In just over a week, hundreds of thousands of Americans will gather on the National Mall to protest the their country’s abortion policy, which ranks among the most permissive in the world. As abortion rates reach their lowest levels since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and its lesser known sister case Doe v. Bolton, political acrimony and vitriol reach new levels. In fact, our political rhetoric often gives the impression that Americans are deeply divided on abortion, and it appears that political lobbies and large corporate bodies are willing to create, cultivate, and inflame these perceptions in the hope that these false and subversive narratives will, through the exertion of power, money, and influence, divide Americans into pre-fabricated consumer camps. It’s easier to get funding, to market ideas, to get elected, and to stay in power when the public see every neighbor not as a human being, but as an ally or enemy, as a friend or foe. Our political rhetoric creates the impression of polarization.
The most recent example of this is the expulsion of New Wave Feminists from the corporately sponsored Women’s March on Washington because they do not share March organizers’ “unity principle” that reproductive freedom means “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people, regardless of income, location or education.” This kind of exclusion isn’t new: in the 1970s pro-life women who were kicked out of NOW (National Organization for Women) went onto found Feminists for Life (see Defenders of the Unborn, 153); in the early 1990s, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, then co-editor of Ms. Magazine, told Feminists for Life to leave a women’s conference in Milwaukee (see Prolife Feminism: Yesterday and Today, 268).
Proponents of the feminist movement continue to exclude their pro-life sisters. This week, Georgetown University professor Elizabeth Velez told the Washington Post, “Feminism is . . . a political movement, and if you are not part of the political movement you can’t be a feminist. If you are pro-life you are certainly not looking at the struggles across all of us.” According to Professor Velez’s logic, feminist pioneers—such as anti-slavery suffragist Susan B. Anthony—were not true feminists, because they abhorred abortion. Or perhaps they just didn’t understand, as today’s “enlightened feminists” do, that women’s liberation requires passing on oppression to someone else.
Over the past decade or so, as public support for elective abortion continues to decline, many advocates for liberalizing abortion policy such as the repeal of the ban on partial birth abortions have started describing abortion as a positive social good.
The social good myth: Abortion is good for society.
In the early days of advocacy for access to elective abortion, proponents described abortion as necessary social evil. As historian Daniel Williams points out in Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, even the strongest proponents of abortion in the 1920s believed “abortion is an evil” and “not a nice thing.” Despite dislike for abortion, these advocates argued that fetal life can and should be sacrificed for a greater social good (Williams, 21–2). Even as recently as the late-1990s, advocates for elective abortion continued to argue on the grounds of abortion as a necessary social evil, coining the phrase “safe, legal, and rare.” Even though this rhetoric lingered on through the ‘90s, years earlier a different narrative had started to emerge, one that declared that abortion was an act of empowerment, and decried anyone who disagreed as an agent of patriarchy.
Somewhere around the early- to mid-2000s, we heard the last whispers of abortion as necessary social evil, and the rhetoric of abortion as a positive social good ascended. Abortion is now described as a boon for families, for the economy, and for women’s advancement. It is celebrated as an unqualified positive social good. For example, in the September 2015, activists launched a social media campaign, #ShoutYourAbortion, in an effort to “de-stigmatize abortion.” Others have filmed their abortions and described them as positive experiences, “like giving birth.” And at the Democratic National Convention this past summer, National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL Pro-Choice America) President Ilyse Hogue described her decision to abort her first pre-born child to an adulating crowd of thousands. Despite the heralding of abortion as a positive social good, there is little evidence to support the idea that abortion is linked to women’s economic, social, or educational mobility. Indeed, we are beginning to see the deleterious economic and social effects that consistent and widespread practice of abortion is having in other countries.
Abortion is also deeply embedded in the patriarchal structures of domination that feminists rightly condemn. In fact, abortion participates in the same logic that has historically oppressed women, namely, that the powerful have the right to determine the fate of the weak. The practice of abortion not only ends the life of the pre-born child, but it also recuses society from social and economic responsibility for its children, for the women who bear them, and for the mothers and fathers who raise them.
Explore more about The Social Good Myth during an upcoming webinar, 6 Abortion Myths: A March for Life Primer. We will debunk prevalent myths about abortion and discuss practical ways to cultivate communities that are hospitable to life. The webinar is Jan. 25 at 2 p.m.
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Featured Photo: TFP Student Action; CC-BY-ND-2.0.