The Lessons of Roe1
Frederica Mathewes-Green is an author, columnist, and commentator, who serves on a range of advisory and editorial boards. She can be heard on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”
I was what the sociologists call an “early adopter” of feminism. Soon after arriving at college, in 1970, I knew that it was the religion for me. I had discarded the religion I grew up with, Christianity, as an insultingly simpleminded thing, but feminism filled the gap. Like a religion it offered a complete philosophical worldview, one that displayed me as victim in the center, a feature with immeasurable appeal to a female teenager. Feminism had its own gnostic analysis of reality, by which everything in existence was decoded to be about the oppression of women; it had sacred books, a secret vocabulary, and congregational gatherings for the purpose of consciousness-raising.
I was the first in my dorm to become a feminist, which caused my friends some worry. I printed up posters and yelled chants at marches. But the real cause, of course, was abortion. Laws varied across the land; in my home state it was illegal, but friends could travel to New York or California to end a pregnancy. Unfair! We wanted all abortion laws everywhere repealed, because otherwise women were slaves. The bumper sticker on my car read, “Don’t labor under a misconception. Legalize abortion.”
When the Roe v. Wade decision came down, in January 1973, I was working in Washington, D.C., and I volunteered at the flagship underground feminist newspaper, “off our backs.” That same issue carried a long editorial about Roe. Mostly, we felt it was OK. However, the Roe decision says that a woman must have a medical reason to have an abortion at the end of pregnancy. That struck us as meddling. What do nine men in black robes know? Why can’t a woman decide for herself whether to end a pregnancy, even in the ninth month?
Thirty years later, there are many things I regret about those years, but chief among them is how short-sighted I was about the impact of Roe. What can I say, except that I just didn’t know. I thought that women would only have abortions in the most dire circumstances. I thought that the numbers of abortions would be small. I thought every child would be a wanted child. I thought the unborn was nothing but a glob of tissue. I thought abortion would liberate women. I was wrong.
Roe has taught us many lessons which now govern our lives in ways we can barely perceive. Instead of being one small tool for women’s advancement, abortion opened a chasm, and a lot of unexpected things fell in. Before Roe, unplanned pregnancy created many problems for many people—the woman’s lover, her parents, her siblings, her boss, her landlord, her dean. Abortion changes the picture instantly: just go get it taken care of, dear, and it will be as if it never happened. Women were expected to do the sensible thing and save everyone else a lot of fuss and bother. Overnight, unplanned pregnancy became her private problem, a burden for her to bear alone. Abortion rights rhetoric compounded this effect with terms emphasizing her isolation: My body, my rights, my life, my choice. The flip side of all that first-person assertiveness is abandonment. The network of support that once existed had been shattered. And that has made all the difference.
There were a number of beliefs I held back then, things that I thought Roe would prove true. One by one I have seen them fall over these thirty years.
1. “Abortion liberates women.” This thesis did not stand the test of time. Before long it was obvious that women were choosing abortion in sorrow and distress rather than as daring self-expression. They usually didn’t feel liberated afterwards, but a complex of numbness, sorrow, and relief.
2. “It’s a woman’s choice.” The next argument was that, even if abortion isn’t a fresh blast of emancipation, at least it’s her own idea. But too often women themselves disproved this, saying, “I didn’t have any choice, I had to have an abortion.”
3. “Women have abortions only in extreme circumstances.” I believed this in those pre-Roe days, even though my friends were traveling across seven states to have abortions simply because they were in college and not married. That seemed extreme enough at the time. Pro-choice leader Kate Michelman has been credited with saying that Americans believe in abortion under only three circumstances: rape, incest, and “my situation.” Under those generous criteria, the numbers of abortions has risen to over 40 million. About 3500 each day. No one expected this.
4. “Anti-abortion activists want to turn back the clock.” Not true; whatever America will be post-Roe, it will not be what it was before. Rather, it’s abortion that pretends to turn back the clock, by offering a woman the illusion that she can push the rewind button on her life and go back to the time before she was pregnant. It can’t be done.
5. “It’s just a glob of tissue.” This was probably the biggest shock I sustained in my changing views of abortion. I really thought that the unborn was an unformed mass and not technically alive till some point late in pregnancy. A physician’s pamphlet showed me a being that looked remarkably like a baby at 6 weeks gestation, before most abortions are done. Even prior to that, when it looked more like a crawfish, it still “was” a human being. From the time the sperm dissolves in the egg it’s alive and has a unique genetic code never before seen on earth, with 100% human DNA. It’s a different shape, that’s all. I’m a different shape now than I was at 8 or will be at 80. When did we start discriminating against people based on their shape?
6. “Every child should be a wanted child.” Now that Roe is 30 years old, every person in America under the age of 30 could have been aborted. Every child “is” a wanted child—the unwanted ones were all aborted, to the tune of one abortion for approximately every three live births. So how come the rate of reported child abuse is so high? In the early years after Roe there were 60,000 cases of child abuse reported annually. Today there are 3 million cases reported annually, a fifty-fold increase. The reasons for this increase are debatable, but one thing’s for sure, abortion didn’t prevent it.
7. “My right to control my body.” When a woman realizes she is pregnant and doesn’t want to be, she may feel understandably panicked. It can feel like her body has been taken over against her will, and she can block out any thought except the desire to get rid of it. But the unborn child has a right to control her body, too, and that must at a minimum mean the right to keep her arms and legs attached to her body.
What does the future hold? The predictions I would have made thirty years ago turned out to be so wildly inaccurate that I offer the following with fistfuls of salt. But first I’d note that legal restriction of abortion is not on the horizon. The pro-life movement has not made efforts to pass legislation that would prevent abortion since the early ‘90s, when the Casey decision2 dealt a massive and discouraging blow.
The situation may be analogous to the nation’s liquor laws after the repeal of Prohibition when a vigorous backlash celebrated drinking as fun and sophisticated. If you look at movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s you’ll see a lot of stylish drunkenness, with the leading man stumbling and mumbling, and the leading lady clapping an ice bag to her hangover. It took several decades before people were able to admit that excess drinking causes a lot of pain. The cultural rethinking on drunkenness didn’t come about because the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had finally devised the right slogan to “win hearts and minds” to their cause. It came about because drunkenness hurts, and eventually that truth couldn’t be ignored.
Abortion hurts, too. There are a lot of long nights after the event when a woman goes through the day the baby would have been born, the anniversary of the abortion, the first “wanted” pregnancy when she feels her baby move, and all the years ahead. But how can she speak of this grief? It’s supposed to be “private” and “personal.” She expects people would say, “Look, it was your decision, stop whining about it.” She may fear that voicing regrets will give fodder to the pro-life movement, whom she has been told is an enemy trying to oppress her. Everyone else has forgotten that she was ever pregnant. It’s time to get over it. So why does she still feel so sad?
My hunch is that as the abortion debate cools off, as the status quo settles further into place, the instant association of “abortion” with “hot, ugly argument” will ease. This will make it easier for people to think about without being thrown immediately into taking sides (presented usually as the cool, thoughtful people against the stupid, screaming people.) And that will be a good thing, conducive to honest reflection. When women are no longer afraid of being stigmatized for voicing their grief, the grief can begin to come forth. We will find that there is a great deal there—not just among women who have had abortions, but among the fathers and grandparents of these lost children. Over 40 million abortions means a lot of grief. It may be something just barely held back, like a tidal wave. I don’t know what will result when that grief begins to be expressed, and we admit that abortion hasn’t done all the wonderful things we thought it would, thirty years ago. But, speaking as a pro-lifer, I believe there is reason for hope.
Editor’s Note: A full-version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2003 edition of National Review Online. Frederica Mathewes-Green, “The Lessons of Roe,” National Review Online (January 22, 2003), http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-mathewes-green012203.asp.
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey (91-744), 505 U.S. 833 (1992).