Women, rather than religious or male dominated political powers, ought to be the decision makers with regard to their reproductive systems. To support this claim, this essay will examine the history of abortion in the U.S. and the decisions made by governing bodies regarding women’s reproductive rights. Second, what controversies and opposing arguments have followed the decisions made by those bodies, and lastly, the plausibility and outcomes of having women as the decision makers over their reproductive systems and bodies.
In the 18th century and until 1880, abortions were allowed under common law. Drugs to induce abortions were a booming business, and were advertised and accessible. If drugs didn’t work, women could go to practitioners for instrumental procedures. Abortions only became illegal after the woman felt the sensation of “quickening” (a controversial term describing the feeling of the fetus moving within the womb). Even the Catholic Church, one of the main anti-abortion advocates today, believed that no life existed before “quickening”. The ethics around abortion at this time were based solely on the female’s experience of her own body.
According to Russian-Soviet politician Leon Trotsky, “The best and most profound path of struggle against the superstition of religion is the path of all-sided concern for the mother.” (Trotsky, 1925, 48). The Catholic Church did not follow Trotsky’s sentiment. The first time the church condemned abortions was in 1869 when the debate became politicized in the U.S. In 1895, the papacy denounced “therapeutic abortion” (procedures used to save a woman’s life), but before then – up until the mid-19th century – the church accepted abortions before “ensoulment”, meaning the time the child gains their soul.
During the mid 19th century, the first fights against abortion were out of worries about poisoning. Neither politics, religion nor morality played a major role in the debate. The medical establishment officially made abortions illegal in most states in 1880, excluding times when it was necessary to save a woman’s life.
In 2016, the Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, abolished a controversial Texas abortion law, giving victory to abortion rights groups. Although this case came out victorious, it showed how many states were gearing up to put restrictions on abortions.
In the case, the American Medical Association (AMA) stated they disapproved of the Texas abortion law. However, in 1857 the AMA worked to make abortions illegal. There were many reasons for this, but one was that regular physicians wanted to gain professional power, restrict their competitors from getting too powerful and control all medical practices. This aim was anti-feminist at its core, because it limited women’s status and opportunities in the medical community.
During this time, most women receiving abortions were white and middle class. Lower class women had to go to dangerous measures, often using knitting needles or drinking chemicals to induce abortions. With the restrictions placed on abortions people worried that the white population would be replaced with immigrants because of the decrease in white babies being born. This was the argument of many anti-abortionists including the American physician Horatio Storer: ‘Shall these regions be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? … upon [women’s] loins depends the future destiny of the nation.’
Throughout the depression many saw abortion as an economic issue rather than a women’s or moral issue and therefore clinics worked freely, significantly increasing abortion rates. Similarly, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, women became inspired by the civil rights and anti-war movements and started their own liberation movements, leading to an increase in illegal abortions, approximately 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. Finally, in 1973, Roe v. Wade was passed, legalizing a woman’s right to abortion.
There are many arguments against abortion and I have already touched on some, but I will now discuss two more: the arguments that abortion does not free women and that it sidesteps the oppression of women. First, some argue abortion does not free women, instead it gives government an excuse to not cater to women’s needs (eg. affordable childcare and maternity leave). Women need to be supported financially and socially so that they are able to get back into the workforce after childbirth. Second, scholars argue that abortion is merely a mask that avoids the bigger issues surrounding women. For example, if a woman is raped and needs to get an abortion the conversation should be around the rape and not the abortion. Or, if a woman is in an abusive relationship and falls pregnant, one should focus on the fallacies of the abusive relationship, not the pregnancy.
Today, we have a President who has faced at least a dozen allegations of sexual assault and a Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, who has also been accused of sexual misconduct. With the help of these men, the current administration is actively trying to restrict abortion rights, leaving the future of women’s reproductive rights in the U.S. extremely disturbing.
Although the nation has made great progress in women’s reproductive rights and abortions are at an all time low, an African American woman is five times more likely than a Caucasian woman to get an abortion, and a Latina woman is twice as likely.
I can see the Trump administration retreating back to age old beliefs about abortion, like those held during the Soviet Union by judges such as Aaron Soltz. Soltz said that in a socialist society, where “life is happy” and unemployed doesn’t, a woman has no right to abstain from “the joys of motherhood.” He believed that abortion should be punished with imprisonment. Trump is already following this logic – during the campaign trail he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that women who want abortions should face criminal punishment. The pro-choice advocates agree more with Trotsky: “socialism was to remove the cause which impels woman to abortion and not force her into the ‘joys of motherhood’.”
With abortion, we see that history is repeating itself. Historically, white women had access to abortion while women of color were left searching for dangerous procedures. Today, the abortion rate is down but women of color are more likely to need an abortion. We see the values around abortion that were popular during the Soviet Union returning because of the Trump administration. The advancements made with Roe v. Wade could be swept from under our feet any day. The only history that hasn’t repeated itself is women holding positions of power – because women never held those positions. That is what must change; that is the history that should repeat itself.
The historical and current controversies stated above are occurring because women are still unable to make executive decisions about their reproductive rights. The sentiment and logic of abortion will only change when women hold high positions of judicial power. I believe women must be equally represented as lawmakers, lawyers and government employees in order to make powerful waves in changing the discussion and laws around abortion. And changing the discussion means, “cutting the last umbilical cord linking the people with the dark and superstitious past.” (Trotsky, 1925, 48).
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