The Feminist Case Against Abortion
The abortion debate is full of horror stories on both
sides of the issue. Coercive and unethical counselors lie to vulnerable
women and pressure them. This has happened in some abortion clinics as
well as some pregnancy care centers. Women have died from botched abortions,
both before abortion was legalized and after, when it is supposed to be
safe. Fanatics resort to violence on both extremes of the pro-choice/pro-life
Focusing on these isolated incidents and extreme cases
makes for effective fund-raising. What it does not do is help women -
which was what the original feminist movement set out to do. In the 1960's,
certain factions of the women's movement made a drastic about-face.
The feminist movement was born more than two hundred
years ago when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote "A Vindication of the Rights
of Women." After decrying the sexual exploitation of women, she condemned
those who would "either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off
when born." Shortly thereafter, abortion became illegal in Great Britain.
The now revered feminists of the 19th century were
also strongly opposed to abortion because of their belief in the worth
of all humans. Like many women in developing countries today, they opposed
abortion even though they were acutely aware of the damage done to women
through constant child-bearing. They opposed abortion despite knowing
that half of all children born died before the age of five. They knew
that women had virtually no rights within the family or the political
sphere. But they did not believe abortion was the answer.
Without known exception, the early American feminists
condemned abortion in the strongest possible terms. In Susan B. Anthony's
newsletter, The Revolution, abortion was described as "child
murder," "infanticide" and "foeticide." Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who in
1848 organized the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New
York, classified abortion as a form of infanticide and said, "When you
consider that women have been treated as property, it is degrading to
women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of
as we see fit."
Anti-abortion laws enacted in the latter half of the
19th century were a result of advocacy efforts by feminists who worked
in an uneasy alliance with the male-dominated medical profession and the
mainstream media. The early feminists understood that, much like today,
women resorted to abortion because they were abandoned or pressured by
boyfriends, husbands and parents and lacked financial resources to have
a baby on their own.
Ironically, the anti-abortion laws that early feminists
worked so hard to enact to protect women and children were the very ones
destroyed by the Roe v. Wade decision 100 years later - a decision hailed
by the National Organization for Women (NOW) as the "emancipation of women."
The goals of the more recent NOW-led women's movement
with respect to abortion would have outraged the early feminists. What
Elizabeth Cady Stanton called a "disgusting and degrading crime" has been
heralded by Eleanor Smeal, former president of NOW and current president
of the Fund for a Feminist Majority, as a "most fundamental right."
Betty Friedan, credited with reawakening feminism
in the 1960's with her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique,
did not even mention abortion in the early edition. It was not until 1966
that NOW included abortion in its list of goals. Even then abortion was
a low priority.
It was a man - abortion rights activist Larry Lader,
who remains active today - who credits himself with guiding a reluctant
Friedan to make abortion an issue for NOW. Lader had been working to repeal
the abortion laws based on population growth concerns, but state legislators
were horrified by his ideas. (Immigration and improved longevity were
fueling America's population growth - not reproduction, which in fact
had declined dramatically.)
Lader teamed up with a gynecologist, Bernard Nathanson,
to co-found the National Alliance to Repeal Abortion Laws, the forerunner
of today's National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).
Lader suggested to the NOW leadership that all feminist
demands (equal education, jobs, pay, etc.) hinged on a woman's ability
to control her own body and procreation. After all, employers did not
want to pay for maternity benefits or lose productivity when a mother
took time off to care for a newborn or sick child. Lader convinced the
NOW leadership that legalized abortion was the key to the workplace.
Dr. Nathanson, who later became a pro-life activist,
states in his book, Aborting America, that the two were able
to convince Friedan that abortion was a civil rights issue. Later he admitted
that they simply made up the numbers of women dying from illegal abortions,
which had been a major point in their argument.
Lader's and Nathanson's strategy was highly effective.
NOW has made the preservation of legal abortion its number one priority.
Its literature repeatedly states that access to abortion is "the most
fundamental right of women, without which all other rights are meaningless."
With this drastic change, a highly visible faction
of the women's movement abandoned the vision of the early feminists: a
world where women would be accepted and respected as women. There are
now 1.3 million surgical abortions per year in the United States. The
Alan Guttmacher Institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood) reports
that women have abortions for two primary reasons: lack of financial resources
and lack of emotional support.
Feminists for Life of America recognizes that abortion
is a symptom of, not a solution to, the continuing struggles women face
in the workplace, at home and in society. Our emphasis is on addressing
root causes and promoting solutions - from prevention to practical resources.
The first step is to empower young women and men to
make life-affirming choices. No compassionate person, pro-choice or pro-life,
wants to see a teenage girl drop out of school and face a lifetime of
poverty because she became pregnant. Nor do we want her to suffer the
pain and anguish of abortion. Public and private funding for comprehensive
programs that emphasize teen pregnancy prevention must be increased dramatically.
We need honest and unbiased evaluation and replication of effective programs
that include proven strategies such as life-planning skills training and
mentoring. Boys, as well as girls, should be included in the remedy.
Groups like Feminists for Life and pregnancy resource
centers regularly get calls from women who are pressured by partners who
say they will pay $300 for an abortion but won't pay a dime in child support.
Men and boys need to know that, thanks to legislation supported by Feminists
for Life and other women's organizations that strengthens child support
enforcement and paternity establishment, they can no longer coerce women
into having an abortion by threatening to abandon their children if they
are born. But fathers need to do more than make payments. Their presence
is needed in their child's life. For women whose partners are absent and
who are unable to provide for their children, assistance must come from
both private and public sources to protect children by providing the basis,
including affordable, quality child care, and education and employment
opportunities for the mother.
If we are serious as a nation about significantly
reducing the number of abortions, then established, credible pregnancy
resource centers should be eligible for federal funding. Nearly 4,000
pregnancy care centers and maternity homes guide women in crisis through
the maze of available support services - food, clothing, housing, furniture,
medical care including high risk pregnancies, legal assistance, help with
employment and education, drug abuse and domestic violence counseling,
childbirth, breast-feeding and parenting classes - all at no charge. Some
specialize in bilingual/bicultural services, adoption and/or post-abortion
counseling. These centers are where many pro-lifers "walk their talk"
to help women in need. They leverage financial and in-kind resources from
individuals, businesses, churches and communities across the country,
yet they cannot consistently meet the demand for services.
Although these centers are clearly listed in the yellow
pages as "abortion alternatives," some abortion advocates have resorted
to calling them "fake clinics" to discredit their efforts to give women
choices other than abortion. Coercive techniques, lies, and other unethical
practices should not be tolerated in abortion clinics or in pregnancy
resource centers. While the vast majority of pregnancy resource centers
such as those affiliated with Catholic Charities and Birthright, and the
vast majority of not-for-profit abortion providers do not engage in these
unethical practices - some for-profit abortion clinics and unaffiliated
pregnancy care centers may stray from the ethical path. NARAL is currently
working to expose those anti-abortion centers that resort to lies and
lurid pictures; NARAL should also expose those abortion clinics that try
to convince women they have no choices other than abortion.
One model program is First Resort of California. Founder
Shari Plunkett approached HMO Kaiser Permanente with a plan to reduce
the number of abortions in the Bay area. After thoroughly reviewing the
program - even editing brochures - Kaiser agreed to refer clients who
were unsure about having an abortion to First Resort. Kaiser's client
satisfaction rate was 99.3%. When NARAL's California affiliate (CARAL)
succeeded in pressuring Kaiser to terminate the program, women lost the
ability to make an informed choice. CARAL ignored an invitation to meet
with staff and tour First Resort.
Across the country, Americans on both side of the
abortion debate agree that women have a right to make informed decisions
about their pregnancy. We can empower women to exercise this right by
passing "Right to Know" legislation. As with any other medical procedure,
women have a right to full disclosure of the nature of the abortion procedure,
risks and potential complications and alternative support services, as
well as the father's responsibility. A woman has the right to know her
doctor's name, whether he/she will be available if a medical emergency
emerges, any history of malpractice in any state or revocation of a medical
license; she has the right to a fully equipped clinic and/or ambulance
nearby in case of complications, and the right to redress if she is hurt
by the abortion. Even veterinary clinics are better regulated than abortion
clinics, for which there are no uniform inspections or reporting requirements.
Doctors who have botched abortions, caused infertility or death and lost
their medical licenses have been known to jump state lines to continue
providing abortions and even open new clinics. There are no regulations
to stop them.
Employers and educational institutions can also implement
policies that ensure meaningful options for pregnant and parenting women
(as well as parenting men). Women in the workplace should not have to
choose between their child and their job. That is no choice at all. Employers
who have not already done so should consider flex time, job sharing, on-site
child care and telecommuting. Women need maternity coverage in health
care; men and women need parental leave. Living wages would enable parents
to support their children.
Similarly, women should not be forced to choose between
their education and life plans and their child. As Feminists for Life
has expanded its College Outreach Program in recent years, a number of
college counselors have told us the only choice they are aware of is between
various abortion clinics - as if women are not capable of reading or thinking
while they are pregnant or parenting. Feminists for Life is leading forums
on college campuses that challenge university officials to provide housing,
on-site child care and maternity coverage within student health care plans,
and inform women about their hard-won right to child support. We have
developed comprehensive Pregnancy Resources Kits with the input of those
on both sides of the debate - including abortion doctors, pro-choice clinic
staff, attorneys and students - to give women the "rest of the choices."
Even though Feminists for Life has reached out to
pro-choice activists to help provide more choices for women, ironically,
Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, has called
Feminists for Life's solution-oriented program "anti-choice."
If providing practical resources that help women can
be called "anti-choice," something has gone terribly wrong. It is time
to set aside the rhetoric and horror stories and fund-raising tactics
and think again about how we can help women in need.
Serrin M. Foster,
President, Feminists for Life
Reprinted with permission from The Commonwealth, September 13, 1999
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