A Comment on Reproductive Rights: Whose Right To Choose?

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

Dianne Feeley

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, IN his article opposing abortion (The Nation, April 24, 1989) performs a tightrope act, as he precariously attempts to strike a balance between supporters of women’s rights and the right wing. He cries out, “Let’s have a historic compromise” between women’s rights and fetuses…-forgetting that Roe v. Wade is exactly that historic compromise.

Fashioned fifteen years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision is not based on the fundamental principle of the pro-choice struggle: a woman’s right to control her own body and to make the moral choices that responsibility entails. Instead, under the right to privacy, the Court severely limited the state’s capacity to restrict women’s access to abortion, particularly during the first six months of pregnancy.

The compromise resulted in legalizing abortion. But it was not a compromise the right wing accepted. They immediately launched a counterattack – those of us active in the movement then knew they would.

Today one out of every four pregnancies ends in abortion. Over 90% of the 1.6 million women who have abortions in the United States each year terminate their pregnancy within the first twelve weeks. Less than 1% seek abortions after the twenty-first week – these are young teenagers, poor women or women from religious backgrounds. That is, those who have late abortions have them because they were unable to get them earlier.

With the legalization of abortion fewer pregnant women run the risk of dying every year. Records from the 1960s indicate that about 20%, of all pregnancy-related admissions to municipal hospitals in New York and California were the result of illegal abortions. Exact statistics are hard to come by, but it is estimated that 235 women died from illegal abortion in the United States during 1965 alone. Today abortion is one of the safest of all medical procedures. When performed within the first trimester, chance of death stands at 1 out of 400,000.

The responses to Hitchens that The Nation printed (May 8 and May15 issues) are right to the point.  They note that Hitchens calls on society “to make women a serious proposal” as if women are somehow separate from society. They also note that Hitchens’ proposals for sex and contraception education in the schools and national health care are part of the feminist agenda, not a new and brilliant idea.

Surely Hitchens understands that we live in a repressive society where sex symbols are everywhere but sex education is virtually unavailable. The religious right plays on the preposterous notion that ignorance provides greater “protection” to the young than does knowledge. They also piously maintain that information about sexuality “should be” taught at home. As a result, the majority of young people initiate their sexual lives well before they seek birth control information.

The religious right opposes sex education, contraception and abortion because they view all three as ways women subvert the will of God. This plays into the backward and unhealthy attitudes about sex that exist within our society.

Strangest of all is that while Hitchens tests his argument against abortion on the basis that the fetus is a life, is an “unborn child,” he nonetheless concedes that “not all taking of life is murder.” Therefore “no woman may be compelled to bear a child if she is the victim of rape or incest, or if her mental or physical health is threatened.” Presumably women who do not fit this category should be compelled to bear a child.

Why Abortion?

Hitchens presents an excessive individualism of the “Me decade” as the underlying philosophy of feminism. This indictment echoes the right-wing accusation that women who seek abortion are flighty and frivolous, attempting to avoid responsibility for their actions. Both assert that for a woman who chooses to have a sexual life, motherhood is destiny.

If we examine what women seeking abortion give as their reasons, we discover about 75% say having a baby would inhibit them from carrying out previous commitments, whether to work, school or other responsibilities; 67% cite financial hardship; and 50% say that they do not want to be a single parent or that they have current problems with their partner.

These reasons reflect the thoughtfulness of women who have considered their situation. Raising a child is a responsibility, not something undertaken lightly. That’s true even if, as socialist feminists demand, society were committed lo far greater social programs than Hitchens outlines – including adequate housing, jobs for all, community-control­led and well-financed day care, quality and meaningful education.

When I was seventeen, I believed that if God wanted me to have twelve children, I had no right to deny God by even practicing birth control (the rhythm method, of course). I thought my classmates, who argued in our Home and Family class the parish priest taught, were “selfish.”

But selfishness is not high up on the list of problems women suffer from. Women are masters at juggling their lives in order to deal with the concrete dilemmas raising children entail – too good, in fact, for our own good. Nurturing is a human characteristic, not a gender-specific one.

Let me recall some persona stories. I remember an older woman who told me about an illegal abortion she’d had in the 1930s – she and her husband, a union organizer had three children and didn’t know how they could take care of any more. Back in the 1960s I sheltered a friend who was afraid to have an abortion and who painfully bore a child she didn’t want and put it up for adoption. And when l was raising my stepchildren, I helped a friend deal with several birth-control failures, undergoing three abortions in eighteen months. She didn’t feel her relationship was stable enough to bring children into the world.

Personally I have never been faced with needing an unwanted pregnancy, but as someone who had cancer and was therefore cautioned against using the pill, the fact that abortion was there in case I became pregnant made my life a bit less stressful.

Hitchens remarks that society must somehow attempt to mediate between a woman’s life and the potential life that exists inside her body. He assumes all women have perfect control over contraception, excellent rapport with their partner, little variation in fertility. He likewise assumes that women are capable (unlike men?) of interrupting their schooling and work lives in order to rear their children. Has he not looked at the statistics or heard the stories of the agonizing decisions women are forced to make in the real world?

Who Decides?

When it comes down to who will make the decisions about women’s reproductive lives, Hitchens devises a standard which he obviously considers fair. But do women? The decision to continue or end pregnancy is a complex one that involves not just economic factors or the kind of prenatal care available – as essential as these are – but human and emotional considerations.

Frankly, I do not believe anyone can judge the individual situation as well as the woman herself. That is the essence of the feminist slogan: “Not the Church, not the State, women must decide their fate.” Women’s oppression intersects in different ways across racial and class barriers, and even generational lines, given the length of women’s reproductive cycle. What women need is control over our reproductive lives: the capacity to make specific choices. This means the capacity to oppose sterilization abuse or forcible childbearing, and it also means society has an obligation to insure the health and wellbeing of children.

However well intentioned, those who seek to make abortion less accessible close off women’s capacity to implement their moral decisions. Driving abortion underground means risking health and life itself. And we all know who is the most at risk: Black and Latino women, poor women.

If we were having a theoretical discussion about the perfect world of the future, I’d be willing to say women would need abortions even then. Even in a society where violence against women did not exist, even in a society in which women were economically independent, where Black children had no higher infant mortality rates than white children, and where poverty did not exist. Because even then, even where sex education was well integrated into the curriculum and where women had better birth control devices than the ones currently available, even in such a society abortion might be necessary as a pack-up procedure.

I am sure Christopher Hitchens would not really want women to be brought to trial for seeking abortion, convicted and sentence as Shirley Wheeler and others were not so long ago when abortion was a criminal offense. But already the right wing talks about its plans for “after” they successfully recriminalize abortion. 1hey boast of how they must prepare to be “undercover” agents, seeking out doctors who dare to violate the law.

Clearly Hitchens understands that the right’s attack on women’s access to abortion is the opening wedge in the drive to consolidate a conservative movement. And that’s why he is so uncomfortable about his position. Both he and the right wing end up literally turning a woman into a criminal.

Rather, I think being human involves making difficult choices in a real world while one works to build a world in which there are more adequate options. So I submit that there can be no historic compromise over women’s bodies. Of course, keeping abortion safe, legal and accessible is merely a beginning – but without that option, the U.S. government will be responsible for recklessly endangering women’s lives.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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