The following article appeared in National Review Online (NRO) in January, 2003 and is used with permission.
The Lessons of Roe
Thirty years of learning.
By Frederica Mathewes-Green
I was what the sociologists call an "early adopter" of feminism. Soon after arriving at college, in 1970, I knew that it was the religion for me. I had discarded the religion I grew up with, Christianity, as an insultingly simpleminded thing, but feminism filled the gap. Like a religion it offered a complete philosophical worldview, one that displayed me as victim in the center, a feature with immeasurable appeal to a female teenager. Feminism had its own gnostic analysis of reality, by which everything in existence was decoded to be about the oppression of women; it had sacred books, a secret vocabulary, and congregational gatherings for the purpose of consciousness-raising. It even had a habit and tonsure, in a sense; we didn't don wimples, but we cast off oppressive undergarments and shunned the razor.
I was the first in my dorm to become a feminist, which caused my friends some worry. I printed up posters, yelled chants at marches, and arranged to bring Ti-Grace Atkinson to campus as a speaker, one of the more interesting disasters of my life. But the real cause, of course, was abortion. Laws varied across the land; in my home state it was illegal, but friends could travel to New York or California to end a pregnancy. Unfair! We wanted all abortion laws everywhere repealed, because otherwise women were slaves. The bumper sticker on my car read, "Don't labor under a misconception. Legalize abortion."
When the Roe v. Wade decision came down, in January 1973, I was doing an independent semester in film studies and working in Washington, D.C. I volunteered at the flagship underground feminist newspaper, "off our backs," and was proud when the first issue I worked on included my review of a French movie. That same issue carried a long editorial about Roe. Mostly, we felt it was OK. However, the Roe decision says that a woman must have a medical reason to have an abortion at the end of pregnancy. That struck us as meddling. What do nine men in black robes know? Why can't a woman decide for herself whether to end a pregnancy, even in the ninth month?
Thirty years later, there are many things I regret about those years - don't get me started! - but chief among them is how shortsighted I was about the impact of Roe. What can I say, except that I just didn't know. I thought that women would only have abortions in the most-dire circumstances. I thought that the numbers of abortions would be small. I thought every child would be a wanted child. I thought the unborn was nothing but a glob of tissue. I thought abortion would liberate women. I was wrong.
Roe has taught us many lessons which now govern our lives in ways we can barely perceive. Instead of being one small tool for women's advancement, abortion opened a chasm, and a lot of unexpected things fell in. It turned out to be an irresistible force, because abortion makes things so much easier for everyone around the pregnant woman. Before Roe, unplanned pregnancy created many problems for many people - the woman's lover, her parents, her siblings, her boss, her landlord, her dean. Abortion changes the picture instantly: Just go get it taken care of, dear, and it will be as if it never happened. Women were expected to do the sensible thing and save everyone else a lot of fuss and bother. Overnight, unplanned pregnancy became her private problem, a burden for her to bear alone. Abortion-rights rhetoric compounded this effect with terms emphasizing her isolation: My body, my rights, my life, my choice. The flip side of all that first-person assertiveness is abandonment. The network of support that once existed had been shattered.
To continue a pregnancy came to look like an insane choice, one that placed an unfair burden on others. Having a baby in less-than-perfect circumstances came to look like a crazy and even selfish whim. A woman in an unplanned pregnancy was not just permitted to have an abortion - she was expected to. And that has made all the difference.
There were a number of beliefs I held back then, things that I thought Roe would prove true. One by one I have seen them fall over these 30 years.
1. "Abortion liberates women." The initial argument about the time of Roe was that exercising self-determination was in itself empowering. This thesis did not stand the test of time. Before long it was obvious that women were choosing abortion in sorrow and distress rather than as daring self-expression. They usually didn't feel liberated afterwards, but a complex of numbness, sorrow, and relief.
2. "It's a woman's choice." The next argument was that, even if abortion isn't a fresh blast of emancipation, at least it's her own idea. But too often women themselves disproved this, saying, "I didn't have any choice, I had to have an abortion." Roe didn't add more options to a woman's plate; it made one option nearly inevitable, because it would be overwhelmingly attractive to those with an interest in keeping her life unchanged.
3. "Women have abortions only in extreme circumstances." I believed this in those pre-Roe days, even though my friends were traveling across seven states to have abortions simply because they were in college and not married. That seemed extreme enough at the time. Pro-choice leader Kate Michelman has been credited with saying that Americans believe in abortion under only three circumstances: rape, incest, and "my situation." Under those generous criteria, the number of abortions has risen to over 40 million. About 3,500 each day. No one expected this.
4. "Men don't have to lose their careers when they're going to have a baby." Abortion seemed the perfect solution, allowing women to compete with men in the workplace by discarding pregnancies to keep in fighting trim. But we had accepted a false premise. Men don't have to lose their children in order to keep their careers.
5. "Men don't have any right to a say in her decision." Of course they do; a father has as much right as a mother to care for his biological child. But the majority of unwed dads, of course, greet this proposition with relief. Another way of phrasing it is, "Men don't have any obligation to be involved in her problem."
6. "Anti-abortion activists want to turn back the clock." Not true; whatever America will be post-Roe, it will not be what it was before. Rather, it's abortion that pretends to turn back the clock, by offering a woman the illusion that she can push the rewind button on her life and go back to the time before she was pregnant. It can't be done. Once you're pregnant, a new life has begun. That may have been a topic of debate 30 years ago, but not any more.
7. "It's just a glob of tissue." This was probably the biggest shock I sustained in my changing views of abortion. I really thought that the unborn was an unformed mass and not technically alive till some point late in pregnancy. A physician's pamphlet showed me a being that looked remarkably like a baby at six weeks' gestation, before most abortions are done. Even prior to that, when it looked more like a crawfish, it still was a human being. From the time the sperm dissolves in the egg it's alive and has a unique genetic code never before seen on earth, with 100% human DNA. It's a different shape, that's all. I'm a different shape now than I was at 8 or will be at 80. When did we start discriminating against people based on their shape?
8. "It's so small." When I first began to lean toward pro-life convictions, I had a hard time getting over how tiny the unborn is. How could something so little deserve human rights? I came to realize that that is an irrelevant, and even pernicious, consideration. Do children deserve less protection than adults, because they're smaller? Why would feminists advocate such a view? Most women are smaller than most men. Should a tall guy get to vote twice?
9. "Every child should be a wanted child." Now that Roe is 30 years old, every person in America under the age of 30 could have been aborted. Every child is a wanted child - the unwanted ones were all aborted, to the tune of one abortion for approximately every three live births. So how come the rate of reported child abuse is so high? In the early years after Roe there were 60,000 cases of child abuse reported annually. Today there are three million cases reported annually, a fifty-fold increase. The reasons for this increase are debatable, but one thing's for sure, abortion didn't prevent it. Aborting "unwanted" children hasn't helped. Instead, it's taught us that an unwanted person has no right to live. A child might be wanted very much during pregnancy, and not-so wanted a few months later when she's crying in the middle of the night. But abortion has taught us that a child deserves to live only if her parent wants her. It's a bizarre principle for feminists to endorse, who were vigorously fighting on another front against the idea, "I'm nothing unless a man wants me."
10. "My right to control my body." When a woman realizes she is pregnant and doesn't want to be, she may feel understandably panicked. It can feel like her body has been taken over against her will, and she can block out any thought except the desire to get rid of it. As one post-abortion woman told me, "It's like looking down and seeing a tarantula on your arm; you don't stop to think that some people keep them as pets." However, it's not truly the woman's body that's at risk here. The unborn child has a right to control her body, too, and that must at a minimum mean the right to keep her arms and legs attached to her body.
11. "Women are full-fledged adults and deserve more rights than fetuses." Yes, this is true; adults have the right to vote and drive, and I don't think anyone is proposing giving such privileges to the unborn. However it's a long way from regulating rights that come with increasing maturity to denying the right to be alive. This is an abiding fallacy in abortion discussions, and both pro-life and pro-choice advocates fell for it. We both assumed that abortion concerned a conflict between the rights of a woman and a fetus. But in no sane culture are women and their own unborn children presumed to be mortal enemies. If continuing a pregnancy has become that unbearable, the problem is not inside the woman's body, but in a culture that is placing overwhelming burdens on her. The love between mother and baby is the icon of human connectedness, and when we complacently assume that one may want to kill the other, something has gone seriously wrong.
What does the future hold? The predictions I would have made 30 years ago turned out to be so wildly inaccurate that I offer the following with fistfuls of salt. But first I'd note that legal restriction of abortion is not on the horizon. The pro-life movement has not made efforts to pass legislation that would prevent abortion since the early '90s, when the Casey decision dealt a massive and discouraging blow. Legislation proposed since then has been like planting hedges, focused on clinic regulations, parental consent, and the like. These are not laws that protect unborn life. Pro-choicers view laws like these as dangerously "incremental," but that pays pro-lifers a compliment we don't deserve. Our powers of persuasion are not so great that we can lead a citizen who supports a parental consent law to outlaw abortion. In fact, there's a danger that these "incremental" laws will be all we get. The average citizen may conclude that the pro-lifers got a little, the pro-choicers got a little, and now everything is square. The situation may be analogous to the nation's liquor laws after the repeal of Prohibition. States passed laws regulating when and where liquor could be sold, but any adult who can read the store's sign can still buy as much booze as he wants.
Let's stay with that analogy for a moment. After Prohibition was repealed there was a vigorous backlash in which drinking was celebrated as fun and sophisticated. If you look at movies from the '30s and '40s you'll see a lot of stylish drunkenness, with the leading man stumbling and mumbling, and the leading lady clapping an ice bag to her hangover. It took several decades before people were able to admit that excess drinking causes a lot of pain. By the '80s it had become acceptable to decline a drink at a party; by the '90s cocktail parties had gone out of style. In 1981 the comedy Arthur was criticized for treating alcoholism as fodder for jokes - a complaint that didn't occur to audiences in 1950, as they laughed at drunken Jimmy Stewart and his invisible six-foot rabbit in Harvey.
The cultural rethinking on drunkenness didn't come about because the Women's Christian Temperance Union had finally devised the right slogan to "win hearts and minds" to their cause. It came about because drunkenness hurts, and eventually that truth couldn't be ignored.
Abortion hurts, too. It is a classic example of acting in haste and repenting at leisure; before the fact it looks like abortion is the only choice ("I had to have an abortion") and the woman may want to get it over with as fast as possible, like slapping off that tarantula. There are a lot of long nights afterwards, though, when she goes through the day the baby would have been born, the anniversary of the abortion, the first "wanted" pregnancy when she feels her baby move, and all the years ahead.
But how can she speak of this grief? It's supposed to be "private" and "personal." She expects people would say, "Look, it was your decision, stop whining about it." She may fear that voicing regrets will give fodder to the pro-life movement, whom she has been told is an enemy trying to oppress her. All the insistent language of privacy makes her feel that her grief has no place; it should not intrude on others and disturb them, it should be kept inside. Everyone else has forgotten that she was ever pregnant. It's time to get over it. So why does she still feel so sad?
My hunch is that as the abortion debate cools off, as the status quo settles further into place, the instant association of "abortion" with "hot, ugly argument" will ease. This will make it easier for people to think about without being thrown immediately into taking sides (presented usually as the cool, thoughtful people against the stupid, screaming people). And that will be a good thing, conducive to honest reflection. When women are no longer afraid of being stigmatized for voicing their grief, the grief can begin to come forth. We will find that there is a great deal there - not just among aborted women, but among the fathers and grandparents of these lost children. Over 40 million abortions means a lot of grief. It may be something just barely held back, like a tidal wave. I don't know what will result when that grief begins to be expressed, and we admit that abortion hasn't done all the wonderful things we thought it would, 30 years ago. But, speaking as a pro-lifer, I believe there is reason for hope.
- Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR's Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. Her latest book is Gender: Men, Women, Sex, Feminism.