When did feminists abort the pro-life position?
[Today’s primer on abortion and feminism in history is by guest blogger Frank Ludwig, and is part of our paid blogging program.]
While the idea of woman’s equality is probably as old as male-dominated societies and has been promoted by writers from Plato to Mary Woolstonecraft, the first notable feminist movement didn’t come into being until the mid 19th century, following a number of publications from authors such as Margaret Fuller, Caroline Norton, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Henrik Ibsen. The aims of First-Wave Feminism were mainly their right to own property, woman’s suffrage (the right to vote) and equal rights in other areas such as education and divorce. None of them demanded the right to abortion – on the contrary, abortion was seen as a crime that was forced upon women by men who were unwilling to face up to their responsibilities, and they believed that woman’s equality would end abortion for good:
“Perhaps there will come a time when… an unmarried mother will not be despised because of her motherhood… and when the right of the unborn to be born will not be denied or interfered with.” – Caroline Norton
“Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth.” – Victoria Woodhull
“When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton
“There were four hundred murders annually produced by abortion in this county alone… There must be a remedy to such a crying evil as this. But where should it be found, at least begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women?”– Elizabeth Cady Stanton
“Enforced motherhood is a crime against the body of the mother and the soul of the child… But the crime of abortion is not one in which the guilt lies solely or even chiefly with the woman… I hesitate not to assert that most of this crime of child murder, abortion, infanticide, lies at the door of the male sex.” – Matilda Joslyn Gage
“Abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women.” – Alice Paul
“I deplore the horrible crime of child-murder… No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; But oh! Thrice guilty is he who… drove her to the desperation which impels her to the crime.” – Susan B. Anthony
From the beginning of the 20th century, feminists also started promoting birth control, the main protagonists being Marie Stopes in the UK and Margaret Sanger in the US. And while they campaigned for the right to use contraceptives, both of them were firmly opposed to abortion:
“We explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way – no matter how early it was performed, it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way – it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.’ – Margaret Sanger
‘I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.’ – Margaret Sanger
‘When motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race. There will be no killing of babies in the womb by abortion, nor through neglect in foundling homes, nor will there be infanticide.’ – Margaret Sanger
‘I was glad you gave space to the fact that the Queensland Medical Association is planning an extensive educational campaign against the evil of abortion.’ – Marie Stopes. (When Stopes found out that her contemporary Avro Manhattan had pressured one of his lovers into having an abortion, she called him a murderer to his face. And when William Carpenter named his abortion shop after her, she took legal action against him. But today, the largest abortion business in the UK bears her name since it was founded in 1976, eighteen years after her death.)
During and after the World Wars, some of the feminists’ goals were achieved, but the position of women was still far from being equal. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in which she pointed out that many women were unhappy and unfulfilled as mere housewives and mothers. This was the beginning of Second-Wave Feminism.
The first abortion activists were Pat Maginnis, Rowena Gurner and Lana Phelan who travelled and campaigned as the Army of Three in the early Sixties. In 1966, they founded the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (ARAL). At that time gynecologist Dr. Bernard Nathanson and journalist Lawrence Lader promoted abortion rights and decided to involve feminists in order to give their agenda a wider platform (“We’re going to have to recruit the feminists; Friedan has got to put her troops into this thing,” Lader said.) They approached Betty Friedan who in 1968, together with Pauli Murray, wrote the NOW Bill of Rights (NOW being the National Organization of Women which she had co-founded) and which claimed in point VIII “the right of women to control their own reproductive lives by removing from penal codes the laws limiting access to contraceptive information and devices and laws governing abortion.” This was the first time that the demand for abortion appeared in a feminist context.
In 1969 Friedan, Nathanson, Laden and others founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) which succeeded the ARAL. (In the late Seventies Nathanson, having been one of the most prolific abortion performers in the US, saw an abortion on ultrasound imaging and, after watching the fetus suffer and struggle, became a pro-life campaigner. He stated that “I am one of those who helped usher in this barbaric age,” wrote the book Aborting America in which he confessed to the deceitful beginnings of the pro-abortion movement, and made the documentary The Silent Scream which shows a real-time abortion on ultrasound.)
Also in 1969, a young woman in Dallas fabricated a rape story in order to obtain an abortion (in Texas, abortion was legal in case of rape). She was turned down, and her child was born and placed for adoption. The attorney handling it referred her to two female attorneys who were looking for an opportunity to challenge the US’ abortion laws, and her case went before the Supreme Court. With its infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, abortion became legal in the US. (After seeing a fetal development poster two decades later, Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the case, became a pro-life campaigner and has since unsuccessfully tried to have the decision overturned.)
The demand for legal abortions became the mainstream position of the vast majority of feminists, which often was (and is) expressed in a militant way. Those who hold other views are (depending on their gender) considered chauvinists or traitors by many, and men are told they have no right to an opinion unless they support abortion. Some even claim that one can’t be a feminist without being pro-abortion, but fact is that feminists before Betty Friedan strongly opposed abortion as the taking of a human life. In light of the developments of the past 45 years, the remaining pro-life feminists started organizing themselves in groups such as Feminists for Life (FFL) who were founded in 1972 but “stand on more than two hundred years of pro-life feminist history.”
It makes more sense to me that feminist would be pro-life. The level of shame our culture has adopted towards women's natural reproductive ability the the resulting "problem" of a child is sad.
Excellent excellent summary! Abortion is murder. No other words suffice.
Awesome post. I've seen these quotes from early feminists quite a bit. It would be interesting to know a bit more about their context. Was there a debate over abortion during the 19th century? Did it become much of a political issue? Were there any strong supporters of abortion? It's amazing how our ignorance of history makes us very open to misinterpretation of modern issues.
i believe you're wrong about Texas having a rape exception. Texas only had a life exception. See Roe v. Wade footnote 54. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0410_0113_ZO.html#410_US_113n54
McCorvey lied about rape in order to gain sympathy.
The story I heard was that she mistakenly believed that Texas had a rape exception, and fabricated the story because of this. Either way, i agree with you that no such exception actually existed.
Thank you both for that information. I can't edit this page, but I have amended the original article at http://franklludwig.com/prolifefeminism.html
There were supporters of abortion in Europe. Unluckily for them, it was during a time were government wanted to increase natality rates.
An activist abortionist woman was sent to a mental hospital, were she died not much time later. I can't remember her name; all I remember is that she was overweighted and dressed as a man.
It's very terrible that second-wave feminism implies that motherhood is a curse, when our natural reproduction organs is a essential part of our womanhood. I don't see why a woman can't rule a country, while her precious baby sucking her chest and hanging on her hip.
Sarah Weddington, the Texas attorney who argued Roe v. Wade, was a very young lawyer at the time and her accomplishments deserve a mention. She happens to still be pro-choice, by the way, and tells truly heartbreaking stories about the gruesome things that happened to women who sought abortions pre-Roe. A fairer telling of the story would have included mention of how the realities of illegal abortion, which you seem to be ignoring, played a large role in where feminism ended up on the issue.