International Women's Day

Ellen Willis on Abortion

‘Two years ago, abortion was almost always discussed in feminist terms — as a political issue affecting the condition of women. Since then, the grounds of the debate have shifted drastically.’

by

March 5, 1979

If propaganda is as central to politics as I think, the opponents of legal abortion have been winning a psychological victory as important as their tangible gains. Two years ago, abortion was almost always discussed in feminist terms — as a political issue affecting the condition of women. Since then, the grounds of the debate have shifted drastically; more and more, the right-to-life movement has succeeded in getting the public and the media to see abortion as an abstract moral issue having solely to do with the rights of fetuses.

Recently, Garry Wills wrote a piece suggesting that liberals who defended the snail-darter’s right to life and opposed the killing in Vietnam should condemn abortion as murder. I found this notion breathtaking in its illogic. Environmentalists were protesting not the “murder” of individual snail-darters but the practice of wiping out entire species of organisms to gain a short-term economic benefit; most people who opposed our involvement in Vietnam did so because they believed the United States was waging an aggressive, unjust war. There was no inconsistency in holding such positions and defending abortion on the grounds that women’s welfare should take precedence over fetal life. To claim that three very different issues, each with its own complicated social and political context, all came down to a simple matter of preserving life was to say that all killing was alike and equally indefensible regardless of circumstance. (Why, I wondered, had Wills left out the destruction of hapless bacteria by penicillin?) But aside from the general mushiness of the argument, I was struck by one peculiar fact: Wills had written an entire article about abortion without mentioning women, feminism, sex, or pregnancy.

Since the feminist argument for abortion rights still carries a good deal of moral and political weight, part of the anti-abortionists’ strategy has been to make an end run around it. Although the mainstream of the right-to-life movement is openly opposed to women’s liberation, it has chosen to make its stand on the abstract “pro-life” argument. That emphasis has been reinforced by the movement’s tiny left wing, which opposes abortion on pacifist grounds and includes women who call themselves “feminists for life.” A minority among pacifists as well as right-to-lifers, this group nevertheless serves the crucial function of making opposition to abortion respectable among liberals, leftists, and moderates disinclined to sympathize with a right-wing crusade. Unlike most right-to-lifers, who are vulnerable to charges that their reverence for life does not apply to convicted criminals or Vietnamese peasants, anti-abortion leftists are in a position to appeal to social conscience — to make analogies, however facile, between abortion and napalm. They explicitly disclaim any opposition to women’s rights, insisting rather that the end cannot justify the means — murder is murder.

Well, isn’t there a genuine moral issue here? If abortion is murder, how can a woman have the right to it? Feminists are often accused of evading this question, but in fact an evasion is built into the question itself. Most people understand “Is abortion murder?” to mean “Is the fetus a person?” But fetal personhood is ultimately as inarguable as the existence of God; either you believe in it or you don’t. Putting the debate on this plane inevitably leads to the nonconclusion that it is a matter of one person’s conscience against another’s. From there, the discussion generally moves on to broader questions: whether laws defining the fetus as a person violate the separation of church and state; or conversely, whether people who believe an act is murder have not only the right but the obligation to prevent it. Unfortunately, amid all this lofty philosophizing, the concrete, human reality of the pregnant woman’s dilemma gets lost. And this dilemma, far from being irrelevant or peripheral to the question of whether abortion is murder, is of the essence.

Murder, as commonly defined, is killing that is unjustified, willful, and malicious. Most people would agree, for example, that killing in defense of one’s life or safety is not murder. And most would accept a concept of self-defense that includes the right to fight a defensive war or revolution in behalf of one’s independence or freedom from oppression. Even pacifists make moral distinctions between defensive violence, however deplorable, and murder; no thoughtful pacifist would equate Hitler’s murder of the Jews with the Warsaw Ghetto rebels’ killing of Nazi troops. The point is that it’s impossible to judge whether an act is murder simply by looking at the act, without considering its context. Which is to say that it makes no sense to discuss whether abortion is murder without considering why women have abortions and what it means to force women to bear children they don’t want.

We live in a society that defines child rearing as the mother’s job; a society in which most women are denied access to work that pays enough to support a family, child-care facilities they can afford, or any relief from the constant, daily burdens of motherhood; a society that forces mothers into dependence on marriage or welfare, and often into permanent poverty; a society that is actively hostile to women’s ambitions for a better life. Under these conditions, the unwillingly pregnant woman faces a terrifying loss of control over her fate. Even if she chooses to give up the baby, unwanted pregnancy is in itself a serious trauma. There is no way a pregnant woman can passively let the fetus live; she must create and nurture it with her own body, in a symbiosis that is often difficult, sometimes dangerous, always uniquely intimate. However gratifying pregnancy may be to a woman who desires it, for the unwilling it is literally an invasion — the closest analogy is to the difference between lovemaking and rape. Nor is there such a thing as foolproof contraception. Clearly, abortion is by normal standards an act of self-defense.

Whenever I make this case to a right-to-lifer, the exchange that follows is always substantially the same:

RTL: If a woman chooses to have sex, she should be willing to take the consequences. We must all be responsible for our actions.
EW: Men have sex, without having to “take the consequences.”
RTL: You can’t help that — it’s biology.
EW: You don’t think a woman has as much right as a man to enjoy sex? Without living in fear that one slip will transform her life?
RTL: She has no right to selfish pleasure at the expense of the unborn.

It would seem, then, that the nitty-gritty issue in the abortion debate is not life but sex. The logic of the right-to-life position is that women’s destiny is properly determined by their reproductive function; that women’s demand for freedom and equality is inherently selfish and immoral. Whatever else one may say of such attitudes, they are surely antifeminist. I’ll elaborate on this next column.

April 2, 1979

Years ago, in an interview with Paul Krassner in The Realist, Ken Kesey declared himself against abortion. Krassner asked if his objection applied to victims of rape. Kesey replied — I may not be remembering the exact words, but I will never forget the substance — “Just because another man planted the seed, that’s no reason to destroy the crop.” To this day I have not heard a more eloquent or chilling metaphor for the essential premise of the right-to-life movement: that a woman’s excuse for being is her womb. It is an outrageous irony that anti-abortionists are managing to pass off this profoundly immoral idea as a noble moral cause.

Though every poll shows that most Americans favor legal abortion, it is evident that many nominal supporters of choice are confused and disarmed, if not convinced, but the anti-abortionists’ absolutist fervor. No one likes to be accused of advocating murder. Yet the “pro-life” position is based on a crucial fallacy — that the question of fetal rights can be isolated from the question of women’s rights. As I pointed out last month, the claim that abortion is murder is more than a claim that fetuses are people; implicit in it is the judgment that destroying fetal life cannot be a legitimate act of self-defense against the physical, psychic, social, and economic trauma of unwanted pregnancy and motherhood. But if the fetus is sacrosanct, it follows that women must be continually vulnerable to the invasion of their bodies and loss of their freedom and independence — unless they are willing to resort to the only foolproof contraceptive, abstinence. This is precisely the “solution” right-to-lifers suggest, often in righteous language about taking responsibility for one’s actions, usually with a touch of glee; as Representative Elwood Rudd once put it, “If a woman has a right to control her own body, let her exercise control before she gets pregnant.” A common ploy is to compare fucking to overeating or overdrinking, the idea being that pregnancy is a just punishment, like obesity or cirrhosis.

In 1979, it is depressing to have to insist that sex is not an unnecessary, morally dubious self-indulgence but a basic human need, no less for women than for men. Of course, for heterosexual women giving up sex also means doing without the love and companionship of a mate. (Presumably, married women who have had all the children they want are supposed to divorce their husbands or convince them that celibacy is the only moral alternative.) “Freedom” bought at such a cost is hardly freedom at all, and certainly not equality — no one tells men that if they aspire to some measure of control over their lives they are welcome to neuter themselves and become social isolates. The don’t-have-sex argument is really another version of the familiar antifeminist dictum that autonomy and femaleness — that is, female sexuality — are incompatible; if you choose the first you lose the second. But to pose this choice is not only inhumane; it is as deeply disingenuous as “Let them eat cake.” No one, least of all the anti-abortion movement, expects or wants significant numbers of women to give up sex and marriage. Nor are most right-to-lifers willing to allow abortion for rape victims. When all the cant about “responsibility” is stripped away, what the right-to-life position comes down to is, if the effect of prohibiting abortion is to keep women slaves to their biology, so be it.

In their zeal to preserve fetal life at all costs, anti-abortionists are ready to grant fetuses more legal protection than people. If a man attacks me and I kill him, I can plead self-defense without having to prove that I was in danger of being killed rather than injured, raped, or kidnapped. But in the annual congressional battle over what if any exceptions to make to the Medicaid abortion ban, the House of Representatives has bitterly opposed the funding of abortions for any reason but to save the pregnant woman’s life. Some right-to-lifers argue that even the danger of death does not justify abortion; others have suggested “safeguards” like requiring two or more doctors to certify that the woman’s life is at least 50 per cent threatened. Anti-abortionists are forever worrying that any exception to a total ban on abortion will be used as a “loophole”: better that any number of women should ruin their health or even die than that one woman should get away with not having a child “merely” because she doesn’t want one. Clearly this mentality does not reflect equal concern for all life. Rather, anti-abortionists value the lives of fetuses above the lives and welfare of women, because at bottom they do not concede women the right to an active human existence that transcends their reproductive function. The earth is not supposed to choose which crops it will or will not grow — or to decide that no one is going to walk all over it.

The conservatives who dominate the right-to-life movement have no real problem with the antifeminism inherent in their stand; their evasion of the issue is a matter of public relations. But the politics of the small group of activists who oppose abortion in the name of radical pacifism — including the so-called “feminists for life” — are a study in self-contradiction: in attacking what they see as the violence of abortion, they condone and encourage violence against women. Forced childbearing does violence to a woman’s body and spirit, and it contributes to other kinds of violence: deaths from illegal abortion; the systematic oppression of mothers and women in general; the poverty, neglect, and battering of unwanted children.

Radicals supposedly believe in attacking a problem at its roots. Yet surely it is obvious that restrictive laws do not keep women from seeking abortions; they just create an illicit, dangerous industry. The only way to drastically reduce the number of abortions — and I know of no feminist who would not agree that the fewer abortions needed, the better — is to invent safer, more reliable contraceptives, ensure universal access to all birth control methods, eliminate sexual ignorance and guilt, and change the social and economic conditions that make motherhood a trap. Anyone who is truly committed to fostering life should be fighting for women’s liberation instead of harassing and disrupting abortion clinics (hardly a nonviolent tactic, since it threatens the safety of patients). The “feminists for life” do talk a lot about ending the oppression that drives so many women to abortion; in practice, however, they are devoting all their energy to increasing it.

Despite its numerical insignificance, the anti-abortion left epitomizes the hypocrisy of the right-to-life crusade. Its need to wrap misogyny in the rhetoric of social conscience and even feminism is actually a perverse tribute to the women’s movement; it is no longer acceptable to declare openly that women deserve to suffer for the sin of Eve. I suppose that’s progress — not that it does the victims of the Hyde Amendment much good.

At noon on Saturday, March 31, there will be a march for abortion rights and against sterilization abuse, sponsored by the March 31 Coalition for Reproductive Rights. Marchers will assemble at the UN, walk past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and end up at a rally in Union Square.

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