The moral development of women and how it affects the ongoing abortion debate

By Genevieve DiNatale


Last March, following an ultimatum from President Trump, House Republicans failed to pass the American Health Care Act, the Obamacare replacement bill. Contained in the AHCA was a highly contested plan to defund Planned Parenthood, one of the leading abortion providers in the country. But that hasn’t stopped House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said during a press conference on March 23, that he will try to use reconciliation to defund it. “We think reconciliation is the tool, because that gets it in law,” Ryan said. “Reconciliation is the way to go.”

Abortion became legal on Jan. 22, 1973, when – in a 7-2 decision – the Supreme Court made it legal for women to have abortions under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.  According to Suzanne Leonard, a professor of cinema and media studies at Simmons College, the emphasis on abortion at the time was “one tentacle of a much larger movement.”

“It wasn’t just reproductive justice that was really getting put under surveillance, it was the relationship women have with their own bodies,” she said. “There was this movement to think about the medical profession and to think about things like child birth, reproductive health, self-exams and breast exams. All of these sort of things were under the purview of a male medical establishment, so in the 1970s you had a big social movement that was redefining the relationship women have with their own bodies.”

But, abortion still remains a highly divisive issue 43 year later. In a national Gallup poll from May 4-8, 2016, most of the respondents said abortion was immoral, with 47 percent calling it morally reprehensible and 43 percent saying it was morally acceptable. And as can be seen in the chart below, only 29 percent of respondents in a national poll from 2016 think abortion should be legal under any circumstance – hardly a majority.


Due – in part – to the divisive nature of the issue, abortion remains an integral part of the women’s rights movement today, even after it was pushed to the fore by the second-wave feminists of the 1970s. Opponents of abortion – often religious conservatives – claim that abortion is an affront to God, and those less religiously inclined think it’s simply murder to kill a fetus.

Opponents of abortion, such as Dominic Dawson, a car salesman from Leominster, Massachusetts, and Micheal Nicolazzo, a retired wrestling coach living in Florida, stated their respective cases on Facebook:


The moral development of women

Until the 1970s, it was a widely held belief in academia that women were “underdeveloped” morally, until psychologist Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking research on the moral development of women shed light on the dominant theory of the day developed by her advisor at Harvard, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who is best known for his six-stage theory of moral development.

Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development

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Kohlberg’s six-stage description is roughly as follows.  The developmental stages are divided into three segments he calls preconventional, conventional and postconventional. Essentially, in the preconventional stages, a child begins to learn that there are moral consequences to their actions when they are punished or rewarded for their behavior, the conventional level is more outwardly focused and takes place in grade school as the child develops a sense of morality about how their actions impact society and the final stage, the postconventional, is an abstract metaphysical conception of ‘justice’ that has no materialistic bearing on reality and interrelations; the morality at the postconvential stage is principled in nature.

In Carol Gilligan’s famous paper in the 1977 Harvard Education Review titled In a Different Voice: Women’s Conceptions of Self and of Morality, she writes, “Kohlberg’s stages begin with an obedience and punishment orientation sequence (Stage One), and go from there in invariant order to instrumental hedonism (Stage Two), interpersonal concordance (Stage Three), law and order (Stage Four), social contract (Stage Five), and universal ethical principles (Stage Six),” (Gilligan 489).

Gilligan was Kohlberg’s graduate assistant at the Harvard School of Education in the 70s when he was working on the study that he used to develop his six-stage theory of moral development. Deborah Belle is a professor of biological and brain sciences at Boston University who studied closely with both Kohlberg and Gilligan at Harvard’s School of Education, where she obtained her EdD.

“I was at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with Larry Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan, so I knew them both and I had studied moral development with Larry Kohlberg when Carol Gilligan was his teaching assistant and her work was an incredible bombshell, just incredibly exciting to read,” she said. “[Kohlberg] is a brilliant, amazing man and he had a six-stage theory of development. It was not tied to age, so an adolescent could be Stage Three, but an adolescent, particularly those in late adolescence, could be in higher stages, too.”

Belle says that the longitudinal and short-term case studies that Kohlberg used to determine his theory of moral development were largely based on responses to the Heinz dilemma. “He did his research by asking people hypothetical dilemmas, the most famous of which was the Heinz dilemma about the man whose wife is dying of cancer and that particular cancer can be treated with a drug, but the drug is extremely expensive and Heinz cannot afford it,” she said. “What should Heinz do? The reasoning was rated in terms of how you think about this dilemma. You can say, ‘well, stealing is wrong and you shouldn’t do that,’ or you should say ‘life is more important than property so you should steal.’”

“Basically if you were a man or a woman you could score high in Kohlberg’s system if you made categorical statements like ‘it doesn’t matter what the laws in the nation are, there is such a thing as the value of a human being, and if someone does respect the value of a human being and sees that it is worth more than property, this would get you considered at least Stage Five on this six-stage scheme,” she said.  “What Carol Gilligan noticed in interviews with women is that they tended to elaborate more, they talked more about the context and they tended to bring up things like ‘well, if Heinz can’t afford the drug, he is a poor man and he will get thrown into jail for stealing this drug and his life will be ruined and his wife will have to suffer and die without him.’”

The crux of Gilligan’s thesis in her paper was that Kohlberg had concluded, based on his research and scoring system, that women became stuck at interpersonal concordance in Stage Three and did not progress passed that stage to attain the same understanding of abstract ethical principles, such as the sense of “justice” men obtain, say, as they head off to war.

“In 1969, Kohlberg and Kramer identified Stage Three as the characteristic mode of women’s moral judgements claiming that, since women’s lives were inter-personally based, this stage was not only functional for them but also adequate for resolving the moral conflicts that they faced. Turiel (1973) reported that while girls reached Stage Three sooner than did boys, their judgements tended to remain at that stage while the boys’ development continued further along Kohlberg’s scale,” (Gilligan 489).

The reason Kohlberg and his contemporaries claimed women progressed to Stage Three quickly and then remained there was because the qualities that make a “good woman,” “tact, gentleness, awareness of the feelings of others, strong need for security, and easy expression of tender feelings” were moral attributes of interpersonal concordance, or the kind of outside reassurance teenagers seek from forming social cliques as they come of age.  So the “care” and “concern” expressed by a morally “good” woman was, for a man, a juvenile sense of moral development. Thus, it can be concluded that based on Kohlberg’s theory, women never achieve the independent thought of an adult.

However, Belle takes a defensive stance on Kohlberg, saying that women scored lower than men on his scale because society forced women into a relationship based value systems where “care” and “concern” were comparable to the sense of “justice” men had as they decided head off to Vietnam or dodge the draft.

“Kohlberg’s point was that although women tended to score lower than men on his stage theory, this was due to their more limited experience at that time since many of them were not in the workplace and the decisions they had to make were about the family, or close friends. He had a view of justice that was quite sophisticated,” she said.

Belle went on to insist that Kohlberg was anti-Vietnam and that his sense of ‘justice’ had nothing to do with personal politics, especially conservatively political ones. However, Kohlberg’s longitudinal study that led to his six-staged developmental theory only sampled men, women were largely excluded from the study, (although Belle says some data was collected on women at Harvard).

Gilligan set out to develop her own theory of moral development, one unique to women. In her pivotal work, In a Different Voice: Women’s Conceptions of Self and Morality, Gilligan explains the findings from her own research on about 30 women referred to her from abortion clinics who were about to have an abortion. Some of the women were referred to Gilligan for having multiple abortions and others were simply ambivalent about the idea of it. Gilligan viewed the moral decision to abort a child as the ultimate test between the self, other, and the outside world, and the outcome of the reconciliation of these, she felt, reflected the same high-level ethical principles that Kohlberg observed in men on their way to Vietnam.

“When a woman considers whether to continue or abort a pregnancy, she contemplates a decision that affects both self and others and engages directly the critical moral issue of hurting,” she wrote. “Thus the abortion decision brings to the core of feminine apprehension, to what Joan Didion (1972) calls ‘the irreconcilable difference of it – that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death’ the adult question of responsibility and choice,” (Gilligan 491).

From the interviews she conducted, Gilligan argues that women achieve principled ethical thinking in their ethical decision making with a different moral conception than men. Women, she says, are more concerned with responsibility while men are more interested in non-interference as a mean of mitigating potential pain to others. As an example of women’s postconventional thinking Gilligan cites an interview she conducted with a woman in her 30s contemplating an abortion who said in response to the question “are there principles that guide you?”

“The principle would have something to do with responsibility,” said the woman. “Responsibility and caring about yourself and others…But it’s not that on the one hand you choose to be responsible and on the other hand you choose to be irresponsible—both ways you can be responsible. That why there’s not just a principle that once you take hold of you settle—the principle put into place here is still going to leave you with conflict,” (Gilligan 511).

The moral imperative that emerges in this interview on the postconventional level is what Gilligan calls an “injunction to care” or the woman’s relaying of the concept of responsibility in the abstract in order to “discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world.” Meanwhile, Gilligan said, “For the men Kohlberg studied, the moral imperative appeared rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the right to life and self-fulfillment,” (Gilligan 511). The principled thinking of women does not derive from a ubiquitous sense of justice, but rather from principled understandings of reciprocity and equity.

Leonard was less sympathetic to Kohlberg’s theory.  She described his scale as a product of a patriarchal society that gauges women based on men’s values. “It is easy to believe in universal truths when your truths aren’t the ones being questioned,” she said. “I don’t know Kohlberg intimately, but that in this scale that he’s produced there’s a true right and a true wrong is something that is very patriarchal in it’s own right. I think that there’s a survival issue at stake for women to be relational, but I would suggest that there is this very patriarchal order that men are trying to slot women’s moral development into a scheme that is really developed for and by men.”

Work Cited

Gilligan, Carol. “In a Different Voice: Women’s Conceptions of Self and of Morality.” Harvard Educational Review 47.4 (1977): 481-517. Web.

About Genevieve Dinatale 4 Articles

Genevieve DiNatale is a multimedia/broadcast journalist with a passion for politics, crime and all things breaking.