Debunking Abortion Myths: Part 1

In just over two weeks several hundred thousand women, men, and children will converge at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the 44th annual March for Life. The March for Life is the world’s largest annual civil rights and social justice protest. Founded by pro-life activist Nellie Grey, the March for Life has been taken place every year since 1974, to protest the Supreme Court’s 7–2 decision in Roe v. Wade, and the less well known sister case, Doe v. Bolton. Since the court’s 1973 decision, it is estimated that upwards of 59 million Americans have died as a result of abortion.

Public discourse about abortion is polemic, vitriolic, and largely unproductive. It also fails to reflect the realities on the ground, as a December Salon article by Shawna Kay Rodenberg demonstrated. Her proposed guidelines on how to argue with one’s pro-life relatives about abortion betrayed many common assumptions people have about abortion and about what it means to be pro-life. Yet, Ms. Rodenberg is certainly not the first person—and will not be the last—to portray pro-life women and men according to prevalent and pernicious stereotypes that actually shut down rather than foster much-needed conversation around what remains a fraught yet stale political debate. In particular, she portrays the pro-life community as an aging, ideologically motivated demographic, incapable of serious intellectual conversation. What is evident is that our lack of basic knowledge about abortion and the myths we continue to perpetuate about one another continue to hamper our conversations both at the family dinner table and across the political aisle.

As the pro-life movement continues to grow, a mystifying cultural narrative still cloaks abortion in utopian mythology. Over the next two weeks, we will look at some of the most prevalent myths about abortion and the pro-life movement. In preparation for the March for Life, we hope you will join the conversation at our webinar on January 25 when we will look at these myths in greater detail and think about ways to cultivate communities that are hospitable to all life. Here's a brief introduction to one of the myths.

The Liberation Myth: Abortion Empowers Women

The myths surrounding abortion are numerous, but once we get beyond false political narratives and the all-too-common caricatures—which cut both ways—we find a reality that is much different than these narratives might lead us to expect. We find a movement that is increasingly young, increasingly female, and increasingly difficult to place along partisan lines. We also find a movement that is growing. By some estimates over a half million people attend the March for Life. More than half of them are women under thirty. Popular mythology would have us believe that abortion is intrinsically related to women’s liberation. It has, however, been a contested issue among feminists since before Roe v. Wade. Feminists as diverse as Andrea Dworkin and Sidney Callahan have expressed suspicion of abortion’s liberating power. Indeed, Callahan dared to call out the structures of inequality that inextricably link “feminine and fetal liberation.” In “Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Pro-Life Feminism,” she astutely observes:

"Permissive abortion laws do not bring women reproductive freedom, social equality, sexual fulfillment, or full personal development. Pragmatic failures of a pro-choice feminist position combined with a lack of moral vision are, in fact, causing disaffection among young women. Middle-aged pro-choice feminists blamed the "big chill" on the general conservative backlash. But they should look rather to their own elitist acceptance of male models of sex and to the sad picture they present of women's lives. Pitting women against their own offspring is not only morally offensive, it is psychologically and politically destructive. Women will never climb to equality and social empowerment over mounds of dead fetuses, numbering now in the millions. As long as most women choose to bear children, they stand to gain from the same constellation of attitudes and institutions that will also protect the fetus in the woman's womb—and they stand to lose from the cultural assumptions that support permissive abortion. Despite temporary conflicts of interest, feminine and fetal liberation are ultimately one and the same cause."

Callahan, and others, debunk the myth that feminism is somehow intrinsically connected to abortion access. Indeed, she proposes quite the opposite. Yet like many things, the myths that enshroud abortion have been cloaked in political language that, in the words of George Orwell, defends the indefensible. What might happen if we looked behind the myths and beyond political language that consists “largely [of] euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness?” We might begin to see the human realities of abortion—of mother and child, of fathers, of families, of brokenness and fear. We might be called to a different form of community, one that doesn’t insist on eliminating its members in the name of an ever-receding utopian future. The myths surrounding abortion are numerous. In the upcoming webinar 6 Abortion Myths: A March for Life Primer, uncover the realities of abortion that our public discourse too often hides.


Featured Photo: Steve Rhodes; CC-BY-ND-2.0


Jessica Keating

Jessica Keating is the director of the Notre Dame Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives, where she engages in scholarship that strives to recover the concept of human dignity for the theological and philosophical imagination.

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