As Carole Joffe writes in “Roe v. Wade and Beyond,” legal abortion was a great victory for health, for women’s citizenship, for families and children. But the continued attacks on abortion have been destructive on many grounds. One is universal: the anti-abortion movement feeds the far Right as a whole and has played a large role in holding back all progressive causes, ranging from support for education to environmental sustainability to stopping military interventions. And the centrality of anti-abortion agitation is no accident.
Sometimes conspiracy theories are right. As an historian, I’ve been socialized to discount them, on the grounds that historical events and processes usually have many causes, and because conspiracy theories also usually make people out to be dupes. But in the late 1960s Republican strategists did conspire: to erode the then-dominant Democratic electoral majority by campaigning on so-called “social” issues, which are mainly sex and gender issues. By getting people, especially religious people, exercised about how birth control and abortion undermine the country’s morals, they distracted them from economic issues. True, there are other factors, but this conspiracy actually happened.
Aiding the success of that conspiracy has been the slogan “right to life,” quite possibly the twentieth century’s most successful piece of political spin. By personifying fetuses and even embryos, anti-abortionists were able to appeal to people’s kindest, most nurturing impulse. Actual living children, by contrast, are suffering more than ever.
The choice slogan was not a great comeback. For most women who have abortions, and their partners, it’s not a choice but a necessity. “Choice” is plentiful among prosperous people (who are now becoming fewer and fewer), although even for them choice applies mainly to consumer products. Choice is not so common among those whose resources must be spent entirely on necessities. And the concept of choice does not sit well with certain streams of religious people, who have been convinced that abortion (and, for some, contraception as well) is a sin. That’s why many feminists have concluded that citizenship and human rights are the more universal grounds on which to base reproductive rights and health.
The way to reduce the number of abortions is by increasing contraceptive use. But this can’t easily be done without measures to help the disadvantaged. As Joffe points out, low-income women have more difficulty getting contraceptives, and this is also true of African-American women and Latinas. Poor people (specifically, those below the federal poverty level, which underestimates the extent of poverty) rely more than the prosperous on abortion as their birth control. This disproportionate reliance on abortion among the poor has grown with the worsening inequality in the United States: in 2000 only 27 percent of abortion users were poor; in 2008, 42 percent. While 40 percent of white women’s pregnancies are unintended, the figure is 67 percent among African Americans and 53 percent among Hispanics. Twenty percent of women in their reproductive years have no health insurance. Even among those who come to public health clinics seeking contraception, another 20 percent have difficulty paying for contraception. Many immigrant women have no access to any form of contraceptive help.
Obviously, making contraception free and/or covered by health insurance and Medicaid should be the response. A new study showed that providing free contraception to 9,000 St. Louis women reduced abortion radically.
Abortion is no longer the only issue, however: all birth control is under attack. Some of the attacks come from woman haters and sexual hypocrites, but the objections to funding contraception are also part of the program of defunding all social services. The byproduct of that program—and a large part of its purpose—is undermining the ethic of social responsibility and solidarity, the morality of helping others. Another way in which anti-birth control campaigns build the far-right agenda.
Linda Gordon is a professor of history and the humanities at NYU.