Any wise company should also take steps to minimize its liability. The pachyderm is not surprised nor upset that American Cyanamid chose to go this route by prohibiting fertile women from working in one of its divisions. The liability issue is simply too huge. The pay is better, because the job is riskier: employees are paid for time, talent, and risk.

The appropriate entity to blame for such a situation should not be the company: American Cyanamid did not advance tort litigation. One can hardly put a company in the position of either bankrupting itself through exposure to certain liability, or discrimination suits if it does not open itself up to that liability. It is not Robert Bork, whose opinion merely pointed out the limitations in the law (esp. OSHA), who is to blame, either. Ultimately, both companies and women will be at odds with each other whenever a situation may arise in which the work could cause complications during pregnancy. The ultimate solution is to change our laws to remove a conflict of interest; the pachyderm is not so sure that the penultimate solution is to allow women to work in dangerous jobs that have a high probability of causing reproductive defects.


  1. This is an obviously biased piece. You’re not being objective so no one wants to hear what you have to say.

  2. What’s your point? Everyone writes “biased” or “not objective” pieces when they argue a point. Under your theory, no one would read any piece that argued anything. Op-ed sections would be out of business. Talk radio wouldn’t exist. The New Republic would line bird cages.

    Somehow, though, it seems as if people write and read “biased” pieces – and life goes on. Here’s the weird part: people don’t like to read book reports, but there is a lot of value in reading analyses that are done from different perspectives.

    You’re hardly the authority on what “no one” wants to read. Unless you’re going to add something productive in the future, please refrain from your (entirely worthless) comments.

    Backlash can hardly be thought of as an unbiased, objective analysis of the contemporary American zeitgeist. If Ms. Faludi may write and publish a biased piece, I – or any other thinker – may critique it from a different perspective.

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