Sunday, March 12, 2006

Thoughts on Abortion and Women's History

And before I start this, no, I do not want to argue with anyone about abortion. I have my opinions and you doubtless have yours, and neither of us is about to convince the other.

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.
A lot of women died. A lot of women were mutilated, or made sterile; but they deserved it, because they were bad. They were whores; if they weren't, they wouldn't have gotten pregnant while single. Of course, you didn't have to be single to want an abortion: you might just be poor. If you already have 5 kids and you can't feed them, and your man knocks you up again, you might think about just not having this one. But that's bad - it's your job to have his babies. So you deserve the bad outcome.

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.


  1. Anonymous10:52 AM


    Interesting thoughts, although I have heard most of them before. I don’t want to argue either, but I would like to comment. To me, abortion is about control, self control. I won’t go into my religious reasons for why I believe we should abstain before marriage, and be faithful during marriage except to say that it applies to both sexes.
    IMHO, one of the biggest problems in our society today is that we don’t know how to control ourselves. You see it at all levels of society, that’s why we are in Iraq. When did self discipline become a bad thing? My problem with abortion is that it removes the consequences of their actions from both the male and the female involved. Obviously this wouldn’t apply in cases of rape or incest, that wasn’t the woman’s fault and the man involved should be thrown in jail, maybe meet madam guillotine. If a man and a woman choose to have sex, and I agree with your odds about contraception, then they should have to face up to the consequences of their choice. If marriage isn’t what they want, then there is adoption or one of them has to take responsibility for the child. Abortion, to me, isn’t about making choice about what happens to you, it is saying, “Bad decision, where is my get out of jail free card?” You mentioned some of the bad things that result from single mothers, why not teach self-control? I teach my daughters abstinence because it is the only sure way to keep them out of a bad situation. My sister is one of those young, poor single mothers. Trying to go to college and work while raising her son. The father is a 17 year old drug addict whose only skill is playing video games. It would have been better if they had simply not had sex. It would be better, IMO, for my sister if she had put the child up for adoption. Now she and my parents are living with her decision. If men and women are old enough to decide to sleep together, or think they are, they are old enough to deal with the results.

    Let me also say that I respect your opinion. Nor do I think you are evil or whatever for having it. I just disagree. I also have enormous respect for women in general and Eve and my wife in specific. To me the whole point of “an help-meet” is to have an equal partner. Rather than blame Christianity, I blame the early Catholic church for women’s “demeaned” role, although my wife enjoys being a stay-at-home-mom and a lot of people think that demeans her.

  2. Anonymous5:45 PM

    Hmmm, in some ways I agree with Stephen about self-control. It appears to be lacking in a fair amount of modern day life. Perhaps, it was always lacking, and with the fuel provided by the telly, the internet, the increased spending power of working adolescents, and fast food, the lack of self-control is more obvious. However, this lack of self-control, sexually speaking, should not be laid, (Only kinda sorry about the pun.), at the feminine foot. When boys are taught that an unsatisfied erection is neither life threatening nor a reflection of the female who failed to satisfy it, perhaps the need for abortion will dwindle and fade to only a few. Yes, I realize a few here and a few there would still be in the hundreds country-wide.

    Along with this, girls, while they are still young enough to be influenced, need serious goals that will allow them to not value themselves in terms of boys' sexual interest. A long term goal for a profession rather than that of a wife, would help. Too many women want to believe the guy when he seductively whispers, "I love you. If you loved me..." Perhaps what we need is a little honesty here as well.

    One of the problems is the child. Too often the guy scoots. With a little legal knowledge, the woman can still obtain child support, but usually she ends up being the day to day support, and that can be difficult, depending on the support system inherent in her family or culture. So the kid gets older, all too often, in a less than optimum emotional and financial situation. Lucky the kid if the woman has the the restraint (self-control?) to never look at him or her and think,"If it wasn't for you..." Giving a baby up for adoption may be extremely difficult. Surmounting all those cute Gerber baby faces plus your hormones would be difficult. Some women do it, and some adoptees seek them out later with an unspoken, Why"? Society seems to say, real women don't give up their babies, just as many young men think real men don't use condoms.

    Leave Wade vs. Roe alone, I say. Increase the Just Say No messages. Churches that find success with the Promise to Wait for Marriage should keep that going, but we need secular messages as well. Unfortunately, the best messages come from home, which is why some of the churches do so well. Still, many young women do not get pregnant through good luck or good management of the delicate male psyche that wants to prove manhood.

    Before anyone gets their knickers in a knot, think about the biggest influence in many homes: the television. You can tell your kids. You can set a good example. The telly shows life as the kids think it is: sexy is fun, sexy is cute, sexy appeals. And, adults know what sexy gets you - babies. Getting rid of legal abortion won't solve the underlying problem of getting pregnant when you thought you were just getting fun.

  3. Anonymous6:55 AM


    I couldn't agree more. Thanks, you said what I was trying to better than I could have!

  4. My, this entry has produced some interesting posts.

    I certainly agree with both of you about self-control, and the problems (not limited to sexuality) caused by the modern lack of same. I certainly agree with Stephen that the consequences of rape are unfairly dumped upon the female. And it's almost always better if any given pair of adolescents don't have sex, but try convincing them of that!

    I think I mentioned that I don't consider all Christians to be involved in the sort of discrimination I object to; you evidently belong to one of the more reasonable (to me) groups, who actually regard women as equal human beings. More power to you, Stephen, and to your wife. I'll never claim that a stay-at-hom mom is demeaned, and I'll certainly never claim she isn't working!

    You're quite right that the demeaning attitude toward women stems from the early Catholic church; my point was that for most of a thousand years, Christianity was the Catholic church.

    In general, though, I think Boggart has about summed the situation up, especially with regard to television, a point I missed because I don't watch it.