America’s long war over abortion has classically been defined as a struggle between competing rights — depicted as the right of a woman to have an abortion versus the right of an unborn child to the protection of life. This long-familiar framing of the issue suggests, at the very least, that the rights of women and their unborn children are, or at least can be, presented as an irresolvable conflict.
From the very beginning, this has been an unsatisfactory approach to the abortion controversy. Those who contend for the sanctity of human life at every stage of development are, by virtue of moral necessity, also concerned with the health, welfare, and well-being of women. The reduction of the abortion question to a matter of “rights” is itself a symptom of our moral confusion.
One of the most insidious aspects of the abortion controversy has been the success of the feminist movement in presenting abortion on demand as a matter central to the liberation of women. The feminist logic suggests that women can never be seen as equal to men in terms of career so long as the “risk” and reality of pregnancy and motherhood are present. As the feminists argue, abortion becomes a mechanism for leveling the playing field and for liberating women.
As far back as the 1970s, at least some feminists saw through this logic. Catherine MacKinnon, a radical feminist legal scholar, argued that legal abortion would merely facilitate the “heterosexual availability” of women. In other words, abortion would be a benefit to men, who would be liberated to take sexual advantage of women, knowing that the availability of legal abortion would effectively remove their risk of the entanglements that would come with pregnancy and parenthood.
MacKinnon is a radical legal theorist whose arguments on both abortion and pornography have been of considerable interest to conservatives for some time. Even as her ideology puts her on the far left of contemporary feminism, her argument that the availability of abortion and pornography is deeply injurious to women offers something of an awkward common ground with conservatives. At the very least, she is noteworthy for seeing what so many of her fellow feminists simply refused to see.
Writing in the August/September 2009 issue of First Things, Richard Stith argues that the legalization of abortion “was supposed to grant enormous freedom to women, but it has had the perverse result of freeing men and trapping women.”
Over 30 years after Roe v. Wade, we now know that abortion “has increased the expectation and frequency of sexual intercourse (including unprotected intercourse) among young people,” Stith observes. As he explains, the post-Roe expectation is that a woman now has less justification for refusing the sexual advances of a male. By and large, abortion has liberated men from the fear of parenthood, if not of pregnancy. Beyond this, if the woman with whom they are having sex becomes pregnant, the availability of abortion serves, in the mind of men, to reduce if not to remove their responsibility for fatherhood.
The availability of abortion means, in the thinking of many men, that the entire responsibility for pregnancy and parenthood now falls to women. If a woman refuses to have an abortion, having the baby is simply her “choice.” As Stith realizes, this gives many men even more leverage as they demand an abortion as the cost of continuing the relationship. Stith cites a report from the Medical Science Monitor indicating that 64% of American women who have had abortions felt pressure from others to do so.
As Stith explains:
Prior to the legalization of abortion in the United States, it was commonly understood that a man should offer a woman marriage in case of pregnancy, and many did so. Though with the legalization of abortion, men started to feel that they were not responsible for the birth of children and consequently not under any obligation to marry. In gaining the option of abortion, many women have lost the option of marriage.
The Culture of Death often presents itself in terms of liberation. Yet, at every turn, this liberation is actually an enslavement. The availability of legalized abortion has led to the deaths of over 40 million unborn children in the United States alone. Beyond this, it has produced a social catastrophe evident in patterns of female poverty and the abandonment of both women and children by irresponsible males. Furthermore, it has severely weakened the moral protections and obligations that bound men to women and children, effectively allowing men to demand abortion as a means of escaping their responsibility to marry and to take responsibility for their children.
As Richard Stith rightly summarizes, “Elective abortion changes everything.” As he explains, “A woman’s choice for or against abortion breaks the causal link between conception and birth. It matters little what or who caused conception or whether the male insisted on having unprotected intercourse. It is she alone who finally decides whether the child comes into the world. She is the responsible one. For the first time in history, the father and the doctor and the health-insurance actuary can point a finger at her as the person who allowed an inconvenient human being to come into the world.”
The obvious question is this — how is it that feminists, the abortion industry, and the advocates of abortion rights get away with their claim that abortion liberates women? In truth, the availability of abortion has served to liberate irresponsible men from duty, morality, and responsibility. Of course, the even greater tragedy is the death of unborn children by the millions. Only the Culture of Death would present the slaughter of the innocents as liberation.
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