[The World and I, May 1992]
Major movements begin with dreams and end with mechanics.
The term “feminism” is almost inextricably bound up in the public mind with access to abortion, provided (as a recent Fund for the Feminist Majority mailing puts it) “without restrictions”. A kind of red fury surrounds this demand, one that is presented as beyond negotiation and even beyond discussion.
Yet in 1970, when the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful was published at a massive six hundred pages, only a portion of one essay focused on abortion. Similarly, the National Organization of Women’s Bill of Rights, adopted at their first national conference in 1967, mentions abortion (with contraception) only at the end of its seven demands; “abortion” appears only as the last word in the document.
A great many other concerns were crowding for attention in those days, as the movement struggled to identify woman’s true identity and free it from narrow role restrictions. It was an intoxicating time when anything seemed possible. Twenty years later, some of the more audacious ideas look silly, bad-tempered, or severely reactive; little is currently heard of the myth of the vaginal orgasm, the abolition of the nuclear family, or the revolutionary importance of not shaving one’s legs. But these and a hundred other ideas were groping after a dream, a utopia where women would have freedom, safety, dignity and opportunity that they had never known before.
Dreams don’t translate well into action; they evaporate in the light of day. The goal of transforming attitudes toward women was all but inexpressible. A movement needs concrete, measurable goals, and so it happened that, in the contest among the ERA, equal pay, and other contenders, abortion emerged as chief. And, of the other issues that remain important, it is abortion which provokes the most emotional defense.
Abortion is the little issue that grew, and it has devoured the feminist movement. This isn’t the first time such a process had occured: the women’s movement that began in the last century was increasingly consumed by the fight for the vote, particularly as success drew nearer. When this right was won, in 1920, interest in the movement all but collapsed; it was defeated by its own success. The global vision of liberated womanhood had been reduced in the public mind to a lever in a voting booth, and other goals could draw little attention. Feminism seemed to stand distracted, as one who forgets her purpose between the bottom and the top of the stairs.
It had taken 72 years for women to win the vote. In contrast, modern feminism’s early calls for abortion access were met with unexpected, absolute success, as the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision invalidated laws in all fifty states and leap-frogged over the evolving public debate concerning the justice of abortion. Not until the Webster decision in 1989 did the right of states to craft minimal restrictions become for the first time imaginable.
In the next few years, it is likely that Roe v. Wade will be reversed, and more states will move to restrict abortion in various ways. No one anticipates that we will return to the world of the early 1960’s, with abortion forbidden in every state; but the debate will be re-opened and the public uneasiness with abortion, silenced these twenty years, will at last be aired. For throughout all these years of legality, polls have remained surprisingly constant: most people think abortion wrong, and majorities agree that it is murder, but they are not sure how it should be legally regulated, if at all. Into this fog modern feminism is prepared to march, staking all on a vigorous defense of abortion. The conduct of this war, even more than its outcome, will determine the rebirth—or the end—of the feminist movement for our generation. Beyond the laboring mechanics, can the movement still glimpse its dream?
The multitude of feminist arguments in favor of abortion access sort themselves into three general camps: safety, rights, and equal opportunity. (We leave aside the arguments from population control and eugenics, as these are not really feminist, but concerned with controlling women’s fertility for some presumed greater good. Neither Ceaucescu’s forced breeding program nor China’s one-child policy have women’s self-determination at heart.)
The most vivid feminist argument in favor of abortion legality is that women will die if abortion is regulated. A 1990 novel by Sue Robinson, The Amendment, paints this in horrifying terms, as a future team of abortion police raid an illegal clinic, murder the doctor, and leave the patient to die on the table. The ringing cries of the movement are “Don’t wait until women are dying again” and the chant, “You don’t care if women die”, and the icon is the martyred Becky Bell, whose fragile, child-like face peers up from many a placard and flier. The feminist movement has drawn this line very close to their turf, forcing one to support abortion access without restrictions, or to bear the role of one who is actively menacing them, brandishing a coathanger. Even mild regulations, such as for clinic safety inspections or provision of information about alternatives to abortion, is met with astonishment, shock and horror. The reality of bleeding to death from a filthy abortion is seared so deeply in the consciousness that any hesitation on the subject seems a personal threat.
The argument from rights sounds a deeper note. Women are not unfamiliar with a lingering sense that their bodies are public property, as they bear the comments and stares of strangers, the haunting fear of rape, a habitual self-consciousness (“Does this make me look fat?”), and the spectacle of other women’s bodies exposed in advertising and entertainment like prime rib at the buffet. The unexpected, undesired pregnancy reinforces this sense of being out of control. Not only is the exterior of my body public property, but now the interior has been invaded by an alien life, and Men in Black Robes (clerical robes, judicial robes) are going to prevent me from getting free again. The claustrophobia of such a situation is, to most men, unimaginable.
The rights argument insists: I may have little power in the wider world, but at least within the boundary of my skin I will be sovereign. Yet the thought cannot be kept indefinitely at bay that abortion inevitably breaches someone else’s skin. In its brute form, the rights argument has not worn perfectly well; even an abortion-rights sympathizer could observe in the New Yorker that “full-grown, healthy human beings cheering for their precedence over the most vulnerable form of human life did not seem to me to be a glorious triumph.” A subtle shift has therefore occured in the last few years, from “woman’s right to abortion” to “woman’s right to choose abortion”, and there is an increasing tendency to omit reference to abortion altogether, in favor of the euphemism “choice”. This approach does not seek to convert the wavering, but only to suggest that abortion is morally neutral and nobody else’s business. With the majority of Americans pained and confused by the swirl of heat rising from the abortion debate, an invitation to ignore it and just walk away has an undeniable appeal.
The equal opportunity argument has less widespread appeal. Because men cannot get pregnant, they have unfair advantages, it asserts. They can enter sexual relationships with a degree of freedom that women cannot enjoy. The man who is childless, or who has a wife at home to care for the kids, seems to enter the world of careers stripped for a marathon, compared to the mother who comes towing a toddler, her legal briefs stuffed in a diaper bag. The great unfairness of the social and professional handicap of maternity demands abortion as an equalizer.
Still, this equal opportunity argument gives some the sense that there is something wrong with the whole picture. In placing uncommitted sexual experience and career-before-family at the head of the agenda, feminism may not have enunciated women’s own desires as much as unwittingly adopted a male standard—one which was not all that beneficial for men, either. Psychology professor Sidney Callahan puts it bitingly when she says, “Women will never climb to equality and social empowerment over mounds of dead fetuses.” And Matt Love, columnist and member of a west coast liberal coalition, worries, “Instead of restructuring society, we’re restructuring women”.
As Roe begins to crumble, feminism will move to shore up abortion access both by working through and by defying the legal system. It has become obvious that the Supreme Court, which had chilled pro-life initiatives for nearly a score of years, will no longer do so. This automatically throws the question back to the states, where pro-lifers appear eager to test the amount of protection that can be won for unborn life, and legal abortion advocates are annoyed at the prospect of having to put out dozens of brush fires. As Michael Kinsley has pointed out, the past debate has not been over individual vs. state choice, but rather “who decides—the legislature or the courts?” The power is now with the legislatures.
The preferred solution, for both sides, is of course a one-stroke national decision; for pro-lifers, the dormant Human Life Amendment, and for abortion defenders the Freedom of Choice Act. This very brief bill provides that “the state may not restrict the right of a woman to choose to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability, or at any time, if such termination is necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.” The very simplicity of this bill is what pro-lifers find worrisome; it would invalidate laws that were upheld under Roe (for example, requirements that parents be informed of a minor’s abortion, or restricting public funding). Amendments providing, for example, that medical professionals be allowed freedom of conscience to refuse to participate in abortions, were defeated.
The careful language of the bill would baffle a reader unfamiliar with current euphemisms. Why does it guarantee only her right to choose, and not her right to act? Is it really only the mental process of deciding that is preserved? The word “abortion” appears nowhere in the text, in favor of “termination of pregnancy”. Pregnancies terminate naturally at around nine months, usually with a healthy child. Is the doctor allowed to end the pregnancy, but not to destroy the child? After fetal viability, this question becomes quite real.
The bill has passed to the Committee on the Judiciary, and it may be dealt with in 1992. Prognosis is uncertain. Generally, politicians hate the abortion issue and wish it would go away. Taking a strong stand attracts fury, while waffling on the issue suggests a lack of character which disgusts voters (as Jim Courter and Buddy Roemer can ruefully agree). This hesitation to act serves the status quo, and as long as that status quo was Roe v. Wade it worked in abortion-choicers’ favor. With that advantage dissipating, the future of abortion legality is hard to predict.
A variety of ways of skirting the law must therefore be devised. It is likely that many of the tools in use before Roe v. Wade will be resurrected. One was the development of referral agencies, some on a national scale, to assist women in abortion-restricted states in finding legal abortions elsewhere. The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion once included 1200 clergy who were willing to direct women to abortionists, and their mantle of religious respectability enhanced abortion’s image. The “Janes” of Chicago organized in 1965 to connect women with abortionists, providing transportation and fund-raising; there is some talk of their reviving the group.
Other referral agencies were not above charging for their services, and the 1971 Our Bodies, Our Selves complains of “profit-making abortion referral agencies which advertise widely and make $50 or more from every desperate woman”. These agencies did not disappear when Roe came on the scene. The 1978 Chicago Sun-Times expose found the local referral-for-profit business going strong, with “counseling services” aggressively selling abortions to women who may or may not have been pregnant, charging them for the counseling while also receiving a commission from the abortion clinic. The Maryland state legislature removed consumer-protection restrictions on referral-for-profit businesses last February, in a bill described as protecting women’s rights after the fall of Roe v. Wade. (This is part of a larger abortion bill that is subject to referendum in November of 1992).
The Rev’d Howard Moody, founder of the Clergy Consultation Service, had another idea: opening an abortion clinic of borderline legality, by keeping on staff two psychiatrists who would certify that every customer qualified under the exception for mental health. A women’s hotline in one southern state had the cooperation of three sympathetic doctors who would certify that any abortion was medically necessary. (The Abortion Handbook for Responsible Women, 1969, advised that one could get a “medically necessary” abortion out of even unsympathetic doctors by faking a miscarriage: spike a sanitary napkin with shreds of liver and show up at the hospital pitiful and inarticulate.)
Widening of exception loopholes is a technique that will certainly be used again. Kate Michelman, director of NARAL, spoke at a recent American Psychiatric Association annual meeting about the impending loss of abortion rights; a panel considered the intrinsic mental health dangers of continuing an unplanned pregnancy. If there are exceptions for rape, activists on both sides have predicted that women will claim to have been raped. History confirms that suspicion: a year after Colorado passed its pre-Roe law, allowing “hard case” exceptions, the local sick joke was “Colorado women certainly do rape easily.” The most famous abortion case of all, Roe v. Wade, was based on a charge that the pregnancy resulted from a gang rape; Norma McCorvey later shed her Roe pseudonym and came forward to admit she had not been raped at all.
Because of the possibility that the charge of rape will be cheapened, and that women will once again be doubted when they bring genuine charges, most modern rape-exception laws include a provision that the assault be reported to the police. (Of course this ensures prompt treatment for the woman—possibly even pre-empting conception—and aids in apprehending the rapist as well.) Likewise, exceptions for incest insist that child-welfare authorities be informed, or else the abortion could be used (as it sometimes now is) to eliminate evidence and shield the abuser.
Not all post-Roe abortion activity will fall within the shadow of the law. Illegal abortion will once again occur, taking several forms: underground professional abortionists, a black market in RU 486, and various forms of self-abortion. Where abortion is outlawed, activists will be drawn to supporting illegal abortion, either covertly or defiantly. The situation will be in some respects similar to, and in some respects very different from, the pre-Roe world of illegal abortion.
That world is imagined as bloody: the most commonly cited figure is that 5,000 to 10,000 women per year died of illegal abortions. But in Lucinda Cisler’s article on reproductive issues in Sisterhood is Powerful (1970) she states, “A study made in the 1930’s [Frederick J. Taussig’s Abortion, Spontaneous and Induced, 1936], before the development of antibiotics made even illegal abortion less deadly than it used to be, came up with this number of 10,000 deaths; but it is no longer anywhere near the truth and has no place in any serious discussion of abortion.” In 1972, at the doorstep of Roe v. Wade, the Centers for Disease Control reported 39 deaths from illegal abortion. More people were fatally struck by lightning.
Yet “when we spoke of [these deaths] it was always ‘5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year’”, says Dr. Bernard Nathanson, concerning his days as a co-founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League. “I confess that I knew the figures were totally false…[but] it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?”
There is also a growing awareness that legal abortion is not always safe. The Centers for Disease Control record an average of 8 deaths from legal abortion per year in the 1980’s, though there may have been more: there were two deaths caused by botched legal abortions in Prince George’s County, MD, alone in 1989, according to newspaper reports. Yet the autopsy of neither woman mentions abortion, and Maryland has no reporting requirements for abortion businesses. The Chicago Sun-Times found in 1978 that Illinois had recorded no legal abortion deaths since Roe v. Wade, yet their reporters uncovered twelve. In an effort to raise awareness of deaths such as these, a local Feminists for Life chapter recently participated in a Rochester, NY “Take Back the Night” feminist anti-violence rally. Sixty members carried cardboard tombstones, each with the name and dates of a different woman who died in a legal abortion.
After the fall of Roe, we are likely to find the present abortion business simply going underground. The same suction aspiration machines chugging away in abortion businesses today would likely go quietly into private use—probably use by the very doctors who now operate them. Doctors performed most illegal abortions before Roe; in 1960, the medical director of Planned Parenthood, Mary Calderone, said that “90% of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians”. The Kinsey Institute attributed 84% to 87% to “reputable physicians in good standing in their local medical associations” in 1958.
These same illegal abortionists are now sometimes honored as heroes. In 1990, Curtis Boyd was feted by the National Abortion Federation for performing over ten thousand illegal abortions. A thunderous standing ovation moved him to tears as he accepted his award, commenting, “I love my work”.
This sort of illegal abortion—the same machine operated by the same hands—is not likely to be more dangerous. It will certainly be safer than the pre-Roe illegal abortion, which was usually the riskier dilation and curettage procedure that preceded the invention of the suction machine. Future illegal abortion clients with post-abortion complications might be reluctant to go for treatment to anyone other than the abortionist; abortion businesses would no longer be found as easily as looking in the yellow pages, and the price would probably rise. Certainly illegality would make this experience, like any other illegal activity, fraught with more anxiety for everyone—but physical danger would not be the greatest concern.
If a woman cannot find a professional illegal abortionist, what methods might she use herself? A pre-Roe edition of Our Bodies, Our Selves (1971) lists several methods: long, hot baths, excessive exercise, pounding on the pregnant abdomen, “long sharp tools of self-mutilation.” The authors comment, somewhat surprisingly, “Except for the occasional knitting needle abortion we hear about, which may be a myth, none of these methods work.” Internal methods include douches and potions of various description. Some, like “literally hundreds” of quinine or Humphrey’s Eleven pills, are simply useless; others, like applications of soap paste or potassium permanganate tablets, can lead to destruction of tissues, hemorrhage, shock, and death.
Would such methods be used again? We might look to see if they are already being used. In many areas of the country it is already difficult to obtain an abortion; the pool of doctors willing to perform abortions is shrinking (abortion doctors “are treated as a pariah by the medical community; at best we are tolerated” says Dr. Warren Hern, author of the standard textbook in the industry); the National Abortion Federation says that abortion is unavailable in 83% of American counties. In addition, seventeen states require the involvement of a parent before a minor’s abortion, which some have surmised would push the young to illegal abortion.
Yet reports of illegal abortion deaths or even injuries have not been forthcoming. The single case that has been promoted is that of Becky Bell, the 17-year-old girl Indianapolis girl who died in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy she had concealed from her parents. Yet supporters cannot agree on what method of illegal abortion she employed; the autopsy shows no scarring or infection in the reproductive tracts, nor evidence of drugs in her system. The pathologist who performed the autopsy states that she had not had any induced abortion, but suffered a miscarriage concurrent with her death from pneumonia (in a case similar to the sudden death of muppeteer Jim Henson). The theory that she had an abortion is also discounted by the eerie element that a physician told Becky’s parents, just hours before her death, “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to save the baby.” By the time of the autopsy the following morning, no fetal remains were to be found.
In this tangled and tragic tale, there is no indication that illegal abortion plays a part at all. Locally, neither police, medical personnel, nor abortion providers have heard rumors of illegal abortionists, or seen evidence of such work in emergency rooms. The theory that abortion unavailability means that women will die cannot be proved by this case—apparently the only case at hand.
Two other courses may be available as forms of self-abortion. The RU 486 pill could appear on the black market, though this would not be as convenient as the public mind may imagine. RU-486 blocks the action of the hormone which produces the uterine lining that nurtures the fetus. As the lining disintegrates, the unborn can no longer survive and miscarriage begins. Far from a quick and sanitary experience, the actual miscarriage will take a week of flow like that of a heavy period, followed by roughly 48 hours of more intense bleeding, cramping, and nausea, culminating with the delivery of a tiny dead fetus.
The woman who is alone at home through such a long bloody night has ample time to ponder its now-inevitable conclusion. In comparison, the quick in-and-out clinic abortion experience allows far less time for reflection, and less intimate acquaintance with the specifics of the process. American women are fairly squeamish about their bodies; the prissy women of douche and tampon commercials are carefully crafted to reflect this coy distaste. One planning to market RU 486 to American women would be well advised to check the demographics first.
A black market in RU 486 probably poses far more danger to women than back-alley abortionists. Even under the best circumstances, excessive bleeding is a problem. If every abortion client in America had used this pill last year, rather than the surgical procedure, 16,000 (1%) would have needed a D & C to stop hemorrhaging, and 1,600 (.1%) would have needed a blood transfusion. In addition, the pill can only be used during an extremely narrow window of time, from 5 to 7 weeks of pregnancy. The pill alone fails to work 15-50% of the time, so it is necessary to supplement with prostaglandin three days after taking the pill. After 40,000 such abortions, the French government warned that with prostaglandin they observed “serious undesirable side effects of the cardiovascular type.” Long term questions—about the chemical similarity of RU 486 to the cancer-causing DES, for example—are necessarily still unanswered. RU 486 is of uncertain safety even when legal. A woman offered a black market pill, about which the only guarantee is “this will make you bleed a lot”, would have twice as much to fear.
A more cheerful alternative is the home abortion kit. Twenty years ago, Lorraine Rothman took a Mason jar and some aquarium tubing and put together a rudimentary suction device that could be used for home abortions. Not self-abortion, which by this method is technically impossible, but operation by small groups of women meeting in intimate settings to suction each other’s uteri. If the woman is not pregnant, she has a menstrual extraction: the contents that would be shed with her monthly period are removed in 20 or 30 minutes. If she is pregnant, the same procedure can produce an effective abortion between six and nine weeks of pregnancy. A videotape on the procedure is available from the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers, though they no longer sell the $89.95 kit itself, following warnings from state health officials.
The philosophy behind the home abortion kit is admirably self-reliant: that women should be responsible for their own health care, and that (in the midwifery tradition) women should help care for each other. A lack of such convictions—the notion that doctors, not patients, are responsible for the patient’s health—contributes to the current malpractice crisis. Yet this device is probably not destined for wide use, as the typical woman (and man) finds the image of best friends aborting each other at home fairly disgusting. There are, too, concerns about inherent safety. Infections, uterine tears, incomplete abortions and deaths are possible results, says Dr. Harold Kaminetzky of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Kaminetzky is also afraid that the home abortion alternative might tempt women away from legal abortions: “this might create a market where a market doesn’t need to exist.” This seems to be exactly the intent of the Federation. A discussion guide for the videotape charges that Roe v. Wade offers too many restrictions, when women deserve “an absolute right to abortion on demand…[with no] need to ‘ask’ anyone, not even a doctor!” The discussion guide concludes, “Some women say that they hope that Roe v. Wade is overturned so that women will stop ‘begging for the right to abortion’ and simply regain the knowledge and power that was once ours. Is this a viable alternative?”
This last question gives an indication of one of the directions the philosophy of abortion supporters may go. Another is the emergence of a new feminist mysticism, going under such names as wicca, paganism, eco-feminism, and women-church. Although one would assume that a spirituality that celebrates the forces of earth would respect the process of pregnancy, abortion has been woven into the mix. A pro-life Shaman woman, Jeannine Parvati Baker, chastises her sister yoginis for their transparent justifications of abortion: they had conceived a very advanced soul who only needed to be reincarnated for a short time, or the aborted child had chosen ‘on some level’ to be conceived by a woman who did not want to give birth, or the aborting woman is a natural variation of the woman who weans her nursing baby.
Yet the impulse to spiritualize abortion goes on. Ginette Paris, in her Abortion: A Sacred Act, discusses the rituals that should accompany abortion, as well as offering “a testimony of love for the child one is not carrying to term”. Paris writes, “I believe it is time to sacrifice to Artemis the fetus to which we are not prepared to give the best of ourselves.” Sue Nathanson describes in Soul Crisis her profound grief over her abortion, then allows the knowlege that she is a “murderer” to be the soul-crisis that leads her into a deeper feminine consciousness. She does not deny the value of the unborn: it is because the “unborn baby…would have had its own conscious awareness, its own life trajectory, its own value and meaning” that woman’s power to choose abortion leads to “an expanded consciousness of her own power and responsibility…[exercised] with courage, with grace, and with dignity”. Nathanson resolves her abortion experience with a ritual designed by herself and friends.
Nathanson would no doubt agree with Catherine MacKinnon: the fetus is a form of life, but “Why should women not make life-or-death decisions?” A more aggressive expression of this idea could take the form of the abortion-rights convention in Spain in 1985, during which two young pregnant women were aborted in defiance of the law; the fetuses were then exhibited in bottles as “the hall rocked with cheers”.
It has been said that every good argument for abortion is a good argument for infanticide, and this philosophy seems to agree. Esther Harding defends legal abortion by noting that “Abortion and infanticide, so abhorrent to the Christian standpoint, have not always been condemned. They are freely practiced among primitive tribes…” Sue Nathanson reminds us of the respect given to Abraham and Agamemnon, heroic figures who were called to sacrifice their children; the stories ignore the children’s feelings about the situation. Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born of infanticide and child-killing with sympathy for the women moved to such desperation; she cites a woman who decapitated her two youngest children on her front lawn as proof of the terrible stress created by the institution of motherhood.
Surprisingly, the founders of the early feminist movement would have agreed in identifying abortion with child murder; they used the terms, along with “infanticide”, interchangeably, and condemned all of them. Susan B. Anthony wrote “I deplore the horrible crime of child murder…Guilty? Yes, no matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh! thrice guilty is he who…drove her to the desperation which impels her to the crime.” While the anti-abortion movement of the last century had sometimes a misogynistic cast, charging that frivolous women used abortion for convenience, the early feminists blamed men for seducing and abandoning women, and husbands for spousal rape at times when their wives were unwilling to risk pregnancy.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, mother of seven herself, affirmed that women’s sexual appetites were as great as men’s, but that women should be empowered to choose the times of sexual relations so that they would have some control over pregnancy; she also condemned abortion as “infanticide”. The colorful Victoria Woodhull, stock broker, presidential candidate and free love advocate, defended the right to choose occasions that invite pregnancy while opposing abortion: “Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth.” The early feminist movement was unanimous in opposing abortion.
If this is the case, then feminism has a definition more broad than generally assumed. The overarching dream has been to free women from unjust restrictions and prejudice, to give them the same rights and opportunities afforded men. The mechanics thought necessary to undergird this dream have changed over the years, with support for abortion a recent and radical shift.
Yet this shift was perhaps inevitable. The re-emerging feminist movement of our time 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. Pro-choice women defend abortion with desperate passion because the whole shaky structure of their lives depend upon it.
Yet this solution, changing women’s bodies to accomodate impossible social demands, falls short of the broader vision feminism should employ. There are other possible solutions: an evolving sensitivity to the needs of the family has led to workplace reforms, pleasing to Dad as well as Mom. Parental leave, on-site daycare, flex-time and home-commute options fit the needs of some; other women choose to leave employment for the irreplaceable years of child-rearing, with the freedom to return later—an option that an earlier generation of mothers did not enjoy. While the child-rearing penalty can never be completely erased, it can be significantly eased.
In the realm of sexual license reform is not as likely, as a consumer-based culture presses on us the trump card of sex from our morning cornflakes to the end of the day. Yet the increase in uncommitted sex has led to a demonstrable increase in women’s misery: more adultery, divorce, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, impoverishment of women and children, and child abuse, while the self-help shelves groan with advice for the brokenhearted. The sexual revolution ignored a basic trait of womanhood—the valuing of human relationships and connections. The exaltation of uncommitted sex as an entertaining form of recreation, oblivious to this yearning for context, was bound to fail women’s deepest needs.
This may be an aspect of modern feminism’s fatal flaw. Impelled by a fear of economic dependency, it insisted on autonomy, self-sufficiency: my body, my career, my rights. But where it presented the ideal woman unfettered, empowered and free, too many saw a woman isolated, endangered, and sad. Abortion reinforces this loneliness, taking a woman enmeshed in the most profound and intimate participation possible in the stream of life, and severs her with one blow from her lover and her child. A feminism that adheres to lonely autonomy, and fails to understand those who seek the risky but rewarding paths of marriage and commitment, will be increasingly deserted by women who want more. The very conservative pro-family organization, Concerned Women for America, already boasts twice the membership of the National Organization of Women, raising questions of who, in fact, is speaking to the average woman’s deepest needs.
Pulling the linchpin of abortion legality may force social changes, discovery of more woman-affirming ways to prevent unplanned pregnancies, or to support them when they occur. Some degree of abortion regulation is likely throughout the country, with awkward compromises spreading like a patchwork quilt. This will satisfy no one on the activist poles; they insist, quite rightly, that the central question is the personhood of the unborn, and the answer to that question demands an up-or-down decision. If the unborn are persons, then abortion is always the violent taking of an innocent human life; if they are not persons, this removal of tissue that should be no more regulated than a facelift.
The majority of Americans, not strong on logic, are likely to respond that they feel uneasy about abortion but don’t want to be mean—couldn’t we have just a little bit, if the woman has a really good reason? While activists howl in anguish, such a compromise is likely to be struck, at varying points of the continuum, in most states. If restricted to hard cases of rape, incest, and maternal health, and if it were possible to enforce these exceptions, this would eliminate over 90% of abortions.
Past experience, though spotty, indicates these laws have some effect. In New Zealand, abortions were allowed for danger to the mother’s life or health, and in 1976 the rate stood at one for every nine live births. In that year, the legislature added the requirement that such danger must be “serious”, and the rate fell to one for each 14 births. Intense lobbying resulted in the law being expanded again, and the rate rose once more—to one for each 7.5 live births. (By comparison, in America it is currently one for every three live births.) In Canada there was a situation analogous to post-Roe America, with provinces interpreting the abortion law with greater or less strictness. Between 1983 and 1987, Newfoundland had fewer than 400 per year, while Ontario and British Columbia had a rate six or seven times higher; Prince Edward Island recorded none at all. But in 1984 only 12 women from Prince Edward Island and 39 from Newfoundland sought legal abortion in other provinces.
A very protective law recently passed in Louisiana draws attention to that state as a laboratory for change. Though the law is currently enjoined, Louisiana women were asked whether they would have an abortion if it were legal—27% said yes—or if it were illegal—26% still said yes. Twenty-two percent of those say they would travel to another state for a legal abortion; only 4% would have an illegal abortion.
It is not surprising that illegal abortion has a bad name; the relentless identification of that option with bloody coathangers has perhaps worked too well, and those who plan to offer safe, illegal abortion covertly post-Roe will have to do some undoing of their own rhetoric. It may be markedly more difficult to present women who die of illegal abortion as victims. As we pointed out earlier, the rhetoric of choice insists that women are able to make considered and mature decisions regarding abortion. The average person may well assume that only a fool would choose an illegal abortion—they kill people. If women are responsible for their choices, illegal abortion appears as a stupid choice, like deciding to drive drunk. We have already explored reasons why illegal abortion is not likely to be terribly dangerous, and in fact may never have been in the last 40 years. But it will take a lot of doing to convince America that the woman who chooses an illegal abortion is doing something responsible. A continued harping on “give us legal abortion or we’ll have illegal ones and die” may assume the tone of a temper tantrum, a suicide threat whereby abortion defenders hold themselves hostage, demanding that the public pass laws they approve. An pre-existing American tendency to hear feminist arguments as “shrill” could make this approach a catastrophe for feminism.
When women refuse abortion, other changes must occur to compensate. An unlooked-for and happy result has been, in some locations, a decrease in the number of pregnancies. After passage of the Hyde Amendment, which cut off most federal abortion funding, the reduction in abortions was not replaced by births. The number of pregnancies dropped 4% in Georgia and 15% in Ohio. Likewise, after passage of a parental notification requirement in Minnesota, the pregnancy rate for minors fell by 21%. Jacqueline Kasun comments that this is “in perfect harmony with elementary principles of economic behavior. Faced with a price for a formerly ‘free good’, such as an abortion, consumers turn to a less costly substitute—in this case, apparently, the prevention of pregnancy.”
Where unplanned pregnancies still occur, and women do not wish to risk illegal abortion, a feminism that values sisterhood will look for ways to help. Feminists may band together locally, pooling their resources to provide housing or funds, lobbying doctors for free medical care, and sharing maternity and baby clothes. Grass-roots woman-to-woman aid of this sort comes naturally to feminism, and it is puzzling that such helping networks for pregnant women have not emerged heretofore. When feminists begin to provide this sort of aid, they will find the field already crowded. Pro-lifers have been offering these services and more, for free, for twenty-five years; these humble storefront operations currently exceed 1700 in number.
Major movements begin with dreams and end with mechanics. In this case the feminist movement may be ending with, quite literally, a machine: a contraption of glass and tubes powered by a suction pump. It remains to be seen whether the movement can still glimpse the dream that gave it birth, can still hear the voices of women who call for good, faithful men, fairness on the job, and time with their children. If it ignores these voices, this yearning for heart and home, if it clutches only a part of the dream, and insists that the mechanically-produced death of our own children is the necessary guarantor of freedom, women will grow cold to the feminist name. To the extent that feminism fails to hear the women of America, feminism itself will fail.