As the administration’s healthcare plan is weighed by the American public and the Supreme Court, the debate over the contraceptive mandate continues with high intensity. And for no small reason. Contraception is the only medicine we’ve heard so loudly proclaimed by the government to be completely free of charge. There are many other drugs for diabetes and cancer and heart conditions that are not free to patients and yet are much more necessary for survival and disease prevention. So, why is the administration pushing for contraceptives to be free and not graver health necessities?
For supporters of the recent HHS mandate that forces religious institutions to buy insurance that makes these items free to their employees and students, the cause served is “reproductive justice.” It was as past president of Law Students for Reproductive Justice that Sandra Fluke testified to Congress—as a victim of injustice who, along with her female peers at Georgetown, suffers from not having contraception paid for her in full.
But what is “reproductive justice”? To help answer that question, perhaps we should first ask: Who is guilty of the injustice? For Fluke, it’s her school that “creates untenable burdens that impede our academic success.” But of course it’s unfair to say that an institution, by not covering the cost of some product, implicitly creates burdens for its female students. My employer, by not covering my preferred allergy medicine, doesn’t create my burden of allergies. My allergy problems are internal to myself. They are, so to speak, natural problems I live with, ones I cannot label as someone else’s fault. Unless I were futilely to blame, say, God or nature.
But I would argue that underneath it all, advocates of “reproductive justice” do blame nature. Nature is the true obstacle to these women’s idea of justice.
Fluke might not put it this way, but radical feminists who cling to terms like “reproductive justice” and “reproductive freedom” are really trying to beat the cards that nature dealt them. They want sexual license outside the scope of what nature provides as the healthiest course—sex with one person for a lifetime. They object to the reality that sex can naturally lead to babies, creating burdens that research shows they’d be best suited to bear with the help of a husband. Underneath sexual liberationists’ wish to overthrow patriarchal traditions of marriage and religious institutions’ principles of sexual ethics, there seems to be a wish to overthrow the most stubborn foundation of all—nature herself.
This thinking was impossible to miss as I read the recent book by staunch activist for reproductive rights Merle Hoffman, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom. A rambling memoir of her personal life that spares none of the inglorious parts—having an affair with her much-older boss, marrying him and then abandoning him in the last years of his life, hiring doctors with bad records to perform abortions at her clinic, being sued for Medicare fraud—the book reveals Hoffman to be less the mind behind the abortion movement and more an accidental money-maker from it in the New York metropolitan area.
Hoffman is not your average abortion supporter. For one thing, she recognizes abortion as ending the life of another human being. She also recognizes the unconstitutionality of “the right to choose”: “the U.S. Constitution contains no express right to privacy, so the foundational legal pillar of [abortion] is vulnerable.”
It’s refreshing to see someone on the pro-abortion side speak so candidly about the issue. But, if one recognizes abortion as the ending of a life, and concedes that its legality is not protected in the Constitution, then where lies the defense?
One shouldn’t strain too hard to find logic in Hoffman’s memoir. What the book doesn’t offer in a coherent thesis, it does reveal in an underlying theme that discloses the reasoning of those who champion reproductive freedom.
Hoffman started her career working as a receptionist in a medical office, began an affair with the doctor who ran it, and followed his career path to help him start an abortion clinic in New York. Soon, Hoffman was running an abortion clinic herself. With every abortion patient she welcomed, Hoffman grew more and more committed to helping women find reproductive freedom.
After decades of abortion activism in New York, at age 66 she writes that even if abortion ends a life, it is defensible in the pursuit of “true reproductive freedom” for women. As Hoffman puts it, “the anti-choice movement claimed that if women knew what abortion really was, if only the providers had told them the truth, they would never have killed their babies. . . . But women did know the truth, just as I knew it, deep down, when I allowed myself to recognize it. Mothers saw the sonogram pictures, knew that sound bites assuring them that abortion was no different from any other benign outpatient surgery were false—knew that, as the antis say, ‘abortion stops a beating heart.’” Even still, she continues, they were making a “decision so vital it was worth stopping that heart.”
Having witnessed these hearts being stopped for years now, Hoffman admits, “I wasn’t immune to the physicality of abortion . . . but I quickly came to realize that those who deliver abortion services have not only the power to give women control over their bodies and lives but also the power—and the responsibility—of taking life in order to do that.” She continues, “acknowledgment of that truth is the foundation for all the political and personal work necessary to maintain women’s reproductive freedom.”
Unlike other freedoms, reproductive freedom has no basis in nature and no mention in the Constitution; it is not considered a God-given freedom, so to speak. Instead, terms like reproductive freedom are manufactured ideas—ideas that represent what some people want to strive for. Ideas that nevertheless, for women like Hoffman, are worth protecting in law.
Hoffman writes, “the comparative history of abortion is actually the history of power relations between states and their female populations. . . . The battlefields are different, but the war is always the same. . . . True reproductive freedom for women is never under consideration.”
So, getting back to our original question: What is “true reproductive freedom”? If it means absolute sexual license without consequences such as pregnancy and children, then it has the unfortunate attribute of never before existing in history. It’s not a freedom that women have ever fully exercised; it isn’t one that was possessed by women at some time but was taken from them and thus needs to be safeguarded from violators.
Nevertheless, terms like “reproductive freedom” and “reproductive justice” are the rallying cries of such advocates. For Hoffman and her comrades, unwanted pregnancy is an unjust imposition on women who are sexually active. Technology such as contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization have nearly evened the scales of reproductive justice—even if not completely; as long as women have had to pay for these things, they’re still being treated unjustly.
It’s this fringe-feminist thinking that can explain the reasoning behind HHS mandating free contraceptive and abortifacient coverage. But according to this logic, it would be equally unjust for women to pay $300-$500 out of pocket for an abortion. Men don’t have to go through the trouble of getting abortions or bear the financial, physical, and emotional burdens. In a sense, the millions of dollars Hoffman has made from women’s abortions are a testament to her cashing in on what her own logic would call a grave injustice to women.
In her defense, Hoffman would cling to her favorite prop to carry at abortion rallies—the wire hanger, which for her symbolized the purpose of the movement. Hoffman’s solace in her work came knowing that if doctors weren’t performing abortions or prescribing the morning-after pill, women would be taking health risks in pursuing illegal abortions. The “back-alley abortion” argument—another impressive instance of logic—relies on women implying that if they aren’t granted legal ability to end their child’s life in the womb, they’ll hold themselves hostage and threaten both lives if not appeased.
But it’s fair to say this self-destructive turn in logic hasn’t really helped today’s radical feminists. Pitting women against nature, it is running into the ground a movement that started rightly in the name of peaceful ideals. Once they justified mothers ending the lives of their children, they created an unsustainable pillar for the movement—as evidenced by abortion remaining an unsettled issue in America nearly forty years after its legality.
Hoffman describes her own abortion saying, “Now I was joined to the common experience of my sex.” But abortion has never been the common experience of women. For all of history and for most of the world, it’s childbirth—that essential part of womanhood that keeps humanity going. Hoffman never treated herself to the experience of motherhood, until at age 58 she decided to adopt a girl in Russia. But not all women have that luxury. Hers is not quite a picture of reproductive justice.
It’s tragic, really. The fight against nature is a hard and constant fight. In Intimate Wars, Hoffman’s decades-long odyssey fighting the battles for reproductive freedom brings to mind the words of the Greek tragic dramatist Aeschylus: “In war, truth is the first casualty.”