Just after the decision overturning Roe and Casey was leaked, Plough published a piece by legal scholar Erika Bachiochi entitled “After Roe v. Wade and Dobbs v. Jackson,” in which she called readers to heed the wisdom of nineteenth-century women’s rights activists in navigating a world where abortion is again illegal in many states. The following letters, from activists, scholars, and journalists, respond to her piece.
Leah Libresco Sargeant, Other Feminisms substack: I’m grateful for Erika Bachiochi’s exploration of the work of turn-of-the-century feminists who supported women and opposed abortion. Some modern social justice movements, by contrast, tend toward the transhuman – they aim to liberate human beings from any limit on who we can be or what we can do. Any restriction is suspect.
In essence, many modern activists look for freedom from being human. Thus, a feminism shaped by these views doesn’t advocate for the freedom of women to be women in the world. Instead, it advocates for the right of women to be free of the burdens of being women.
While early pro-life feminists saw a man’s ability to walk away from a child he’d fathered as a grave moral fault, present-day feminism often sees the ability to walk away as the basic prerequisite to being an equal citizen. Their argument depends on seeing the basic unit of society as the lone unencumbered citizen.
This view sells everyone, not just women, short. Our ties to each other are not an “extra” or a luxury good. But when we put the unattached person at the center of our anthropology, our connections to each other are dismissed as optional: “If you couldn’t support a baby, a friendship, a marriage, you shouldn’t have had one!” All of us begin our lives dependent, and we depend on each other even as adults for help in caring for the vulnerable people in our lives.
Ayala H., Mizrahi-American writer (@prolifejewess): “Men’s sexual appetites … and subsequent lack of responsibility often put women in a position where they felt powerless to refuse, and were left to deal with the consequences on their own.” That’s one of the most important sentiments for pro-life activists to remember in a post-Roe world. Bachiochi eloquently connects the source of anti-natalism with the horrors it leads to.
I was born in 2003. The feminism I grew up with looks very different from that which Bachiochi describes. The original movement was intentionally subverted by anti-natalists in the sixties and seventies to pursue the vision of the sexual revolution. Recently, feminists like Sue Ellen Browder have brought to light the lobbying that went into that change. Looking at today’s women’s movement, it’s undeniable how pervasive that change has been.
When I walk into feminist spaces today, I’m greeted with the narrative that women’s bodies exist to be used. If a woman isn’t willing to have casual sex with strangers or perform alienating labor for a corporation, she has internalized misogyny.
Many male “feminists,” to my horror, proudly echo the beliefs of the man who raped me when I was fifteen. To them, women are not powerful nurturers, but rather jeans to be unbuckled and muscles to be exhausted. There is no respect for the almost divine ability to create life, only scorn at the resources that a child takes from the female body and, subsequently, its sexual capacity. In the horrible eventuality that a woman does begin to nurture new life as a result of one of these sexual encounters? Men are free to dump us at the abortion clinic and move on to the next body. After all, they’re pro-choice.
This cycle has to end. Going forward, we must recognize the connection between the abuse of women and anti-natalism. It is imperative that pro-life activists take back feminism, respect female sexuality, and hold men accountable for their treatment of women. A culture of life will not exist until women and our children are valued above corporate and sexual demands.
Alexandra DeSanctis Marr, Ethics and Public Policy Center (Washington, DC): Erika Bachiochi – my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center – offers a thoughtful case for how pro-lifers can make abortion appear less attractive by supporting women in difficult circumstances. This is a noble and necessary goal. As important as it is to offer legal protection to unborn children, we must also acknowledge the importance of reducing or eliminating the perceived need for abortion.
This latter goal is arguably more difficult than enacting policies to protect unborn children. Bachiochi is right that desperation often contributes to a woman’s choice to have an abortion, but it’s imperative to remember that no desperation justifies abortion. Whether a woman suffers due to poverty, lack of support from the child’s father, or the absence of a social safety net, violence against her child is never acceptable, nor is it a solution to any of these woes.
As Bachiochi notes, early feminists believed abortion was not only an abdication of responsibility toward one’s child, and therefore morally wrong, but also that legal abortion would harm women themselves. That prediction has certainly come true. The economists George Akerlof, Janet Yellen, and Michael L. Katz write in a 1996 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that the widespread acceptance of abortion and contraception has led to a decline in “shotgun” marriages, which in turn has led to increases in child poverty and a trend they call the “feminization of poverty.” “By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father,” they write.
There is certainly room for pro-lifers to debate the best ways to support women in need so that abortion doesn’t appear to be the best available solution. As Ryan Anderson and I argue in our new book Tearing Us Apart, a crucial piece of the puzzle is becoming educated about the many ways that abortion has harmed women and learning to communicate that reality to those who believe abortion is a boon.
Charles C. Camosy, Creighton University School of Medicine: Erika Bachiochi is the rare academic who is meticulous in getting the history right, and also bold in drawing lessons for our present day.
And if there were ever a moment for her voice to be heeded, it’s now. Our current realignment, offering an astonishing level of creative political ferment, provides the pro-life movement with a rare opportunity to listen to the feminists of the nineteenth century. Indeed, now is probably the best time for this message to break through since the early 1980s, when large swaths of the pro-life movement signed up for Reagan-style fusionism, making alliances that compromised their pro-life principles.
Pro-lifers have a duty to emulate these feminists’ refusal to choose between seeking prenatal justice and addressing the underlying factors that most frequently drive vulnerable women to seek abortions. Indeed, the two goals reinforce each other.
I’d add one further point drawn from Catholic social teaching’s insistence on a preferential option for the poor. That teaching means following Bachiochi and the first-wave feminists on robust social supports for the economically vulnerable. But it also means taking the views of the poor seriously. Significantly, it is the privileged classes who are most supportive of abortion rights: the more vulnerable classes tend to support prenatal justice at a higher rate. Listening to the “missing voices” in our abortion discourse means listening to people who are disproportionately anti-abortion.
Maria Oswalt, Rehumanize International and Life Matters Journal: “The poor cry out for justice and equality and we respond with legalized abortion. … I believe that in a society that permits the life of even one individual (born or unborn) to be dependent on whether that life is ‘wanted’ or not, all citizens stand in danger.”
I’ve been reflecting on these words since the historic overruling of Roe and Casey at the end of June. They were written just one year before the Roe v. Wade decision, in 1972, by Graciela Olivárez, a Mexican-American feminist and lawyer who served on the Presidential Commission on Population Growth and the American Future.
As a Hispanic woman, I’ve always admired Olivárez’s courage; she was one of just two members of the commission to dissent from the group’s recommendation of abortion as a form of population control. She grasped a truth missed by many well-meaning people: rather than alleviating inequality, legal abortion perpetuates it.
The United States has a long, sordid history of controlling the reproductive decisions of women, particularly women of color, and the poor. From sexual violence against enslaved women, to the dangerous contraceptive experiments performed upon Puerto Rican women, to “Mississippi appendectomies” and other forms of forced sterilization, every generation in our nation’s history has witnessed horrific reproductive injustice.
In light of this, I can understand why some might be fearful of how restricting abortion will impact these marginalized populations. However, abortion is not a decision like choosing whether to use contraception or to seek sterilization. Abortion ends the life of a human being. It is a form of violence, called “legal murder” by civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, who was forcibly sterilized in 1961. Hamer understood the pain of reproductive injustice; that knowledge informed her view that legal abortion was yet another attempt to control the black community by killing their children. In her words, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” and she really meant everybody – even the unborn.
In the fifty years since Olivárez wrote her dissent, marginalized communities have lost millions of lives to legal abortion, and income inequality in the United States has only worsened. Black and brown communities are still disproportionately impacted by poverty and violence, including the violence of abortion: nationwide, black infants are aborted at five times the rate of white ones, and black mothers face atrocious disparities in healthcare. While the overturning of Roe isn’t going to immediately solve these problems – we still have a long way to go to end legal abortion in every state – I have hope it is a step in the right direction. When we expand protections for the vulnerable, we all win. Low-income families and women of color deserve true justice, and in a post-Roe world, we can make sure that includes holistic, nonviolent reproductive justice.
Erika Bachiochi responds: Since Plough published my article, the Supreme Court has released its official opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
Unsurprisingly, Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor wrote an autonomy-oriented dissenting opinion, suggesting that without the constitutional right to abortion, women were relegated to second-class citizenship. This line is particularly noteworthy: “Most women in 1868 had a foreshortened view of their rights: if most men could not then imagine giving women control over their bodies, most women could not imagine having that kind of autonomy.”
Had the dissenters bothered to research the views of the women’s rights advocates of that time, they’d have found that these women spoke and wrote frequently about controlling their own bodies. They just didn’t think that control extended to violating others’ bodies: those of their own children.
Each of the wonderful commentators sees the possibility of, as Maria Oswalt puts it, a “holistic, non-violent reproductive justice.” This is solidarity, authentic justice; it is the dissenting justices who have a foreshortened view of our rights. For the early feminists, our rights were not grounded in male-normed ideals of unencumbered “autonomy,” but in our common human responsibility to care for one another.
As obstetrician and gynecologist Alice Bunker Stockham wrote in 1887: “By what false reasoning does she convince herself that another life, still more dependent upon her for its existence, with equal rights and possibilities, has no claim upon her for protection?” It’s the false reasoning of a society built, for more than a half century, on misogynist lies. It’s now our time to rebuild – and on solid ground.