Abortion Backlash: Women Lose

A huge social crisis develops over the issue of abortion as conservative forces grow stronger

anti-abortion protest roe vs wade
Barbara Freeman/Getty Images
A woman at a reproductive rights march in Pittsburgh.
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A widely circulated feminist poster reproduces a scarifying police photograph: a woman, dead of a botched illegal abortion, lies naked and bloody in an empty room. For a time it seemed that that image was fading, that it might actually pass into history. Now, abruptly, it is as vivid as ever. On June 20th, 1977, six white male Supreme Court justices decided that Connecticut and Pennsylvania need not pay for elective abortions with state Medicaid funds and that the city of St. Louis need not provide such operations in its public hospitals. The state still owns our bodies – unless we can afford ransom.

It is a bitter shock to wake up and find yourself losing a battle you thought you had largely won – especially when you had fought so hard and won so much in such a short time. In 1969, when feminists began making militant public demands for repeal of the abortion laws, abortion was illegal, except in special circumstances, in every state. Legislative debate on "abortion reform" was mainly confined to the issue of whether women who were sick or crazy or had been raped by their fathers deserved to be excused from forced childbearing. By 1970 the political climate had changed drastically. New York, which had resisted the most minimal "reforms," passed the most liberal law in the country: it permitted abortion for any reason during the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy. In 1973 – after three more years of feminist demonstrations, speakouts, lobbying campaigns and lawsuits – the United States Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting abortion during the first six months of pregnancy violated women's constitutional right to privacy.

The Supreme Court's decision was by no means a total victory. It did not invalidate all abortion laws, and it specifically rejected the feminist contention that a woman has an absolute right to decide whether or not to bear a child. Antiabortionists quickly moved to test the limits of the decision by pushing for a whole new set of abortion statutes requiring a husband's or parent's consent, forbidding the use of public funds for abortions, permitting hospitals and medical personnel to refuse on moral grounds to provide or perform them and so on. Some states have passed blatantly unconstitutional laws (like Louisiana's law making abortion a capital crime). In other communities public officials have simply ignored the decision, and social and political pressure has ensured that abortion remains unavailable, or available only at an exorbitant price. For all too many women who cannot afford to go to a private doctor or travel to a liberal state, the right to safe, legal abortion has never been more than theoretical.

Still, the decision led to what proved a disastrous complacency. Once most middle-class women could get abortions, feminists found it difficult to generate the energy needed to keep pressing their original demand – repeal of all abortion laws. It was even harder to maintain a sense of urgency about defending what had been won. The conservative resistance – including the campaign, instigated and largely financed by the Catholic Church, to pass an anti-abortion constitutional amendment – seemed a futile rear-guard action. Legal abortion was popular; polls showed that a majority of people supported it (including a substantial percentage of Catholics). If many women concluded that the struggle was over, others forgot – or never knew – that there had even been a struggle. "I only had a vague idea that there was a proabortion movement," a woman I know said recently. "I just knew that at one point abortion was illegal, and then it wasn't."

Last year Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which cut off federal Medicaid funds for abortion except to save the woman's life. Opponents of the amendment filed suit, and Federal District Judge John F. Dooling issued an injunction staying its enforcement. Defenders of abortion rights were also contesting the Connecticut, Pennsylvania and St. Louis regulations. Feminists and civil libertarians assumed that the Supreme Court would declare all these restrictions unconstitutional.

But another major political shift was taking place. Since Nixon's 1972 landslide, the government's rightward drift had been gaining alarming momentum. Widespread unemployment and massive cutbacks in social-welfare spending were having a particularly severe impact on women and minorities. At the same time, the fundamentalist right was mounting its defense of the patriarchal family against abortion, homosexuality and the Equal Rights Amendment. Jimmy Carter was continuing Nixon-Ford's economic policies while encouraging the sexual backlash with his opposition to abortion, his emphasis on traditional family virtues and his unctuous Christian piety. In the face of this dual reactionary assault, the women's movement – like the black movement and the left generally – was in retreat. The ERA, a broadly popular (and scarcely radical) measure, was in deep trouble; the anti-abortion movement was looking less and less like a futile rear guard. Given this ominous atmosphere and the basic conservatism of the Nixon Court, the June 20th rulings should have been no surprise.

And so, in 1977, for women without money it is 1969 again. The fact that the state is forbidden to interfere directly with a woman's right to end her pregnancy does not, in the Supreme Court's view, invalidate state policies that effectively prevent many women from exercising that right. After June 20th, the Court directed Judge Dooling to reconsider his injunction against the Hyde Amendment. In light of the Court's new rulings, Dooling lifted the injunction, ensuring that until October 1st, the end of the fiscal year (the Amendment was part of an annual appropriations bill), poor women would not be able to get abortions except in states like New York, where the state government had agreed (for the time being) to make up the difference. The House and Senate have passed two versions of a new bill outlawing federal Medicaid funds for virtually all abortions; at the time this article went to press, reconciliation of the bills and final passage were expected shortly. It is unlikely that many states will follow New York's example. The trend is exactly the opposite; over twenty states have already passed laws authorizing a cutoff of state funds for abortions. The antiabortion lobby can be expected to press for similar bans in every state.

We are facing a social crisis. Last year 300,000 legal abortions – one-third of the total – were financed by Medicaid; one-third of the recipients of Medicaid abortions were teenagers. The cutoffs will affect not only the indigent but all women who cannot manage on short notice to scrape up the $150 to $300 fee for an early abortion (late abortions are of course much more expensive). Economically dependent women who for whatever reason cannot tell parents or husbands they need an abortion are particularly vulnerable.

In addition to burdening thousands of women with unwanted babies and driving thousands of others to dangerous hacks or attempts at self-abortion, the ban on free abortions is likely to aggravate the problem of sterilization abuse – that is, the practice of sterilizing women (generally poor minority women) without adequate safeguards to assure their informed consent, and often through outright intimidation or fraud. Horror stories abound: women have been lied to about the nature or permanence of the operation or threatened with the loss of welfare payments if they did not agree; Spanish-speaking women have been induced to sign English consent forms and so on. If poor women cannot get abortions, they will be all the more vulnerable to this sort of pressure, and many women may feel compelled, for economic reasons, to resort to this irreversible alternative (which will still be financed by the state).

The Supreme Court's casuistic distinction between forbidding abortions and making them unavailable moved dissenting justices to quote, "let them eat cake," and Anatole France's observation that "the law, in its majestic equality, forbids both the rich and the poor to sleep under bridges." The allusions apply equally well to Jimmy Carter's bland defense of the Court's reasoning: "Well, as you know there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can't. But I don't believe that the federal government should take action to try to make these opportunities exactly equal, particularly when there is a moral factor involved." Yet this is no routine case of class bias; the Court's argument and Carter's response are not only chilling but thoroughly disingenuous. The purpose of the Medicaid abortion ban is not to reduce aid to the poor – on the contrary, abortion is far less costly than childbirth, let alone welfare for an indigent mother and her child – but to prevent abortions. Poor women are only the most convenient immediate victims of an attack aimed at women in general. But by posing the issue in terms of rich against poor, the government can exploit antipoor, antiblack, antiwelfare sentiment while lulling middleclass women into believing their own abortion rights are safe; the result is to confuse and divide the proabortion majority.

Thurgood Marshall's dissent goes straight to the point: "Since efforts to overturn [the Court's 1973] decisions have been unsuccessful, the opponents of abortion have attempted every imaginable means to circumvent the Constitution and impose their moral choices upon the rest of society . . . I fear that the Court's decisions will be an invitation to public officials to approve more such restrictions." Another dissenting justice, William Brennan, points out that in a number of previous cases the Court explicitly rejected the notion that the state may do anything short of direct prohibition to inhibit the exercise of a constitutional right. That the June 20th decisions are no more and no less than a political capitulation to the antiabortion movement is clear from the Court's assertion that states are not obliged to "undercut" their "unquestionably strong and legitimate interest in encouraging [i.e., coercing] normal childbirth." Carter's statement is even less subtle; what it amounts to is: abortion is immoral. At the moment I can't find an excuse to impose this view on the wealthy (life is unfair). But at least I can impose it on the poor.

The antiabortionists would be delighted to even things up. In August, Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for an intensified drive to eliminate "the evil practice" of abortion. (He also denounced federally financed birth-control programs as "unacceptable governmental intrusion into family life.") So far, the campaign for a constitutional amendment banning abortion has failed in Congress. But eleven state legislatures (out of thirty-four needed) have voted to call for a constitutional convention to pass an antiabortion amendment. If the campaign succeeds, women will be far worse off than they were in 1969. Reproductive slavery will be enshrined as a basic principle of our legal system. It can happen here.

The Antiabortion movement argues that abortion is murder, that fetuses and embryos – even, presumably, eggs at the moment of fertilization – are human beings with a right to life. To oppose this view is not to say that abortion has no moral significance, that it is a neutral act like getting a tooth pulled. Abortion does destroy a living, genetically unique entity, a potential human being, and I would guess that few women have abortions with total indifference to that fact. On the contrary, for many women the decision to end a pregnancy is difficult and painful. But to equate abortion with murder – that is, the unjustifiable killing of a person – is another matter. That argument not only assumes that the fetus is an actual person – a claim that taken literally is as silly as calling a seed a plant – but grants fetuses an absolute right to life that even people don't have.

While it is certainly possible to argue that fetuses are as valuable as people, such an assertion cannot be proved or disproved; it is not a matter of fact but of emotional or theological conviction. Nor can any moral or social consensus be invoked in support of that conviction, which is nowhere reflected in our laws or in popular opinion. We do not hold funerals for dead fetuses or consider a miscarriage as traumatic as the death of a baby. American law has not, in the past, linked abortion with murder or set comparable penalties; American society has regarded abortion as, at worst, a vice akin to drug taking or prostitution. Millions of women – otherwise indistinguishable from the rest of the noncriminal population – have expressed their opinion on the subject by having abortions, legal or illegal. It is questionable whether even militant right-to-lifers really believe their own rhetoric – former senator James Buckley, the author of two proposed constitutional amendments defining the fetus as a person, told a Senate hearing that his amendments would not, in fact, require states to impose the same penalty for fetal "murder" as for murder of persons already born.

In any case, only committed pacifists believe that killing is never justified. Most of us assume (and our laws and international agreements reflect the assumption) that the right to life must be balanced against the right to self-defense, individual or collective, against attacks on one's life, safety, liberty or independence. Abortion is an assertion of this basic right, though in a context that is not precisely analogous to any other. Pregnancy involves a uniquely intimate relationship: the pregnant woman is required to nurture another organism with her own body. Pregnancy and childbirth are inherently a strain on a woman's system ("labor" is precisely that); complications can be distressing, unhealthy, even fatal. Having a baby transforms a woman's body, often causing permanent physical and metabolic changes. Psychically, too, pregnancy and birth are an absorbing, exhausting affair. Even women who want babies and are eager to experience pregnancy often find it difficult. For the woman who must bear a child against her will, pregnancy is a nine-month rape, a barbaric form of involuntary servitude.

But forced pregnancy is only a prelude to the oppression of forced motherhood. The same male-dominated society that passes repressive abortion laws severely restricts the freedom and independence of mothers. Mothers must typically assume the burden of child-rearing, with little or no help from fathers or the larger community. And because of job discrimination and the lack of public child-care facilities, few mothers can remain self-supporting; most are wholly or partly dependent on husbands, relatives or welfare. This combination of responsibility and dependence drastically limits – when it does not entirely destroy – a mother's ability to determine the direction of her life. The bind is worst for poor women (a category that includes most single mothers, whether or not they were poor to begin with). But for women of all classes – the mother who already has as many children as she can handle, the single woman who is passionately involved in her work, the housewife who is struggling to acquire some skills and get a job so that she can leave a bad marriage, the teenager who does not yet know who she is or what she wants – the right to abortion can mean the difference between living and existing.

Nor is the Carter administration's suggested "alternative" – adoption – a solution. To force women to produce babies is abhorrent under any circumstances. And for many women – particularly women who might want a child but for economic or other reasons cannot afford one – having to give the baby away only compounds the trauma of the pregnancy itself. In addition, giving up babies is socially taboo for married women.

The violence and urgency of women's need to get rid of unwanted pregnancies are easily measured. Laws have never stopped women from risking death and mutilation, spending huge sums of money (if they had it) or enduring the indignities of a sleazy, illicit seller's market to obtain abortions. Even when abortion is legal it is at best an unpleasant experience, an assault on the body; for many if not most women it is emotionally upsetting as well, and for some women it is a crisis. The only reason women have abortions is that the alternative is so much worse. Yet antiabortion rhetoric continually refers to "convenience" abortions, dismissing unwanted pregnancy as a mere annoyance, which in no way deserves to be balanced against the sacred life of the fetus. A less extreme (hence more insidious) version of this attitude is that abortion may be permissible, but is nevertheless a frivolous luxury.

Carter's speech suggested this theme; others have elaborated on it. Representative Elwood Rudd argued that if the government has to pay for abortions, "By that logic taxpayers can be forced by Congress to pay for poor people to have face-liftings, hair transplants, expensive cars and tickets to the Kennedy Center." In a letter to the New York Times, defending the Supreme Court, Mr. Bert S. Annenberg pointed out that the rich can "afford caviar and champagne and sail their yachts to Palm Beach . . . while the poor cannot."

To blame this let-them-eat-caviar sentiment on simple insensitivity to women's experience would be charitable. More likely it comes from understanding women's feelings only too well. Talk to antiabortionists long enough, and they invariably betray their underlying concern: to curb women's sexual freedom. Besides raising the specter of tax-supported face-lifts, Representative Rudd remarked that if a woman has a right to control her own body, she should exercise that control before she gets pregnant. Several people who have recently written me to defend the humanity of fetuses have included the observation that if you overeat you should expect to get fat, and if you have sex you should expect to get pregnant. In other words, sexual intercourse is an unhealthy excess, for which women (even married women, apparently) should be made to suffer.

Since these days it is considered a bit crude to rant about the wages of sin (at least for heterosexuals), many antiabortionists dress up the antisex argument in a seemingly plausible rationale. As Mr. Annenberg put it, "In today's era of scientific achievement there are many ways for preventing conception, which are available to all who desire them . . . " President Carter and others have expressed concern lest abortion be used as a "routine contraceptive." Leaving aside the bizarre notion that women are likely to prefer an operation to other forms of birth control, the implication here is that women (particularly black welfare mothers) get pregnant because they are lazy, irresponsible hedonists. This argument is often combined with cant about the expense to the taxpayer, but again, the arguers do not suggest cutting off Medicaid funds for childbirth; their intent is clearly to punish women for their supposed irresponsibility.

The constantly repeated assertion that women don't need abortions because they have contraceptives is a classic case of the big lie. It is fascinating that so many otherwise well-informed people manage not to know a readily available fact: there is no such thing as a perfectly reliable contraceptive. Even birth control pills, taken exactly as directed, have a small but definite failure rate, and given the documented dangers of the pill, women can hardly be blamed for switching to less effective methods. Yet over a decade or two of an active sex life using a diaphragm, IUD, condoms or foam, the chances of at least one accidental pregnancy are relatively high. It is an equally blatant lie that birth-control information and devices are "available to all who desire them." In many communities law or social pressure or both restrict access to contraceptives and accurate instructions in their use; teenagers in particular are often denied the protection they need.

It is true that women are sometimes careless about birth control, for reasons ranging from ambivalence about getting pregnant to guilt over sexual activity to immaturity to the ingrained human tendency to take foolish chances. It is also true that every act of unprotected intercourse involves a man who fails to use a contraceptive or make sure his partner uses one. Yet for antiabortionists, an unwanted pregnancy is solely the woman's failure and the woman's tough luck. There is something highly suspect about their self-righteous vindictiveness. (Imagine the same attitude applied to car accidents: "The creep went through a red light! Let him pay for his own ambulance!") Essentially, it is a cover for the fear that women are getting away with something – namely, enjoying sex on their own terms.

The right to abortion is only one aspect of reproductive freedom. Women must have access to the safest, most reliable birth-control measures our technology can devise (including voluntary sterilization); there must be an end to social pressure on women to justify their sexual activity, or their very existence, by having children. Equally important, women who want children should be free to have them – a freedom that necessarily includes the right to bring up children under decent economic and social conditions. No woman should be driven to an abortionist out of economic desperation or fear of being trapped in the home. Yet, even in the best of all possible societies, there will always be women who need abortions. Abortion is the emergency fallback, the crucial insurance against technological and human fallibility. Only an absolute right to abortion can free women from the chronic subliminal dread that at any moment we may find ourselves helplessly subject to the rule of our biology and robbed of all control over our lives. It is for this reason that the abortion struggle is so passionate on both sides: it carries all the emotional weight of the larger struggle over women's liberation.

A few days after the Supreme Court rulings, New York feminists held a meeting to plan a response to the abortion crisis. It had been a long time since I was last in a room with so many angry women. For the past few years the movement had been fragmented, confused, directionless. Now, none too soon, we were about to pull ourselves together and fight back. We had the numbers, after all; as Bella Abzug had told Village Voice writer Judith Coburn that afternoon, "We must mobilize every woman who's ever had an abortion and every woman who's ever been afraid, even for one week, that she'll need one." We began organizing what was to become the Coalition for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA). I went home plotting not only how to resist the right-wing juggernaut, but how to get on with the unfinished business of feminism. An unspeakably utopian project for 1977. And yet, if there's one thing the past eight years should have taught us, it is how fast – for better or worse – things can change.

This story is from the November 3rd, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 251: November 3, 1977