My last post, which was a bit of a rant, has got me thinking about how we reached this polarized state of affairs. You see, I'm just old enough to remember things not only before Roe vs. Wade, but before The Pill became generally available.
I'm convinced that the arguments about life beginning at conception are a sham, although the proponents may believe them. I believe the true root of the opposition to abortion lies in the Christian theological tenet that women are an inferior, evil and weak species who must be controlled by men for everyone's good. Theologians argued for centuries that the Fall was Eve's fault. This all goes back to the ancient Christian dichotomy (it can be traced at least to the early Middle Ages) between the Madonna and the Whore, Mary the Virgin Mother and Mary the Magdalene. These are the principal women in the original Christian mythos, and they sort of sum up the whole cultural attitude toward women. I think it's very significant that they both have the same name.
Christianity never really knew what to do about women. They showed occasional disconcerting signs of intelligence, and men certainly needed them to raise children (men don't take care of children), but they were, well, distracting. And they did, after all, cause the Fall. So the (celibate) men who ran the Christian church decreed that the best thing for the woman was to shut up, have her man's babies, and do what he said. A woman who did that was a "good" woman. A woman who didn't restrict her favors to one man was a "bad" woman and was, in general, barred from marriage at all; because, of course, the man could never be sure her kids were also his. There were always exceptions, and women who got away with things; but overall, for something like fifteen hundred years, women were essentially their husbands' chattel property. Just like the cow.
The bizarre thing about this attitude is that up to 1960 or so, it was still prevalent in a more muted way, at least in the U.S. Good women got married, raised their husbands' babies, and did what their husbands said; women who didn't more or less had to prove continually that they were not whores, because the assumption was that they were (or that something else was wrong with them). And the surest thing a woman could do to prove she was a whore was to get pregnant when not married. Keep in mind that in normal, unprotected sex, the woman has about a 1-in-4 chance of putting a bun in her oven, every time she screws, unless she can persuade her partner to use a condom. Assuming it doesn't rupture. Even with condoms, the odds are about 1-in-10.
Think about this world, readers of the female persuasion, this is the world I was born into: Your best bet is to get married. If you don't get married (assuming you don't want to continue to live with your parents), you have to get a job, but the jobs that will hire women pay coolie wages, and you're subject to sexual harassment all the time. (I didn't get hassled, but I know women who did.) And if you are caught engaging in sex outside marriage, say, by getting pregnant, you can't even get the poorly paying jobs, because now you've proved you're a whore and nobody hires whores to work around decent people.
Single women who found themselves pregnant, maybe in spite of having taken every precaution they could, maybe because they'd been raped, had exactly 3 options if they didn't want to take up prostitution as a career:
- They could try to persuade some guy to marry them in a hurry. This sometimes worked.
- They could "disappear" for about 9 months, and give the baby up for adoption. Excuses ranged from "poor health" to "visiting Aunt Mabel". If you were lucky, you came back "cured" or whatever, without visible evidence of a baby. If you were unlucky enough to live in Ireland, this could amount to a life sentence in prison: for details, rent the movie The Magdalene Sisters, and remember that this is based on actual events, which took place in the 1960s.
- They could try to get an abortion, or to induce one themselves. Since people who performed abortions at that time were criminals (just as they are now in South Dakota), finding them was hard, and you couldn't be sure they'd use sterile instruments, or even that they knew what they were doing. Inducing an abortion yourself could involve mechanical means (ever heard people talk about coat hangers? Think about it) or chemical: historically the herb pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides, a member of the mint family) has been used to induce abortions. Pennyroyal can kill you if you aren't really careful with it.
In the middle of all this, somebody (I think it was a man, which is funny) invents The Pill, and the effect was cataclysmic: for the first time in history, women could have sex, with virtually no risk of pregnancy. So the people who like to sneer at "bad women" couldn't tell who was a whore. And married women could decide when they wanted to have a baby: they decided whether to take the pill, and when to stop taking it. The sexual revolution was much, much bigger than just girls screwing around: for the first time in history, women were in control of their own bodies. And they began to ask: if we can take precautions not to have babies, why can't we end the pregnancy if the precautions fail, and why is the government telling me and my doctor what we can do with my health and my future? And so we got Roe vs. Wade, and all hell broke loose.
I don't remember when the moralists began to do more than just mutter about abortion; I think it took a few years for them to start blockading abortion clinics. We seem to have largely gotten past the terrorist stage, where the "pro-life" people bomb abortion clinics, and post doctors' home addresses on the Internet to invite people to shoot them. But I think that, whatever the anti-abortion people say, what they really object to is the fact that, with birth control coupled with abortion, women are in control of their sexuality, and of when and whether the sex leads to babies. And the old Christian attitude toward women absolutely cannot stand to have women in control of their sexuality and not subject to their men.
Not all Christian sects believe in the "Eve theory", the weak woman inclined to evil who must be punished if she strays. The more rigid and moralistic the sect, the more likely they are to hold to it; but even Jerry Falwell can't argue publicly, in the 21st century, that women are weak and evil and must be controlled. In 2000, though, Jimmy Carter broke publicly with the Southern Baptist Convention because, among other things, they prohibited women from being pastors and told wives to be submissive to their husbands. (In justice to Mr. Carter, he had other, much more serious objections.)
I feel falseness of the "life begins at conception" argument is proved by the nearly absolute indifference of the Christian right (at least in its public, political statements) to the well-being of the children of single mothers. Child support? Well-baby care? Head Start? Forget it. It's also supported by their opposition to any sex education more detailed than "just say no." They don't want young people to understand sexuality if it also means teaching them about contraception. It's not about life. It's about control.