Dear Feminists: On Abortion, Shall We Finally Embrace the Golden Mean?
Abortion is every woman’s concern and every feminist’s issue.
We feminists, the advocates of the species, array ourselves along a spectrum on the issue of abortion — over viability of the fetus, over religious injunction, over access to the procedure, over restrictions to access. It is perhaps the latter — unrestricted versus restricted access — that causes the most argument among our number.
A defining moment for me came in the mid-1990s. I was in New York on business and was to meet a friend there for coffee during my break (from rehearsal for a play of mine). When I called to arrange where to meet, my friend informed me of a scheduling conflict: As a board member of an abortion rights group, she had committed to a march that would take place during our coffee-time. I’d read of the upcoming march, a major event involving feminists from across the country. “You can come march with us and we can talk,” she said. I demurred: “I don’t think so, but thanks.” What ensued got prickly, as it came out her advocacy of abortion was stronger than mine.
Finally, in exasperation, my friend asked: “What kind of feminist are you?” And out of my mouth came my position on abortion, finally: “One who believes in limits, in restrictions.”
By then, in the 20-some years since the 1973 Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Roe v. Wade granting the right to abortion, when the ruling was operationalized — women getting abortions, feminists touting women’s progress with this signal right — I became increasingly unsettled by how seldom I heard reference to, or concern expressed for, that which was aborted: the fetus. Too often I heard relief expressed that abortion was a fix for a “wild weekend of unprotected sex.” Also unsettling was what I took to be specious rationales about when life begins, with the more extremist voices arguing for later and later in the term, with fewer and fewer restrictions, including into the third trimester. But, but, but: Left to its own, the fetus will grow, I felt; it is a living thing. “Safe, legal, and rare” seemed a sound dictum to me, but the “rare” part was losing ground.
This more extreme position — abortion into the third trimester, fewer and fewer restrictions — was a huge gift to far-right conservatives, who could step forward as the true stewards of the unborn, who could paint feminists as baby-killers caring only for their selfish lifestyles.
When I tried raising my concerns with sister feminists — abortion used as abortifacient, the fetus as a living thing — I got closed down, as “moralistic” or “blaming the victim” or even a “secret right-winger.” Which is why, though I came to believe abortion is a valid right, but one that should be restricted to the first trimester — the standard of the Golden Mean has always seemed wisest to me — I kept it to myself (until that defining moment with my New York friend). Which is also why, until now, as a commentator I have never written about abortion. I did do a review of a play about two teenagers attempting a do-it-yourself abortion, an act I felt was wrong, and was castigated by a half-dozen feminists for failing to uphold a woman’s “choice.” My response: Robbing a bank is also a “choice”; abortion involves a life and thus is an ethical-moral act, a solemn one.
Please understand: The women I know who got abortions did so responsibly and after agonizing thought: The fetus was malformed, they already had enough children, they felt they were too old. While it is impossible to quantify, I want to believe the majority of abortions since Roe have occurred after similar responsible thought. But: As always with social dynamics, it is the extremes that eventually come to define the case as a whole. And with the unceasing push in the succeeding decades since Roe for fewer and fewer restrictions, pushed by advocates in various states, we have now, as our opposition, the most hardline of anti-abortion advocates, who hold life begins at conception and who seek even to criminalize those women getting abortions.
These are the forces — extreme — now in play, at this historic moment when we learn, thanks to a leaked draft written by Justice Samuel Alito, that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe, perhaps as soon as next month when this session’s final opinions are published. With the Court’s majority of far-right justices now in place, the country’s anti-abortion forces are about to realize their decades-long dream: seeing Roe v. Wade rescinded.
To have a constitutional right rescinded by the state is historic enough, further evidence of our faltering democracy. But such action also raises alarm of other hard-fought rights to be rescinded — mixed marriage, gay marriage — even birth control curtailed. As for abortion, the Alito draft directs abortion be returned to the states — a splintering of the federal right. Thirteen (13) states, Republican-controlled, have “trigger laws” ready to ban abortion or severely restrict it the instant the Court rescinds; in all, 26 states “are certain or likely to ban abortion without Roe,” per The Guttmacher Institute. Senate Democrats immediately moved to codify Roe into federal law, but unwisely invalidated some state restrictions, making it “the most permissive abortion bill ever”; the bill, which Republicans called “radical,” failed.
Meanwhile, to call the reaction among feminists to the Supreme Court leak a “firestorm” is to understate the heat and intensity of the reaction — their fears of the return to unsafe back-alley abortions, their sorrow for desperate women suffering and dying, with poorer women especially in peril, not to mention the heartbreak over a lifetime’s advocacy wasted. New York Times legal columnist Linda Greenhouse likens forced pregnancy to enslavement, “involuntary servitude.”
But: While lamentation is justified, all is not lost. The battle can still be won — at the ballot box and with a reformed strategy.
The upcoming midterm elections in November are key: electing pro-abortion candidates to all levels — Congressional and state, where abortion suddenly will be on the agenda if the Supreme Court does rescind Roe, as it likely will. Hard-liners may very well have overplayed their hand, especially with their proposed punitive measures, and there may very well be a backlash, offering an opening. And the reformed strategy? One that resets its parameters: away from the extreme of unrestricted abortion through the third trimester — and back to the more defensible parameter of abortion restricted to the first. In other words, the Golden Mean, not the extreme.
For the right to abortion is a right that any society claiming to promote the best for its women needs to keep. Why? Because contraception doesn’t always work, no matter how conscientiously used. Because sometimes a pregnancy goes horribly wrong (e.g., ectopic pregnancies) and an abortion must be performed to save the life of the faultless mother. Because victims of rape and incest, most especially very young girls, should not have their lives blighted by forcibly carrying to term a child they did not choose to conceive. (Note how, in the uproar after the Alito leak, there’s been near-zero focus on the criminality of these rapists and these degenerates committing incest? Note how the onus is still left on the girl? And shall we discuss Alito’s citing of a 17th-century English jurist who approved of marital rape, holding that women cede all rights upon marriage? And Alito claiming abortion is not a right specifically enumerated in the Constitution? For that matter, women don’t figure in that document either, as The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore was early to note.)
Fortunately, public opinion is already in place for a reset of abortion advocacy. A recent Yahoo/YouGov poll finds a solid majority — 61% — approves of abortion in the first trimester, with falling approval in the second trimester (32%) and outright disapproval in the third (just 19%) — a metric which abortion advocates should realign to. Solid majorities do not want to see abortion rights rescinded, nor see women criminalized for abortion. Can abortion advocates reset?
In my early career in civil rights, in the 1970s and ’80s, when I organized the women’s caucus of a major think-tank (Brookings Institution) and served as an equal opportunity officer for a major American city (San Diego), I found that, for a policy to stick, not trigger reactionary resistance, the Golden Mean worked — moderation in goals (if you keep meeting your goals, over time you make real headway), moderation in implementation (making yourself helpful in reaching those goals), moderation in style (don’t scare people). I also saw how extremes, expressed as cultural trend (dressing sexy), could hurt “my” women. “Nothing in excess,” as the ancients put it. This isn’t about panache (“living big”), but policy: bringing the masses over to our side. P.S., abortion advocates demonstrating outside the homes of conservative Supreme Court justices is….excessive.
In a word, abortion advocates overplayed their hand — insisting on unrestricted abortion — and triggered major reactionary resistance that looks to remake the landscape. Everything depends now on recalibrating: It would be good to hear abortion advocates begin to speak of restrictions and begin to express concern for the fetus, as they campaign for pro-abortion candidates and seek to save abortion rights. So far, though, since the Alito leak, I have heard very little of either — about restrictions or the fetus — in commentary or in letters to the editor, hearing instead the claim that abortion is all about healthcare, economic opportunity, sexual freedom, privacy. No; again, abortion is an ethical-moral issue, involving life. Until we hear a change in message, how can feminists like me who are “squishy” on abortion join in the rescue?
(FWIW, while squishy on abortion, I have never forsaken the term “feminist.” And a final personal note: My New York friend and I resolved our differences soon after our dust-up. These two feminists of different stripes enjoyed many close talks, until my friend’s death last year.)
I sincerely hope the right to abortion — with restrictions — is saved; control of our bodies should remain ours, not the state’s. As a feminist, I do not want to see women as a class regress. If we (note the plural) rescue this more humane version of abortion rights, a long-term project requiring a long-term view, we can still get to a place where women are protected in their most life-altering moment. Then, once we have saved abortion, I hope we will tutor ourselves in the care and maintenance of this precious right. Because, if we’re honest, in the years following Roe, care and maintenance was not the theme, going full-out and testing the limits was; some might call it a right abused. Often a thing is not truly valued until its permanent loss is threatened. What is called for now is maturity, responsibility. Which is what America as a whole, so troubled now, must do: mature, get responsible. We can sync with the larger American project of getting to Renaissance, to rebirth (pun intended, abortion advocates).
Reform and reinvention — this is America’s essence. We can do this, People, we can.