40 Years Later: Let’s Get Honest about Abortion, Roe, and Women’s Equality

By Erika Bachiochi

Last month, Time magazine hit a nerve in both pro-life and pro-choice camps with its front cover story pronouncing that pro-lifers were winning the abortion wars—after having lost big on January 22, 1973.  With reportedly more than 90 new abortion regulations passed by 24 governors since 2010, there is little doubt that the incrementalist strategy championed by leading pro-life organizations like Americans United for Life is gaining ground.

Still, misunderstanding about the contentious issue abounds, and mainstream polling agencies and media outlets seem to care little about getting the facts straight.  Three rather significant public misunderstandings inhibit the pro-life movement from making further inroads in their efforts to both protect nascent human beings at their most vulnerable and dependent stages and find authentic solutions to unexpected pregnancy. These confusions concern the nature of abortion, the nature of Roe v. Wade, and the nature of women’s equality.

First, the nature of abortion itself. Intellectually honest pro-choicers, most recently and graphically, Salon.com’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, have conceded the humanity of the unborn child for some time now. Yet according to a 2006 Zogby poll, one-third of Americans fail to understand that abortion takes the life of a human being, while an entire fifth believe that human life begins at birth. This is ignorance of biology at its base, a situation that the media would gladly and rightly correct were the ignorance about, say, the age of the earth or whether women’s bodies can prevent conception when raped. This flagrant misunderstanding of the science is why we often hear clever-sounding but utterly misinformed (“Catholic”) politicians make absurd statements such as, “As a Catholic, I believe life begins at conception, but…” as though their “belief” had anything to do with it. No doubt religious conviction compels many to passionately argue for the legal protection of otherwise defenseless human beings, but it is science, not religion, that determines there’s a human being there to protect.

Second, the nature of Roe v. Wade.  Around the middle of January each year, we’re subject to yet another poll reporting who is for and against the landmark high court decision. But polling companies almost always misrepresent Roe’s holding in the very question they ask, either neglecting to explain the holding at all, or misconstruing it thus:  “Roe established a constitutional right to abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.” But as those who have read the case know, the Court in Roe disallowed any regulations in the interest of protecting the unborn child until after viability, and beyond that indicated that the mother’s “health” always supersedes the life of her child. “Health,” though not defined in Roe, was clearly defined in Doe v. Bolton, the little-known companion case the Court decided the same day. In Doe, the Court announced that health, for the purposes of abortion law, would be synonymous with the mother’s “physical, emotional, psychological, familial…well-being.” Thus, when read together as the Court indicated they should be, Roe and Doe display a dramatic instance of the exception swallowing the rule, leading inexorably to one of the most extreme abortion laws in the Western world:  abortion for any reason throughout all nine months of pregnancy. If polls reveal anything, it is that the majority of the American public is in favor of what they think Roe holds: restrictions on abortion after the first three months of pregnancy. The thing is, we’d have to overturn the 1973 case to get there.

Third, and probably most injurious to the pro-life cause, is the commonly held refrain that abortion is necessary for women’s health and equality.  Over the last ten years, information has increasingly come to light about the potential harm of abortion to women’s health, but the medical science is often marred in politics. Beyond dispute, if little known, is the data that shows an increased risk of preterm birth and placenta previa  in subsequent pregnancies; more controversial are the studies that increasingly show indicators of psychological distress following abortion, as well as those that report an increased risk of breast cancer. But the battle of the studies rages on.

Far less frequently are pro-choice advocates challenged on their most deeply held proposition: even if abortion ends the life of a human being, even if some women endure emotional hardship as a result, women’s social, relational, and legal equality requires abortion.  But this too is false.  By equating equality with abortion access, we have capitulated to the misogynist view that equality requires women to become more like men, i.e., not pregnant. This is not to say in a biologically determinist fashion that because women’s bodies have the capacity to gestate fetal life, women are assumed by nature to be designed only, or even primarily, to be wives and mothers.  It is to say that a culture that relies on abortion to achieve equality between the sexes takes male—wombless—physiology as the norm, and in so doing perpetuates the cultural devaluation of motherhood, and of parenting generally, and the social conditions that are often inhospitable to childrearing. Abortion leaves every societal and familial injustice just as it is, and expects nothing more or different of men.

Sexual equality via abortion looks to cure biological asymmetry—the fact that women get pregnant and men don’t—by promoting the rejection of women’s bodies. Authentic equality and reproductive justice would demand something far more revolutionary:  that men and society at large respect and support women in their myriad capacities and talents which include, for most women at some time in their lives, childbearing.

If pregnancy and motherhood are understood as burdensome conditions to women—experiences that represent our inability to compete with wombless men—they will never be given the respect and accommodation they deserve. Not all women become mothers, but those who do so depend upon a cultural esteeming of both pregnancy and motherhood—the nurturance of an individual and unique human being—for their social and professional support.

To belittle the moral status of the unborn child is to belittle the state of pregnancy, and so too the child’s mother. To upend the mother’s bond with her unborn child by allowing abortion is also to deny the paternal duties that come with siring offspring. Current abortion law treats pregnancy as a woman’s choice—and so too her problem. And many men have been just as happy to (have sex and) oblige.

The sacrifices that mothers endure during their pregnancies—and mothers and fathers endure beyond—would be far more honored (and perhaps even rewarded) were we as a culture honest about the dignity of the human beings—born and unborn—entrusted to our care.

3 Comments

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Roe at 40

3 responses to “40 Years Later: Let’s Get Honest about Abortion, Roe, and Women’s Equality

  1. Pingback: Roe, Doe, and Wombless Men » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. It is important to note that both men and women have not been honest about the Sanctity of Human Life and The Sanctity of Marriage and The Family.

  3. Pingback: Gender Equality and the “Hook-up Culture” | Koinonia

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