The abortion debate seems like an unresolvable conflict of rights: the right of women to control their own bodies, the right of children to be born. Can one both support women’s rights and oppose abortion?
Truly supporting women’s rights must involve telling the truth about abortion and working for it to cease. Many years ago, I felt differently; in college I advocated the repeal of abortion laws, and supported my friends who traveled for out-of-state abortions. In those early days of feminism, women faced daunting obstacles. The typical woman was thought to be charmingly silly, prone to having parking lot fender-benders and then consoling herself with a new hat. Certainly not someone who should run a corporation — perhaps someone who should not even vote.
But the hurdles were not only political; we felt physically vulnerable, as rape statistics rose and women’s bodies were exploited in advertising and entertainment. The external world’s disparagement of our abilities was compounded by the extra cruelty that our bodies were at risk as well, from violence without and invasion within. For an unplanned pregnancy felt like an invader, an evil alien bent on colonizing one’s body and destroying one’s plans. The first right must be to keep one’s body safe, private, and healthy; without that, all other rights are meaningless.
It is because I still believe so strongly in the right of a woman to protect her body that I now oppose abortion. That right must begin when her body begins, and it must be hers no matter where she lives — even if she lives in her mother’s womb. The same holds true for her brother.
For years I bought the line that the unborn was just a “glob of tissue.” When I ran across a description of a mid-pregnancy abortion, I was horrified at the description of the syringe’s hub jerking against the mother’s abdomen as her child went through his death throes. I learned that early abortions are no more kind: the child is pulled apart limb from limb, and sucked through a narrow tube to a bloody bag. Worst of all, I learned that in 1981 Dr. Willard Cates of the Centers for Disease Control estimated that 400-500 times a year children are born alive after late abortions, and then made to die — by strangulation, by drowning, or just left in a bedpan in a dark closet until the whimpering ceases.
I could not deny that this was hideous violence. Even if there were any doubt that the unborn were a person, if I had seen someone doing this to a kitten I would have been horrified. The feminism that hoped to create a new, just society had embraced as essential an act of injustice. In The Brothers Karamazov, a character challenges another as to whether he would consent to be the architect of a new world in which all people would be happy and at peace, but “it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby… for instance — and to found that edifice on her unavenged tears.” Not just one death lies beneath this edifice, but tens of millions, with thousands more every day. Justice cannot be built on such a bloody foundation.
Have women profited from abortion legality? Someone has profited, but not the woman who undergoes an abortion. The abortion industry makes about $500 million per year, and the sale of unborn children’s parts could push that figure into the billions. The average woman does not gain, but loses, when she has an abortion. She loses first the hundreds of dollars cash she must pay to receive the surgery. Second, she must undergo a humiliating procedure, an invasion deeper than rape, as the interior of her uterus is crudely vacuumed to remove every scrap of life. Some women will be haunted by the sound of that vacuum the rest of their lives.
Third, she can lose her health. A woman’s body is a delicately balanced ecology, not meant to have its natural, healthy process disrupted by invasive machinery. In addition to the women who are punctured or killed on abortion tables, there are more subtly damaging effects. The opening of the uterus, the cervix, is designed to open gradually over several days at the end of a pregnancy. In an abortion, the cervix is wrenched open in a matter of minutes. The delicate muscle fibers can be damaged — damage that may go unnoticed until she is far into a later, wanted pregnancy and the muscles give way in a miscarriage.
While the cervix can be opened, the uterus was never intended to be vacuumed. Nicks and scratches can cause scarring which may lead to endometriosis. But if those scars are near the fallopian tubes, the openings can be partly obliterated. Tiny sperm can swim in and fertilize the egg, but the fertilized egg, hundreds of times larger than a sperm, cannot pass back through into the uterus. The fertilized egg can implant and grow in a tube until the child’s size reaches the tube’s limit; if the condition is not diagnosed, the tube explodes, the child dies and the mother may die. When I read that the rate of ectopic pregnancy in America rose 500% between 1970 and 1987, it’s almost too obvious to ask what was the single greatest change in women’s reproductive health care during that time. But of course the multiplication of ectopic-related injuries is taken as proof that pregnancy is more dangerous than abortion.
Alternatively, the scarring at the tube’s entrance may be complete. In this case, the sperm can never meet the egg, and the woman is sterile; she thought she was aborting one pregnancy, but she was aborting all her pregnancies for the rest of her life.
Which brings us to the most devastating loss of all: she loses her own child. Abortion rhetoric paints the unborn as a parasite, a lump, that “glob of tissue.” But it is in fact her own child, as much like her as any child she will ever have, sharing her appearance, talents, and family tree. In abortion, she offers her own child as a sacrifice for the right to continue her life, and it is a sacrifice that will haunt her.
For the last loss is the loss of her peace of mind. Many women grieve silently after abortion, their sorrow ignored by a society that expects them to be grateful for the “freedom” to abort. Some suffer depression, nightmares, suicidal thoughts; some wake in the night thinking they hear a baby crying. A man who saw his wife slowly disintegrate after her abortion asks, “What kind of trade-off is that: Gain control of your body, lose control of your mind?” The baby lost in an abortion is not one that will keep her mom awake at night — at least not right away.
For all these losses, women gain nothing but the right to run in place. Abortion doesn’t cure any illness; it doesn’t win any woman a raise. But in a culture that treats pregnancy and childrearing as impediments, it surgically adapts the woman to fit in. If women are an oppressed group, they are the only such group to require surgery in order to be equal. In Greek mythology, Procrustes was an exacting host: If you were the wrong size for his bed, he would stretch or chop you to fit. The abortion table is modern feminism’s Procrustean bed, one that, in a hideous twist, its victims actually march in the streets to demand.
Earlier strains of feminism saw this issue more clearly. Susan B. Anthony called abortion “child murder” and called for “prevention, not merely punishment… [of] the dreadful deed.” The nineteenth-century feminists were unanimous in opposing abortion. Elizabeth Cady Stanton grouped it with infanticide, and proclaimed that if it was degrading to treat women as property, it was no better for women to treat their own children as property. Perhaps their colleague Mattie Brinkerhoff was clearest when she likened a woman seeking abortion to a man who steals because he is hungry.
For the question remains, do women want abortion? Not like she wants a Porsche or an ice cream cone. Like an animal caught in a trap, trying to gnaw off its own leg, a woman who seeks an abortion is trying to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self-loss. Abortion is not a sign that women are free, but a sign that they are desperate.
How did such desperation become so prevalent? Two trends in modern feminism, both adapted from the values of the masculine power structure that preceded it, combine to necessitate abortion. Re-emerging feminism was concerned chiefly with opening doors for women to professional and public life, and later embraced advocacy of sexual freedom as well. Yet participation in public life is significantly complicated by responsibility for children, while uncommitted sexual activity is the most effective way of producing unwanted pregnancies. This dilemma — simultaneous pursuit of behaviors that cause children and that are hampered by children — inevitably finds its resolution on an abortion table.
If we were to imagine a society that instead supports and respects women, we would have to begin with preventing these unplanned pregnancies. Contraceptives fail, and half of all aborting women admit they weren’t using them anyway. Thus, preventing unplanned pregnancies will involve a return to sexual responsibility. This means either avoiding sex in situations where a child cannot be welcomed, or being willing to be responsible for lives unintentionally conceived, perhaps by making an adoption plan, entering a marriage, or faithful child support payments. Using contraceptives is no substitute for this responsibility, any more than wearing a safety belt gives one the right to speed. The child is conceived through no fault of her own; it is the height of cruelty to demand the right to shred her in order to continue having sex without commitment.
Second, we need to make continuing a pregnancy and raising a child less of a burden. Most agree that women should play a part in the public life of our society; their talents and abilities are as valuable as men’s, and there is no reason to restrict them from the employment sphere. But during the years that her children are young, mother and child usually prefer to be together. If women are to be free to take off these years in the middle of a career, they must have, as above, faithful, responsible men who will support them. Both parents can also benefit from more flexibility in the workplace: allowing parents of school-age children to set their hours to coincide with the school day, for example, or enabling more workers to escape the expenses of office, commute, and childcare by working from home. We must also welcome women back into the workforce when they want to return, accounting their years at home as valuable training in management, education, and negotiating skills.
Women’s rights are not in conflict with their own children’s rights; the appearance of such a conflict is a sign that something is wrong in society. When women have the sexual respect and employment flexibility they need, they will no longer seek as a substitute the bloody injustice of abortion.
Originally printed in papers across the country on July 23, 1991 and reprinted from FFL’s
newsletter Sisterlife. (The American Feminist replaced Sisterlife in 1994.)