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Abortion as a War Against Women
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
During the weeks leading up to the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, there seemed to have been more news and commentary about abortion than there had been for years. The anniversary always elicits a flurry of opinion, but 2003 was different, and not only because of the significance of the anniversary. For one thing, in George Bush we have a president who is not merely pro-life for reasons of political discipline or expediency but, as far as one can tell, for reasons of personal conviction—and faith. For another, Republican majorities, however slim, prevail in both the House and the Senate, and we will likely see one or more vacancies on the Supreme Court, not to mention other federal courts throughout the nation.
This new political configuration has emerged at a moment when one major piece of pro-life legislation (the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act) has been enacted, and other important bills are pending before Congress: the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (twice vetoed by President Clinton, and more recently stalled by Senator Daschle), the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, the Child Custody Protection Act, the RU-486 Patient Health and Safety Protection Act, and the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act. Notwithstanding the cries of panic and outrage from the pro-abortion forces—even the typically supercilious New York Times published a hysterical editorial on the demise of legal abortion—none of these bills will threaten the core of Roe v. Wade, although several undermine its logic. Presumably, the hyperbole of the pro-abortion forces derives in part from their fear of the slippery slope: If you diminish any aspect of unrestricted access to abortion, you open the door to its re-criminalization. But only in part.
The majority of Americans could live comfortably with the modest restrictions on abortion proposed in the bills now before Congress. Until recently, most apparently had only a vague impression of Roe’s provisions and assumed that it permitted first-trimester abortions but little more, except in the case of exceptional circumstances: rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother. The pro-abortion lobby encouraged its supporters in their illusions, beginning with the claim that it was only defending a woman’s right “to choose.”
Several developments of the last few years have nonetheless jeopardized that cultivated ignorance. The debates over partial-birth abortion have highlighted abortion’s brutality and the possibility of performing it on viable, healthy babies. On the other side, the growing sophistication and use of sonography and fetoscopy have introduced innumerable couples to the human form of babies in the earliest stages of development. A mother who has seen a photograph of her “child” is less likely to turn to abortion than one who believes she is only carrying a bit of unformed tissue. In addition, a recent study shows that only five out of one hundred obstetrician/gynecologists are now willing to perform an abortion.1 These developments and many others have begun to shred the image of abortion as a “victimless crime” that is no crime at all but only failsafe protection for a decent woman who wants to make the most of herself and her life.
Gender Supplants Sex
The militancy of today’s pro-abortion campaign is beginning to expose its real goals. At the heart of those goals lies a passionate commitment to the transformation of women’s roles, relations with others, and nature. The pro-abortionists propose a radical revision of what it means to be a woman—if not the abolition of the very substance and concept of woman. By now, they have persuaded the media, who in turn have apparently persuaded most Americans, to substitute gender for sex. Presumably the campaign has succeeded because it has convinced the public that gender is more respectful of women’s varied talents and capabilities than sex. And most Americans agree that women deserve respect as persons “in their own right,” which is to say, as responsible and autonomous individuals. But most Americans—apart from college students who have been exposed to women’s, gender, or cultural studies—probably do not understand the full significance of the displacement of sex by gender.
The theoretical rationales for the preference for gender may become dizzyingly convoluted, but they rest on the common premise that biology has betrayed and oppressed women, who must be liberated from it. At first, proponents of gender argued that purported differences between the sexes were nothing but “socially constructed” gender roles, designed to keep women subordinate to men. That argument allowed for the possibility of a substratum of biological sex, but insisted that it had been distorted by society’s imposition of gender roles. More recently, cutting-edge academic theorists have dismissed sex entirely, arguing that the notion of a “real” biological sex is itself a sleight of hand—another trick of language employed to keep women in their place and to imprison the fluidity of everyone’s polymorphous sexual desires.
We may safely assume that most Americans do not fully grasp the connections that bind the preference for gender to the sanctity of a woman’s unconditional right to abortion, but they include a commitment to a woman’s right to liberation from her biological sex and especially from any children with whom her (woman’s) body may betray her.
From the start, the pro-abortionists have championed abortion as the cornerstone of women’s freedom and have fought for its recognition as a fundamental right—the necessary precondition for women’s equality with men. They have a point—albeit a deeply misguided one—and those who disagree cannot afford to underestimate its appeal. The pro-abortion forces ground their case in a comprehensive worldview. Doubtless many of their followers either do not recognize the worldview or pay it little mind. But in some ways, their uncritical acceptance makes them all the more dangerous, for they do not understand the magnitude of what they are agreeing to. And their uncritical acceptance vastly strengthens the hand of the hardcore pro-abortion faithful, who understand precisely the magnitude of their blueprint for women.
A Culture Conducive to Abortion
How have the advocates of abortion convinced vast numbers of people, many of them decent people of good will, that women’s prospects for happiness and self-realization depend upon unrestricted access to abortion? The simple answer lies in their success in convincing people that full personhood for women depends upon their becoming equal to men in every way—which effectively means securing freedom from their bodies and, especially, from children. The more complicated answer arises from the assumptions of our culture as a whole, especially its escalating sexual permissiveness, its loss of spiritual direction, its pathological fear of human mortality and the related cult of youth, its dedication to instant gratification and disdain for sacrifice, and, perhaps most portentously, its abandonment of children.
These assumptions contain key elements of the pro-abortion worldview. The defense of abortion grows logically out of a culture that is denigrating and eroding the ties that bind people. It invites Pope John Paul II’s label of the “culture of death,” for it subordinates reverence for and joy in life to obsession with material goods and sexual desires. Ironies abound. The carriers of the culture of death fear and deny death, which they would forestall by any means imaginable: stem-cell research, cloning, the harvesting of organs from living human beings at the beginning or near the end of their lives, and more. Their self-image as passionate defenders of life—their own and those of people like them—blinds them to the myriad ways in which they save one life at the price of another—often many others.
In addressing the thirtieth anniversary March for Life, President Bush spoke of embryonic stem-cell research in words echoed in his State of the Union speech: “We must not create life to destroy life. Human beings are not research material to be used in a cruel and reckless experiment.” By the same token, we must never destroy one life to “save” another life—whether physically by providing organs from living persons, or metaphorically by “liberating” a woman to complete an education or pursue a career or simply to enjoy her “freedom.”
Abortion advocates try to square the circle by assigning the right of judgment to themselves: They will decide which lives are meaningful and which are not, even which lives are human lives at all and which are not. A baby in the womb, conveniently dehumanized by the designation of “fetus,” falls into the latter category, except when it is “chosen.” As should be obvious, the standards that govern who is chosen can only be subjective and, consequently, reinforce the “me, me, me” tendencies of our times. Here we have another irony. The culture’s emphasis upon the autonomous or disconnected self serves many purposes, not least those of employers who seek to divest themselves of responsibility for providing as many benefits as possible and have little or no patience with maternity leave.
High Costs of Abortion
The pro-abortionists’ embrace of women’s right to the anxious freedom of disconnected individualism has effectively deprived women of the protections and support that pregnancy and maternity require. Affluent women who can afford unlimited paid help may not unduly suffer from the practical inconveniences, but less affluent women assuredly do. And most women suffer from the emotional disconnection.
We now have a substantial number of depressing studies that demonstrate the high cost of abortion for women. We need not linger over the evidence of the many women dead from hasty, botched, or unsanitary legal abortions, although it is enough to make one cry.2 Predictably, the women who suffer this fate are likely to be poor and often African-American or Hispanic. As yet we lack reliable evidence about the number of these cases—but it may well exceed the highly dramatized number of pre-Roe back-alley abortions, which, according to Dr. Bernard Nathanson, was wildly inflated.3
We do, however, have reliable studies that point to a link between abortion and breast cancer. The precise nature of the link—which the New York Times irately rejects in toto—still provokes heated debate, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss its existence out of hand. Even the mainstream American media are now forced to acknowledge that a first pregnancy brought to term provides an important protection against breast cancer. By the same token, the deliberate termination of a first pregnancy by abortion may have potentially dangerous consequences, even though a spontaneous miscarriage will not.
The devastating emotional consequences of abortion are beginning to be even more widely documented. Women who have had abortions are at high risk to suffer serious and lasting depression, and they are more likely than women who have not had abortions to suffer drug or alcohol addiction. If women who have had an abortion subsequently have children, their children are more likely to experience a variety of emotional and behavioral problems than the children of women who have not had abortions—although appropriate psychological treatment that alleviates the woman’s pain may ease her relations with the children who have “survived.”
The majority of women who have abortions experience deep loss, grief, and regret. Rather than liberating them, the experience imprisons them in pain. Doubtless we would benefit from more complete studies, but we now have enough evidence to say with confidence that for the vast majority of women, abortion represents a worst-case scenario. Too often, it also confirms their abandonment by the father of their child and the larger community. More often than not, girls and women have abortions because they lack the support to have their child.4
The most dramatic refinement of existing studies of abortion’s impact is likely to highlight the social background of the women in question. One may easily imagine the arguments of middle-class academicians and activists: Since the women who turn to abortion are disproportionately poor, we can expect them to manifest a variety of social pathologies independent of the abortion. Consequently, how can we claim that the abortion “caused” their addiction or depression? Well-designed studies can control for those factors, but another inordinately more important issue exposes the class and racial biases of the pro-abortion activists: What does it say about our society and our prospects for building a culture of life if the poorest among us are encouraged to believe that they cannot bear the children they conceive?
According to Damon Owens, national spokesman for the Life Education and Resources Network (LEARN), “More black babies are killed in a three-day period by abortion than were ever lynched in the history of America.” Although estimates vary slightly, it is clear that abortions are now performed much more frequently on African-American than on white women. Thus, while African-Americans account for 12 percent of the population, African-American women undergo 36 percent of the abortions. As such statistics become more widely known, it is no wonder that sections of the African-American community are beginning to respond with hurt and outrage—or even to cry genocide. “Abortion is the number-one killer of blacks,” said the Reverend Johnny Hunter, LEARN’s national director. “We’re losing our people at the rate of 1,452 a day. That’s just pure genocide. [Margaret] Sanger’s influence and the whole mindset Planned Parenthood has brought into the black community . . . say it’s okay to destroy your people. We bought into the lie.”5
Before you dismiss that claim as hyperbole or hysteria, reflect upon the campaigns of Planned Parenthood, which still solicits support by telling potential donors—however covertly and discreetly—that they do not want to support “those” people’s children; which supports offering birth control to even the youngest girls; and which passionately advocates the provision of abortion to the women of the third world. Cries of alarm at overpopulation, themselves misleading and unsupported by evidence, covertly target non-white and non-Western peoples. And it should give us pause to note that among the nations with the most liberal abortion laws are England and Canada, both of which feature high levels of immigration and national health services.
Meanwhile, the flight from responsibility for children is resulting in a dramatic and potentially disastrous population decline in the developed world. In addition to promoting a decrease in specific sections of the national and world populations, Planned Parenthood has been encouraging under-age girls who, in what is emerging as a common pattern, engage in sexual relations with older men, to lie about their age to secure an abortion without parental consent, or to lie about their partner’s age to evade reporting requirements. Its policy defies parental consent laws, frequently evades laws against the transportation of a minor across state lines, and amounts to nothing less than the aiding and abetting of statutory rape.6
Abortion & Women’s Freedom
All of these strategies and more represent a concerted campaign to free women—and society at large—from responsibility for children. According to the pro-abortion forces, women have for too long been saddled with a responsibility for children that has barred them from the most interesting and lucrative occupations—and often from any occupation at all. These charges contain enough truth to prevent our dismissing them out of hand. We gain nothing by denying difficult truths, and we risk trivializing our own case by doing so. Most women do want—and need—some regular interaction with the larger world and have much to contribute to it. Many women must earn some income if their families are to maintain a good standard of living. The care that children need and deserve requires as much time as most jobs and professions and is not compatible with them.
If the past three decades have taught us anything, they have taught us that you cannot have it all—or, more accurately, cannot have it all at one time. Happily, for most people, life is long enough to permit them, women and men alike, to change careers one or more times over the course of their lives. In addition, thanks to technological developments, the number of occupations that can be pursued on a part-time basis is growing, as is the number of opportunities for working from home. The pro-abortion forces have attempted to resolve the contradiction between children and work by eliminating children from the equation—with disastrous consequences.
The temptations are great to blame specific people—often parents—for the antisocial behavior or violent acts of children and adolescents. Similarly, it is easy to fault parents who leave children in daycare from seven in the morning until ten at night, or in the care of a “nanny” who may not like children or her job or who may lack sufficient education to stimulate the development of a child’s mind. The whole country shudders at a Susan Smith, who drowns her children, or at parents who leave children locked in a house while they go off on vacation. But in ascribing blame to specific individuals for such crimes, we may miss a larger point. The glorification of individual choice in our society, crystallized in the idea of a woman’s “right” to abortion, has hardened our sensibilities even as it has cut children adrift to fend for themselves—often with results as chilling as those presciently described in 1954 by William Golding in Lord of the Flies. At first glance, these problems may seem to bear little relation to the harm abortion inflicts upon women. Does not the care of children cripple women’s freedom? Why should fathers not assume a full half of the responsibility, as proponents of “joint parenting” propose? Pro-abortion activists represent themselves as the last best defenders of women’s freedoms. Without abortion, they argue, all of women’s gains since the 1960s would be wiped away. On the basis of this logic, which the media promote, they claim the high ground of the true defense of women’s interests.
They have scored a remarkable rhetorical success, largely because of their political genius for appearing merely to express the received wisdom of “mainstream” culture. Where once Americans were enjoined to view women through the lens of “mom and apple pie,” they are now enjoined to see them through the lens of autonomy, briefcase, and soccer. Countless Americans have been seduced into supporting abortion as the innocuous right to “choose” self-realization and fulfillment—no more than any self-respecting individual would ask. In this script, those who oppose abortion on demand—or any form of abortion at all—represent the forces of repression that seek to thwart women’s development as persons and independent actors in the world.
If we are to challenge the logic of the pro-abortionists and the script to which it leads, we must first acknowledge the importance and justice of women’s participation at all levels in the worlds of work, politics, and the arts. We do not aspire to return women to subservient domesticity—much less to deprive the world of their considerable talents. Any such attempt will fail, probably provoking destructive reactions along the way. The attempt will also impoverish any effort to defend the sanctity of life. Our challenge is to offer women new visions that do not pit their lives against the lives of their children in a Darwinian struggle for survival. In that struggle, no one wins.
Pro-abortionists consistently imply that the bearing and rearing of children is work fit for servants. If many American adults have ignored their message, a distressingly large number of American children appear to have heard it loud and clear. They intuitively know, even if adults prefer not to, that the repudiation of children is the ultimate confession of moral and social bankruptcy. But few Americans of any age are willing to acknowledge that the repudiation of children is also a repudiation of women.
Not surprisingly, the most enthusiastic fans of abortion have been men—at least until they have children of their own. The availability of abortion liberates a man from the obligation to marry the woman he impregnates, although the chivalrous man usually offers to pay half the cost of the abortion. The pregnant woman does not always find the offer comforting. At the same time, middle-class women frequently bemoan the dearth of eligible men, never drawing the simple conclusion that the dearth may bear some relation to their defense of their right to “choose,” and especially to their insistence that, because the baby is a mere extension of their sexuality, the “choice” is theirs alone to make.7
Not all women can bear children, and not all women wish to do so, but the potential to do so lies at the core of being a woman—it is what women can do that men cannot and what makes exact equality between the sexes an illusory goal. By trivializing women’s ability to bear children, legalized abortion has stripped women of their distinct dignity as women; it has shredded the primary tie between women of different classes, races, ethnicities, and national origins; it has seriously diminished women’s prospects for marriage and even further diminished their prospects for a lasting marriage; and it has exposed them to unprecedented levels of sexual exploitation. Welcome to the brave new world of freedom, ladies—and gentlemen.
A War Against Humanity
Among the many horrors of the Holocaust, the most dangerous lay in the attribution to one person of the power to decide whether another should live or die. Even the slave system of the antebellum United States, which so many evoke as an analogy for abortion, never granted masters that power over slaves. That power severs the connection with and recognition of the other that, as Pope John Paul II has passionately argued, define us as persons. Under the conditions of the Holocaust, the other became an object. By allocating lethal power to a mother, who is thereby authorized to kill her own child, abortion opens up the possibility for the more wealthy and powerful among us to measure all the others, including the elderly, the handicapped, and the seriously ill, in terms of their convenience and to dispatch those who fail to measure up—or whose care simply costs too much financially or emotionally.
At the extreme then, and dramatically in a world of managed—which increasingly means rationed—health care, abortion becomes the cutting edge of a war against our humanity. Throughout history, some women have obtained abortions and committed infanticide, sometimes because the men who impregnated them deserted them, sometimes because of their own bad character or crass exploitation of another, sometimes because economic change deprived them of the means to marry and support a family. But until our own time, these patterns have been cyclical, like the recurring wars that have deprived specific generations of women of the opportunity to marry.
Our legalization of abortion and, yet more portentously, our proclamation of it as a positive good, represents something new, and we should be rash indeed to expect it to follow the course of previous cycles. In severing the binding tie between women and the children they conceive, legalized abortion dismisses women from the company of responsible persons who are capable of sacrificing a piece of their freedom for the good of others—especially the children who embody our future.
Thus, legalized abortion begins as a war against women, whom it tells that, to be worthy, they must become men. But it ends as a war against humanity, against both our lives and our humanness. The life issues, which begin with abortion, are the most important issues of our time, and women are in the front lines. It remains to be seen whether we will rise to the challenge.
1. Alan Guttmacher Institute study, “Abortion Incidence and Services in the United States in 2000,” written by Lawrence B. Finer and Stanley K. Henshaw.
2. “State Reports—New York: Provider Had History of Botching Abortions,” The Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report (August 8, 1995). There have also been a number of stories on the Mafia’s investment in abortion clinics. See, Bob Jones, “Making a Killing,” World, vol. 16, no. 13 (April 7, 2001); and Phil Brennan, “Is the Mob Now Whacking the Unborn?” NewsMax.com (March 30, 2001).
3. In his years as a pro-abortion activist, Dr. Nathanson maintained that 5,000–10,000 women died from illegal abortions each year; later, he wrote, “I confess that I knew the figures were totally false . . . [b]ut in the ‘morality’ of our revolution, it was a useful figure. . . .” Nathanson, Bernard, Aborting America (New York: Doubleday, 1979), p. 193.
4. David C. Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More (Springfield, Illinois: Acorn Books, 1987, 2002); and David C. Reardon and Theresa Burke, Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion (Springfield, Illinois: Acorn Books, 2002). See also, Elizabeth Ring-Cassidy and Ian Gentles, Women’s Health After Abortion: The Medical and Psychological Evidence (Toronto: The deVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research, 2002); and Philip Ney, “A View from Clinical Psychiatry,” in Back to the Drawing Board: The Future of the Pro-Life Movement, ed. Teresa R. Wagner (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine Press, 2003), pp. 82–96.
5. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s December 2000 report, black women account for 36 percent of all abortions performed, even though blacks represent 12 percent of the population. In 1996, the Alan Guttmacher Institute (Planned Parenthood’s research arm) reported: “Blacks, who make up 14 percent of all childbearing women, have 31 percent of all abortions, and whites, who account for 81 percent of women of childbearing age, have 61 percent.”
6. Charles A. Donovan, “Planned Parenthood: A Business That’s Never Been Richer,” Focus on the Family (February 4, 2003). Reportedly for financial as well as ideological reasons, Planned Parenthood also provides referrals for abortions (from which it profits), but not for adoptions (from which it does not). See, “Planned Parenthood: Abortion, Not Adoption,” at the American Life League website; and “A New Religion: An Analysis of Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Annual Report (2000–2001).” On Planned Parenthood’s campaigns to encourage very young women (girls) to have abortions, see Joseph Farah, “Planned Parenthood on the Run,” WorldNetDaily (May 30, 2002).
7. For a general discussion of these issues as well as specific evidence on the attitude of different groups toward abortion, see Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life”: How Today’s Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch With the Real Concerns of Women (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1996).
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (d. 2007) was the Eleonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Emory University and a contributing editor of Touchstone. Her books include "Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life" (Anchor), Feminism Without Illusions (University of North Carolina Press), and, with her husband, The Mind of the Master Class (Cambridge University Press).