Abortion Without Apology

The demand for abortion has had the most success when it’s been free of preemptive compromise.

A reproductive rights rally in San Francisco in 2013. Steenaire / Flickr

Just weeks after the deadliest abortion clinic shooting yet, the Supreme Court agreed to review Texas abortion restrictions, with a decision expected in June.

The attacker at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood left three dead and nine injured. The Supreme Court has a chance to do even more damage when it considers Whole Woman’s Health vs. Cole. Men in the suites are, as usual, more dangerous to women than men in the streets. 

Whole Woman’s Health vs. Cole challenges a Texas law requiring clinics to become mini-hospitals and employ only local doctors. If the court allows the Texas law to stand, state legislatures all over the country will be free to pass similar clinic-closing restrictions, further choking the supply of abortions. Already in Texas wait times at some clinics are 20 days or more, and a recent study found that between 100,000 and 240,000 Texas women have tried to give themselves abortions at some point in their lives.

The one in three US women who will have an abortion, and the millions more who rely on it as a backup to contraceptives, should constitute an important power bloc. But abortion defenders, with a few sterling exceptions, have been in appeasement mode. NARAL Pro-Choice America — following the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Roe v. Wade — emphasizes privacy: “We should be able to make personal decisions without intrusion from politicians.” And Planned Parenthood, financially strained and a target for attacks, defends itself by emphasizing its role in cancer screening and well-woman care.

“Abortion is health care,” is the cry today, and it’s weak. Compare this to the rallying cry of feminists who won us abortion rights in the first place: “Repeal all abortion laws.”

Reform vs. Repeal

The radical women’s liberation activists who first won legal abortion wanted to get rid of abortion laws entirely — a flier proposing the “model law” showed a blank page. It was this demand, backed by disruptive tactics, public truth-telling about criminal abortions, and class-action lawsuits aimed at invalidating existing statutes that got the ball rolling nationally.

Women’s liberationists were not afraid to attack the liberals who had been holding hearings for years on creating small loopholes in existing abortion laws, which in most states only allowed abortion if continuing the pregnancy would kill the woman. Reform bills languished in legislatures around the country in the late 1960s, occasionally passing, but only to allow the few women who could prove they had been raped, or were suicidal, to appeal to all-male panels of doctors and psychiatrists.

Things changed in February 1969, when the New York Joint Legislative Committee on Problems of Public Health met to hear from a panel of experts, composed of fourteen men and one woman (naturally, a nun). The reforms under consideration included rape and incest exceptions, and whether you could have an abortion if you already had four children and thus, presumably, done your duty by producing a good number of additional workers, consumers, and soldiers.

Women’s liberationists dressed carefully to infiltrate the audience and, at an opportune moment, stood up and started their own hearing: “All right, now let’s hear from some real experts — the women!”

“We’ve waited and waited while you have held one hearing after another. Meanwhile, the baby I didn’t want is two years old” yelled one woman. “Repeal the abortion law, instead of wasting more time talking about these stupid reforms,” said another.

One of the disrupters, Kathie Sarachild of Redstockings, recalled: “Woman after woman got up and testified how the reforms being proposed would not have helped her through her terrible illegal abortion one bit.”

“We were counseled that to oppose abortion reforms — to press for . . . total repeal of abortion laws was asking too much,” said Sarachild. “But we just knew that we didn’t want to fight at all if it wasn’t going for what we really want — that abortion reform was just more insult and humiliation for women.”

A month later, Redstockings held their own hearing, with women telling of their illegal abortions and pregnancy scares. The speakout’s power came not from talking about extreme cases, but the everyday experience of women. “I knew it was the wrong time . . . there was no way I would give up my education to have a child,” said Irene Peslikis, who testified about her illegal abortion when she was a nineteen-year-old art student.

Go For What We Really Want

The condescending exceptions considered by legislators would have helped few women; on the other hand, repealing abortion laws altogether could reach every woman. Far from turning women off, the demand for repeal and the accompanying speakouts set the movement on fire.

Six women lawyers filed a class action suit in October 1969 aimed at overturning the New York law that made abortion a crime. Following the lead of Redstockings, the lawsuit featured women’s personal testimony, collected by black feminist and pioneering movement lawyer Flo Kennedy, Diane Schulder, and Nancy Stearns of the Law Center for Constitutional Rights. (Schulder and Kennedy’s resulting book, Abortion Rap, is essential reading.)

Following the example of a Southern civil rights case, the feminist legal team opened the depositions to the public and the press. The state’s lawyers complained of “a circus” as women described their illegal abortions in open sessions.

With the discussion of abortion rapidly losing its stigma, and lawsuits threatening to abolish the law, many legislators changed their tune. The New York Assembly had voted down weak-kneed reform bills in 1967, 1968, and 1969, and the majority leader, Earl Brydges, had refused any Senate votes on the issue. But in 1970, Brydges allowed the Senate to vote on Republican Constance Cook’s repeal bill, expecting it to go down in flames, since it was the most radical measure under consideration. It passed thirty-one to twenty-six.

The assembly weakened the bill, adding a time limit of twenty-four weeks and saying only doctors could perform abortions. The compromises didn’t help, and the bill was still at an impasse, seventy-four to seventy-four, until Auburn Democrat George Michaels changed his vote at the last minute. “One of my sons just called me a whore for the vote I cast against this,” he told the Assembly. “I fully appreciate that this is the termination of my political career.” And it was: because of this vote, his district’s Democratic Party committee backed someone else in the next election.

New York became the country’s “abortion mill” on July 1, 1970 as women all over the US scraped together the money to travel and pay for a legal abortion. For the first time in one hundred years, women didn’t have to prove they were crazy, sick, or raped to get a legal abortion.

Roe v. Wade was modeled on the New York law, but with more demeaning compromises that outlined the state’s interest in the fetus’s viability depending on the trimester of the pregnancy. While it was never the repeal that radicals had demanded, many feminists considered the victory worth settling for, and turned to other battles.

But a serious bipartisan backlash set in from the top. Two years after the New York law passed, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller vetoed an attempt by the legislature to make abortion illegal again. After Roe, Congress immediately passed the 1973 Helms amendment, introduced by North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, which banned foreign aid going to abortions.

Defying a veto threat from Gerald Ford, Congress soon passed the Hyde Amendment, and Democratic President Jimmy Carter signed it into law in 1977, taking abortions away from Medicaid patients. Women started to die from illegal abortions again.

Four Lessons

There are important lessons from these earlier movements. First, the abortion demand was part of the women’s liberation movement instead of standing as a single, isolated issue. Second, women demanded repeal, not reform, of laws that could be endlessly tinkered with. Third, the movement didn’t kowtow to the liberals who perennially assumed little could be done. Fourth, women’s experiences and desires — not triangulating policy organizations or experts — guided the movement.

Recent battles bring these lessons into sharp relief. For example, when we first set out to get morning-after pill contraception over the counter, National Women’s Liberation was warned by established nonprofits that we were demanding too much. Couldn’t we just try to get it in hospital emergency rooms for rape victims?

But we knew the history of the abortion fight, and we stuck with our strategy of speaking and acting from our own experience. We used consciousness-raising meetings and public speak outs as our main form of organizing. We testified about our sex lives at the FDA’s hearing, detailing why we needed the morning-after pill and how the prescription requirement added time and expense. Along with that, we got arrested blocking the FDA’s doors, passed out the pills at demonstrations, flash-mobbed pharmacies.

Through a class action suit, we battled the Bush and Obama administrations and a rotating cast of FDA commissioners, finally winning MAP over the counter for all ages in 2013.

Compare that fight to last year’s struggle over Amendment 1 in Tennessee, which passed with 53 percent of the vote. Abortion opponents in the legislature were irritated that some of their abortion restrictions had been blocked by the state’s supreme court, so they put a constitutional amendment on the ballot specifying that there is nothing in the state’s constitution to stop the legislature from banning abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, or “when necessary to save the life of the mother.”

Tennessee can’t ban abortions, absent a new Supreme Court decision, but the amendment gives the legislature the green light to pass more restrictions that now cannot be stopped by the state’s supreme court.

Campaigners against Amendment 1 decided that the way to win was to emphasize the lack of exceptions. So they produced ads saying: “Amendment 1 violates privacy and makes no exceptions for rape or tragic things that can happen during pregnancy like cancer”; “These difficult decisions are best left to a woman, her family and her own faith. . .”; “Please vote no on Amendment 1, it goes too far”; “Vote No because 1 makes no exceptions.” Or worse, they avoided mentioning that the vote was about abortion at all.

The ads implied that it would be okay to ban abortion as long as exceptions were maintained for women who had been raped or had cancer. Abortion is still legal, yet somehow we’ve been transported back to that 1969 hearing, debating under which special horrible circumstances women are allowed to control their reproductive destiny.

This kind of toothless strategy thrives when women are silent about our actual experiences. When women start speaking for themselves on abortion, these patronizing do-gooders are exposed as the essentially conservative fence-sitters they are, tut-tutting about “difficult decisions” and insisting that abortion must be rare.

Plenty of feminists are challenging this apologetic strategy. In her 2014 book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt takes on those abortion defenders who sound barely distinguishable from their opponents. Highlighting Hillary Clinton’s 2005 comment that abortion is “a sad, even tragic choice for many, many women,” she quips: “You’ll notice she didn’t add, and for many others, [it’s] a blessing and a lifesaver.”

Another bright spot is #ShoutYourAbortion, a hashtag started by Amelia Bonow and Lindy West in September. “Even women who support abortion rights have been silent, and told they were supposed to feel bad about having an abortion,” said Bonow in a New York Times interview.

140 characters at a time, a speak out materialized on Twitter:

“Was 23, madly in love. He was 19. Together for 3 ½ years. I had an abortion on Halloween. Best decision I’ve ever made. #ShoutYourAbortion.” —Kerry Hassan

“‘Abortion for convenience!’ Well it spared me years of unhappiness and struggle so I guess that was convenient, sure. #ShoutYourAbortion.” —Miranda Pinero

“I had 2 abortions so I could have 1 child. And I’m so glad I did. #ShoutYourAbortion” —Kathy Kattenburg

Despite a backlash that included death threats, Shout Your Abortion activists have been forming chapters to reinforce the online consciousness-raising with organizing.

The other reason we must put abortion in the context of the Women’s Liberation Movement again is that abortion is not anywhere near all we need. The flip side of abortion rights is that having children is too damn hard. The utter lack of the kind of “social wage” available in European and many other countries, along with our evaporating individual wages, means that having a child is a leap into a stress-filled and exhausting future. We need a strong Women’s Liberation Movement to make these connections and strategize to win relief in this area as well.

The demand for abortion has had the most success when it’s been joined to larger goals of women’s liberation and is free of preemptive compromise. If we want to back the Supreme Court down this time, we need to quickly absorb the lessons of those past victories.

Redstockings has detailed the story of the reform hearing disruption and the first abortion speak out through original documents and audio recordings available through its Archives for Action. To volunteer work for the archives or other projects, contact them.