Abortion on Demand: A Woman's Right

by Caroline Lund and Cindy Jaquith
September 1971

"For years women have been under constant pressure to have children. Our culture teaches us that we are not complete women unless we have children. Our husbands and boyfriends encourage us to bear children as proof of their masculinity. Contraception is almost always our responsibility. Contraceptives that are known to be safe are not always effective; contraceptives that are known to be effective are not always safe. Abortion is illegal, and women who get abortions often risk their lives.
"Other pressures compel some of us not to have children. If we are unmarried, we become social outcasts by bearing children. Those of us who are poor and live on welfare know that opponents of welfare want to limit the size of our families. We are pressured to use contraceptives or be sterilized; each time we have another child the meager allowance per child gets even smaller. Population control advocates tell us that overpopulation is the reason our environment is polluted ....

"We want control over our own bodies. We are tired of being pressured to have children or not to have children. It's our decision."

Thus begins a pamphlet put out by Women vs. Connecticut, a group of over 1,000 women who have filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the Connecticut abortion law. This quote from the introduction to their pamphlet expresses the goals of their struggle, and it is a good summary of the feelings of thousands of women across the country who are fighting for legal abortion as a step toward gaining control over their bodies and their lives.

The right of women to control their own reproductive lives could easily be provided by the advanced technology of this society. And yet this society has consciously denied this right to women. "Instead," writes Evelyn Clark from Boston Female Liberation, "it sentences its female population to a life of forced breeding or to suffer the consequences of social stigma, psychological and physical maiming or death."

This simple, just demand of women has created a furor of debate and opposition from all quarters—more than over any other single women's liberation demand. Religious people, politicians, doctors, hospital administrators, antiabortion organizations, and even individuals, like Norman Mailer, are mobilizing across the country in an attempt to stop women from winning this demand.

The fact that the opponents of women's liberation have chosen this issue as the focal point of their counterattack on the women's movement emphasizes the importance of the abortion issue. We are obliged to meet this attack head-on and escalate our fight for the repeal of all abortion laws.

In some areas, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has used Sunday masses to try to convince their members to oppose abortion, even passing out petitions against abortion repeal to the congregation and stipulating that no one could leave without signing the petition. The Catholic hierarchy has used its great tax-free wealth to provide free headquarters to such organizations as the "Right to Life Committees," complete with free telephones and priests to staff the offices. In Washington, D. C., the ultraright group "Sons of Thunder," dressed in their uniform of khaki shirts and red berets, invaded a new Washington abortion clinic to protest the abortions performed there. These antiabortion groups exist in many areas of the country: the Massachusetts Value-of-Life movement, the Houston Solid Rock League of Women, the California Coalition for Life, the Pittsburgh Women Concerned for the Unborn Child, and the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, to list some of them. When one looks at this array of opponents of the right of women to abortion and at their arguments, it becomes clear that in the fight for abortion women are challenging all the religious and mystical prejudices, traditions, and institu tions of class society.

The arguments against women's right to control their own bodies could be listed in three main categories: (1) abortion is murder; (2) legalizing abortion would encourage sex, which is sinful, especially for women; (3) abortion would take away men's power over women to make them pregnant. These objections stem from some of the most fundamental ideological underpinnings of class society—such false concepts as the necessity for the repression of sexuality, the belief that women are naturally inferior and ought to be submissive to men, and the concept that fulfillment for a woman must come primarily from motherhood. Until the past few years, the weight of these prejudices kept us silent, suffering the burden of unwanted children or mutilation at the hands of backstreet abortionists because we were too ashamed of our own bodies and sexual functions even to talk about abortion, much less protest the denial of our rights.

Let's look at the first charge—that abortion is murder and should therefore be classified as a criminal act. Illustrating this approach is a letter from the New York Catholic hierarchy that was sent to all parish priests in New York state and quoted in the March 25, 1971, Village Voice. The letter compared ''killing of unborn children" to Nazism, and demagogically said, "Each day [abortionists] grow wealthier from the killing of unborn children—some of whom have been heard to cry as they were dropped into surgical trash cans .... P. S. Please read this letter at all the Masses on Sunday."

The charge that abortion equals murder is demagoguery. A fetus is no more a human being than an acorn is an oak tree. The emotion- laden word "murder" is used to obscure the real issues involved: the rights, the safety, and the whole course of life of pregnant women. It is absurd to equate the "rights" of the fetus to the rights of a pregnant woman.

In order. to be consistent, anyone who contends that abortion is murder must also oppose any method of contraception which kills a fertilized egg, because that would also involve killing a "potential human being." And what about killing the egg or the sperm? Furthermore, recent biological research has found that the fertilized egg is not the only cell which can develop into a human being. According to Roy U. Shenk, a scientist who is involved in studies of the ability of cells to develop into complete animals, "Increasing evidence is accumulating that almost any cell of an organism is totipotent—that is, capable of producing another complete, genetically identical organism."

Both the Church and common law have been completely inconsistent in their judgments on abortion. British common law in the thirteenth century set "ensoulment" of the fetus at the time of quickening (approximately five months), and abortion before quickening was either completely legal or widely tolerated, both in England and in the U. S. until 1803. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V issued a papal decree that all abortions were murder, but in 1591 Pope Gregory, who succeeded Sixtus, reversed this ruling. In 1803, British common law was changed, outlawing abortion before or after quickening. In the 1820s, the U. S. began to enact its first abortion laws, and by the late 1860s abortion before or after quickening was outlawed except to save the life of a pregnant woman.

Obviously, whatever the specific reasons for changing their minds, the churches and the ruling classes of Europe and the U. S.have ruled on whether or not women have the right to abortion on the basis of expediency—not on the basis of any "higher moral law." The history of abortion laws shows that the judgment that "abortion is murder" does not come from any god, but from men, who have changed their minds on the basis of such things as the desire to increase the birth rate in order to have more workers for industry or more cannon fodder for armies.

The charge that abortion is murder has been used to cover up the real motivations behind outlawing abortion: the desire to force women to be breeders, and the desire to uphold the institution of the patriarchal family by punishing women for any sexual activity outside of marriage through forcing them to raise an "illegitimate" child.

Most of the people shouting the loudest for "the right to life," and the "protection of life," demonstrate their complete hypocrisy when it comes to protecting the "right to life" of children already born, or protecting the lives of the thousands of women who die each year from backstreet abortions. Many are right-wingers who think nothing of the systematic slaughter of thousands of Vietnamese infants and children with such weapons as napalm, flame throwers, and germ warfare.

All you have to do is take a look at the miserable conditions in orphanages to see how much the people who run this country actually care about protecting the lives of the young. And they care nothing about driving women to despair and suicide by forcing them to bear and raise unwanted children.

The male priests, politicians, and doctors who are shouting the loudest against women having the right to control their bodies have no idea what the fear of pregnancy and forced motherhood means to a woman. They have no concern for the torment and constant worry that for women accompanies any sexual activity, because it is they who must face the possible consequences. They have no idea of the despair that untold numbers of women have suffered from having their whole lives determined by the responsibility to care for one child after another.

The feminist movement is saying that women have the right to be free of this crushing burden, to be sexual beings without that fear, and to be able to devote our lives to any area we may choose. This right to control our own bodies is a necessary step in the struggle of women to win complete liberation.

And this freedom for women will also mean greater freedom for children, because they will all be wanted. It is the feminist movement that is fighting for the protection of lives—of women, men, and children—not the antiabortion forces, who weep crocodile tears over the "rights of the fetus" as a justification for the oppression of women.

The second argument—that abortion will encourage sex—was well put by Representative John R. Rarick of Louisiana in a speech against abortion to the U. S. House of Representatives, published in the March 8, 1971, Congressional Record. This lawmaker said: "The causes that induce abortions are traced back to immorality, sex and sensuality which are taught or learned through environmental exposure.

"If immorality like abortion can be taught, then a solution is to teach morality, pride in parenthood, and the beauty of virginity and to encourage our youth to reject a sexually inducing environment." He goes on to say that "the wrath of Almighty God" will fall upon all those who disagree with him.

Of course, anyone is free to hold the opinion that sex is bad, and to abstain from sex as an individual. But people who hold this opinion have no right to attempt to enforce that view on others. (This same representative opposed the right to abortion even when the woman is raped, suggesting that in almost all rapes, the woman is asking for it, and deserves the punishment of having to bear the child.)

Underlying this argument are the concepts that sex is sinful—especially for women—and is only admissible when it results in reproduction, and that in order to enforce this antisex morality women must be vulnerable to pregnancy in order to keep them faithfuf to their husbands and to keep unmarried women from having sex.

These ideas permeate our society. For instance, most high schools expel unmarried women students who become pregnant, because administrators fear that the presence of the pregnant student will influence other students to think that they have a right to a sexual life even if they are not married. Thus, pregnant high school students are swept under the rug, out of sight, and denied their rights to an equal education. The desired result of this practice is to hush up any talk or thoughts of sex and to stigmatize women who assert their right to have sex without signing a marriage contract. Male students, on the other hand, can have sex with no similar action taken against them.

Very much related to this argument that the threat of pregnancy is necessary to keep women from freely expressing their sexuality is the concept that the male-female relationship must be one of male dominance and female submissiveness, with the male possessing the power to make the woman pregnant. Here is how Dr. George S. Walter, a maternal- and child-health consultant to the federal government, described this theory as it appears among male doctors asked to perform abortions: "The male physician won't let the woman decide—the pregnant woman symbolizes proof of male potency and if the male loosens his rule over women and grants them the right to dispose of the proof when they want to, the men then feel terribly threatened lest women can, at will, rob them of their potency and masculinity." Dr. Walter also explained his view that to regain this control over the woman doctors frequently insist on sterilization as a condition for performing an abortion.

The pervasiveness of this theory that sex is only good when the man has the power to make the woman pregnant is illustrated in the writings of Norman Mailer, especially in his answer to Kate Millett in the March 1971 Harper's magazine.

Mailer contends that in challenging the dominant-submissive relationship between men and women as a denial of real sexuality, Kate Millett is reducing sex to a mechanical act of "lust." He revels in sadistic contemplation of the time when contraceptives were unavailable, when women often died in childbirth, and when, during sexual intercourse, men "introduced a creation to [women] which could be her doom."

Openly flaunting his sick, brutal mentality, Mailer applauds the mutilation and murder of women at the hands of butcher abortionists, condemning newer and safer abortion methods, like the suction method, and saying that the women's movement means "Cess and riddance to the days of honest abortion when the fingernails of the surgeon were filthy and the heart of a woman went screaming through a cave as steel scraped at the place where she touched the beyond."

These views of Mailer seem almost unbelievable in their viciousness, but the fact is that he is simply reflecting the brutal attitudes toward women and toward sex endemic to this society. In the struggle for the right to control our own bodies women are beginning to reject this distorted, antihuman concept of sexuality. The women's movement is in the midst of a struggle with the ruling layer of this society in almost every state for the right to abortion—a concrete and significant step toward women winning the right to determine their own sexuality and control their own lives.

As the struggle for abortion demonstrates, women's liberation is part of a more general sexual revolution. Not a "sexual revolution" in the perverted sense of increasing promiscuity and the exploitation of women as sexual objects, but rather a revolution involving the affirmation of sexuality along with human dignityfor both men and women. A revolution involving the rejection of dominance and submissiveness, which is the content of the exploitative, dehumanizing distortion of sexuality common in our society. A revolution which affirms the right of each individual to control her or his body and life, free of laws or customs which attempt to enforce irrational, mystical precepts.

The liberating effects of this revolution can be seen already in the change in women's attitudes concerning abortion and concerning their bodies and sexual lives in general. We are standing up and raising our voices in protest, refusing to bend to feelings of guilt and shame over our sexuality that this society tries to inculcate into us in a myriad of different and subtle ways. The abortion struggle is reaching thousands of women, helping to liberate their minds from the fear of struggle, creating a new kind of woman who will not be afraid to struggle against all aspects of her oppressed status.

The ruling class in this country recognizes the implications of granting women the right to control their own bodies, and is trying to waylay this movement in any way it can. They are attempting to confuse the issue of abortion to hurt the movement in two specific ways. One is to associate population control with abortion, and the second is to try to get away with merely reforming abortion laws rather than repealing them and establishing free abortion clinics.

Population control has nothing to do with the interests of women; in fact population control is contradictory to women achieving the right to control their own bodies. It is a theory of the ruling class, designed to deflect attention from the real causes of the evils of the capitalist system. The problem is not that there are too many children, bbt the fact that, because of private property, the great wealth of this world is not available to or controlled by the people who produce that wealth, but is owned privately by a small number of rich families.

Through population-control measures, politicians propose that the state should determine for people in some way that they should have fewer children. Most often this is directed against Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican and Native American people, as well as people on welfare. At the bottom of population-control theories there often lies racism and an attempt to lay the blame for racial oppression and poverty on poor people themselves. The victim is made into the criminal.

The women's movement must fight against any association of population-control measures with the struggle for the right to abortion, because these measures are against the interests of women and will serve especially to narrow the support to be won from Third World women, poor women, and Catholic women. Women do not want anyone deciding for them either to have children or not to have them. We want to decide. Hence the demand of the women's movement for "no forced sterilization."

Politicians who support this system are trying to divert the abortion movement away from the concept of women's right to control their own bodies and lives—and mixing abortion bills with population- control measures is the perfect way to do this. In this way they are trying to blunt and stifle the dynamic of women demanding control over their lives and over the institutions affecting them.

Some women within the feminist movement have suggested that since the ruling class may try to use the legalization of abortion in order to control population, the women's movement should give up on the fight for abortion. But exactly the opposite is the case. If we give up the fight for our right as women to control our own bodies, this will make it all the easier for the antiabortion forces to triumph, or for the population-control "experts" to be able to control our lives in another form.

The best way to keep women from being the victims of population- control measures, such as forced sterilization, is to build the strongest possible movement for the right of women to control their own bodies. This will help to build our confidence in our rights, and we will not submit out of shame to a forced sterilization or accept laws restricting our right to decide.

The other tactic politicians are using to try to appease and disorient the movement for abortion is reform laws which include various restrictions on the right of women to abortion. If they cannot have abortions outlawed completely, for instance, Catholic Church officials have stated that they hope to at least restrict as much as possible the ability of women to get abortions. Said Monsignor McGovern of the archdiocese of New York, "Anything less than abortion on demand is better than nothing." Also, politicians hope to absorb and blunt the movement by convincing more conservative sections of the women's movement to throw their energies into building support for reform laws, on the basis that they would at least make things a little better for women, rather than struggling for the full and just demand for the repeal of all abortion laws.

The restrictions in reform abortion laws are often masked as "protections" for women, but they all have the purpose of limiting the woman's right to decide whether or not she wants an abortion. Some of the most restrictive reform laws limit abortion to cases of rape or cases where there is a chance that the fetus may be born mentally or physically deformed. Some require that the woman appear before a committee of a number of doctors and convince them that she should be given the right to abortion. In Colorado, where a reform law with these restrictions was passed in 1967, nineteen out of every twenty women who apply for an abortion are turned down. Even Representative Richard Lamm, who was the chief sponsor of the 1967 reform law, now says, "We still force women either to have a baby or to have an illegal abortion."

There are other, less blatant restrictions which have been proposed in many states. One would require that the woman be a resident of the particular state for a certain period of time. But why should out-of-state women be denied this right? This is simply a way of appeasing opponents of abortion, who charge that legalizing abortion will turn their state into an "abortion mill." Would these people object to a "tonsillectomy mill," with people coming to their state from all over the country for tonsillectomies?

The restriction that abortions must be performed in hospitals has the effect of limiting the right to abortion to wealthy women because of the high cost of hospital care.

Another common restriction is a time limit—usually from twelve to twenty-six weeks of pregnancy—after which a woman cannot have an abortion. But if a woman has the right to control over her own body, why should this control be limited to a certain period of time? This restriction reflects an attempt to maintain some control over women's bodies. As the president of the Greater New York Hospital Association said regarding the proposal to cut down the New York time limitation from twenty-four to twenty weeks, "Twenty weeks should be enough time for a woman to come to a decision." And if she doesn't come to a decision sooner? Then the idea is, she should be punished by having to bear the child.

Another attempt to deny women control over their bodies and lives is the requirement that the woman must have the consent of her husband or a parent. This is complete hypocrisy. This system demands that women be responsible for raising children, and yet denies us the right to decide whether or not to have children. It is not the woman's husband or parents who will have to go through pregnancy and take the responsibility of devoting years of their lives to caring for the child. And yet this restriction would give them the right to decide.

Women are slowly asserting this right to decide, but we still have a long way to go. The fact is that politicians committed to maintaining this system with all of its manifold oppressions of women, are still "representing" women, speaking for women, and trying to tell them what is good for them. Because of this, our goals have been distorted or hidden from masses of women and men in this country. Most people still do not know what the women's liberation movement actually stands for in regard to abortion—that it supports complete repeal of abortion laws, free abortion on demand, no forced sterilization, and the right of women to control their own bodies.

We have to build a mass movement of women fighting in the interests of women for these demands. We must reach out to masses of women with these ideas and demonstrate through action the power of women to win these demands when we unite in struggle.

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