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Abortion - A Conflict worth Defining
A Conflict worth Defining: Abortion
George Mason University
Conf. 300, Section1
Professor Pamela Struss
Since the 1972 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade the issue of abortion in America has been an extremely controversial, divided issue. The controversy surrounding abortion has typically been characterized as a social conflict between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice advocates. The mere existence of abortion in the human rights prone, American society, however, needs to be analyzed in terms of conflict. An evaluation of abortion according to Johann Glatung’s conflict triangle and his theories on manifest, structural, and cultural violence aims to provide an understanding of abortion (without the addition of Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice conflict dynamics) as a conflict living in society, as opposed to a social conflict.
The American society publicly acknowledges the existence of many contentious, social issues which divide the population along various political, religious, and cultural lines. In the environment of free speech, many of these issues are typically summarized as controversial, social conflicts with the conflicting perspectives of each party involved being the defining factor for the terminology used to label the conflict. One prime example of such an occurrence is the conflict surrounding abortion; Americans generally understand the conflict as a Pro-Life versus Pro-Choice conflict. Indeed there is a protracted social debate surrounding the respective viewpoints of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice individuals, but can the conflict be understood as simply the divergence of two different viewpoints on abortion? Through an analysis of the actual act of abortion, perhaps one might be able to see the conflict surrounding abortion as much more than just a conflict between the two general opinions given to abortion. Using Johann Galtung’s “ABC conflict triangle” and by appropriately applying his theories on manifest, structural, and cultural violence, the mere existence of the abortion medical procedure can, perhaps, be seen as a conflict within society in itself.
If we understand conflict as a perceived divergence of interests than the Pro-Life versus Pro-Choice debate is indeed a social conflict. How can we understand abortion, without the addition of the two conflicting perspectives, as a conflict in and of itself? An explanation of what it is exactly that an abortion entails is necessary before applying any conflict maps or theories to the term. An abortion is a medical procedure which ends the life, or “non-life”, of a fetus within the womb of the woman. Given that a fertilized egg, a zygote, a fetus, or a baby comes from two human parents and is indeed some form of biological life (as opposed to non-life), one can understand abortion as ending the life of a human being, yet not necessarily the life of a “person”. Also important to understanding the existence of abortion in America as a conflict, is understanding the context of the procedure which ends this human life. The American society (government, economic system, and citizens) holds a general consensus that there ought to be, as a goal of American foreign policy, an effort to alleviate human suffering. This notion exists for many reasons, but never-the-less, Americans, generally, consider diminishing the amount of human rights violations in the world to be a generally “good” and “important” task. Additionally, human rights violations are explained as any act that imposes on the inherent, intractable rights of all living human beings, regardless of one’s external, “personhood” factors. The situational context which allocates for an advocacy of human rights is in sharp contrast to the legal, accepted procedure of abortion. Procedures used to end the life of the fetus include: severing the limbs of fetuses in order to ensure the death of the fetus before it passes through the birth canal, injection of poisons into the body/heart of a fetus in order to ensure death, severing spinal cords of fetuses in order to ensure death, a “vacuum” removal of a fetus from a woman which ensures the death of a fetus, etc. These are some of the many methods used by licensed, abortion practitioners to stop the potential development of an unborn human being, in order to ensure that the fetus will not be born at the ninth month of pregnancy. With an understanding of abortion in the context of the American society, an analysis of abortion as a conflict can be applied.
Bernard Mayer, author of The Dynamics of Conflict, explains that conflict can be understood as a perception, as a feeling, and as an action (2012). This particular notion of conflict can also be explained through Johan Galtung’s “ABC conflict triangle”(1990). His triangle includes three aspects (one for each point on a triangle): attitudes, behaviors, and an inherent contradiction, a conflict. Attitudes can be summarized as perspectives, views, beliefs, assumptions, values, or perceptions. Behaviors are simply actions, or the “doing” of something. The contradiction can be explained as a disconnect between the prescribed attitudes and behaviors, and herein lies the conflict. It is important to note that the starting point of a conflict can be either A, B, or C and all three aspects are intricately interconnected. The existence of abortion in the context of the American society can be applied to Galtung’s triangle in several ways:
Attitudes: The right to life for persons is an inalienable right, according to the Constitution.
Behaviors: Abortion violently ends the life of a human being.
Contradiction: Interpretation of the “personhood” of a human being is left up to the mother or the state, with a disregard to the right of life of the human fetus in her womb.
Attitudes: A woman has the right to make choices that affect her own body and well-being
Behaviors: The priority for choice rather than life.
Contradiction: Denial of fetal life as human, making the fetus an “it”; dehumanization.
Attitudes: Human rights are an aspect of American culture/society and often a key factor in determining foreign policy agendas.
Behaviors: An abortion denies the human rights of a fetus, and instead points out the lack of personhood of a fetus.
Contradiction: Human rights are the very soul of our nationhood, yet denied to 3,700 human beings a day within our nation.
These are just a few examples of how Galtung’s “ABC conflict triangle” can be applied to the act of abortion.
It is important to distinguish who constitutes the parties involved in an abortion conflict. The choice of any woman to have an abortion is an intimate, often grueling decision which cannot be discredited. The woman, as carrier of the human fetus, is an obvious party involved in the conflict, and often the father of the child plays an equally prevalent role. Additionally, state and national governments play a role in the conflict because of the laws and procedural guidelines they put in place to regulate abortion. Finally, the fetus is a party that is directly involved in the conflict, for obvious reasons, yet often the inherent power structure of a pregnancy dictates that the fetus is an unrepresented party in the conflict. Each individual abortion is likely to have many other parties which affect the outcome of the conflict; however these three parties remain consistently present in each case of an abortion.
An application of abortion to Galtung’s conflict mapping “ABC triangle” becomes even more relevant with the addition of his theories on manifest, cultural, and structural violence. Just as Mayer (2012) explains that group conflicts have cognitive, emotional and behavioral dimensions in the same way that interpersonal conflicts do, so can violence be applied to aspects of society in the same way that certain societies and cultures, in whole, are deemed violent. Galtung’s(1990) three forms of violence can be most simply understood as such: Direct/Manifest violence is an event; structural violence is a process; and cultural violence is an invariant, permanence in a society. Direct violence includes: acts of violence, intentional harm and hurt both physical and psychological, meant to intentionally prevent someone from reaching their full potential. Abortion is undoubtedly a form of manifest, or direct, violence. It violently ends the life of a human being. There is no question about this, but perhaps there is speculation about whether or not abortion violently ends the life of a potential “person”. (The distinction is between human and person.) In fact, the ambiguous nature of the term “person” has been manipulated by the cultural ideology in order to justify and legitimize the violent act of killing a fetus, i.e. cultural violence. Abortion in terms of structural violence is quite clear as well: the state grants an equal right to life to all peoples (here meaning humans) except those that are unborn. The state is now structured in a way that allows humans to interpret the “personhood” of other humans, in order to justify and legitimize the manifest violence of abortion.
Galtung’s (1990) “ABC triangle” is an excellent mapping tool for understanding the reality of abortion in relation to conflict, and his theories on violence compliment his “ABC triangle” in a unique way. In fact, a possible interpretation of his conflict triangle could include a vertical dynamic, with cultural violence, structural violence, and manifest violence being incorporated in a hierarchical manner.
In conclusion, it is certainly not a light task to take such a personal event such as an abortion and interpret it in terms of generic conflict maps and theories. Given the extreme prevalence of abortion in the American society, in addition to the social controversy surrounding it, however, it is of the utmost importance to objectively analyze abortion in terms of conflict. Unfortunately, with an understanding of abortion as indeed a (violent) conflict in itself, the abortion conflict continues to persist within our society to date. When an abortion takes places there is only ever one outcome, which could be interpreted as a zero-sum outcome: the life of the fetus is ended. My hope is steadfastly secured on a day in which the direct, structural, and cultural violence that is abortion ceases to exist in America, for reasons which I cannot even begin to explain.
Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3), 291-305.
Mayer, B., (2012). The Dynamics of Conflict. 2nd ed. San Fransisco, CA: Josse-Bass
Columnists • Anna Maher • Commentary • (0) Comments • Permalink