Locating the moment of freedom: Women’s “reproductive rights” and the power of choice

It is precisely woman’s power to say “no” to meaningless sexual encounters that holds the key to the recovery of our culture.

(Image: Aditya Romansa/Unsplash.com)

One would have to have been living on another planet for the last few months to be unaware of the recently rekindled battle looming over the historic Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade and, by extension, its sister case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Public discourse on the “abortion question” has reached a new crescendo as we await the start of deliberations on the issues in play in Dobbs v. Jackson. The combatants are known, the battle lines drawn: the lives of unborn children against the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy she didn’t plan for and doesn’t want. The stakes could not be higher – and everyone knows it.

Though polling seems to show that the public is generally in favor of keeping abortion legal, pro-choice advocates are aware that public sentiment on the issue, while still strong, is softening, as more evidence trickles in that support of abortion is scientifically untenable. Pro-life advocates know that this could be the last opportunity for a very long while to call the legal basis for it into question. They have seized this opportunity to make perhaps one last pitch to persuade the Court to reconsider the decisions that have had such far-reaching consequences – for over 60 million babies (and counting), for women, for men, indeed for Western civilization.

In recent weeks, the Court has been inundated by the best arguments the pro-life camp has to offer. Amicus briefs written by first class lawyers, medical doctors, and other experts, many of them women, have been submitted; many finely crafted essays by distinguished scholars are readily available to anyone who wants to understand. The logic at work in these documents is seemingly unassailable, variously refuting the legal basis of Roe v. Wade (it is arguably unconstitutional), the scientific claim at its heart (it is tragically obsolete),1 as well as the socio-economic justification so critical in the Casey decision (the data shows without question that women do not need abortion to have access to career opportunities).2

All of these arguments are worth reading; they are well reasoned and elegantly written. Taken together, they systematically undermine every single premise, every single assumption that has served as the basis of both Roe and Casey for decades. Indeed, they bring new meaning to Justice Blackman’s own argument in the Roe decision when he justified it by declaring that at that “point in the development of man’s knowledge,” there was simply no consensus on when life began. Well, here in 2021, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, we absolutely know enough to affirm that the bases for the Court’s decisions in Roe and in Casey are invalid. The obstacles to rescinding a non-existent constitutional right to an abortion, for all intents and purposes, seem to have been removed.

That is, all except one. Though not a constitutional argument, there is one last seemingly intractable claim that remains. The thought of confronting it strikes fear into the hearts of all but the most courageous.3 We have seen its face on social media and news broadcasts. Sometimes it wears a pink hat. It is shouted in anger in public speeches, in Congress, on college campuses across the world: that woman has the right to choose. And that without that right, she would be robbed of power over her own body and of the freedom to determine herself and her future.

“Abortion is a blessing, abortion is an act of love, abortion is freedom!” declared an abortion provider at a recent congressional hearing Rational argument can find no purchase in the face of a will so completely indifferent to the good and so desperate to pursue what it wants unfettered by it.

The sad truth is that none of the arguments on offer, though sound and well-reasoned, can lead to the victory we so desperately desire. For each of them begins from the same premise relied on by our opponents: that the moment of choice, the moment of maximum freedom, is located at the point at which a pregnancy has been achieved. But that is not true. Because by the time a woman faces the choice of whether or not to kill the child in her womb, the moment of real freedom, the moment when a viable choice was directly before her, has already passed.

Most certainly a woman has bodily integrity. Most certainly she has the right to choose. But her real power is exercised when she refuses to allow someone else to use her body merely for pleasure. Her real power is exercised when she says “No” to the invitation to have sex with someone whose children she has no intention of carrying. The locus of woman’s “reproductive rights,” of her right to choose – and the source of her power, is found in the moments prior to the instant at which a new life is created.

For decades, women have accepted the proposition that their capacity to bear children is a disease, a defect that must be corrected if they are to find their place in the world. But women do not need to force their bodies – or their personal identities – to conform to the norms set by the male body – in order to enter into public life. Indeed, a truly authentic “feminism” would begin from an affirmation of woman qua woman.

But more to the point here, I contend that  it is precisely woman’s power to say “no” to meaningless sexual encounters – and “yes” to genuine love – that holds the key to the recovery of our culture. Only animals have sex without thinking about it. And whether they admit it or not, it is women who understand what is at stake in their “yes” or “no,” women who sense, often in a completely preverbal way, something about sex that is organically unknowable to men: that it is women’s own selfhood, along with its life-giving potencies, that is on the table.

For the truth is that every human being must pass through the womb to his destination. Every woman contains within herself, at least potentially, all future humanity. It is this inchoate, hidden understanding that is now laughed at by those who, unaccountably, have won the right to tell the rest of us what to think.

Real freedom – and the power it unleashes – begins when one accepts the gift of who one actually is. It is this very gift that those who advocate for abortion as “freedom” refuse – and have rejected since 1973 – on behalf of over 60 million children.


1 See also: Dobbs v. Jackson, Amicus curiae, Christie and Catholic Association Foundation.

2 See Amicus curiae, Collett, Alvare, Bachiochi, et.al.

3 See ibid. Amicus curiae Collett, Alvare, Bachiochi, et.al.

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About Deborah Savage, PhD 4 Articles
Deborah Savage, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She previously taught both philosophy and theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota for the past thirteen years. She received her doctorate in Religious Studies from Marquette University in 2005; her degree is in both theology and philosophy. Dr. Savage is the co-founder and acting director of the Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture, an interdisciplinary think tank, organized to respond to John Paul II’s call for a new and explicitly Christian feminism.


  1. The awareness as to how our body needs it sense of being sacred , even adorned and bedecked in the more precious than jewels in holiness is an area that many more are beginning to recognise . Such an awareness to also help in chastity in both men and women .
    St.Joseph , in ‘knowing ‘ Bl.Mother as The Mother of The Lord , at the birth of The Lord would have been more and more basked in that awareness of the reflected glory of his own body and soul -seeing himself too as even beyond being adorned more than what Aaaron and all would have been bedecked in , in serving at the temple ..
    thus his body as a good friend serving The Spirit , not needing another to fill the needs of the fallen appetites .. The tears and The Wounds and The Blood , to restore that Truth into every life , yet as The Lord has warned , being thrown into the ocean with the millstone around the neck , thus sinking ever more deeply , into oceans of despair is what the culture has shown many as the remedy for the evils of our times .
    May the mighty wind of The Spirit that can dry oceans and tears and let the rays of Son to adorn each be The Truth that many take in ever more deeply !

  2. Agreed, 100%. I do not grant the screeching shrews this: “…those who, unaccountably, have won the right to tell the rest of us what to think.” First, THEIR right does not negate OUR right. They may tell us what they WANT us to think, but then their right can go no further.

  3. This is a very well reasoned article, and this professor’s thesis is very wise.

    I hope both Pro-Choice and Pro-Life people will be won over to the thesis of this article.

    Why I do I think that some Pro-Life people perhaps need to be won over to this professor’s thesis?

    Well, because I speculate that some Pro-Life advocates may be anti-abortion mainly or largely because they want to return the status quo that existed for all time until about 100 years ago.

    For most of human history, most women did not have freedom of choice about anything major in their lives, but went from the guardianship of a father to the guardianship of a husband or convent.

    Now, I’m not intending to disparage guardianship-type relationships for women, for women who want that sort of relationship.

    But I think most or many women in today’s society just don’t want that and won’t accept that.

    So, that’s why the thesis in this professor’s article is so wise.

  4. “Though polling seems to show that the public is generally in favor of keeping abortion legal,”

    Let’s see how an equivalent clause would work here. “Though polling seems to show that the public is generally in favor of keeping MURDER legal,”

    Given that murder is RIGHTLY a crime everywhere, it should be obvious that – objectively speaking – the sentence is incorrect. It relies on misunderstandings of the nature of law and what abortion is.

    There is no choice in the matter of pregnancy. A woman can only choose whether to take actions that will facilitate or hinder pregnancy.

    While chastity in the form of single celibacy is obligatory, it would be more effective to promote or require marriage. It would even be possible to force a marriage between the guilty after fornication – provided that the other conditions are met.

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