Twenty years ago, the left debated about abortion more honestly than they do today. This article was written in 1980 for the liberal journal The Progressive.
Consistency demands concern for the unborn
The Progressive, September 1980.
The abortion issue, more than most, illustrates the occasional tendency of the Left to become so enthusiastic over what is called a "reform" that it forgets to think the issue through. It is ironic that so many on the Left have done on abortion what the conservatives and Cold War liberals did on Vietnam: They marched off in the wrong direction, to fight the wrong war, against the wrong people.
Some of us who went through the anti-war struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s are now active in the right-to-life movement. We do not enjoy opposing our old friends on the abortion issue, but we feel that we have no choice. We are moved by what pro-life feminists call the "consistency thing" -- the belief that respect for human life demands opposition to abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, and war. We don't think we have either the luxury or the right to choose some types of killing and say that they are all right, while others are not. A human life is a human life; and if equality means anything, it means that society may not value some human lives over others.
Until the last decade, people on the Left and Right generally agreed on one rule: We all protected the young. This was not merely agreement on an ethical question: It was also an expression of instinct, so deep and ancient that it scarcely required explanation.
Protection of the young included protection of the unborn, for abortion was forbidden by state laws throughout the United States. Those laws reflected an ethical consensus, not based solely on religious tradition but also on scientific evidence that human life begins at conception. The prohibition of abortion in the ancient Hippocratic Oath is well known. Less familiar to many is the Oath of Geneva, formulated by the World Medical Association in 1948, which included these words: "I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception." A Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1959, declared that "the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth."
It is not my purpose to explain why courts and parliaments in many nations rejected this tradition over the past few decades, though I suspect their action was largely a surrender to technical achievement -- if such inventions as suction aspirators can be called technical achievements. But it is important to ask why the Left in the United States generally accepted legalized abortion.
One factor was the popular civil libertarian rationale for freedom of choice in abortion. Many feminists presented it as a right of women to control their own bodies. When the objection was raised that abortion ruins another person's body, they respond that a) it is not a body, just a "blob of protoplasm" (thereby displaying ignorance of biology); or b) it is not really a "person" until it is born. When it was suggested that this is a wholly arbitrary decision, unsupported by any biology evidence, they said, "Well, that's your point of view. This is a matter of individual conscience, and in a pluralistic society people must be free to follow their consciences."
Unfortunately, many liberals and radicals accepted this view without further question. Perhaps many did know that an eight-week-old fetus has a fully human form. They did not ask whether American slaveholders before the Civil War were right in viewing blacks as less than human and private property; or whether the Nazis were correct in viewing mental patients, Jews, and Gypsies as less human and therefore subject to final solution.
Class issues provided another rationale. In the late 1960s, liberals were troubled by evidence that rich women could obtain abortions regardless of the law, by going to careful society doctors or countries where abortion was legal. Why, they asked, should poor women be barred from something the wealthy could have? One might turn this argument on its head by asking why rich children should be denied protection that poor children have.
But pro-life activists did not want abortion to be a class issue one way the other; they wanted to end abortion everywhere, for all classes. And many people who had experienced poverty did not think providing legal abortion was any favor to poor women. Thus; 1972, when a Presidential commission on population growth recommended legalized abortion, partly to remove discrimination against poor women, several commission members dissented.
One was Graciela Olivarez, a Chicana was active in civil rights and anti-poverty work. Olivarez, who later was named to head the Federal Government's Community Services Administration, had known poverty in her youth in the Southwest. With a touch of bitterness, she said in her dissent, "The poor cry out for justice and equality and we respond with legalized abortion." Olivarez noted that blacks and Chicanos had often been unwanted by white society. She added, "I believe that in a society that permits the life of even one individual (born or unborn) to be dependent on whether that life is ?wanted' or not, all citizens stand in danger." Later she told the press, "We do not have equal opportunities. Abortion is a cruel way out."
Many liberals were also persuaded by a church/state argument that followed roughly this line: "Opposition to abortion is a religious viewpoint, particularly a Catholic viewpoint. The Catholics have no business imposing their religious views on the rest of us." It is true that opposition to abortion is a religious position for many people. Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and many of the fundamentalist Protestant groups also oppose abortion. (So did the mainstream Protestant churches until recent years.) But many people are against abortion for reasons that are independent of religious authority or belief. Many would still be against abortion if they lost their faith; others are opposed to it after they have lost faith, or if they never had any faith. Only if their non-religious grounds for opposition can be proven baseless should legal prohibition of abortion fairly be called an establishment of religion. The pro-abortion forces concentrate heavily on religious arguments against abortion and generally ignore the secular arguments -- possibly because they cannot answer them.
Still another, more emotional reason is that so many conservatives oppose abortion. Many liberals have difficulty accepting the idea that Jesse Helms can be right about anything. I do not quite understand this attitude. Just by the law of averages, he has to be right about something, sometime. Standing at the March for Life rally at the U.S. Capitol last year, and hearing Senator Helms say that "We reject the philosophy that life should be only for the planned, the perfect, or the privileged," I thought he was making a good civil-rights statement.
If much of the leadership of the pro-life movement is right-wing, that is due largely to the default of the Left. We "little people" who marched against the war and now march against abortion would like to see leaders of the Left speaking out on behalf of the unborn. But we see only a few, such as Dick Gregory, Mark Hatfield, Jesse Jackson, Richard Neuhaus, Mary Rose Oakar. Most of the others either avoid the issue or support abortion. We are dismayed by their inconsistency. And we are not impressed by arguments that we should work and vote for them because they are good on such issues as food stamps and medical care.
Although many liberals and radicals accepted legalized abortion, there are signs of uneasiness about it. Tell someone who supports it that you have many problems with the issue, and she is likely to say, quickly, "Oh, I don't think I could ever have one myself, but . . . ." or "I'm really not pro-abortion; I'm pro-choice" or "I'm personally opposed to it, but . . . ."
Why are they personally opposed to it if there is nothing wrong with it?
Perhaps such uneasiness is a sign that many on, the Left are ready to take another look at the abortion issue. In the hope of contributing toward a new perspective, I offer the following points:
First, it is out of character for the Left to neglect the weak and helpless. The traditional mark of the Left has been its protection of the underdog, the weak, and the poor. The unborn child is the most helpless form of humanity, even more in need of protection than the poor tenant farmer or the mental patient or the boat people on the high seas. The basic instinct of the Left is to aid those who cannot aid themselves -- and that instinct is absolutely sound. It is what keeps the human proposition going.
Second, the right to life underlies and sustains every other right we have. It is, as Thomas Jefferson and his friends said, self-evident. Logically, as well as in our Declaration of Independence, it comes before the right to liberty and the right to property. The right to exist, to be free from assault by others, is the basis of equality. Without it, the other rights are meaningless, and life becomes a sort of warfare in which force decides everything. There is no equality, because one person's convenience takes precedence over another's life, provided only that the first person has more power. If we do not protect this right for everyone, it is not guaranteed for everyone, because anyone can become weak and vulnerable to assault.
Third, abortion is a civil-rights issue. Dick Gregory and many other blacks view abortion as a type of genocide. Confirmation of this comes in the experience of pro-life activists who find open bigotry when they speak with white voters about public funding of abortion. Many white voters believe abortion is a solution for the welfare problem and a way to slow the growth of the black population. I worked two years ago for a liberal, pro-life candidate who was appalled by the number of anti-black comments he found when discussing the issue. And Representative Robert Dornan of California, a conservative pro-life leader, once told his colleagues in the House, "I have heard many rock-ribbed Republicans brag about how fiscally conservative they are and then tell me that I was an idiot on the abortion issue." When he asked why, said Dornan, they whispered, "Because we have to hold them down, we have to stop the population growth." Dornan elaborated: "To them, population growth means blacks, Puerto Ricans, or other Latins," or anyone who "should not be having more than a polite one or two `burdens on society.' "
Fourth, abortion exploits women. Many women are pressured by spouses, lovers, or parents into having abortions they do not want. Sometimes the coercion is subtle, as when a husband complains of financial problems. Sometimes it is open and crude, as when a boyfriend threatens to end the affair unless the woman has an abortion, or when parents order a minor child to have an abortion. Pro-life activists who do "clinic counseling" (standing outside abortion clinics, trying to speak to each woman who enters, urging her to have the child) report that many women who enter clinics alone are willing to talk and to listen. Some change their minds and decide against abortion. But a woman who is accompanied by someone else often does not have the chance to talk, because the husband or boyfriend or parent is so hostile to the pro-life worker.
Juli Loesch, a feminist/pacifist writer, notes that feminists want to have men participate more in the care of children, but abortion allows a man to shift total responsibility to the woman: "He can buy his way out of accountability by making `The Offer' for `The Procedure.' " She adds that the man's sexual role "then implies-exactly nothing: no relationship. How quickly a `woman's right to choose' comes to serve a `man's right to use.?" And Daphne de Jong, a New Zealand feminist, says, "If women must submit to abortion to preserve their lifestyle or career, their economic or social status, they are pandering to a system devised and run by men for male convenience." She adds, "Of all the things which are done to women to fit them into a society dominated by men, abortion is the most violent invasion of their physical and psychic integrity. It is a deeper and more destructive assault than rape . . . ."
Loesch, de Jong, Olivarez, and other pro-life feminists believe men should bear a much greater share of the burdens of child-rearing than they do at present. And de Jong makes a radical point when she says, "Accepting short-term solutions like abortion only delays the implementation of real reforms like decent maternity and paternity leaves, job protection, high-quality child care, community responsibility for dependent people of all ages, and recognition of the economic contribution of child-minders." Olivarez and others have also called for the development of safer and more effective contraceptives for both men and women. In her 1972 dissent, Olivarez noted with irony that "medical science has developed four differ ways for killing a fetus, but has not "developed a safe-for-all-to-use contraceptive."
Fifth, abortion is an escape from an obligation that is owed to another. Doris Gordon, Coordinator of Libertarians for Life, puts it this way: "Unborn children don't cause women to become pregnant but parents cause their children to be in the womb, and as a result, they need parental care. As a general principle, if we are the cause of another's need for care, as when we cause an accident, we acquire an obligation to that person a result .... We have no right to kill order to terminate any obligation."
Sixth, abortion brutalizes those who perform it, undergo it, pay for it, profit from it, and allow it to happen. Too many of us look the other way because we do not want to think about abortion. A part of reality is blocked out because one does not want to see broken bodies coming home, or going to an incinerator, in those awful plastic bags. People deny their own humanity when they refuse to identify with, or even knowledge, the pain of others.
With some it is worse: They are making money from the misery others, from exploited women and dead children. Doctors, business and clinic directors are making a great deal of money from abortion. Jobs and high incomes depend on abortion; it?s part of the gross national product. The parallels of this with the military industrial complex should be obvious to anyone who was involved in the war movement.
And the "slippery slope" argument is right: People really do go from accepting abortion to accepting euthanasia and accepting "triage" for the hunger problem and accepting "lifeboat ethics" as a general guide to human behavior. We slip down the slope back to the jungle.
To save the smallest children, save its own conscience, the Left should speak out against abortion.
Mary Meehan has written for Inquiry, The Nation, The Washington Monthly, The Washington Post, and other publications.
This article can be found on the No Violence Period website. Reprinted with permission.