by Joyce Arthur
© Copyright September 1998
(adapted from a speech I gave at the Under the Volcano festival, North Vancouver, BC, August 16, 1998.)
Advocacy groups that lobby for and protect abortion rights probably wouldn’t need to exist today if it wasn’t for certain people, so-called “pro-lifers”, who will go to desperate lengths to take away a woman’s right to an abortion, by whatever means available.
The opposition to legal abortion in North America has turned abortion into one of the hottest potatoes on the political stage today. In spite of liberalized abortion laws, and the huge number of abortions performed every year, only a slim majority of Americans believe that a woman has the right to decide for herself whether and when to have children. As a result, intense anti-choice activity over the years has succeeded in placing numerous restrictions on legal abortion. And the availability of safe, early, accessible abortion services continues to be eroded, with no end in sight.
I’m not going to tell you about how access to legal abortion should be a fundamental human right, that forcing women to bear children against their will is bad for mothers and families, and bad for society. Reasonable, compassionate people already understand this. It’s obvious.
Instead, I want to give you a bit of background about why abortion is such a controversial political issue in our society. And I want to enlighten you about the opponents to legal abortion – the so-called “pro-life” movement – who they are, and what their agenda really is.
All of the resistance to abortion by the anti-abortion movement is in many ways, a uniquely American phenomenon that has also bubbled over into Canada. Most anti-choice activities, especially the violence, don’t happen much in other parts of the world, which proves that it doesn’t have to be like this. There are many countries in the world where abortion is not a hot topic, where abortion is considered to be a normal and unremarkable part of women’s health care. For example, a woman recently contacted our pro-choice group who’s writing a textbook on North American culture for Japanese university students. She asked us for some pictures of the abortion conflict for her textbook – such as anti-choice protesters parading around with their offensive signs, pictures like that. She told us that in Japan, where abortion is freely available on demand, young people are amazed to learn that the abortion issue is so contentious in North America. They don’t understand what the big deal is.
Indeed, WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL!? Why is the United States, home of the original women’s liberation movement, cursed with such massive resistance to legal abortion?
Well, one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations is the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion. Most, if not all, European countries for example, have state churches, and citizens must pay taxes to the church, whether they attend or not. But in America, the separation of state and church has actually helped religion to grow and diversify (or you might say, to be fruitful and multiply). The United States today is one of the most religious countries in the world, second only to Muslim theocracies like Iran. About 40% of Americans call themselves born-again Christians. Another 20% or so are Catholics.
Now, one of the most organized groups against abortion is the Roman Catholic church. In spite of the fact that many Roman Catholics in North America are actually quite liberal and pro-choice, the Pope and the church hierarchy hold well-known anti-abortion and anti-contraceptive views. And because of American tolerance for organized religion, the Vatican manages to wield a surprising amount of power and influence over American politics and culture, more than you might imagine. In fact, the Catholic Church is a major player in the anti-abortion movement in North America. And they’re on friendly working terms with the other main enemy of abortion rights in America – the Christian right, made up mostly of evangelical Protestant Christians.
It’s no secret that the major opposition to abortion comes from conservative Christian religious groups. These groups proclaim that all life is sacred, that every fertilized egg is a human being, and that abortion is therefore murder. I think that too often, we fail to question such pronouncements out of respect for people’s religious beliefs. But you might be interested to know, for example, that the Bible says nothing at all about abortion. It does say, in several different verses, that it’s better to die in the womb than live an unhappy or wicked life. That’s pro-choice, basically. It’s also worth noting that the Old Testament is full of passages where God orders, condones, or carries out himself the most brutal child-killing, such as killing off everyone’s first-born sons, massacring countless entire towns, including children and pregnant women, and commanding soldiers to kill boy children while keeping alive virgin girls to use for their own pleasure. So it’s important to remember that anti-abortionists who spout the Bible as their justification for being “pro-life” are just using that as a cover. They either think no one will notice what the Bible really says, or more likely, they don’t even know themselves.
And did you know that throughout the last 2000 years, the Catholic Church has flip-flopped several times on the issue of abortion, and that most of the time, in fact, right up until the mid-1800’s, the Church considered abortion to be perfectly acceptable up to the time of “ensoulment”? That’s when the Church claims the soul first enters the body, which was declared to be 40 days for boy fetuses, and 80 days for girl fetuses. I’ve often wondered how the Catholic Church was smart enough to detect the gender of a 40-day old fetus, but after all, these were the guys that tackled the thorny problem of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
So, what are the real reasons for religious objection to abortion? One of them sheds some light on an apparent glaring contradiction in the anti-choice position. Although they call themselves pro-life and seem to want to save babies, they do little or nothing to help children once they’re born. For example, they want to force poor women to have babies, but they also want to cut off their welfare. Doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it? But actually it does, once you understand their viewpoint. You see, Christian doctrine says that every fertilized egg is endowed with a human soul, and that all human souls are tainted with “Original Sin,” which can only be erased by baptism. In the words of John Calvin, the 17th century Protestant theologian, “Even infants bring their condemnation with them from the mother’s womb … their whole nature is … a seed of sin … and odious and abominable to God.” And the 4th century Catholic theologian St. Augustine said, “Do not believe, or say, or teach, that the unbaptized infant can be forgiven original sin – not if you wish to be a Catholic.” As a result of this doctrine, babies must be born and baptized in order for them to have a chance at salvation, so they can go to heaven later when they die. But if a fetus is aborted, or miscarried, it will never, ever have a chance to be saved. Clearly then, anti-abortionists must fanatically defend fetuses at all costs, but they don’t have to be concerned with the already-born. Because it doesn’t matter if people are poor or suffering, or what the conditions of their lives are like. The only thing that matters is that they get born, so they will have a chance at eternal salvation.
You might wonder what happens to the souls of aborted fetuses, according to Christian doctrine. Well, both St. Augustine and the Bible seem to indicate that they go straight to hell – the Bible stresses faith and belief as the ONLY way to get saved. Other Christians concocted an “age of accountability” doctrine that allows innocent infants and children to go to heaven, even though there’s no Biblical basis for such a thing. But the Catholic Church takes the cake for inventiveness – they dreamed up Limbo, a kind of safety net for the souls of stillborn babies, aborted fetuses, etc. Apparently they allowed God to use Limbo as a temporary holding facility for these souls until he decided what to do with them. But disturbingly enough, in 1994, the Catholic Church quietly abolished Limbo. They didn’t even replace it with anything, so the fate of aborted fetus souls is now anyone’s guess. Not even the Pope knows, and he’s infallible. Scary, huh?
Another reason the Catholic Church is against abortion is because they need as many little Catholics running around as possible to increase their membership levels, and maintain their base of power in the world. Evangelical Protestant Christians aren’t concerned with worldly power as much as the Catholic Church is, perhaps. But they more than make up for that with their proselytizing. You’re familiar, of course, with those pesky Jehovah’s Witnesses that come knocking on your door, and all those sidewalk preachers downtown, not to mention the countless missionaries that go to developing countries in their quest to “save the world”. The reason evangelical Christians feel it’s their God-given right to trample over other peoples’ right to privacy is because they’ve been clearly told by the Bible that they must go out and preach the gospel to everyone. Not to help people really – the goal is to expose everyone in the world to Christianity, because once that magical moment is finally achieved, Jesus will suddenly come down from heaven on his cloud of glory, primarily to punish all those who failed to sacrifice their minds, their lives, and their cultures in order to believe in him. Anyway, my point is, many Bible-believing Christians feel compelled to go out there and convert as many people as possible, regardless of the cost in human misery. Their secret rallying cry is “More souls for Jesus!” Of course, when the goal is to maximize the number of saved souls, aborting fetuses is obviously a terrible and criminal waste. Not only does abortion deprive the poor little souls of an eternity in heaven, but even worse, abortion greatly reduces the number of potential followers for Jesus.
As you know, the anti-abortion agenda is to make abortion illegal. I guess the assumption here is that if abortions are illegal, that’ll stop them. But of course that’s extremely naïve. Women have been having abortions since the beginning of time, and will continue to have them, regardless of what any law says. The United Nations has reported that the number of abortions does not increase much when abortion is legalized in a country. For example, before abortion was legalized in the United States, it was estimated that as many as a million illegal abortions were being performed each year – almost the number being done legally now. So what laws against abortion do is make abortions unsafe, not prevent them. And they turn women into criminals just for exercising control over their bodies and their lives.
Not surprisingly, the anti-choice leadership damn well know this. Dr. Bernard Nathanson is a former abortion doctor turned fanatical “pro-lifer”. He has publicly claimed that if abortion were made illegal again, women would not return to coat-hanger abortions or back-alley butchers, because modern technology would be available to non-physicians, and it would be relatively easy to get an abortion.
This is an outrageously hypocritical cop-out. Obviously, if abortion were made illegal again, women would die and be injured because of unskilled practitioners performing abortions in unsanitary or inadequate facilities. Women would be forced to break the law to receive necessary medical care, and their dignity would be lost in the process. But most importantly, by admitting that abortions would continue under anti-abortion laws, people like Dr. Nathanson expose the main goal behind recriminalizing abortion – to punish women.
That’s right. Put women back in their place. Take away their rights. Return the rightful ownership of women’s bodies back to their husbands. That’s what it’s all about. Ultimately, the reason abortion is such an explosive political issue is because it raises deep fears about the equality of women. Legal abortion on demand is a sign that women have real control over their reproductive capacity and their lives, and this is viewed as a threat to the institution of the family, to patriarchy, and to traditional religious doctrine. The Bible is quite clear: Men were made in the image of God, and women were made to serve men, and to make babies for them. In fact, a woman’s only saving grace is in childbearing (yes, the Bible actually says that). It’s no wonder then, that conservative Christian men rail against feminism and women acting independently, making their own decisions. After all, men’s dominant and superior role has been God-ordained! And a woman that has the nerve to disobey both God and man by aborting a baby that doesn’t even belong to her (because it belongs to God and man) represents a big slap in the face to the powers that be.
For these reasons, and more, virtually all of the leaders in the anti-choice movement are men. But women aren’t innocent either. There’s plenty of female anti-abortion activists. These women, and many of the men too, often suffer from that illness called “follow-the-leader”. Remember, they’re devout Christians, and the Bible is basically authoritarian. It teaches that women must be subject to their husbands, and everyone must be subject to God. Since women have traditionally been the ones to keep the peace and conserve the status quo to protect their families, maybe they can’t be blamed for sincerely believing that what they’re doing is right.
But what happens when an anti-abortion woman experiences an unwanted pregnancy herself? Many will grin and bear it, so to speak. But a significant percentage will get an abortion. Planned Parenthood of America has estimated that at least 15% of all abortions are performed on conservative Christian women, many of them anti-choice. I’ve heard first-hand reports from clinics about anti-choice women sneaking into back doors to get abortions, anti-abortion parents making an “exception” for their own teenage daughter, and even anti-choice women screaming things like “You murderers!” while they’re on the table having the abortion they demanded. There’s also anti-choice protesters who take a day off from their “baby-saving” work to have a clandestine abortion of their own, then return the very next day to protest in front of the clinic where they had their abortion. I’m not criticizing these people so much as I’m criticizing the environment they’ve come from, one that instills in them tremendous guilt and anxiety, and forces them to engage in hypocrisy, secrecy, and lies.
But if you think that, in general, pro-lifers are really concerned over the so-called murder of unborn babies, think again. Dr. Nathanson, the anti-abortion guy I mentioned earlier, is a former abortion doctor who boasts of being responsible for over 75,000 abortions at his New York clinic in the 1970’s. Now that he has recanted his earlier life, he’s become one of the anti-choice movement’s greatest heroes, a much sought-after dinner speaker, and the respected author of the book Aborting America. Now you may have heard anti-abortionists make the insulting claim that legal abortion is genocide, comparable to the Jewish Holocaust in World War II. Well, if that’s really what they believe, why have they made a big hero out of someone, who by their own definition, is a genocidal murderer?
There’s actually a lot the anti-abortion movement could do to reduce the number of abortions, if they wanted. If they used their considerable organizing and fundraising abilities to lobby for improved access to birth control and sex education, they could probably cut the abortion rate in half within a few years. And the pro-choice movement could work together with them on that. But don’t hold your breath. Not only are the anti-choice against abortion, most of them are against birth control and sex education, too. Why? Because their goal is not to reduce unwanted pregnancies or even abortions. What they really want to do is stop sex. That evil temptation of the flesh. After all, the Catholic Church is adamant that sex without the intent to procreate is a sin, even for married couples. St. Augustine pronounced the sexual act intrinsically evil because of the lust that generates it. And of course, the burden of that must fall on women. What really bugs the anti-choice is the thought of women having sex for fun without paying for it. They want to make motherhood a punishment for having sex. But you know, forcing a child to be born to punish its mother is the ultimate in child abuse.
So, remember that the real opposition to abortion comes from organized religion – not the nice, touchy-feely kind of religion that many of us pro-choice people partake in, but the hardline, fanatical, intolerant kind, the kind that causes wars and bloodshed because its adherents can’t stand anybody believing or behaving differently from them. The “pro-life” movement’s drive to save babies has no noble purpose, because the real goals are to bring more souls to Jesus, punish women, and stamp out pleasure.