Many commenters on my most recent post dealing with abortion expressed skepticism that any anti-abortion activist actually believes the whole “abortion is murder” thing and argued instead that anti-abortion activists are simply anti-woman. While this may have once been the case, based on my experience I don’t think it is the case today.
It appears to me that opposition to abortion as the murder of babies is a sort of rhetorical bait and switch that has taken on a life of its own and acts as a smokescreen, blinding anti-abortion activists to the anti-woman results of their own opposition to abortion.
Crusades against abortion originated in an effort to control women, or more specifically in an effort to police sexuality and keep women within their role, raising children. Abortion was seen as an affront on the family and an affront on the natural God-given order. In fact, birth control and abortion were often linked and collectively condemned. See, for example, the chapter on abortion in the nineteenth century in Grossberg’s Governing the Hearth, or this excellent article by Sierra.
There was always a parallel rhetoric in anti-abortion crusades equating abortion with the murder of children, but this argument was generally subordinate to the emphasis put on keeping women within their God-given roles. Originally it was often applied in tandem with the other, to the effect that a woman murdering her unborn child was the most “unwomanly” thing imaginable. The woman who murdered her own child was a woman dangerously out of her role.
As opposition to Roe v. Wade grew in the years following 1973, the rhetorical emphasis shifted from keeping women from straying from their natural roles to saving the lives of unborn babies.As reader Naomi points out, early religious right leaders saw abortion as an issue they could use to rally their base. At the same time, though, they realized that with the successes of the feminist movement and the widespread adoption of birth control, arguing that abortion needed to be banned because it allowed women to to escape their natural role as mother would be a dead end. As Fred Clark of the Slactivist notes, it was during the 1980s that the idea that the soul entered the zygote at conception was first developed among evangelicals.
However it happened, shifting the rhetoric from controlling women to saving babies had a huge impact on the foot soldiers of the anti-abortion movement.
I was raised in an anti-abortion home, I campaigned against abortion as a teen, and I was involved in anti-abortion activism in college. I, like everyone I knew, especially other young people and college students, was motivated to fight abortion by the belief that it was the murder of unborn babies. I honestly and truly did not see it as about controlling women at all.
I think in some ways the abortion as murder rhetoric is a smokescreen that covers over the actual motivations of some (perhaps especially the leaders) and blinds ordinary well-meaning anti-abortion activists to the result of their own policies. By arguing that abortion should be opposed because it is the murder of innocent babies, anti-abortion activists can paper over or simply not even realize the way opposition to abortion results in controlling women.
The abortion as murder rhetoric also means that for those who hold to it it ultimately doesn’t matter whether restricting abortion results in diminishing women’s autonomy. In their conception, nothing – nothing – justifies taking an innocent life. The abortion as murder rhetoric thus makes an anti-abortion activist immune to claims that he or she is just trying to control women. For them, it’s about saving the lives of innocent babies, and nothing trumps that.
One thing we can do is point out inconsistencies in anti-abortion activism, inconsistencies that are likely born of its original purpose, keeping women in their proper place. The pasting of new rhetoric and a new goal onto an older movement has left rough edges and incongruities. Challenging anti-abortion activists with these inconsistencies can help reveal the extent to which opposition to abortion still is about controlling women, whether they realize it or not.
But even with challenging these inconsistencies, you’re still going to run into true believers. When someone asked me years ago whether I would save a case of embryos or a toddler from a burning building, the question bothered me but I still answered consistently: the embryos. Similarly, I was not okay with any exception for rape or incest. A baby was a baby, no matter how conceived. Pointing out inconsistencies only ever made me resolve to be consistent in my opposition to the murder of babies.
I think the other problem is that anti-abortion activists have so placed the focus on cute little babies that it’s almost possible for them to forget that women and their bodies are involved at all. They try to fix this problem with their anti-abortion resource centers for women and by portraying themselves as “pro-woman” as well as “pro-life.” But the reality is that anti-abortion activists focus so single-mindedly on “saving babies” that they can end up blind to understanding the reasons women seek abortions in the first place and blind to understanding what pro-choice advocates mean by “it’s my body.”
I don’t think the solution is to argue that all anti-abortion advocates are anti-woman, or that none of them actually believe that saving babies stuff. I also don’t think continually stating “but it’s my body” in response to “but it’s murdering an innocent child” will work on many or even most of the foot soldiers of the anti-abortion movement. At least, I know it wouldn’t have worked for me.
Note: Feel free to disagree with this assessment if you like. I am only trying to give my perspective, having been solidly 100% anti-abortion, and extremely involved in anti-abortion activism even into my undergraduate years, and then having become solidly 100% pro-choice in the years since. Perhaps in the future I’ll write a post or even a series on what changed my mind and my position, and a “how-to” guide for arguing with anti-abortion activists based on my own experiences.