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Recent Opinion Pieces

No Shame: Abortion as an Honorable and Child-Centered Choice

Several decades ago I wrote the first ever history of US birth-control politics. After it was published I gave talks and wrote many articles about the issue, responding to the anti-abortion movement. But birth control as a whole, including both contraception and abortion, seemed to me so basic to modern life, so essential to any of us in the “99 percent,” that I assumed the opposition would gradually peter out. But it didn’t. I grew exhausted from repeating my arguments over and over. After some time, I went on to other topics as an historian and writer.


Opposition to birth control still didn’t go away but became worse: The ultra-conservative minorities that oppose access to birth control murdered abortion workers, set fire to clinics, made it extremely difficult to get abortions, stopped medical schools from teaching safe abortion technique, and removed abortion from medical coverage for the poor. With the latest anti-birth-control strategy, attempting to remove contraceptive coverage from Obama’s one major achievement, the Affordable Care Act, I felt forced back into the fight.

The better news is that the US Right wing has become so crazy that it has re-energized women’s activism, and two new publications have raised the campaign to defend birth control onto a higher level of bravery. One is the new book PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, by Katha Pollitt, columnist for The Nation. The other is a new set of arguments put out by the magazine of Catholics for Choice—insisting that we must quit “pitting contraception against abortion” and instead stand up proudly for both.

Katha Pollitt is a prize-winning feminist writer and poet who understands birth control not only as a woman’s right, not only as a fundamental human right, but also as a part of the struggle for greater class, race, and international equality. People decide when to have children and how many to have primarily for economic reasons: do they earn enough, how much child care does their work life and their education allow, do they have enough support for raising children—these are the main questions. Of course individual men and women differ in their drive to reproduce, as in everything else, and some are young and foolish, and a minority of men like the idea that they can sire children who they then leave to the women to raise. But whatever the reasons, the ability to choose is in danger of becoming a privilege of the prosperous. Margaret Sanger, who began her birth-control crusade exactly a century ago, in 1914, learned the importance of the issue from her experience as a visiting nurse among the poor. She saw undernourished children, exhausted mothers (frequently disabled from childbirth), humiliated fathers (because they could not support their families), and marriages threatened by stress, worry, and sexual abstinence caused by fear of pregnancy. These mothers begged Sanger for help and she embarked on her world-historical project to bring birth control to the US. She soon learned that wealthy couples were already able to control their reproduction because they could pay for the services of private doctors, and she saw attacks on birth control for what they were: class legislation.

Today the US is not an easy place to raise children unless one is very prosperous. Child care is ridiculously expensive—on average it costs approximately 50% of a low-income family’s expenses. Pregnant women are discriminated against at work but can’t afford not to work. One of every ten children have no reliable medical care. As to prenatal care, one in every four pregnant Black women and more than one in three pregnant Latina women is uninsured (i). Almost a third of black children have lead in their blood. 36 percent of US Latina children suffer “food insecurity,” which means "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods," according to the US Department of Agriculture (ii). Poor children attend over-crowded, physically crumbling schools. As anti-abortionists cry that embryos are being murdered, they vote against policies that would prevent the deaths of actual children: The US ranks either 34th in the world, or 55th according to the CIA, in its infant mortality rate, well below Cuba, Croatia and Chile (iii). Birth control won’t in itself end these cruelties. But religious claims about the sanctity of the “lives” of embryos, or the hard-heartedness of women who abort, stink of utter hypocrisy.

Interestingly, the Catholic group, who publish the fine magazine Conscience, emphasizes an explicitly feminist message. They condemn the moral stigmatization of abortion, even when it is framed as the regrettable necessity for those who have failed at contraception. They insist on the wisdom, morality, and honor of choosing abortion whenever a pregnant woman decides that giving birth does not work for her.

There is a reason their moral stand became necessary. Birth control advocates tried to win support by accepting the dishonor of abortion while arguing that contraception could reduce the need for abortion. That is true, contraception does that. As Dr. Angel M. Foster of Catholics for Choice writes, the stigma on abortion “leads us away from addressing the root causes of unwanted pregnancy and maternal mortality.” The fact that the Gates foundation, not to mention the US government, supports women’s health in the global south but refuses to help make abortions safer and more accessible actually undercuts their own family planning and women’s health programs (iv). The stigma leads to reproductive fatalism, which tells women to be resigned, not to expect to advance their own lives and their children’s lives. The stigma reaffirms conservatives’ refusal to allow women to make their own decisions. When we try to compromise, to endorse contraception but not abortion, we weaken an underlying feminist message that must be defended: that women’s moral agency must be supported, in the words of Jon O’Brien, President of Catholics for Choice (v). No one has the right to overrule a woman who knows it is not right for her to give birth.

And yet: mothers and even pregnant women not yet mothers are very likely to make their reproductive decisions in the interests of children. The majority of women, 6 out of 10, who have abortions are already mothers, and more than 3 out of 10 already have two or more children. Abortion is almost never a rejection of parenthood; to the contrary it’s done for the sake of children.

We shouldn’t need these pro-child arguments to justify abortion, because choice in reproduction should be a woman’s right. But it happens to be a fact that freeing women is the best thing that could be done for children.


i. http://www.childrensdefense.org/policy-priorities/childrens-health/racial-ethnic-disparities/#sthash.MNl9zdA8.dpuf

ii. http://www.nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_1032.pdf; Gary Bickel; Mark Nord; Cristofer Price; William Hamilton; John Cook (2000). "Guide to Measuring Household Food Security". USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Retrieved 1 November 2013.

iii. [https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html]

iv. Angel Foster, comments in “Down a Garden Path: the Folly of Pitting Contraception Against Abortion,” Conscience XXXV #3, 2014, p. 17.

v. Jon O’Brien, comments in “Down a Garden Path: the Folly of Pitting Contraception Against Abortion,” Conscience XXXV #3, 2014, p. 16.