The Right to Think

From “Confessions of a Young Philosopher”
Illustration by Caroline Church

The Right to Think

In the dusty arena of public life, we see a contest between the Right to Life and the Right to Choose.   There is, however, a third right that gets little or no play in that same arena: the Right to Think.

Ordinarily, by the time an unhappily pregnant woman stands at the fork where she’s supposed to decide which of the first two roads to take, she’s either too terrified or too coerced by besetting pressures to have recourse to that third right.

Since I am now safely married as well as beyond the natural age of childbearing, I am not in those ways discouraged from exercising the third right.

Normally, I wouldn’t be writing on this topic so soon after “Abortion on My Mind,” except for the fact that the same column was recently rejected by the online journal where these little essays are often published, partly on the interesting grounds that it could offend prospective donors.  That puts me on my honor to write about it again.  Let me illustrate.

Long ago, a senior colleague who had just observed my teaching hour and held in his pocket his yet-unwritten Teaching Observation Report, asked me why I thought he was supporting a certain candidate for departmental chair.  The election for chair was to be held the next day.  I had just told him that I thought his candidate unqualified.  In any other circumstance, I would have tactfully evaded his question. (When I later told the story to Hannah Arendt, she reproached me for not answering in a more diplomatic fashion.)  The reason I said what I really thought — he’s weak and you think you can use him — was precisely his having the unwritten teaching evaluation in his pocket!  It meant that his real question was, What will you do to keep your job?

You see?  Real life is more amusing than it looks.

In the present case, I was not being threatened.  But when told that a certain piece of writing should be vetoed for reasons that impinge on the writer’s freedom to think, it becomes obligatory to exercise that freedom.  For me to change the subject to one less controversial might be construed — if only by me — as acquiescing in such reasoning.  As a result, I really can’t write this column about any other topic.

Well now, what do I really think or feel about abortion?  A colleague emails that his right-to-lifer friends simply can’t abide dissent on this question.   Smoke rises from the tops of their heads when anyone dares to treat it as a topic open for discussion.

Really?  Well, tough.  Suck it up.  We’re here, boys and girls, in the human story together, where my truth-seeking weighs as much as anyone else’s.

Despite my present social safety, please don’t suppose that I think I’m above it.  My mind can go back instantly to the moment in my youth when, in sheer terror, I said to a young woman friend and confidante, 

“Suppose I get pregnant?”

“You’d have an abortion.”

“But isn’t abortion a sin?”

“There are many sins, dear.”

In fact, I had no way to get an abortion.  My life would have been, quite simply, ruined.  It wasn’t on a whim that I seriously contemplated downing myself in the river Seine.

My mother, who was a profoundly feminine and maternal woman, deeply and romantically in love with my father, believed that criminalizing abortion was one obvious way that men exerted their power to control and dominate women. 

The rabbis, when they discuss this issue, don’t get into the ontological status of the unborn.  So far as I know, they take for granted that the life inside the womb is fully human.  For them, the issue is one of self-defense, as when two conscripts in opposing armies fight to the death.  If the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy, they give her first right of self-defense almost till the moment of delivery.  After that, the child’s natural right gets priority.

That seems to me a clearer way to put the case.  If we extended “self-defense” beyond its traditional Talmudic perimeters, now to cover all the ways in which men combatively hold their ground – whether their turf be professional, economic or social – we see what’s at stake for the contemporary woman who’s pregnant without wanting to be.  It’s objected that mores have relaxed in recent decades and that’s certainly true.  On the other hand, not in every case.

Let me make this point more vivid.  Back in the days when such issues could still be turned over in mind reflectively, I taught an evening class in Applied Ethics at Brooklyn College.  Most of the students in that class were African-American women of mature age.  Some worked in hospitals as paramedics.  In our discussion, they mentioned that women prominent in the Right-to-Life movement would come secretly into those hospitals for their own abortions.

Feminists, aware that the vulnerable are more readily targeted, have deemphasized the anatomy-is-destiny aspect of being a woman.  “One is not born a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir writes in the opening sentences of The Second Sex.  “One becomes one.”  For strategic reasons, biological sex has been redefined as something one can move around at will: as grammatical gender, the consequence of acculturation — or even stipulation construed as free and arbitrary choice.

As a strategy, I understand doing that, but not when it becomes a full-fledged delusion.  I don’t know what world these utopians live in, but I’ve never lived there.  In the cases we’ve singled out for inspection here, where pregnancy is realistically experienced by the woman as the destroyer of her hoped-for future, we are looking at a choice of evils.  Whatever path is taken (including the dangerous one of illegal abortion) this particular fork in the road is tragic.

What do I hope for?  In the present era, when intimacy between unmarried partners is socially accepted, my hope is that the woman’s situation and vulnerability will not be borne by her alone as her stigmatizing secret.  I would hope that the man who desires intimacy with a woman would declare and hold himself ready to face the biological and social risks equally with her.

But even to write that is to feel, with sinking conviction, its improbability. 

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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