The issue of a woman’s right to her own body, within the last few decades, has become a progressively intriguing social dilemma in American society. More specifically the topic of abortion is not as taboo as it was thirty years ago although the debate has continued as to whether or not the decision should rest solely on the woman. Merriam Webster defines abortion as the termination of a pregnancy after, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the embryo or fetus as induced expulsion of the human fetus. This is a controversial subject that can be argued quite effectively for or against a woman’s right to choose.
The three major sociological perspectives of conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and functionalism all take a different stance on abortion. These theoretical viewpoints are shared, in no particular order, to sociologists Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. The following will attempt to explain these sociologists’ viewpoint on the issue of abortion and how the woman might arrive at the decision to either continue or terminate her pregnancy. Karl Marx was a conflict theorist and is also known as the father of the conflict theory perspective in the field of sociology.
In modern American society Marx would be pro-choice, but inversely he would not be supportive of all abortions. According to his views specific stages in history happen for a reason and are followed by more historical events, which will ultimately lead to the perfect society. In his “Communist Manifesto,” he writes about the struggles between the bourgeois and proletariats and that without this struggle there would be a classless society. Marx would believe that abortion, in American society, provides a the bourgeois or upper class an advantage against class uprising such as the one’s he wrote about in his Manifesto.
His negative views towards capitalistic society would not change, but he would agree that for America’s economy, to be productive and sustain, abortions would have to be limited. Without enough workers to produce goods and without enough consumers to purchase these goods the economy will begin to fail (C. Manifesto). Marx would place a portion of the blame for the decline of America’s capitalistic economy on the high rates of abortions, but would not want to abolish the human free will of choice. Marx would argue in favor of allowing the woman to have the right to choose what to do bout her pregnancy. It is our human nature, or as he calls it Gattungswesen, in which we as humans have the ability to create our own nature to some degree (Marx 1867). Men, a more generalized term for all individuals, conceptualize their ideals through their own consciousness and also through their external environment. This means that the unborn child in the mother’s womb is only considered human if she actually perceives it to be human. If the pregnant woman thinks about the baby then it is likely she would view it as an actual human being and therefore want to keep the child.
On the other hand, she might be reluctant of the pregnancy all together and in her mind the baby is not really a person. The woman may also have aspirations for her future such as advanced schooling or a job promotion which otherwise would not be likely with the birth of a child. Marx would be a supporter of abortion in this case as well because this act is benefitting her rather than someone else which is a major component of the conflict theorist perspective. Marx’s understanding of commodity fetishism can also be applied to this issue of abortion.
In American culture, the medical field has been exploited for profit by many corporations. The obsession or way of thinking that has incorporated itself into this society is now making a profit from taking potential human life from an expecting mother. He argues that the major ideas in modern society are controlled by the mindset of commodity fetishism. This is simply when goods are sold in the market for profit and since abortion is now legally available it is being sold to pregnant women. In retrospect of his belief that society is controlled by this idea, the ladder still holds true in today’s American culture.
In Marx’s mind, the reality of the abortion era is essentially a result of continuous change in terms of the normal state of society. Traditionally, this culture has been quite conservative in relation to family values but the legalization of abortion changes this drastically and mirrors the pessimistic views of society held by conflict theorists like Marx. As a major conflict theorist, Marx might also believe status stratification to be a reason the woman is considering abortion and also the source of the actual pregnancy.
Stratification of status can be directly related to “the monopolization of ideal and material goods or opportunities (Gesellschaft,PartVII. p. 190),” and also in this case to the stratification of economic class. The specificity and lavishness of these goods and opportunities is quite a successful tool in excluding certain people from belonging to particular status groups. Marx would even use this belief of exclusiveness on smaller scale and imply that the reason a woman is pregnant is due to the lack of means within her status group to obtain proper birth control or quality sex education.
The woman may be a victim of circumstance because the monopolized goods and opportunities were privileges to those who can afford them and were unattainable. According to Marx this would be an example of how the bourgeois use their status and economic surplus to hold power over the underprivileged pregnant woman’s head. This would maintain status and class stratification because the woman will not be able to afford an abortion and consequently continues a repetitive cycle of subpar status. Georg Simmel was a somewhat of a symbolic interactionist throughout his work in the field of sociology.
It is not clearly evident as to which side Simmel would take on the matter of abortion, but he is an advocate of freedom of choice. He celebrates the lack of order within society because, to Simmel, it is an indication of freedom and individualism. Symbolic interactionism directs the sociologist to examine symbols and details in people’s lives, determine what the symbols mean, and how these people interact with one another day to day. He would have most likely observed the actions of the pregnant woman considering having an abortion.
The task of remaining neutral or unbiased in the situation would probably have been a key element to his observation. This statement is proved through a quote from his book titled “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” a collection of data on people’s interactions in city life, when he states “it is neither our task to accuse, nor to forgive, but only to understand. ” It is safe to assume that when faced with the topic of abortion, Simmel would do his best to simply understand how and why the woman chose to birth or abort the unborn child.
Simmel would observe the symbols and interactions, of the woman making this decision, within her environment. He would then arrive at a better understanding of how these various elements interacted with woman and helped her make a decision. There would be no value judgments made towards the individual woman considering having the abortion. He would simply look at how the beliefs and morals held by individuals involved in her life interacted in a way to make a decision.
The values and belief systems of the population are not necessarily forced on the woman, in Simmel’s eyes, but rather suggest what decision she should choose. Simmel would search for answers to questions like, Why is she even debating having an abortion? or What is the ideal decision for her to make considering her circumstances? It would be difficult for him to come to an understanding on how other people’s viewpoints affected her decision because some people could interact with her harshly for having an abortion while others could be completely supportive of her decision.
A correlation exists between the viewpoints of Georg Simmel and of another symbolic interactionist Max Weber. Weber can also be classified as a conflict theorist because the majority of his sociological framework surrounding social stratification, but here he will be classified as an interactionist. Weber shares some of the same views as Simmel and it is also difficult to make an assumption as to whether he would or would not be accepting of abortion.
He argues that for someone to correctly understand an individual or group then the observer must be able to see how the individual or group views their environment. Surrounding the issue of abortion, he would actually empathize with that person or try to metaphorically place himself in the same position as the pregnant woman. This empathetic approach to sociology is what Weber calls, “Verstehen,” which states “social scientists must try to understand others’ view of reality and the subjective aspects of their experiences, including their symbols, values, attitudes, and beliefs (Mooney). Weber holds the belief that there is also a status order of society which defines who is a good person and who is considered a bad person. This belief is not always dependent on money especially when it is applied to abortion and is directly related to how she and the people interacting with her view this decision. According to Weber, there is a system of ranked diversity of ideas which suggests that some have better ideas and viewpoints than others solely based on how culture displays their wealth and power.
This viewpoint is more along the lines of Weber’s conflict theorist perspective. In the pregnant woman’s eyes, Weber might suggest that the opinions, morals, values or beliefs towards having an abortion could determine how she would feel after having the abortion or even persuade the woman to keep the baby. Functionalism, in sociology, studies how each individual part, of society’s complex system, works together in functioning harmoniously and efficiently as a whole. One sociologist in particular, Emile Durkheim, was one of the founding fathers of this theoretical perspective.
Furthermore, he believed that we could learn more about sociology through studying the various institutions interacting on the individual. These various institutions, according to Durkheim, should work together for a better functioning society. In summarization, if one of these institutions is damaged or loses function then all of the other institutions begin to crumble. With that being said, it is likely that Durkheim would view abortion as a purposeful function. He might observe the institution of the woman’s career beginning to collapse and that there is no possible way she could support a child without a job.
Durkheim could also view the death of a close friend or relative, in her family institution, and believe that having the baby might offer a function of happiness or means of distraction from grieving. Durkheim was also a positivist, which meant he would observe the situation surrounding this abortion strictly according to scientific method. The issue at hand would be compared with empirical evidence and likewise tested mathematically and logically for validity. As a positivist, Durkheim believes that the only source of accurate information is through facts already proved through science.
This means that, through all of his observations and hypothesis surrounding the woman’s abortion, all evidence collected would have to be proven scientifically before Durkheim would validate it as factual. In the case of the pregnant woman deciding whether or not to have an abortion, Durkheim would not focus on the source behind the woman’s decision but rather the social facts encompassing the event. Social facts, a term created by Durkheim, is simply all “values, cultural norms, and social structures which transcend the individual and are capable of exercising a social constraint (Durkheim,“The Rules of Sociological Method”). A generalized explanation of this concept would be that Durkheim studies the abortion issue through an overview encompassing all major social facts surrounding the woman and not her individual values, norms, or beliefs. Only after he collected all scientifically validated facts would he then begin to form his own opinions of the woman and her final decision. The issue of abortion when observed through the eyes of a sociologist can vary drastically depending on the particular theoretical perspective.
Conflict theorist’s like Karl Marx may view abortion dependent upon the woman’s perception of the fetus or even blame status stratification as the source of the problem. On the other hand symbolic interactionists such as Georg Simmel and Max Weber would try and better understand the woman involved in the abortion to grasp the underlying reasons for the abortion. Reflective of the conflict theory approach to sociology, Weber also believes that status order and a system of ranked diversity of ideas can also be partially blamed for woman’s predicament.
The functionalist perspective, held by Emile Durkheim, is the exact opposite of the interactionist approach, since it studies the whole society and culture while comparing and submitting data on abortion according to scientific facts. All three major theoretical perspectives have their own flaws and one is not more superior to another. The most logical way to study a particular issue, according to sociology, would be to combine the best characteristics of all three perspectives to achieve the highest reward from the research.