Feminism and Abortion: What Would Susan Say?

Published January 25, 2016

New Boston Post

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Birthplace Museum of the great American suffragist, and pro-life advocate, Susan B. Anthony. She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton led the fight for women’s suffrage in the late 19th century, a cause that would result in the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, years after Anthony’s death.

As I stood before the museum wall dedicated to their pro-life advocacy, especially as enunciated in their weekly women’s rights newspaper, the Revolution, I shuddered to think how these two courageous women would have responded to the amicus briefs offered to the Supreme Court this month by today’s feminist groups.

In its first abortion case in nine years, the highest court in the land will hear arguments in March concerning the constitutionality of state regulations requiring abortion practitioners to have admitting privileges at area hospitals and for abortion clinics to meet higher health and safety standards—regulations inspired by the horrific Gosnell case that broke two years ago in West Philadelphia.

How would Anthony and Stanton have reacted to the brief offered in support of the clinics’ position by more than 100 attorneys, opening with the line, “I am an attorney because I had an abortion.”

Or what about the brief filed by the National Women’s Law Center on behalf of “organizations committed to equality and equal opportunity for women” arguing that abortion is necessary for women’s economic and social progress? Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would have thought that something had gone terribly wrong.

Indeed, Anthony and Stanton believed something like the reverse: give women the right to vote so that women might have the power and the influence to do away with the ghastly practice of abortion. Here is Stanton herself: “There must be a remedy for such a crying evil as this. But where shall it be found, at least where begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women?”

The early American feminists presumed that the evil of abortion would be abolished by the elevation of women. Today’s feminists maintain that women’s elevated status depends upon easy access to abortion.

Yet more than 40 years after the second wave—the abortion wave—of the women’s movement, most women still report that the number one issue facing them today is how best to combine their strong desires to care for their family alongside their professional duties and aspirations. Abortion has been a cultural cop-out, and a culturally corrosive cop-out at that.

Equality arguments for abortion rights are so commonplace today that perhaps we don’t quite see the tragic ironies as our forbearers would have seen them. For women like Anthony and Stanton, who had also fought for the emancipation of slaves, such an argument would have been akin to a Southern cotton farmer asserting that his economic success depended upon his right to own black men, women and children as his property.

And yet, the leading pro-choice rationale suggests that, because the professional and personal lives of men need not be interrupted by an ill-timed pregnancy — because, frankly, men can just walk away— equality requires that the professional and personal lives of women ought not be interrupted either.

In the spirit of Anthony and Stanton, I seek to challenge this now popular feminist dogma head on: not only has liberal access to abortion hampered women’s authentic social equality; abortion access has actually further burdened women, and especially poor women, with the consequences of unexpected pregnancy — even as it has further freed men.

But for the law to treat men and women equally, as per the Equal Protection Clause as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court, the law cannot ignore the biological differences between them. This view of the Constitution, proper in my view, points to a more authentic view of sexual equality, which as it turns out, is far better for women. When we ignore biological facts, social arrangements tend to denigrate biological difference, and that’s a whole lot of what we see today.

Indeed, authentic sexual equality and reproductive justice would acknowledge—not dismiss, nor be embarrassed by, nor reject—the biological fact that the human species gestates in the wombs of women.

Acknowledging this biological reality need not necessitate the current social reality that women are far too often left alone to care for their children or the social arrangements in which professional and public occupations are so hostile to parenting duties.

The very existence of abortion as the now-assumed solution to an ill-timed pregnancy has relieved a profit-driven society from the costs associated with creating environments that welcome women who have children (which is the great majority of women).

Authentic sexual equality and reproductive justice would require that men and society at large respect, protect, and support women’s capacity to bear children, alongside their many other talents and abilities. A culture of abortion offers men instead a quick escape hatch from relationships and responsibilities, which is why we ought not be surprised that male coercion and intimidation is the cause of many abortions.

Worse yet, a number of economists have demonstrated that liberal access to abortion acting as a back up to failed contraception tends to induce sexual risk-taking, leading over time to increased rates of abortion and non-marital childbearing (exactly what we have seen since the 1960s, with a slowdown in the prior more recently). Among the more disadvantaged in particular, sex disconnected from commitment has also decoupled childbearing from marriage, contributing to an epidemic of fatherlessness, the leading indicator of poverty among women and children in the U.S.

Authentic equality and reproductive justice would demand:

  • that men continue to assume greater responsibility for the social and parenting roles once exclusively exercised by women;
  • that we work toward policies that properly value the culturally essential care work that is still prioritized by most women, notably on the increase in the most prosperous and egalitarian societies;
  • that we find more effective means for women with children to participate in the public sphere, often because their families’ very livelihood depends upon it, but even when it doesn’t;
  • and, finally, that we recognize that a woman’s status as a mother, rather than detract from her work as is often presumed, often adds significant value to her professional enterprise, offering superior skills in multitasking, management, prioritization, emotional intelligence, and diplomacy.

The early American feminists assumed that women’s equal status would ensure greater protections for the vulnerable child developing in the womb.

Our foremothers worked to change social institutions, calling men to recognize the distinct dignity and equality of women as women, those specially concerned with the dependent and vulnerable. The women’s movement made a grave moral and strategic error when it joined hands with abortion crusaders.

Mimicking the child-abandoning male through abortion would seem rather antithetical to feminist ideals but, in this now worn-out view, women reach their full potential only by imitating men.

It’s time to take the movement back—for women, for children, and for our relationships with men. The great and courageous Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would expect nothing less.

Erika Bachiochi is a Visiting Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “Embodied Equality: Debunking Equal Protection Arguments for Abortion Rights” (Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 2011).

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