Winning on Abortion: the First Thing or the Only Thing?

I believe in the right of a woman to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. I am not sure it should be the centerpiece of the women’s movement.

There are certain things that are basic to the ability of women to function as free citizens of a free society. One of them is the right to control one’s own reproductive life. Another is freedom from violence. A third is the right to make a living by one’s labor. A fourth is the right to join with other women to pursue these goals. I hesitate to put any one of these ahead of the others. Choosing between them would be like choosing between breathing in and breathing out.

And the organized women’s movement, in its most-publicized manifestations, is beginning to look as if it has chosen one of these goals–abortion rights–at the expense of the others. The women’s movement and the abortion rights movement are not, and should not be, co-extensive, much less synonymous.

There are a number of good reasons for being cautious about identifying the women’s movement with abortion rights. One is that abortion rights is too narrow an approach even to reproductive rights. The right to terminate a pregnancy isn’t nearly as useful to most women as the right not to start one in the first place–the right, that is, to safe, reliable, reversible, accessible contraception. At present, while we may be free to “choose” abortion, our only choice in the area of contraception is between safe contraception that is not reliable, reliable contraception that is not safe, and safe, reliable contraception that is not reversible.

Most sex education programs directed to high school girls in these neighborhoods pound in the lesson that if you have sex, you’re going to have babies. That isn’t what they need. They already know that. What they don’t know is that it’s possible to have sex and not have babies. A large proportion of poor women don’t believe in contraception–not in the sense in which good teetotallers don’t believe in drinking, but in the sense in which most teenagers don’t believe in Santa Claus. They don’t believe contraception is there for them, and mostly they’re right. They don’t trust the pill–which is in fact dangerous for any population as subject to hypertension as Black women–and they can’t persuade their men to use condoms or wait for them to insert diaphragms or foams. Hispanic women use sterilization if they use anything. This is probably related to a mostly-Catholic culture in which it makes more sense to commit one mortal sin–having the operation–and getting it over with, than to commit a new mortal sin every time one takes the pill or puts in a diaphragm. It is also undoubtedly related to medical practice in Puerto Rico, where women have been routinely sterilized without their knowledge or consent, or under heavy pressure from medical personnel in violation of all medical ethics. Sterilization is similar to abortion, in that both make it possible for a woman to choose not to have a particular child, or any more children, but neither really gives her control over the decision to have a child. This isn’t freedom, it’s a stopgap.

Nor are reproductive rights the only freedom a woman needs. Today, homicide is the leading cause of work-related deaths among women, and of deaths among pregnant women. More women die every year from violence at the hands of husbands, lovers, and other family members than ever died from back-alley abortions, even when abortion was illegal and those were the only kind of abortions that were available. Indeed, Erin Pizzey points out that in working-class English neighborhoods, domestic violence against pregnant women is considered “the poor man’s [sic] method of birth control.” Pregnancy increases the risk of domestic violence in any society, probably for the same reasons. The question is, should we be reducing violence against pregnant women by reducing pregnancy, or by reducing violence, even against women who happen not to be pregnant at the moment?

From a purely political point of view, I can see what the abortion rights activists are trying to accomplish–united, effective action against what started out looking like a conservative landslide against a right of women. It is a way, not only of preserving that right, but also of making sure the conservatives know we have the power to do it. That is definitely worth doing. And it makes sense to fight on that front rather than, say, in areas like pay equity where we have no gains yet to be threatened with reversal, or decisions like Frontierro v. Richardson, (the basic sex-discrimination Supreme Court case), where we have made a gain but it has not (unlike Roe v. Wade) been threatened with reversal.

But there are political drawhacks to the Roe fight, too. One is that even though the majority of Americans are in favor of the right to abortion, not very many are actually in favor of abortion. They view it as a necessary evil. Making it the centerpiece of the women’s movement is like making vivisection the main drawing card for medical research. Even those who agree that it is necessary for some other valid purpose don’t consider it a valid end in itself. Most Americans would be a lot more comfortable with a movement that worked at making abortion less necessary, both by improving contraceptive options and access, and by reducing the penalties imposed on motherhood.

Currently, there is an increasing trend toward casting mother and child as adversaries, especially but not exclusively before birth. The abortion rights movement is only one example of that trend, but it is the most blatant. In fact, until our technology improves to the point where the womb becomes as obsolete as we like to think the breast is, the unborn child’s welfare depends on that of the mother. Even after birth, we have not yet developed child care facilities that can reliably replace the natural mother in more than a minuscule fraction of cases. One of the main reasons children are so disproportionately likely to be poor, undernourished, badly-housed, abused, and neglected is that most of them come attached to women, who lack the power and resources to protect themselves, much less their children, from these conditions.

It follows that, if we really want to improve the lives, and life-chances, of children, the best way to do it is to empower women and enable them to improve their own lives. Reproductive freedom is only one aspect of this improvement. The studies indicate clearly that a wanted child is less likely to be abused, neglected, or poor than one whose mother views its conception as an accident and its birth as a disaster. But they also indicate that the best way to motivate women to demand and exert control over their own reproduction is to offer them improved educational and vocational opportunities. This works even in the Third World; but it has not even been tried in the Fourth World of American inner cities. This is the fight the women’s movement should be waging in this country–one which puts women and their children on the same side, and can put American public opinion unreservedly behind them both.

Red Emma

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