Carol Gilligan considers women's voices in the battle over reproductive rights

When University Professor Carol Gilligan published In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development in 1982, she brought the voices of women, long silent or ignored in the realm of psychological inquiry, into focus as necessary in order to understand the human condition. In a lecture at the recent inaugural conference of the Carr Center for Reproductive Justice at NYU School of Law, Gilligan reflected on the study that led to the publication of In a Different Voice, and the continued need to incorporate the voices of women into the debate over reproductive justice.

Carol Gilligan

The study explored how people respond to situations of moral conflict and choice; it initially focused on young men facing the Vietnam War draft. However, when the draft ended in 1973, the researchers needed a new moral dilemma to examine. The same year, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade—and so, a woman’s decision whether or not to have an abortion became the central focus .

“By giving a woman a legitimate voice in deciding whether to continue or end a pregnancy, the highest court in the land placed its authority on the side of her right to have a voice in making this decision,” Gilligan said of the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

Gilligan noted that, though the study did not specifically focus on people involved in the women’s rights movement, the question of women’s rights nevertheless was dominating public conversation at the time. “Most of the women in the abortion decision study were not directly involved with feminism, but it was in the air,” Gilligan said. “There was a general sense of discovering the obvious: women are in fact humans.”

Prior to this study, most psychological studies had been performed on men and the results of these male-focused studies were generalized to apply to all humans. The abortion decision study was so significant, Gilligan said, because it reversed this practice, examining women's approaches to a dilemma to study how humanity in general approaches situations of moral conflict. “Do women reveal something about the human condition that otherwise tends to remain unspoken or unseen, or to be considered marginal, a woman’s issue, and not a human issue?” Gilligan said. “This is why the abortion decision study was so revelatory.”

Reading excerpts from the conversations with the women in the abortion study, Gilligan observed that women facing the abortion decision often framed their decision in terms of selfishness and selflessness. Historically, selflessness has been prized as the epitome of goodness in women; however, Gilligan argued that this is morally problematic because selflessness “signifies an abdication of voice and thus an evasion of both responsibility and relationship.”

Though the original study took place nearly four decades ago, Gilligan contended that giving women a voice in the discussion of reproductive justice remains a pressing need. “Gender is at the heart of our battles over reproductive rights, and it is my impression that gender remains a difficult subject for us to talk about,” said Gilligan. “More difficult now perhaps, given that the advances of the past half century have brought the contradictions between patriarchy and democracy out into the open.”

The Carr Center for Reproductive Justice, established this past fall at NYU Law, organized its inaugural annual conference specifically to shed light on the need to locate the voice of the woman in reproductive rights law. In addition to Gilligan, legal scholars and reproductive rights lawyers such as R. Alto Charo, Peggy Cooper Davis, Lynn Paltrow ’83, and Dorothy Roberts discussed their perspectives on this issue.

“By giving this struggle a home at NYU Law, the Carr Center redresses the imbalance between the demand for and the significance of work in the area of reproductive rights and the attention and resources previously allotted to it,” said Gilligan in her address. “It promises an end to the dearth of scholarship in the area of reproductive rights law and provides the setting for the kind of interdisciplinary work that is needed.”

Watch the full video of Carol Gilligan's address (1h):

Posted May 14, 2014