The egregious breach of trust that led to a leaked draft of a forthcoming Supreme Court decision regarding abortion has created a firestorm that is obscuring some important realities. Chief among them is that overturning Roe v. Wade does not mean an end to abortion. It means returning the decision about abortion to the states, where complex issue are best worked out in what the late Justice Louis Brandeis called the “laboratories of democracy.”
Over the past 49 years, supporters of abortion rights, including the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, couldn’t help but acknowledge the problematic logic and structure of the legal arguments underlying Roe v. Wade.
Further, the United States is one of only nine countries, including North Korea and China, that allow elective abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Public opinion has consistently reflected concern about that. Strong majorities of Americans, across demographic groups, oppose abortions in the second (65%) and third trimesters (81%). Even in the first trimester, a majority agree abortion should be illegal when the woman’s only reason is not wanting to have a child. Generations that have grown up with ultrasound technology have seen just how human a growing fetus is.
But underneath these realities are strong and sensitive feelings for the woman seeking an abortion — most likely a low-income, unmarried mother in her 20s, inconsistently using birth control, in a fragile relationship with the father, and in circumstances that make her feel that giving birth will require more than she is able to give.
We all feel deeply for this woman wrestling with what giving birth might mean for her and her baby. Some believe the most just and compassionate response is to support her in aborting that developing life. In fact, in the words of NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue, to suggest otherwise is to be “against a world where women can contribute equally and chart our own destiny.”
We might ask, “What kind of a world have we created if our equality as women depends on our acting destructively against our own bodies and the developing life we carry?”
Ironically, the widespread availability of abortion enabled by Roe v. Wade has not remedied inequality for women. It has entrenched it, by refusing to acknowledge and respect the sexual difference between men and women and the gift of women’s life-giving capacity.
After Roe, abortion became the easiest option for resolving all the complexities around women and men, their sexual relationship and the life that results from it. Abortion on demand meant no one would need to take responsibility for decisions that might result in the conception of a child. Few people would be inconvenienced by the pregnancy. Not the father of the baby. Not the woman’s parents. Not the woman’s boss.
No one, that is, except the woman herself.
As Frederica Mathewes-Green poignantly describes, “There is a tremendous sadness and loneliness in the cry ‘a woman’s right to choose.’ No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.”
She continues: “If nobody wants to have an abortion, why are women doing it, 2,800 times a day? If women (are) doing something 2,800 times daily that they don’t want to do, this is not liberation we’ve won. We are colluding in a strange new form of oppression.”
The truth is, we all want a world where women no longer find themselves facing that choice. We all want solutions that genuinely address the desperate circumstances that have required women throughout time to make desperate choices. But that means unpacking the startling reality that Roe v. Wade has actually contributed to the oppression of women, not alleviated it. In Camille Williams’ cogent words, “Each elective abortion is some woman’s pain; every abortion is some kind of failure — not of contraceptives — but the failure of human beings to care for each other.”
Consider how abortion absolves men of responsibility for the life that results from their sexual relationships. Widespread access to contraception and abortion was supposed to make women “equal” to men — free to engage in sexual relations without permanent consequences. Instead, in Sally Cline’s words, what it achieved was “not a great deal of liberation for women but a great deal of legitimacy for male promiscuity.” In fact, by serving as a “backup” to contraception, easy access to abortion increased sexual risk-taking while creating a climate in which nonmarital sex is expected in romantic relationships and commitment is not.
Since Roe v. Wade, the marriage rate has dramatically dropped, cohabitation has increased by 17 times, and the out-of-wedlock childbearing rate has grown from 5% to 41%, with profound negative implications, especially for low-income women and children.
“Liberated” women find themselves trapped between acting destructively against their bodies and the life their bodies are designed to create, or trying to rear children on their own. Since single motherhood accounts for much of the rise in child poverty since the 1970s, the result is a vicious cycle of feminized poverty that only feeds dependence on the trap of abortion.
Under the shadow of Roe, there has been no reason or incentive to address these serious realities for women. As Mathewes-Green aptly describes, “abortion is like a funnel” through which all of the challenges women face can be shoved. In answer to the challenges of poverty, poor parenting, career impediments and lack of educational attainment, women are told, “Why don’t you just abort?” And so, instead of shaping our educational institutions and workplaces to respect, protect and support childbearing, abortion encourages us to ignore it. Instead of seeking remedies for the challenges and injustices faced by pregnant women, abortion masks the realities women face.
It does not have to be so. Our remarkable feminist leaders of the past showed a better way. Pioneering feminist suffragists Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony both condemned abortion arguing: “We believe the cause of all these abuses (forms of abortion) lies in the degradation of women.” Later, Alice Paul, author of the original Equal Rights Amendment called abortion “the ultimate exploitation of women.”
Scholar Erika Bacchiochi describes how suffragist Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, looked to a day “when woman rises from sexual slavery to sexual freedom, and man is obliged to respect this freedom.” Such a future meant taking seriously the biological difference between women and men in the consequences of sex. It meant taking seriously those realities and demanding that men join women in a higher standard of sexual fidelity before and after marriage. It meant respect for the unparalleled gift of motherhood, and a world that would protect and promote the health and well-being of children born and unborn, and their mothers.
Under the shadow of Roe v. Wade, we could not create such a world. We need to reshape our world, for women, men and children. Maybe the time has finally come.
Jenet Jacob Erickson is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University.