The issues of abortion and contraception seem to be in the air these days, and the pro-life camp has its standard-bearers out in force. After listening to the public discourse, and after conversations with some of my pro-life friends, I feel that I would have much more respect for the pro-life camp if I could be certain that all of them were focused on preserving life, and not on preserving control. In short, I’d be happier if I could be certain that the whole of the pro-life camp is actually pro-life, instead of anti-women.
I can understand the belief that abortion is killing. I think that saying so raises both biological and theological questions that we can’t answer with certainty at the moment. I and many others could raise many objections to the abortion = murder position, but I can understand and respect the principle. I know many people who hold to that belief, and my friends believe it honestly and reasonably.
But knowing as I do that a significant percentage of abortions are performed because the women in question just can’t afford a child… knowing as I do that the Pill prevents both ovulation and implantation, and thus has effects both before and after conception… knowing as I do that abortion rates barely even twitch when abortion is criminalized, and only go down when contraception is readily available… I must look to a different strand of the pro-life camp, which to my dismay and astonishment seems to not only seek an end to abortion, but to birth control and education on reproduction.
Under those circumstances, I have to think that the real problem for this second strand is not the death of children but the liberation of women. I would love to be wrong, but I’ll have to be convinced. If anyone out there is seeking to restrain women, I have words for them… and I have reason to believe that such people are numerous.
Consider the history: into the 20th century, men in power frequently asserted that the only role for women was bearing children. Theodore Roosevelt felt that giving birth was a woman’s patriotic duty, that limiting birth rates weakened the nation, and thus a woman shirking that “duty” was committing treason. (Many totalitarians have felt the same way, though this should not reflect on Roosevelt; he was a warmonger, but not a Nazi.) Looking further back, bearing children was considered essential to colonizing the American continent, so women had to have babies. If we go all the way back, of course, we have the New Testament saying that the only way women can be redeemed is through bearing children (1 Timothy 2:15) — and we have the Book of Genesis stating simply that the process of childbirth is a punishment and that men shall rule over women (3:16). That last may seem like it came out of nowhere, but recall that Roosevelt was talking to suffragettes and the author of Timothy was talking to the women leaders of the early church — in other words, “uppity” women, rejecting their normal roles. 1 Timothy says, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (2:12); the intent of that is pretty plain. The story we tell about Eve, that everything’s her fault because she was so tempting and sinful, sets the precedent. While there have been other reasons for insisting on compulsory motherhood (which is what Roosevelt and 1 Timothy and possibly Senator Santorum have advocated), forced birth keeps women “in their place.” Men are for action and the doing of deeds, women are for having babies, and any woman who revolts against that must be kept down by getting knocked up.
There’s no place here for discussion about how this came about, though that’s an important question with many possible answers; however it happened, it’s the distant past indeed. Instead, consider the present:
- Foster Friess, a major political contributor, recently brought back an ancient and awful joke: “Back in my days, they’d use Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals would put it between their knees.” His self-admitted failed wisecrack shows flat-out that his camp feels contraception is just a way of dodging the consequences of promiscuity.
- The Mormon and Catholic Churches permit only two methods of birth control, total abstinence and the rhythm method. The latter is so chancy and unreliable it’s about as effective as just hoping really hard.
- Rep. Darrell Issa of California convened a Congressional panel on these issues the other month, and refused to allow any women to testify. Yes, the subject matter was “religious freedom,” but saying it was only about that is like saying the Civil War was over “states’ rights” without once asking what rights were under discussion. I have a religious objection to paying money for wars, but Congressman Issa and the Catholic bishops are not riding to my rescue.
- A year or three ago, I heard a pro-life spokesman asked why pro-lifers are also almost entirely supporters of abstinence-only sex education. To my ears, the pro-life speaker practically fell over himself to escape the question, first saying that condoms are ineffective if improperly used (so are cars, which is why we have driver’s ed), then changing the subject, essentially demanding why there’s such a bias against abstinence in the pro-choice camp. But comprehensive reproductive education would of course include abstinence, as the only 100% reliable method. That’s what “comprehensive” means. I’m still waiting for good answers to the original question.
- On a related note, Utah has banned everything but abstinence-only education. The bill’s sponsor is on record saying, “Why don’t we just be honest with them [the students] upfront that sex outside marriage is devastating?”
- There’s the Quiverfull movement, which asserts so strenuously that women are only to bear children that its practitioners keep their daughters from going to college. They have correctly noted that education in women leads to lower birth rates, and so feel that women should be rightfully empty of mind and full of child. According to comments by those who have left the movement, women are also advised that if their husbands beat them or cheat on them, or even are just struggling at work, it’s because they as wives are not doing enough.
- Finally, I once had a pregnant student tell me that her mother wasn’t going to let her have any pain medication during the birth because her mother wanted her to suffer the full consequences of having sex.
Is it so much of a stretch, then, that I think many pro-lifers are actually out to control women rather than protect life?
You may say I am assigning guilt by association, and that’s a fair point. First remember I am specifically focusing on those pro-lifers who are also striving to ban contraceptives and comprehensive reproductive health education. (Their term, “sex ed,” allows people to believe that teachers are instructing students on how to have sex, rather than what’s actually happening: basic biology lessons.) Second, consider this analogy, which I admit may be problematic. Imagine a group of Southern Democrats in 1960, white men who believed in segregation and white superiority, and who occasionally held cross-burnings to make sure that black people didn’t get uppity or get to vote. Imagine these men stampeding to Richard Nixon and the GOP following the beginning of the Republican “Southern Strategy.” And now imagine that the GOP’s next generation is for some reason drafting legislation restricting voters in pretty much the exactly the same way as the Southern Dems did back in the heyday of Jim Crow. It would be unfair to say that this generation of Republicans are, in fact, just Klansmen with the serial numbers filed off. But wouldn’t it be fair to say that some suspicion is warranted? One plausible explanation is that the rhetoric of voter-suppression got handed down without the racism that inspired it, but intentional or not, the outcome appears racist.
Likewise, it’s entirely possible that the anti-birth control strand of the pro-life camp may have inherited their tactics without the misogyny that inspired them, but it still appears misogynist. And while intent does count for a lot, outcomes and impacts matter more. If you accidentally shoot your friend, it doesn’t matter if you meant to; he’s still dead. So the anti-contraceptive groups may not mean to oppress women, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t oppressive.
So I make an appeal: if you are, in all honesty, pro-life for the sake of the unborn, then make it plain by stating unequivocally that women have just as much right to life and liberty as the children do, and back it up with action.
If you instead believe that women only exist to bear children and keep house… if you wish to punish women for having sex without your permission… if you wish to turn back time to an earlier age… women will stop you. And I’ll help them do it.
For I’ve known women of magnificent strength, women who have taught me to be strong. One helped me overcome my addiction. One’s the mother of three children, has her PhD, and teaches college courses. One helps build jets, knows more about computers than I ever will, teaches science on the side, and walks the Three-Day every year. One teaches me how to be physically strong; she’s a personal trainer. One’s my mother, another’s my grandmother. One taught me when a silent Quaker should speak. One helps bridge the gulf between faiths; a dozen others are great leaders in their own ways of beliefs. One or five or a hundred are still decide what they want to be, and I can’t wait to find out what they choose.
The world is spread out for these women, who have control of their bodies as they have control of their lives; they can do what they choose, and become what they want to be. I love them for their power and their choices. To limit them to one thing alone would be a desecration. Their eyes are on the horizon, their feet are free, and I’ll stand beside them for all of my days.