This past fall, I couldn’t turn on the television, open my web browser, or walk down the streets of Washington, DC, without hearing, reading, or seeing abortion-rights advocates campaigning against the War on Women.
Many of my American sisters solicited me to join them through online ads, door-to-door campaigns, and political commercials. Their rhetoric pitched this as a necessity: We needed to fight the offensive, strategic maneuver of some politicians to repeal a hard-earned feminist victory—namely freedom from any restriction on our reproductive liberties.
I was invited to stand with women who loudly and unabashedly denounced any such “restrictions” in a battle where the weapons were words, and the strategy was to couch the cause in the language of basic civil and human rights.
Though portrayed as defensive, I found it to be an offensive campaign, not merely seeking to hold a line, but to move it forward. This campaign was filled with graphic slogans about the female body, candid confessions of personal sexual experiences to the public, and even ads in which voting was compared to casually losing one’s virginity. It was also a campaign filled with language about the self: my rights, my freedom, my liberties. This campaign struck me as particularly antithetical to femininity, in everything from its crude content to its aggressive delivery.
These women feared to lose not only things around which they have built their lives—access to birth control and abortion on demand—but also an ideology that disassociates sex from love, responsibility, and, of course, children. While birth control and abortion still would have been readily available to them if they lost their campaign, their ideology’s strength certainly would suffer: The door would be wide open to voices that promote a feminism rooted in utterly different grounds.
Perhaps more importantly, these women persuaded the media that all women who call themselves feminists agree with them about what women need to be happy, healthy, and free. They even had the support of Congress and the White House, despite the legislative and executive branches’ rejection of a ban on abortions that target baby girls in the womb.
It was clear to me that this brand of feminism lacked consistency, clarity, and real solutions to women’s issues.
Whether the media acknowledge them or not, there are feminist voices mobilizing today who do not hold these presuppositions. They might not get the celebrity that Lena Dunham is enjoying or receive federal funding for their case, but they are quietly and steadily speaking up in an effort to protect and defend women’s rights, dignity, and equality—precisely because abortion cannot give women what they need to flourish.
In fact, Time magazine just featured a piece highlighting the fact that forty years after Roe v. Wade, abortion-rights activists find themselves having to vigorously and repeatedly defend abortion. They are discovering that younger women no longer necessarily see abortion as one of their fundamental rights.
I’m not alone in challenging the old feminism, in which women’s equality comes at the cost of their femininity. By continuing to promote abortion, lawmakers, politicians, social workers, lawyers, educators, and all parties with a vested interest in women’s health and wellbeing distract themselves from providing women the resources and tools they really need to be happy and healthy.
Pro-choice arguments in the name of feminism don’t work, and a better feminist case can be made against abortion as the answer to the injustices and inequalities of womanhood. My case aims to show that abortion at best works as a bandage on the wounds that disadvantage women, and at worst facilitates them.
Myth #1: Abortion helps women finish their education and pursue careers.
Every feminist knows that in any just society, girls and women are well-educated and work in the economy. The questions, then, are whether education and child-rearing are compatible with the goals of education and work, and whether abortion favorably affects a woman’s educational and professional outcomes. Pro-choice feminists hold that if women and men are to have equal educational and professional opportunities, then women need to have abortion on demand so they can stay in school and keep their jobs and future opportunities.
A better feminism would help women value who they really are—persons able to contribute great good to the world not only through their education and work but also through childbearing. This feminism would advocate educational and professional accommodations for pregnant women.
Take Columbia University as an example. When the school gave every female student abortion coverage, the president of Columbia’s Right to Life group, Julia Salazar, began calling for resources and funding for pregnant students who wish to bear and parent their children while continuing their education. This group is working to reduce the stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and make resources for pregnant students more visible and readily available.
Feminists for Life is also reaching out to college students. According to their research, one out of every five abortions is performed on a college student. This suggests that these young women are not seeing institutional support—in the form of housing, daycare, insurance coverage, and so on—that would help them keep their child while continuing their education.
Even Planned Parenthood admits that this option challenges their advocacy work for young women. If the “choice” is framed such that women can choose to study or work while raising a child, then their pitch that pregnancy is a zero-sum game falls apart.
Feminists should dream big here. What if employers granted sufficient maternity leave for women who found themselves pregnant? What if women didn’t have to couch their maternity leave as “disability leave,” even in relatively sympathetic work environments? What if colleges and universities provided services to pregnant or child-rearing female students like work-study programs, daycare, and healthcare options so that they could have both education and their children—goods that our culture has put at odds with each other?
These goals would guide a feminism that promotes what women really need—practical support so they can be educated, financially secure, and professionally successful. According to the Guttmacher Institute, women in their twenties—the women most likely to be pursuing higher education and careers—account for more than half of all abortions in America each year. This sad fact testifies to what we currently tell our young women: If you become pregnant early in life and want to keep your child, you cannot be educated or professionally successful. Isn’t this view fundamentally anti-woman?
Myth #2: Abortion helps poor women get out of poverty.
Many pro-choice feminists argue that abortion on demand must be easily available to poor women, as having more children only increases their financial burden and keeps them in poverty. In their view, Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics should be located primarily in poor neighborhoods.
According to Guttmacher, 42 percent of women obtaining abortions have incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty line; 27 percent below 199 percent. Sixty-one percent of abortions are obtained by women who already have one or more children. These statistics aren’t changing much from year to year, which suggests that women often remain in poverty after having repeated abortions. Abortion, then, does not get women out of poverty.
Feminists need to consider the root causes of poverty for women. What resources aren’t available to single mothers? What childcare services are available to them through charities or the government so that they might work while raising their children? What kind of job training is available? Are they offered guidance for long-term financial planning, self-sufficiency, and independence?
Guttmacher reports that 54 percent of women who have abortions are using contraception when they become pregnant. Eight percent of women who have abortions have never used it. What kind of educational programs are available to teach women that contraception isn’t preventing unwanted pregnancy?
Finally, who is holding the fathers of these children responsible for childcare and child support? Are these men in positions to care for their children and the mothers of their children? Are we looking into the correlations among abortion, poverty, and unmarried status? If not, then why aren’t we addressing these issues?
Myth #3: Abortion is a compassionate and just solution to rape.
Anyone who has ever talked to or counseled a woman who has been sexually abused knows that there is nothing more horrific, violent, or inhumane than an assault like rape. Many abortion-rights advocates argue, from a sincere sense of compassion, that a woman who already has suffered such a grave act of violence should not have to carry or give birth to a child who will remind her of this violence.
Though this argument seems compelling, there are stronger arguments against it from a feminist perspective. First, what society would ever say that a daughter should die for her father’s wrongdoings? At any other stage of a girl’s life, most feminists would reject such evil. Why is her status in utero any different?
Second, the procedures involved in abortion are invasive and can be traumatic themselves. Abortion can be called a second act of violence perpetrated against a woman.
The staggering number of sexual assaults in our military sadly illustrates this problem all too well. Among the women who are willing to sacrifice their lives for our freedom, one-third have been sexually assaulted. They are 180 times more likely to have been a victim of military sexual assault than to have died in combat in the last eleven years. The men with whom they serve side by side perpetrate the vast majority of these rapes.
One in four women doesn’t report the assault, for fear of being ostracized by other male servicemen or being deemed to have a “personality disorder,” as several servicewomen have reported. Moreover, in 2011, only 240 of 3,192 reported sexual crimes made it to trial. And when they make it to trial, they are passed around, delayed, or dragged through the mud.
Not only does this situation represent an absolute failure according to feminist standards, but our government’s only proposal to solve it was to provide abortion coverage. In December, the Senate passed an amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that covers abortion for rape victims in the military (when they otherwise would have had to pay out of pocket). Of course women will feel they must turn to this option if they conceive after an assault. It’s free, it hides the shame of being pregnant in the military culture, and it allows a woman to keep her job. What it absolutely cannot provide is an end to this cycle of sexual violence.
Every woman who has ever fought for the rights and protection of women should see this amendment as merely a bandage on a gaping wound. It’s also a green light for men to keep abusing women in the military. Our servicewomen deserve better. They deserve justice.
Toward a New Feminism
The women of my generation were told that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. In the forty years since Roe v. Wade, over fifty-three million abortions have been performed on American women in the name of women’s equality. It’s time to face the facts: The brand of feminism that promotes abortion as the key to our freedom does not help us flourish, preserve our dignity, or protect us from evils.
A society that is poised to overturn Roe must put in place the structures and support for pregnant women so that the “choice” between life and abortion is no longer difficult because life is the natural choice. It’s time to rethink the feminist case for abortion. It’s time to fight the real war on women.
* * *
The Public Discourse symposium on Roe at 40 features the following six articles; check back each day for the new essay:
Ryan T. Anderson, “On the Fortieth Anniversary of Roe v. Wade: A Public Discourse Symposium”
Elise Italiano, “Forty Years Later: It’s Time for a New Feminism”
Michael New, “Abortion Promises Unfulfilled”
Daniel K. Williams, “The Real Reason to Criticize Roe”
Gerard V. Bradley, “The Paradox of Persons Forty Years After Roe”
Michael Stokes Paulsen, “Abortion and the Constitution in Another Forty Years: A Right to Life for 2053”
Elise Italiano is a teacher at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School and a contributor to Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, edited by Helen Alvaré.
Support the work of Public Discourse by making a secure donation to The Witherspoon Institute.
Copyright 2013 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.