When It Really Is about Controlling Women

A reader offered the following in a comment on a recent post on abortion:

“What I had really wanted to say is that, except in the case of a rape, the pregnancy had to have resulted from a voluntary decision on the part of the woman, and therefore she should take responsibility for it, and carry the baby to term.”

I’ve been encountering this argument with growing frequency, and it really bothers me. Just last week my awesome husband helped me understand why. Put simply, this argument lays bare the misogyny of the anti-abortion movement, and makes opposition to abortion a blatant attempt to control women. Let me explain.

As I see it, there are two main reasons people oppose abortion:

  • First is the argument that the zygote/fetus is a person with rights. I call this the “save the babies” argument. It is passively anti-woman in that it almost always involves erasing women from the equation and ignoring women’s right to control their own bodies.
  • Second is the argument that women shouldn’t have sex unless they’re willing to be mothers. I call this the “slut shaming” argument. It is actively anti-woman in that it involves shaming women for having had sex and seeking to impose a measure of social control on women.

In the last several decades pro-lifers have been distancing themselves more and more from this second reason and focusing on the first. But the second reason has not disappeared. Growing up in pro-life circles, I thought it was “save the babies” all the way. And I have to admit, I was taken in. I honestly thought abortion was about saving babies, not about controlling women. And I’m not the only one so taken in. As long as they focus on the “save the babies” argument, pro-lifers can claim that they aren’t being anti-woman (even if, by erasing women from the picture, they actually are). But when they start using the “slut shaming” argument, they don’t have any such excuse.

And that, quite simply, is the problem with the comment I quoted above.

If abortion is murder, the argument that women need to “take responsibility” for the “voluntary decision” to have sex by carrying the pregnancy to term is irrelevant. It should not matter. If it’s just about “saving babies,” then abortion is wrong because it’s murder, not because it’s a woman failing to “take responsibility” for having had sex. When someone makes the above argument, then, they make clear that some proportion of the anti-abortion movement is not simply interested in “saving babies,” but rather in depriving women of control of their own reproduction. Some proportion of the anti-abortion movement, then, is actively anti-woman, not simply passively anti-woman. They make opposing abortion about “slut shaming,” about trying to control women who want to have sex but not to have children, not about “saving babies.”

And then they wonder why women get upset. They wonder why they’re called anti-woman. They shouldn’t. It should be obvious.

A Rebuttal

Just because I want to be crystal clear, let me explain the many problems with the “slut shaming” argument. Feel free to leave a comment with additional problems.

1. Having an abortion is taking responsibility. As another reader said in a comment:

Why isn’t having an abortion taking responsibility for her actions? It’s not responsible to create a child if you’re not in a position to give it a decent chance at a certain quality of life so the really irresponsible thing for women to do would be to carry every pregnancy to term.

Exactly. This should be obvious. Having an abortion is one way of taking responsibility for an unwanted pregnancy, just as deciding to go through with the pregnancy and either keep the resulting baby or give it up for adoption are other ways of taking responsibility. We should trust women to make their own decisions, not force them to take the course we personally think they should take. Unless, of course, it really is about punishing women audacious enough to have sex without wanting to be mothers by forcing them to go through pregnancy and have a child.

And if you read the above paragraph and then say “but wait! it’s a baby! abortion is not ‘taking responsibility’ because it’s murder!” then why in the world would you make the “take responsibility” and “deal with the consequences” argument in the first place? If abortion is murder, then why talk about women needing to “take responsibility” for their “voluntary choice” to have sex? Shouldn’t you just be focusing on the whole murder thing, rather than talking about a pregnancy and resulting baby like they’re some sort of “consequences” that a woman choosing to have sex should have to be shouldered with? If abortion isn’t murder, the only reason to oppose it is in an effort to control women’s sexuality. If abortion is murder, than whether or not women should “take responsibility” should not matter. Only inveighing against murder should matter.

2. Women should not have to risk becoming a mother every time they have sex. To quote from a reader once again:

Women can’t live without sex during all periods of their lives in which they aren’t able to care for a child (they should be extremely careful with contraception during these times but accidents do happen).

Women need to “take responsibility” for what, exactly? Since birth control sometimes fails and I doubt this argument includes exceptions for birth control failure, I have to conclude that the argument is that when a woman chooses “voluntarily” to have sex she must “take responsibility” if a pregnancy results. In other words, if a woman chooses to be sexually active, well, she is assenting to motherhood. This used to be true, and was one reason women could not reach parity with men – they faced constant childbearing, with all of the difficulty, invasiveness, and risk it involved. But this isn’t true anymore, and those who want it to be true, whether they realize it or not, are hearkening back to a time when women “stayed in their places.”

And before someone says that women can just abstain from sex if they don’t want to become pregnant, let me point out two things:  a) in the case of premarital sex, this is a free country and you are not allowed to impose your personal views on another and b) in the case of marital sex, remaining celibate is silly, since sex is important to maintaining a healthy marriage (Getting married should not mean becoming a constant baby machine. I’m in my twenties, married, and the other of two children. My husband and I don’t want more at this point in time, or perhaps ever. Should we then be celibate until I reach menopause?).

Unless we women can control when and if to have children, we cannot reach equality. Being able to control our reproduction is, in my opinion, one of the most important advances in women’s rights in the twentieth century. And damned if I’m giving that up.

3. How messed up is it to see children as a form of punishment?!? While the comment discussed here didn’t use the word “punishment,” just the other day on facebook I saw someone talking about how women need to deal with the “consequences” of their actions, aka children. In other words, “oh, you had sex and got pregnant and yet you don’t want to be a mother? too bad! when you had sex you were assenting to motherhood, so you have to take the baby regardless!” This is not okay. We do not punish people by forcing them to raise or bear children! And beyond that, we don’t punish people by forcing them to let a foreign entity grow in their bodies for nine months! That is wrong on so many levels!

In other words, pregnancy and motherhood becomes a consequence that any sexually active woman must bear whether they want to or not. You had sex? Well then deal! This is part of the package! Of course, this completely ignores the fact that it does not have to be part of the package. This is what the sexual revolution was all about. Thanks to birth control and abortion, women can be sexually active without becoming mothers. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Because at some level, the people talking about how women need to “take responsibility” for “voluntarily choosing” to have sex don’t want women to be able to be sexually active without facing the attendant pregnancies and children. Opposing abortion is a way to control women’s sexuality, and through their sexuality, their lives.


And again, if the person making this argument believes that abortion is murder, they should not be making this argument! If someone wants to make this argument and then read my three points above and say “oh but wait, abortion is really murder,” then why the heck did you make that other argument, the one about “taking responsibility” for having had sex and dealing with the “consequences” in the first place? If it’s just about “saving babies” and not about being anti-woman, none of that other stuff should matter!

I suppose someone could oppose abortion for both reasons – both believing that it’s murder and that women shouldn’t be sexually active unless they are open to pregnancy and motherhood. But also believing that abortion is murder does not make the argument that women must “take responsibility” for “voluntarily choosing” to have sex any less about controlling women. Anyone who makes the “take responsibility” argument, regardless of whether they also believe abortion involves “murdering babies,” opposes abortion at least in part out of a desire to control women and their sexuality. And then the act all confused when people point that out. “It’s all about saving babies!” they say. Really? Then drop the “take responsibility” for your “voluntary choice” to have sex bit. Because you’re not fooling anyone.

Ultimately, this is about betrayal. The argument made in the comment I quoted at the beginning of this post bothers me because it lays bare the reality that there is a blatantly and actively anti-woman aspect in the anti-abortion movement. I grew up ignorant of this. I thought it was all about “saving babies.” I really believed that. And now, every time I see this argument and realize that it is not simply about saving babies, that to many people it is about controlling women, including me, well, I feel betrayed. And angry. My childhood innocence and trust is gone.

Note: Ironically, every politician who makes an exception for rape is doing so based on this argument – the idea that when women “voluntarily” choose to have sex, they have to “take responsibility” for the “consequences” of that, and that rape victims are exempt because they never “voluntarily” chose to have sex. After all, if abortion really is murder (the “save the babies” argument) it doesn’t matter how those babies were conceived or who their fathers are. It’s still murder. In other words, someone who opposes abortion in all circumstances has plausible deniability when it comes to being anti-woman (i.e. they may actually think it’s all about “saving babies” and not realize that they’re erasing women) but someone who allows rape exemptions does not.  Weird, I know.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.