January 22 marks the 38th anniversary of the historic 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide. Before Roe v. Wade, thousands of women in the U.S. were seriously injured or died each year from unsafe, illegal abortions. Countless others were forced to bear children they did not want. The legalization of abortion meant that, for the first time, women could decide whether and when they wanted to bear children. It was, and is, central to the emancipation of women.
But immediately afterward, and in an escalating way over decades, that right has been under steady assault. Laws have restricted access to abortion for young women, in later months of pregnancy, and have subjected women seeking abortions to unscientific and biased lectures. Positive portrayals of abortion have been nearly banned in culture. Politically, it is beyond the pale of mainstream discourse to unapologetically support a woman's right to choose whether or not to have a child.
Christian fascists have been given powerful backing by ruling class forces and have been unleashed—under the banner of "family values"—to hound and harass women seeking abortions. They have gone so far as to blow up clinics and even murder doctors—including the May 31, 2009, assassination of Dr. George Tiller, one of a handful of doctors in the country providing abortions for women in later stages of pregnancy.
And anti-abortion forces have pushed the shame and ignorance of "abstinence only" into the public schools and throughout society.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama's message of "ending the polarizing debate on abortion" serves as a call to reconcile two irreconcilable positions—which can only mean giving in to and conceding more ground to the Christian fascist attacks on abortion. There is no way to reconcile a woman's fundamental right to abortion with attacks that in fact mean taking away this right—especially when these attacks are headed toward eliminating this right altogether.
All this has combined to create an atmosphere of widespread ignorance, confusion, and disorientation over the basic question of right and wrong here.
The following—drawn and updated from an article originally published in Revolution in 2006—speaks to those very questions of the morality of abortion, and the immorality of opposing it.
Is the Forceful Assertion of Male Domination "Moral"?
The forces behind the assault on the right to abortion are overwhelmingly against birth control as well. An examination of why this is the case sheds critical light on the essential agenda of the so-called "pro-life" movement. There is not a single "pro-life" organization that supports birth control. The mission statement of the largest right-to-life educational organization—The American Life League—reads "A.L.L. denies the moral acceptability of artificial birth control and encourages each individual to trust in God, to surrender to His will, and be pre-disposed to welcoming children."
The Pro-Life Activists Encyclopedia explains the justification for efforts to ban contraception:
"Contraception cannot be separated from abortion. In fact, anyone who debates on the topic of abortion will inevitably be drawn to the topic of artificial contraception over and over again, especially in the post-Roe era of pro-life activism.... How does contraception lead to abortion? Quite simply, they are virtually indistinguishable in a psychological, physical, and legal sense...those individuals who use artificial contraception take the critical step of separating sex from procreation. Contraception not abortion was the first step down the slippery slope."1
Banning birth control has been a target of these Christian fascists. They have already passed laws in South Dakota, Arkansas, and Mississippi that legally allows pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions on moral and religious grounds. And this is becoming the new Christian fascist litmus test for running for office—in some states like Kentucky candidates who want the endorsement of Kentucky's Right to Life must now oppose the use of standard birth control (not just the morning after pill).2
This is a matter of reactionary religious doctrine in service of a morality that wants to take society backwards. In 2006, state legislator Bill Napoli, speaking on behalf of the South Dakota ban on abortion, put it this way: "When I was growing up here in the Wild West, if a young man got a girl pregnant out of wedlock, they got married, and the whole darned neighborhood was involved in that wedding. I mean, you just didn't allow that sort of thing to happen, you know? I mean, they wanted that child to be brought up in a home with two parents, you know, that whole story. And so I happen to believe that can happen again.... I don't think we're so far beyond that, that we can't go back to that."3 Napoli's "whole story" is one where young people are forced—through the notorious "shotgun marriages"—to get married and where young women in particular are coerced into having children that they do not want. The "whole story" is one of reasserting and reinforcing the traditional order of things where a woman's role is to be subordinate to her husband and the procreator of his children, where women are openly the property of men to be controlled by their husbands. It means going back to a morality that cuts women off from acting in the larger society, contributing all they can to that, and living full lives as productive human beings in every sphere and independent from men. This is the traditional biblical morality that says wives must "submit yourself unto your own husbands as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church" (Ephesians 5:22-23)—and these people want to return society to a place where THAT standard sets the law of the land. That would be a horror for women and a terrible thing for society as a whole.
The mass access to birth control and abortion has undermined religious doctrine and traditional morality that subordinated women for centuries. Though they are still held down by the underlying social relations of capitalism, this step enabled women to participate much more in every sphere of society—something that after almost 40 years we may take for granted but is actually a relatively fragile and new idea in this history of human society. And now these people want to rip this away!
Morality and Terminating an Unwanted Pregnancy
Tens of millions of people rebelled againt traditional morality in the 1960s and '70s. The movement for women's liberation that arose in that era made widely known and accepted the whole idea of abortion on demand. This unapologetic position of women's liberation changed the culture—it changed the ways people thought and changed the quality of human emotions. It shifted the way millions of people viewed reproductive rights and sexual equality, which paved the way for Roe v. Wade and the legalization of abortion in 1973. And this was overwhelmingly positive in emancipating the full potential of women and in benefiting all of society in doing so.
There is nothing immoral about terminating an unwanted pregnancy or removing a clump of cells that have not yet developed into a viable human being from a woman's body. A fetus is not a baby. If a woman doesn't want to continue a pregnancy all the way (for whatever reason), she should have the freedom to end it, safely and easily. There is nothing tragic about it—indeed, the real tragedy lies in the lives of women that are foreclosed and disfigured and even ended by being compelled to have children that they do not want, a tragedy that happens millions of times a day on this planet, with the connivance and support of the U.S. government.
The life of a woman who is forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy is endangered. From the dangers of illegal abortions to the disrespect for her own life, she is harmed and demeaned as a human being. Being forced by society to have a baby when a woman either does not want or cannot care for one is one of the age-old tragedies that are no longer necessary for anyone to have to suffer. But if a woman is not allowed to control her own body, her own reproduction, not allowed to decide whether or not or when to become a mother, she has no more freedom than a slave. This is for the greater good for the health and overall well-being of that woman, whose life we should value and cherish more than that of a partially formed fetus. And for the greater good of humanity—for don't we want a society where all forms of slavery are ended?
The morality that should be supported and fought for is one that values the rights of women to lead full social lives. It supports social and intimate relations where people respect each other's humanity and flourish together—and not where women are supposedly commanded by "God" to "submit themselves" to men. This morality sees children as a joy to society, and as ultimately the responsibility of all society, while not compelling anyone in any way to have children against their will. It does NOT, as these theocrats do, sanctimoniously shout hosannas to a clump of cells that might someday become a child—while feverishly upholding the murder of real live children in the war being waged by the U.S. in Afghanistan, and self-righteously dooming literally millions of other real live children, right in the U.S., to lives of deprivation and punishment—in the name of those same traditional values.
In fact, overturning the ban on abortion—a ban which consigned thousands of women a year to death or horrible mutilation, and millions more to humiliation and oppression—was a profoundly moral thing to do! It was and is part of a morality that corresponds to the fundamental interests of the vast majority of people in this society and worldwide. These values are also consistent with communist morality, which in addition to the emancipation of women aims at the elimination of all oppressive and exploitative relations among people and the establishment of a freely associating community of human beings. And at the same time, there are many, many people beyond communists who actually yearn for and even strive to live by values that promote and celebrate equality between women and men, and between peoples and nations; that appreciate both diversity and community; that put cooperation over cut-throat competition and the needs of the people over the accumulation of wealth, that oppose imperialist domination, and that cherish and foster critical thinking.
Why in the world should anyone be defensive about such a morality? Why should we not proudly proclaim these morals and values, strive to live up to them and put them in practice, and rally millions more to live their lives by them? Truly, we should and we have to—it is an absolutely crucial and necessary part of defeating this reactionary fascist offensive.
Appeasement and Retreat: The Deadly, Losing Strategy of the Democrats
But these days the major pro-choice advocates stay away from the morality question. They concede that abortions should be reduced and prevented. In 2006, in the wake of the frontal assault on Roe v. Wade in South Dakota NARAL urged "responsible legislators to enact common sense legislation to prevent unintended pregnancy." And NARAL placed an ad in the conservative Weekly Standard asking abortion opponents to "Please, help us prevent abortions." The ad encouraged abortion foes to support a bill introduced by then Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, whose position is "abortions should be legal only when the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape, or when the life of the woman is endangered."
Today's shrinking ground is now being fought over contraception—but this will lose if it is not fought from the morality of upholding the right of women to control her own reproduction, including abortion as indispensable to this. And again, we have seen where this logic leads. The anti-abortion group, Democrats for Life of America, has pushed "95-10," a plan they claim would reduce abortions by 95 percent in ten years in a platform that doesn't even mention birth control.
How did we get to this place where the "national dialogue" on abortion now portrays it as tragic, terrible, and wrong? Where having an abortion is stigmatized and women are shamed, where unintended pregnancy is seen as an act of not taking personal responsibility and even a "sin"? And now, where even the right to abortion is being conceded, in the name of still trying to maintain birth control—which itself is slowly being given away. The road to this hell was paved by a series of moral concessions and political retreats.
The roots of this lie very deep and go very far back, but there is a way in which much of what has led to this spot is concentrated in the Clinton years. While now portrayed as a period of defending the right to abortion, the Clinton years were in fact a period of intense attack and an official ideological and political policy by the Clinton administration of reconciliation with resurgent traditional morality. Clinton ceded critical moral and political high ground to the opponents of abortion. He signed the anti-gay "Defense of Marriage Act" and made the formulation that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare." Principal in all this is the idea that abortion should be rare, that at best it should be seen as some kind of necessary evil. Hilary Clinton took this further in a speech in which she also called abortion "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." The movement to defend abortion followed suit and more than ever framed their position as pro-choice vs. pro-abortion; they disdained the slogan "abortion on demand and without apology"—an eminently reasonable slogan which enables people to struggle around the real moral questions at the heart of this battle—as somehow being extreme.
Casting abortion as a necessary evil has meant stigmatizing the providers and the women who have them. It has meant uniting with the premise that abortion is morally wrong. Pro-choice appeasement of the so-called pro-life movement has succeeded not in protecting the right to abortion but instead in ceding both science and morality to the Christian Right. "Finding common ground" has led to changing the way people are trained to think and to people's emotions being manipulated and twisted into the emotions of shame and regret.
Women who have had abortions are now being re-educated to look back principally at how hard this decision was and to re-writing memory to devalue wise choices they may have made over the timing of when they decided consciously to plan a family and their own future. Young women now come up in a culture that looks at abortion as morally wrong, as baby killing. And even when a young woman chooses, against tremendous societal and legal pressure, to terminate a pregnancy, she is being burdened with guilt and shame.
This is nothing but bowing down before the morality of religious and patriarchal control over women—and over people generally who strive for a world where human beings are equal. THIS is morally unconscionable!
What has to be recognized is that the top Democrats answer to a different standard than the emancipation of women. They are above all ruling class politicians—and that has real content. It means that they put the ability of the U.S. to maintain its empire above everything else. They agree with the Republicans that the widespread questioning of traditional morality, among other things, that so marked the 1960s and early '70s, has to go—that people have to accept "God, country, and family" morality that has arisen on and serves to fortify the whole system of oppression. They differ with the Republicans on how to do that and, in certain circumstances, those differences could become explosive—but thus far and overall they have mainly served to grease the way for the dominance of the theocratic fascists on the question of abortion. They uphold "choice," but only within the constraints of it being rare, difficult, humiliating, and shameful experience. This "pro-choice" position accepts the underlying morality of women-hating patriarchs. It is unacceptable on a moral plane.
Where This Is Headed—and What We Must Do
If the terms of "debate" remain between, on the one hand, the anti-abortion, anti-woman position of the Christian fascists and, on the other hand, those with the conciliating position that abortion should be "legal but rare"—we are in for a very dark time—overall, and in particular around women. And this is not a "back to the future" of the 1950s, bad as that was. If Roe is overturned and abortion becomes a crime, doctors will face much more extreme punishment than in the '50s where those who performed abortions were typically prosecuted only if the woman died. In a post-Roe world, doctors could be tried for murder of the fetus. 38 states have passed "Unborn Victims of Violence" legislation and fetal protection laws. 21 states have passed fetal homicide laws that apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy "from fertilization to birth."
In Texas in 2005, 17-year-old Erica Bastoria asked about an abortion and was falsely told by her gynecologist that she could not get one. Desperate, she asked her 19-year-old boyfriend Geraldo Flores to stand on her stomach, and she miscarried. Since abortion is still legal in Texas, Erica was not prosecuted. But under the Unborn Victims of Violence Act her boyfriend was prosecuted and convicted of homicide and sentenced to life in prison.
We need a movement that does not cede the morality of abortion and that consistently stands up for the facts and for principle. We need a movement that boldly and without any shame-facedness stands up for the morality of equality, and a critical and scientific understanding of the world and human reproduction. If we build such a movement, we will find that people are receptive and many are waiting for someone to stand up and say ENOUGH nonsense! Even those confounded and confused by the steady propaganda that has promoted ignorance and intolerance can be won to a very different world view if people stand up for the truth.
And it is on us, all of us, in the broadest sense, to build and be that movement.
1. American Life League, "Introduction: The Abortion-Contraception Connection," Chapter 97 of Pro-Life Activists Encyclopedia.
2. "Right to Life adds Pill to List" (Cincinnati Enquirer, April 2002). Original research from Cristina Page, How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America—Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 19.
3. Jim Lehrer News Hour, "South Dakota Bans Abortion," March 3, 2006.
This article originally appeared in Revolution newspaper.