The Case for a Positive Abortion Law (reprinted below) appeared in MEETING GROUND #11, November 1989. Much of it is still applicable.
The recent threat to Roe vs. Wade had sent us into the streets and speaking out to the general public on a feminist issue for the first time in nearly a decade. It has been an eye-opening experience.
We started out thinking we would bring some of the more radical demands and approaches from the WLM of the 1960s to bear on the situation, i.e. such concepts and slogans as "Repeal All Abortion Laws," "Women Are the Experts on Abortion" and "WE Will Control Our Own Bodies." They had been crucial back then to the great leap forward in abortion rights which culminated in the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973.
But it wasn't that simple. We found, for example, that the goal and strategy embodied in the slogan "Abortion Is A Woman's Right; Repeal's the Way to Win the Fight" is unintelligible to most women today. We discovered some women who were involved in the earlier struggle had forgotten why we fought for repeal or that we hadn't won it. Many had lost sight of the economic class aspect of abortion: that we had basically stopped fighting when the right was won for most of the middle class, one reason that the problem is still with us. Legal does not equal accessible.
The very word "repeal," which had differentiated radical women's liberationists from the reformers who were willing to settle for various and sundry limitations on women's right to abortion, had lost its meaning in the ignorance and loss of consciousness of today's political milieu. That ignorance extended to a basic misunderstanding of Roe vs. Wade. Many believe it to be a federal law giving women “abortion on demand” when it is merely a Supreme Court decision limiting how much the individual states can restrict abortion. To really "repeal all abortion laws" would make Roe vs. Wade moot because any and all state laws restricting abortions would be wiped off the books.
What's Wrong with "Choice"?
We came to the frustrating realization that we have been left without even a language for expressing our demands. The language of “choice” doesn't do it—not alone anyway. A Meeting Ground editorial in December 1979 (right column) reflected our dismay at where the replacement of "abortion on demand" by “choice” was leading us, yet even we were shocked at how far down the wrong road we'd come.
The only people who really are merely "pro-choice" are those who oppose abortion but who put the personal right of choice above their own position. Others are reluctant to stand against the tide, stopping at “choice” when they are really “pro-abortion,” one of the few things the Right has said of the “Pro-Choicers” that is true. This intimidation of so many women into pro-choice wishy-washyness is perhaps the greatest achievement of the Right. “Choice” is not a very strong position from which to fight for women's liberation.
Marion Banzhaf delineated the three main abortion positions in “Evaluating A.R.M.” in the July-Aug. 1980 issue of the Abortion Rights Movement Newsletter (reprinted in Meeting Ground #8):
"Feminists can no longer afford to be defensive about abortion. Being pro-abortion means going on the offensive to answer the attack on abortion rights. Being pro-abortion means that the woman is more important than the potential life -- the fetus. It is really quite simple. The pro-abortion movement puts the woman first. The anti-abortion forces put the fetus first. The pro-choice groups put the ability to choose first.
"We have learned the hard way that we cannot dodge the anti-abortionists arguments about life. Everyone knows that potential life does exist and is destroyed when a woman has an abortion. The pro-choice answers that everyone should have the right to choose for themselves whether they want to take that step. That is correct; everyone must have that right. But it doesn't address the question of life, nor does it remove the guilt and shame that society has put on abortion. The pro-abortion belief does not deny or sidestep the fact that life exists -- it puts the living, functioning, already born woman in complete power. The woman's right to determine how she will live her life is greater than the "right" to be born of the fetus."
Some 20 years ago, the early WLM broke through the silence that had kept abortion a shameful secret and an often-dangerous procedure. The strength of the movement for liberation gave women the courage to begin to speak up publicly about their lives, including their abortions. It was like the sun rising after a night of secret and horrible nightmares. The shame, the guilt, the horror quickly began to vanish as the truth came tumbling out of women's mouths, sometimes amidst the tears of painful memories.
Truth is a powerful weapon in the struggle for justice. In fact, it is such a powerful weapon that great efforts are being made to guilt-trip us back into silence or into using weak slogans like "Pro-Choice." It's interesting that we can see and read all kinds of sexual words, symbols, language, nuances, titillation in our supermarket magazine rack, on our TV and movie screens, yet when it comes to talking publicly about the reality of how women experience sex in our real lives there is still much shame, guilt and fear to be reckoned with. Pregnancy and abortion are a result of sex. As one sign at the Spring NOW March in Washington put it, "If abortion is a crime, fucking is a felony."
The New Attacks
This shift from "Pro-Abortion" to "Pro-Choice" has left the door open to all kinds of old and new ideological attacks on abortion rights. At first glance, "pro-choice" would seem a clever tactic. Choice is, after all, more American than apple pie. It's a bulwark in the argument against Communism, i.e. the Reds have robbed people of their right to choose. How can any good American oppose personal "choice?"
But abortion must be SAFE, LEGAL, READILY ACCESSIBLE and GUILT-FREE in order to be a genuine choice free of restrictions. "Choice" fails to assert positively women's right to abortion, to take a stand FOR abortion, and in doing so leaves women defenseless in the onslaught of terrorism from both liberals and the Right. By not meeting the murder argument head on, it stymies women in actually using their "choice." It leaves the argument in the theoretical sphere and doesn't deal with the cold, hard reality of what happens when a woman decides to act on her choice and have an abortion.
The terrorism from the Right is both psychological and immediately physical (the fire bombing and blockading of abortion clinics, etc.). By not taking on the "murder" accusation, "Pro-Choicers" leave open the possibility that the "Right-to-Lifers" may be right. This leaves each individual woman to face the accusations virtually alone and feeling that she may in fact be committing a horrible deed.
Examples of the psychological terrorism from the liberals abound in the writings of self-proclaimed "ethicists" and "opinion makers." In practical results (and perhaps in intent, i.e. they don't want women to have control of their own lives), they are not that much different from the Operation Rescuer Right-to-Lifer" folk who make women walk the gauntlet of yells of "murderer" and "baby killer."
This guilt-tripping argument against abortion comes from those liberal pundits who don't wish to come out flatly against abortion or "choice," but want to make sure every woman pays for her sin of getting (herself?) pregnant by going through the proper amount of anguish over her decision to abort. As long as a woman agonizes properly she can "choose" to abort.
Columnist William Raspberry (Middletown, NY Record 4/25/89) quotes "pro-choicer" Jason De Parle as saying the declaration of a legal right to an abortion doesn't end the discussion of what our attitude toward it should be, it merely begins it. The need, says De Parle (quoting moral philosopher Daniel Callahan) is to preserve the "moral tension" implicit in an unwanted pregnancy. That the pregnant woman bears the brunt of that "moral tension" is something Raspberry acknowledges, but he can't quite bring himself to take the woman's side.
Each woman's conscience and circumstances will dictate if and how guilty she feels. Men, who get out of this scot-free and who are usually the reason why women need abortions in the first place, must not be allowed to dictate our guilt. Nor for that matter must other women who just can't imagine themselves in somebody else's shoes. We have heard many accounts of women from the "Right To-Life" ranks showing up at the very clinics they had picketed when they themselves needed an abortion claiming their situation was "different" from all those other selfish women who don't really need one.
Both Raspberry and Ellen Goodman, (Middletown, NY Record 4/16/89) have brought up the situation of the aborting of female fetuses by couples wanting a boy as an example of why "abortion on demand" should not be granted. The preference for male children is rooted in male supremacy, not in abortion itself, and should be fought on that level. Women are already the target of misogyny. Demanding we not be allowed abortion on these grounds is adding insult to injury.
"Choice" does mask some real political differences in some cases. There are women who agree with some restrictions on abortion. They like the trimester approach (they can't imagine themselves needing a late abortion); they are afraid those "other" women will use abortion as birth control or are too cavalier about human life. They are often the direct descendants of the reformers of the last go-around who were willing to accept all kinds of restrictions. They don't acknowledge the contradiction or hypocrisy in their position, however: any restriction means some women are denied the right to choose.
A Positive Law?
We have come to the tentative conclusion that the only way through this quagmire is to fight for a positive federal law—or maybe even Constitutional Amendment, considering how easily laws can be repealed—guaranteeing women the right to total reproductive control (perhaps as a part of some broader feminist law). In 1971, Women for Women, a Gainesville (Florida) women's liberation group of which I was a member, actually drafted such a law geared to the state level and sent it to Gwen Cherry, a pro-abortion Representative, asking her to introduce it. (She replied that she agreed with most of it, but it wasn't feasible.) It read:
"The state shall make or enforce no law which would force or coerce a woman to have or not to have a child. The state shall further prohibit the passage of any city or county ordinance or hospital, clinic or medical regulation which limits or tries to limit a woman's right to control her own body through the use of birth control, abortions, and sterilization. This law shall be applicable to any woman regardless of her age, marital and economic status, and regardless of the number of children she has."
At the time, the emphasis was on repeal and we found little support for this strategy, even among our closest allies. However, given the current chaos over the meaning of Roe vs. Wade, "repeal," "abortion on demand" etc., and the need to go on the offensive against both the blatantly anti-woman Right and the subtle anti-woman liberals, we think it might be the clearest and most productive way to focus the energy of the pro-abortion, pro-woman forces to "go for what we really want."
An editorial "We Are Pro-Abortion," that first appeared in Meeting Ground #7, December 1979:
by Carol Hanisch and Barbara Leon
A little over a decade ago women's liberationists burst on the national scene demanding total repeal of all abortion laws on the grounds that women have a right to control their own bodies. Until then, the abortion reform organizations, largely composed of population-controllers with little concern one way or another for women's rights in the matter, had been making little headway. Their reform programs readily accepted various restrictions on who could get an abortion, when and how.
When the outpouring of support for women's demand for total repeal culminated in the Supreme Court's historic liberal decision in 1973, it became possible for large numbers of women to get abortions legally. Even though repeal had not been won, and despite the prophetic warnings of feminists like Cindy Cisler, repeal groups disbanded or lost support and became ineffective.
Today we are faced with the results of that incomplete victory as more and more restrictions are added to the current law. It's easy to blame it all on the Right Wing fetus-worshipers who are out in full force these days. But then they were around ten years ago, too, calling us murderers and lobbying and doing all the damage they dared. The difference is that we were becoming a strongly united women's liberation movement then and they didn't loom as large as they do from our splintered ranks of today.
Weakened as we are, however, it does no good to fight if we do not hold on to our principles and remember how we were able to progress to begin with. With some courageous exceptions, such as the Abortion Rights Movement (ARM), the cry has arisen from within the feminist ranks that "We are not pro-abortion. We are pro-choice." Some who raise this cry trace their political lineage back to the old abortion reformers and are usually population-controllers. But the alarming thing, at root, is to see women who consider themselves to be feminists, who often are connected with groups such as NOW which fairly early on took a stand for abortion repeal, taking up this "pro-choice" cry. Some of these groups are changing their very names, replacing the words like "abortion rights" with "pro-choice."
To them we say, Sisters, where is your courage? And where are your brains? How can women have the right to chose unless one of those choices is abortion? And that means legal abortions with no restrictions, including the restrictions of social pressure from those who want women to have a choice but only in theory, not in fact. And it must eventually mean freedom from having to cross a picket line of people calling you a murderer for making that choice. To claim to be pro-choice but not pro-abortion is to try to appear to not take sides, which means to NOT side with the woman who has to cross that picket line, be it an actual one or a psychological one set up by social pressure.
Abortion is not a wonderful experience. All women know that. BUT BEING ABLE TO GET A SAFE, LEGAL ABORTION WHEN WE DECIDE WE NEED ONE IS WONDERFUL and not only is it wonderful, but it is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY FOR THE LIBERATION OF WOMEN.
So we must be pro-abortion. We value the lives of living, breathing, real women over the potential life of the unborn fetus. We must affirm abortion as one available means of birth control, however imperfect, and demand that all laws regarding it be repealed. It's the only way that women CAN have a right to choose.
Letter (unpublished) to the Washington Post (circa January 1989)
To the Editor:
The "Pro-Life" anti-abortionists have been ardently comparing their crusade to the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and likening abortion to the holocaust of the Jews. In doing so, they equate African-Americans and Jewish people with fetuses, an objectively racist position regardless of its intent.
I have seen this position popping up in newspapers all across the country, from the coverage of the issue in large metropolitian newspapers like the Washington Post to Letters to the Editor in such disparate places as the Gainesville (Florida) Sun and the Kingston (New York) Freeman. Do these "Pro-Lifers" really make no distinction between a developing bunch of cells and fully developed, thinking, conscious human beings? Probably not. They never have when those human beings were women.
I put "Pro-Life" in quotes because nowhere do I see any concern from these people for either the life or rights of women--including African-American women--whose lives they would blindly and self-righteously crush. Having and/or raising a child is much more than an "inconvenience" as any woman well knows, including those who act as mouthpieces for these Rightwing, male supremacist groups. In Nazi Germany women were put to death for having abortions. The "Pro-Life" groups seem to share the fascist ideology that women are nothing more than breeders to be protected only in their role of producing children for the Motherland. It is only as mothers that these fetus idolaters show any concern whatsoever for women.
Men and women have always had sex and women have always born most of the consequences of unwanted pregnancy. Women, when they deem it necessary, have always had and will continue to have abortions. Due largely to the pressure of the Women's Liberation Movement, which demanded the right of a woman to control her own sexuality and reproductive labor, most abortions in the U.S. are now safe and legal rather than dangerous and back alley. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973 legalizing [many] abortions was an enormous step forward for more than half the country's population. It brings women closer to equality in the home and in the work place and that is what the issue is really about at its roots.
Those individuals who have a real concern for fetuses should join the Women's Liberation Movement in demanding that men to be sexually responsible, that they share the responsibility for the use of birth control, stop the lies and false promises, and take financial, emotional, and day-to-day responsibility for the children they father. They should demand sex education be based on scientific truth and common sense, not mystical morality and mythical machismo. They should join in pressuring the government to provide for the kind of health care, day care and parental leave from the work place that would make the difficulties of having and raising a child a little closer to the "mere inconvenience" category into which the "Pro-Lifers" try to put it.