Second in a two-part series.
By Ellen Willis
The anti-abortion movement argues that abortion is
murder, that fetuses and embryos—even, presumably eggs
at the moment of fertilization—are human beings with a
right to life. To oppose this view is not to say that abortion has no moral significance, that it is a neutral act like
getting a tooth pulled. Abortion does destroy a living,
genetically unique entity, a potential human being, and I
would guess that few women have abortions with total indifference to that fact. On the contrary, for many women
the decision to end a pregnancy is difficult and painful.
But to equate abortion with murder-that is, the unjustifiable killing of a person-is another matter. That argument
not only assumes that the fetus is an actual person-a
claim that taken literally is as silly as calling a seed a plant
—but grants fetuses an absolute right to life that even
people don't have.
While it is certainly possible to argue that fetuses are
as valuable as people, such an assertion cannot be proved
or disproved; it is not a matter of fact but of emotional or
theological conviction. Nor can any moral or social consensus be invoked in support of that conviction, which is
nowhere reflected in our laws or in popular opinion. We
do not hold funerals for dead fetuses or consider a miscarriage as traumatic as the death of a baby. American law
has not, in the past, linked abortion with murder or set
comparable penalties; American society has regarded abortion as, at worst, a vice akin to drug taking or prostitution. Millions of women—otherwise indistinguishable from
the rest of the noncriminal population—have expressed
their opinion on the subject by having abortions, legal or
illegal. It is questionable whether even militant right-to-
lifers really believe their own rhetoric—former senator
James Buckley, the author of two proposed constitutional
amendments defining the fetus as a person, told a Senate
hearing that his amendments would not, in fact, require
states to impose the same penalty for fetal "murder" as
for murder of persons already born.
In any case, only committed pacifists believe that
killing is never justified. Most of us assume (and our laws
and international agreements reflect the assumption)that
the right to life must be balanced against the right to self-
defense, individual or collective, against attacks on one's
life, safety, liberty or independence. Abortion is an assertion of this basic right, though in a context that is not precisely analogous to any other. Pregnancy involves a
uniquely intimate relationship: the pregnant woman is required to nurture another organism with her own body.
Pregnancy and childbirth are inherently a strain on a
woman's system ("labor" is precisely that); complications
can be distressing, unhealthy, even fatal. Having a baby
transforms a woman's body, often causing permanent
physical and metabolic changes. Psychically, too, pregnancy and birth are an absorbing, exhausting affair. Even
women who want babies and are eager to experience pregnancy often find it difficult. For the woman who must
bear a child against her will, pregnancy is a nine-month
rape, a barbaric form of involuntary servitude.
But forced pregnancy is only a prelude to the oppression of forced motherhood. The same male-dominated
society that passes repressive abortion laws severely restricts the freedom and independence of mothers. Mothers
must typically assume the burden of child-rearing, with*
little or no help from fathers or the larger community.
And because of job discrimination and the lack of public
child-care facilities, few mothers can remain self-supporting; most are wholly or partly dependent on husbands,
relatives or welfare. This combination of responsibility
and dependence drastically limits—when it does not entirely destroy—a mother's ability to determine the direction of her life. The bind is worst for poor women (a category that includes most single mothers, whether or not
they were poor to begin with). But for women of all
classes—the mother who already has as many children as
she can handle, the single woman who is passionately involved in her work, the housewife who is struggling to
acquire some skills and get a job so that she can leave a
bad marriage, the teenager who does not yet know who
she is or what she wants—the right to abortion can mean
the difference between living and existing.
The violence and urgency of women's need to get
rid of unwanted pregnancies are easily measured. Laws
have never stopped women from risking death and mutilation, spending huge sums of money (if they had it) or enduring the indignities of a sleazy, illicit seller's market to
obtain abortions. Even when abortion is legal it is at best
an unpleasant experience, an assault on the body; for
many if not most women it is emotionally upsetting as
well, and for some women it is a crisis. The only reason
women have abortions is that the alternative is so much
worse. Yet anti-abortion rhetoric continually refers to
"convenience" abortions, dismissing unwanted pregnancy
as a mere annoyance, which in no way deserves to be balanced against the sacred life of the fetus. A less extreme
(hence more insidious) version of this attitude is that
abortion may be permissible, but is nevertheless a frivolous luxury.
Carter's speech suggested this theme; others have
elaborated on it. Representative Elwood Rudd argued that
if the government has to pay for abortions, "By that logic
taxpayers can be forced by Congress to pay for poor
people to have face-liftings, hair transplants, expensive
PAGE 18 NOVEMBER 20, 1977 DAILY BREAKTHROUGH
cars and tickets to the Kennedy Center." In a letter to the
New York Times, defending the Supreme Court, Mr. Bert
S. Annenberg pointed out that the rich can "afford caviar
and champagne and sail their yachts to Palm Beach . . .
while the poor cannot."
To blame this let-them-eat-caviar sentiment on
simple insensitivity to women's experience would be charitable. More likely it comes from understanding women's
feelings only too well. Talk to anti-abortionists long
enough, and they invariably betray their underlying concern: to curb women's sexual freedom. Besides raising the
specter o.f tax-supported face-lifts, Representative Rudd
remarked that if a woman has a right to control her own
body, she should exercise that control before she gets
pregnant. Several people who have recently written me to
defend the humanity of fetuses have included the observation that if you overeat you should expect to get fat,
and if you have sex you should expect to get pregnant.
In other words, sexual intercourse is an unhealthy excess,
for which women (even married women, apparently)
should be made to suffer.
Since these days it is considered a bit crude to rant
about the wages of sin (at least for heterosexuals), many
anti-abortionists dress up the anti-sex argument in a seemingly plausible rationale. As Mr. Annenberg put it, "In
today's era of scientific achievement there are many ways
for preventing conception, which are available to all who
desire them ..." President Carter and others have expressed concern lest abortion be used as a "routine contraceptive." Leaving aside the bizarre notion that women
are likely to prefer an operation to other forms of birth
control, the implication here is that women (particularly
black welfare mothers) get pregnant because they are lazy,
The constantly repeated assertion that women don't
need abortions because they have contraceptives is a classic case of the big lie. It is fascinating that so many otherwise well-informed people manage not to know a readily
available fact: there is no such thing as a perfectly reliable
contraceptive. Even birth control pills, taken exactly as
directed, have a small but definite failure rate, and given
the documented dangers of the pill, women can hardly
be blamed for switching to less effective methods. Yet
over a decade or two of an active sex life using a diaphragm, IUD, condoms or foam, the chances of at least
one accidental pregnancy are relatively high. It is an
equally blatant lie that birth control information and devices are "available to all who desire them." In many communities law or social pressure or both restrict access to
contraceptives and accurate instructions in their use; teenagers in particular are often denied the protection they
It is true that women are sometimes careless about
birth control, for reasons ranging from ambivalence about
getting pregnant to guilt over sexual activity to immaturity to the ingrained human tendency to take foolish
chances. It is also true that every act of unprotected intercourse involves a man who fails to use a contraceptive or
make sure his partner uses one. Yet for anti-abortionists,
an unwanted pregnancy is solely the woman's failure and
the woman's tough luck. There is something highly suspect about their self-righteous vindictiveness. (Imagine the
same attitude applied to car accidents: "The creep went
through a red light! Let him pay for his own ambulance!") Essentially, it is a cover for the fear that women
are getting away with something-namely, enjoying sex
on their own terms.
The right to abortion is only one aspect of reproductive freedom. Women must have access to the safest,
most reliable birth control measures our technology can
devise (including voluntary sterilization); there must be
an end to social pressure on women to justify their sexual activity, or their very existence, by having children.
Equally important, women who want children should be
free to have them-a freedom that necessarily includes the
right to bring up children under decent economic and
social conditions. No woman should be driven to an abortionist out of economic desperation or fear of being
trapped in the home. Yet, even in the best of all possible
societies, there will always be women who need abortions.
Abortion is the emergency fallback, the crucial insurance
against technological and human fallibility. Only an absolute right to abortion can free women from the chronic
subliminal dread that at any moment we may find ourselves helplessly subject to the rule of our biology and
robbed of all control over our lives.
(c) 1977 ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE. May not be reprinted
without the express permission of International Creative Management.