Abortion Backlash: Women Lose

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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.

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