The anthem of pro-life feminism over the past twenty or thirty years has been “abortion hurts women.” To my mind, this is a true statement and a good slogan, but it’s difficult to articulate what it truly means.  Research on connections between abortion and long-term mental and physical health challenges is scant and disputed. On the other hand, pregnancy, labor, and childbirth are certain to present risks and challenges. To many modern ears, the battle cry of “abortion hurts women” is dubious at best. 

For a deeper understanding of the real threats posed by abortion, we can look to the early feminists.

The Early Feminists and the Perceived Necessity of Abortion

The earliest women’s rights advocates knew that, in some very real sense, women face the burden of crisis or unwanted pregnancies alone. Often, the isolation they felt stemmed from having no real choice: from the idea that abortion was the obvious and unavoidable course of action when crushing shame or marital disharmony (due to husbands’ simultaneous refusals to have more children or practice self-restraint) were the alternatives. 

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The necessity, or appearance of necessity, of abortion was something that the early women’s rights advocates and women doctors understood. They wanted to disrupt this dynamic, of the lonely woman facing the heavy burden of an apparently necessary action, because they knew that such burdens were not good for women. They generally talked about abortion in the abstract, focusing on the broader social impact rather than on individual women’s stories. One significant exception to this rule, though, came in November 1869, when Dr. Charlotte Lozier caused the arrest of two people who came to her seeking an abortion.

Lozier was a newly minted physician, a lecturer on women’s health issues, and an active member of Susan B. Anthony’s Workingwomen’s Association and the nascent Brooklyn Women’s Club. She and her husband, also a physician, were parents to two daughters.

According to reporting from several popular press newspapers (reprinted in part in Anthony’s newspaper The Revolution), pregnant patient Caroline Fuller traveled to Dr. Lozier’s office from South Carolina. She made the journey with the father of her unborn child, a “planter” named Andrew Moran, and, reportedly, Moran’s wife.

Fuller first came to Dr. Lozier alone. Distraught, she threatened to commit suicide if she could not obtain an abortion. Lozier begged Fuller to “not add to the misfortune that she already suffered, but bear her child honorably and enjoy an approving conscience at least.” Fuller and Moran returned together to Dr. Lozier’s office the following day. Moran first argued with Lozier and then bribed her to perform the abortion, offering her financial and legal protection if Fuller were to die during the procedure. Considerably offended, no less for being about seven months pregnant herself, Lozier called for Moran’s arrest under an 1864 law that criminalized the attempted procurement of abortion. When the arresting officer insisted on taking both Moran and Fuller into custody, Lozier went to court to petition to release Fuller from custody, arguing (somewhat disingenuously) that Fuller had not directly requested an abortion.

Lozier, like other early women’s rights advocates, knew that the demands of an unexpected pregnancy were burdensome for women.  A woman who was known to have engaged in illicit sexual activity would be seen as “ruined,” even though her male partner’s reputation would remain untarnished. That unmarried pregnant women sometimes sought abortionsor, as happened more often in impoverished settings, committed infanticidewas unsurprising to them. A contemporary of Lozier’s, Dr. Anna Densmore, described it to a New York City women’s club like this:

When we think of the despair that must sink deep into the soul of an erring woman in her dark hour of trial, as the stern hand fast forces itself with chilling intensity upon her spirit, that the babe she has passed through such overwhelming agony to evolve will be to her but the passport of exclusion from every hearth and home, from every friend, from every social privilege, from every honorable position, we can no longer wonder that the promptings of maternity are sometimes driven back to their source—that the brain reels—that the mother ceases for a time to be human, because of our inhumanity, and that a little life is so often immolated on its shrine.

The early women’s rights advocates understood how easy it was for women bearing the burden of “unlegalized maternity,” as one author put it, to seek salvation in abortion even at the risk of their own lives. Nonetheless, their intense sympathy for women who found themselves facing this situation didn’t mean that they made light of abortion. Like Lozier, they were acutely aware of the evil of abortionand they knew it was linked to a host of other evil acts supported by custom and law in America. They were clear about the nature of the act of abortionnaming it not just murder but filicidedespite both their sympathy for suffering women facing pregnancy in difficult circumstances and their desire to assist and support such women.

Sympathy and Moral Good

The early feminists argued that abortion was bad for women because it could stand in for a whole host of social and political wrongs that women suffered. But they also understood, with Aristotle, that one’s actions shape one’s character. This sort of moral language came naturally to women and men who had been involved in the abolitionist and temperance movements. They had seen the destruction brought to societies and families by both personal and institutionalized immorality, and they saw both at play in abortion.

Before the abolition of slavery, suffrage advocate Ernestine Rose wrote

While I deprecate slavery, . . . yet I can have pity and commiseration for the Slaveholder, knowing as I well do know, that he too suffers from the evils of slavery. For it is an eternal law of humanity, that the wrongdoer shall suffer from the evils he perpetrates on others.

Over and above the possibility of physical or psychological harm, in the early advocates’ telling, abortion hurt women because it was an evil act that they chose. Their understanding of what it meant to be humanwhich they had to articulate over and over again in their arguments for political rightsunderlay their analysis of why abortion was wrong. The early feminists insisted on women’s nature as moral and rational human beings created by God with the potential for virtue, with nascent skills calling for development, and with duties to others (most especially children and other dependents) that rights should enable and protect. In their view, abortion was wrong because it was, as was popularly recognized, “the slaughter of the innocents.” But it was also the ultimate betrayal of a woman’s most fundamental duty of care to the most dependent of beings. Choosing immoral action worked against her ability to perceive and choose the good; it worked against her development into a mature, well-rounded, morally virtuous human being. Abortion was mortal injury to an unborn child and moral injury to her mother.

Only a few months after her interactions with Caroline Fuller, Charlotte Lozier died from complications following the birth of her third child, a daughter. At her funeral, one of the ministers who spoke referred to her “pity for the evil” people who sought her advice and assistanceundoubtedly thinking of Fuller, if not many others.

Pity and mercy are similar, but pity establishes a relationship between equals; mercy requires a degree of noblesse oblige. Aristotle says that pity is “a feeling of pain caused by the sight of some evil, destructive or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it, and which we might expect to befall ourselves or some friend of ours.” We are accustomed to understanding that word as implying condescension. But in Aristotle’s phrasing, and in the early feminists’ modeling of it, pity implies a certain leveling. It implies humilitythe recollection of one’s own human frailty even when judging some external action or event. This sense of sympathy enabled the early feminists to call sisters the very same women whose actions they gravely judged.

This sense of sympathy enabled the early feminists to call sisters the very same women whose actions they gravely judged.


Choosing the Good by Forging Authentic Friendships

The early feminists had an impressive ability to balance a respect for women as rational actors and full-fledged human beings with free will, with a recognition of how their freedom had been violated, restricted, and hedged in. They knew that women were human beings endowed with reason and will. But they also knew that many women were poorly educated, especially about their own biology, and that many women’s wills were warpedwhether having atrophied for lack of real responsibilities or from having been pressured by poverty or abuse into repeatedly making bad choices. When they encountered a woman tempted by abortion, the early women’s rights advocates saw a person at the center of a tangle of influences, motivations, intentions, and temptations, whose loneliness often obscured her moral vision.

The founders of a Boston charity, aligned with the women’s rights movement, wrote that “from all we have been able to learn of the circumstances of these poor sisters of ours”by which they meant the unwed pregnant women they helped“it seems as if the strongest predisposing cause of the error into which they fall, is the loneliness of the life which they lead. This makes them easy prey to any one who will show them kindness.” Loneliness was both cause and effect. Lonely women were more vulnerable to manipulation and less likely to have the interior resources necessary to make wise choices and withstand temptation. Consequently, they were understood as more likely to engage in illicit sex, become unwed mothers, seek abortions, or commit infanticide.

The charity’s solution to this nineteenth-century “crisis of loneliness” was personal friendship. More a committed group of friends than an institution, its members talked to the women doctors at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, who told them about the unwed, abandoned, or impoverished expectant mothers they encountered. These vulnerable women had few resources on which to survive, let alone support a child. The charity’s members would reach out to each woman individually and speak with her, seeking to learn her background and her hopes for the future. They would ensure that she had a place to live before and after giving birth.

After a woman’s child was born, the charity’s members found her a job where she could keep her infant with her. These weren’t glamorous jobsoften they meant working as a servant in a wealthier family’s householdbut they offered greater stability than the women had previously enjoyed. The women who formed what would later be known as the Society for Helping Destitute Mothers and Infants kept in touch with the women that they had helpedwriting to them, offering advice, visiting them, and bringing presents to their children. They understood that friendship meant more than a willingness to listen: it meant showing up to provide hands-on service, company, connection, and care. They understood that a good friend is one who encourages you to choose the good and provides good counseland that, consequently, friendship itself can be a moral good. Real friendship meant supporting one’s friends in the fulfillment of their duties as well as arguing for the protection of their rights. It sometimes meant calling a woman back, again and again, to the truths of her own nature, reminding her of her own humanity, including her capacities for intellectual and moral virtue.

Alice Cary, the poet who was the first president of the first women’s club in the United States, put it this way:

We have . . . proposed the inculcation of deeper and broader ideas among women, proposed to teach them to think for themselves and get their opinions at first hand, not so much because it is their right as because it is their duty. We have also proposed to . . . teach them to make all work honorable, by each doing the share that falls to her, . . . not going down to it but bringing it up to her. We have proposed to enter our protest against . . . each and everything that opposes the full development and use of the faculties conferred upon us by our Creator.

This was, in many ways, the mission statement of the early women’s rights movement. This picture of humanand womanlyflourishing was what suffrage was supposed to enable.

The early feminists knew that it was hard to be a virtuous human being in the modern world. They weren’t surprised that many women failed in that effort, or never even attempted it. At the same time, they were deeply convinced that women were called to more, were capable of more, and deserved encouragement in that effort. They insisted, against the public opinion of their time, that no woman could fully escape or negate these capacities of her nature. No injury or sin could truly take away her inherent dignity. The possibilityand responsibilityof acting in accord with this dignity always remained with her.

The early women’s rights advocates sought to challenge, accompany, encourage, and support their sisters in the pursuit of the good life, in choosing good and rejecting evil. They sought to help them understand that they did not have to be the slaves of necessitythat they did not have to violate their consciencesbut that they could virtuously choose to undertake difficult but worthwhile endeavors, including the hardships of motherhood. They called each other and the women around them to share in this clear-eyed moral vision and to work hard to enable their sisters to live up to it. They call us to do the same. 

This essay was adapted from a paper presented during a February 2024 panel entitled “Pro-Life Feminism Then and Now: Women’s Advocacy for the Vulnerable from the Nineteenth Century to Today.” The panel was sponsored by the Abigail Adams Institute’s Wollstonecraft Project.

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