The Slippery Slope of Abortion
In 1973 when the Roe v. Wade decision was issued, philosophy professors across the country looked at each other and wondered, “What are we going to teach now?” The answer was “abortion.” The ultimate compromise not only didn’t end the debate but fueled it. Gave it new life at the same time that public opinion was slowly moving to embrace greater reproductive freedom for women. Like most compromises, it was neither fish nor fowl. It neither gave women the right to claim full control over their bodies nor allowed the anti-abortionists the right to claim full control by the state over the bodies of women. Women and feminists were lulled into a false sense of security that “the compromise” was good enough because no Constitutional right once determined can be taken away. The anti-abortionists viewed it as only the first major battle in a long war they were prepared to fight.
Like all good proselytizers for a cause, the anti-abortionists have constructed a range of arguments for their position. They all seek to find some point on the continuum between absolute freedom for women and absolute prohibition of abortion where they can gain a convert.
The disadvantage they faced is that abortion doesn’t have deep and long religious/moral roots. There is no commandant prohibiting abortion. The religious/moral prohibition is of recent origin; albeit promulgated at a time when the Catholic Church still remained a major force in the west and sought to continue its domination by birthing more Catholics than other religions did. Therefore, “God, just says ‘No” was not enough to win the day, and coming on the heels of the social changes of the post-WWII era, most of the Ten Commandments were harder sells than ever. However, they still found an audience for the notion that “life begins at conception” even if God was silent on abortion per se, but that still the didn’t persuade many more than those already in the “God” camp. If it’s not “life begins at conception,” then they will use the moment a zygote implants in the uterus, or a fetus has a heartbeat, fingers or brain. Endlessly working to get people to define “when life begins,” and presumably when abortion is no longer an option.
If they can’t get agreement on “when is it a baby?” they construct a non-existent medical term like “partial birth abortion” to get converts to agree that it is barbaric. (As if capital punishment and war aren’t barbaric.) If not then, they seek to gain agreement that young women need the consent of their parents not to become mothers themselves when they don’t have the physical, financial, emotional and educational resources to become mothers. Always pushing, pushing the general idea that abortion is immoral and infecting most of us with some level of disgust or dis-ease with the procedure. If young women don’t want to become mothers, they claim that adoption is a better alternative than abortion, as if there were an endless supply of people willing and able to adopt and ignoring the physical and emotional costs of pregnancy and delivery to women. The only questions they can never address is what truly happens when abortion is a crime with severe penalties and how it leads women who don’t want to carry a pregnancy to term to turn to barbaric and life-threatening procedures to stop the process. The one question that they have lost on in the US is that the life of a woman should not be sacrificed for a fetus, but just give them time because each time they can get consensus at some point away from the absolute pro-choice position, a new baseline is established from which they will mount their next attack.
I’m not interested in arguing about any of the moral minutia regarding abortion. I frankly find it boring and as productive as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And while I could construct a reasonable argument based on the principle that women are not autonomous and equal unless the state has no control over their bodies, that isn’t going to persuade anybody any more than all the other ramifications of denying women abortion rights. I only want to look at two factors from a larger perspective: birthright and what happens to lives of women are controlled by the state, church, society and men, and abortion is just one rung on this ladder.
The act of getting pregnant is not a conscious one on the part of women. No amount of hoping to get pregnant or not get pregnant will alter whatever biological process results from sexual intercourse. Pregnancy, however, is an extremely conscious process regardless of whether or not a women is allowed the choice to carry the pregnancy to term or not. A woman knows if the fetus she carries will be a “wanted” or “unwanted” child. She knows this in her being or her soul. It will affect her hormonal levels during pregnancy and that in turn affects the development of the fetus. Is this difference measurable? I don’t know. I do know that “wanted” children get a birthright of great value.
Only one large longitudinal study looking at this question has ever been performed. It was in USSR controlled Czechoslovakia. Abortion was illegal but requests could be made to the state and in very rare instances would be granted. These women who applied for an abortion but had their requests denied were the control group for the “unwanted” children. Each of these women was matched with pregnant women of similar socio-economic status. All of the children who were studied for the next two decades were equally well cared for and not abused. Those who measured the development of the children were unaware of which children were in which group and may not even have been aware of the larger study question. Extraordinary care was taken to insure that all variables were well controlled for and the only significant difference between the groups was being “wanted” or “unwanted.” On the basis of social, emotional and cognitive development at every measurement point, there was a statistical difference between the two groups. The differences did not get smaller but larger over time. The differences were so striking that upon the completion of the study when the government was presented with the results, abortion was quickly legalized. My question is, how moral is it require the births of people who will be denied the birthright of being wanted by one’s mother?
Even though we can see what life is like for women living in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia under theocratic fundamentalist regimes, we somehow delude ourselves that it is unique to Muslim theocracies instead of being inherent to a fundamentalist religious persuasion. Control over the wombs of women is a core element in the control of women’s bodies and their lives. What was it like for western women when they were denied reproductive freedom? We don’t have to look back all that far to find out. We don’t even have to look at people or cultures that are very different from white America. We don’t even have to look outside the religion I was born into. If not for the accident of having been born in the US instead of Ireland, I too could have been one of the Magdalene Sisters (2002).
This disturbing movie, a fictionalized account of women based on the real stories of hundreds of them, is a real picture of the ease with which women in a theocracy can be stripped of life and liberty. Ireland, the closest and most recent form of a Catholic theocracy, never said a word about the women who were essentially imprisoned by their families who turned them over to the Sisters of Mercy order of Catholic nuns. For having committed no crime and in many cases being the victims of a sexual crime, they were locked up, physically, sexually and emotionally abused and forced to work in the for-profit laundries run by the order. Whether I would have been broken to commit suicide or become a nun will never be known, but I’m not confident that one of those outcomes isn’t more likely than having survived and escaped. I wonder if any of those Irish nuns who taught in US schools only became nuns to escape the imprisonment and slavery of a Magdalene laundry.
While better, life for Irish women not assigned to the Magdalene laundries was no picnic either. Marry and have child after child that they struggled to feed and clothe or become a nun were about the only options. Celibacy or years of pregnancy and childbirth. Have a child out of wedlock or not conform quietly to the inferior status of women, and the family and Church could ship you off to a Magdalene laundry. No courts or legal action was required to imprison women nor was any appeal to any legal entity possible. Only a family member, presumably a male relative, could secure their release. If none stepped forward, escape was the only other option, but escape to what? The same environment that had turned a blind eye to their imprisonment. The last Magdalene laundry was closed in 1996.
In every country/society with high birth rates and high poverty rates, people will be abused, but always the girls and women are considered more expendable than the men. If the “Madonna” quota is full, they are tossed out to be “Whores” which never seems to be full up. Regardless of the abject poverty and misery in the lives of women, they always consider themselves “lucky” if they are not forced to become sex workers. (There are similar dynamics for young men who are attractive to older gay men but there are also differences that are beyond the scope of this piece.) Sex workers who are essentially prisoners who will contract diseases and have no control over their reproduction. They are the secular face of the Magdalene Sisters. It’s no mystery why women in Afghanistan preferred the Taliban to the Northern Alliance. Theocracies are, after all, not quite as bad as the secular alternative in a world where women are not fully autonomous.
Women and Democrats must stop viewing Roe v. Wade as merely something to preserve. We must view it not as the the end point on the "abortion continuum," but only a consensus point from which we argue for more freedom and equality for women. We must stop being defensive and too satisfied with this crumb. Women who choose to be mothers make better babies. Better babies become happier, healthier and more productive people. Doesn't the survival of the planet depend on happy, healthy and productive people?