by Mary Lou Bennett
In his 2016 book, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, Adam Cohen recounts one of America’s great miscarriages of justice—the Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling in Buck v. Bell. This dark moment in history upheld a statute instituting compulsory sterilization of those deemed unfit “for the protection and health of the state.” The ruling allowed for Carrie Buck, a perfectly normal young woman, to be sterilized.
The sad road that delivered her to this fate was strewn with influential men in positions of power who falsified information and continually conspired against her to meet their own agenda, be it to satisfy career goals or quench a growing desire to save the nation from what they perceived to be a growing threat posed by “defective people.” Whatever the case, their ugly efforts resulted in an 8-1 decision against Carrie; the lone dissenter was Judge Pierce Butler, a Catholic. Justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. coldly declared that Carrie should indeed be sterilized because “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
With painstaking detail Cohen acquaints the reader with the history of the eugenics movement and the large following it had with many notables of the time. Through five mini biographies, Cohen introduces Carrie herself and the multiple difficulties she faces throughout her life.
Cohen also introduces the respected, highly influential lawyers, doctors, and judges seeking to use her in their quest to make government sterilization of “undesirables” the accepted law of the land. In this way, Cohen gives the reader an honest, accurate portrayal of Carrie, while examining the motivation driving the men who want her sterilized.
Imbeciles is hard to put down once you begin reading it. This is especially true for someone like me, who admittedly, had little idea of the magnitude of the injustice brought about by the eugenics movement. It was thoroughly unnerving to learn that so many intelligent and highly regarded individuals could manipulate facts and tirelessly dedicate themselves to a cause that would strip a poor, unprivileged woman of her rights.
When Dr. Priddy, Director of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, wanted to determine if a new law authorizing the sterilization of the intellectually disabled for the purpose of eugenics would pass a legal challenge, he chose Carrie Buck as a suitable candidate to further his cause. But as Cohen gives biographies of the views of each man seeking to sterilize Carrie, it quickly becomes evident that those passionate about eugenics were not content with sterilizing a small number of people like Carrie. Rather, one leading eugenicist, Harry Laughlin, believed that to “save the nation from the threat posed by ‘defective’ people, there would need to be millions of sterilizations.” Indeed, various races and ethnicities were seen as inferior and there was a clear desire to diminish them from American society, along with any, like Carrie, who were considered “feebleminded.”
It made me shudder to learn that one of Laughlin’s friends, Madison Grant, a fellow American eugenicist, wrote theories about racial superiority and the need for dealing with the weak that greatly influenced the Nazis. One of Grant’s books was even found in Hitler’s personal library and Hitler is said to have written Grant a “fan letter.”
Imbeciles offers great insight into a troubling time in American history. It manages to successfully serve as an intellectual account of history, as well as an intimate case study of a young woman treated unjustly by those in a position to help her. It leaves the reader continuously asking how such events could have happened less than one hundred years ago and why more people didn’t vehemently speak out against such injustice. Ultimately, it is an excellent piece of literature and a must-read.
Cohen’s book will undoubtedly speak to the heart. Hopefully, people will read it, talk about it, and become resolute in their conviction to fight for the underprivileged that have no voice.
Additional comment from Carol Crossed:
Today, we are less likely to sterilize the poor or the insane or the criminal. We abort them. We try to convince them it’s their right. Graciela Olivarez, as a Carter appointee to the President’s Commission on Population and the American Future, said “The poor cry out for justice and we respond with legalized abortion.”
Additional comments from Rachel MacNair:
An older book on the Buck v. Bell case is Three Generations, No Imbeciles, by Paul A. Lombard, published in 2002. It also tells the tale well, emphasizing that the “three generations of imbeciles is enough” remark was not merely cruel, but in this case, inaccurate. This book in some spots relates the case to Roe v. Wade in what we would see as the wrong direction – Buck as an attack on reproductive rights and Roe as a defense of them. But it’s a good read for more thorough knowledge of the case, and also has some of the complete documents.
Carrie Buck was involuntarily institutionalized by her foster parents in order to cover up the fact that her pregnancy was caused by their nephew raping her. But the fact that she had had a baby made her a prime target for men who wanted a test case for their eugenic ideals. Adding to the tragedy, she was kept away from baby Vivian, whom she loved dearly, and who died of measles at the age of 8. Vivian was the only child Carrie was ever allowed to have.
Buck v. Bell has never been overturned. But Cohen’s book (and Lombard’s as well) are clear denunciations of it. And all of the reviews I’ve seen are sympathetic with the books’ point of view: that this is an exceedingly shameful chapter of history.
I hope that one day, Roe v. Wade will be put in the same category. So it’s a good idea to study the past to see what might work well for the future.
by Bill Samuel, President, Consistent Life Network
This Thanksgiving, a story about a Mesa, Arizona, grandmother named Wanda Dench went viral on the Internet. Wanda had texted family members about coming over for Thanksgiving dinner. One grandson had changed his number, which was now owned by 17 year old Jamal Hinton of nearby Phoenix.
When Jamal received the text, he didn’t know who it was from. When he texted back, Wanda said she was his grandma. They then exchanged photos, verifying that the text was not sent to the intended recipient. But Jamal then asked, in jest, if he could still get some dinner. Wanda replied, “Of course you can. That’s what grandmas do…feed everyone!” Jamal had dinner with Wanda and her family, and everyone had a good time.
A grandson of Wanda’s said he was not surprised by her invitation to Jamal, because they always had an open door policy. To me, Wanda symbolizes the Good Grandma. The Good Grandma welcomes the variety that comes with families, and the loved ones and friends of later generations. The Good Grandma isn’t concerned about the color of their skin, their background, their politics, their nationality, their religion or lack of it, the way they dress, or any of these things. She values each person and welcomes them all. And if there’s a surprise guest; well, there’s always room for one more. Her heart won’t allow her to turn anyone away.
I’m a pretty simple person. Sometimes more sophisticated CLN Board members lose me when they’re explaining their values in sophisticated philosophical language. To me, the things we’re against are natural byproducts of a simple understanding that all human beings are connected. In some sense, we are all family, whether we recognize it or not. So I want the best for all of my brothers and sisters. And certainly it is unthinkable to kill any of them.
It reminds me of a conversation I had decades ago with five-year-old Maria, whose mother I was dating. She asked me if they were killing little children over there in Vietnam. I had to admit to her that they were. “That means they can come over here and kill little kids like me, doesn’t it?” was her response. Her question helped move my commitment to peace from my head to my heart. I realized in my gut that a child on the other side of the world was just as precious as the one I knew and loved who was sitting beside me.
The consistent life ethic isn’t hard to understand. It’s as simple as a good grandma and recognizing that we are all family.
by Rachel MacNair
Several US Supreme Court decisions have been horrifying. What lessons can we learn from history?
Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857
Dred Scott was an enslaved man who petitioned the Court for his freedom and that of his wife and their two daughters, because they had been moved to a state without slavery. Chief Justice Roger Taney infamously wrote that Blacks were “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
Consequences? The foreseeable one was that African Americans continued living under cruel slavery laws, and free states couldn’t help them. Unforeseen was that this decision is commonly seen as one of the events that led to the US Civil War (1861-1865), the bloodiest war in American history.
Overturned? Yes, by the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, in 1865. Being only eight years later, this was remarkably quick. But this was due to the Civil War, so it’s not a good model for quick resolution of bad court decisions.
Also, quasi-slavery practices (sharecropping, vagrancy laws, debt peonage, lynching) were established and widespread for a century. So the amendment didn’t really resolve the problem, though it was a help and worth celebrating.
Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
Homer Plessy was 7/8 European descent and 1/8 African descent. By the standards of the time, this made him colored, and his state of Louisiana had passed a racial segregation law. Challenging the part that applied to trains, he deliberately bought a first-class ticket and boarded to challenge the law. The Court ruled against him with the idea that “separate but equal” was constitutional.
Consequences? The foreseeable one was that segregation laws were more firmly established. This also strengthened various forms of mistreatment of Blacks and Hispanics, the lethal forms of which included lynching and deaths through deliberate medical neglect.
Overturned? Yes, by the Court itself, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in 1954 – that is, 58 years later. Court-favored segregation laws lasted a long time.
Once Plessy was overturned, desegregation efforts still brought violent reactions from a large portion of the population. The decision allowed for further action to bring the change about, rather than being a direct cause of change by itself. A major social movement using nonviolent action – the Civil Rights Movement – plus government action over the course of well over a decade were required to make true progress. Lethal forms of racism (as well as non-lethal forms) still need to be countered today.
Buck v. Bell, 1927
Carrie Buck desperately needed the Court to keep her from being involuntarily sterilized. The reason she was sent to an institution by her foster family was that the foster parents’ nephew had impregnated her through rape. This gave her baby Vivian, but also led to powerful men seeing her as an immoral breeder and therefore a perfect test case for eugenic sterilization laws. The Supreme Court upheld the decision to forcibly sterilize Buck. Justice. Oliver Wendell Holmes said “three generations of imbeciles is enough” – the three generations are pictured below.
But Carrie was average in the few years of school she was allowed to attend, and showed every sign of functioning well throughout her life. Vivian was only a baby at the time of the case, but once she later went to school, she did well. This doesn’t matter, of course, since people who actually are well below average in intelligence are as valuable as anyone else. But being so sloppy with the facts is a recurring theme in eugenics.
In a 1921 letter, Holmes had expounded on his eugenic philosophy by saying it would require “restricting propagation by the undesirables and putting to death infants that didn’t pass the examination.” This eugenic reasoning for infanticide would be one of the currents for the tidal wave of feticide that the Court would unleash in 1973.
Consequences? The foreseeable one was that the eugenics movement had a major victory and cruelly imposed involuntary sterilization on thousands of Americans. At the Nuremberg trials in Germany, Nazis who had carried out over 375,000 registered forced sterilizations defended themselves by citing this case. It had been used as a model for their program, whose ideas were foundational to the Nazis’ massive euthanasia program and the Holocaust.
Overturned? No. However, it merely allowed laws rather than requiring them. The laws of 30 of the 32 states that had them are formally repealed, in a wave mainly from the 1960s to 1980s, and the laws are no longer invoked in the remaining two. Therefore, it’s commonly seen as outdated now, and public opinion is mainly against eugenics. Sterilizations without consent are still reported happening under the radar in scattered places, and especially in “population control” programs.
Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, 1973
These companion cases, decided the same day, had a major difference from the above cases. Instead of the court deciding against the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s legal argument prevailed, knocking down abortion restrictions in all 50 states.
But for Sandra Cano, being the plaintiff of Doe v. Bolton was a technicality. She acquiesced to the lawyers to get help in getting her children back out of foster care. She was immediately horrified at the decision. Norma McCorvey, on the other hand, the plaintiff in Roe, was very pleased at first. She spent years promoting Roe and even worked in an abortion clinic. But in 1995, she had a change of heart, and is now quite active in the pro-life movement. She wants the decision which bears her pseudonym to be overturned.
Consequences? Most clearly, millions of unborn babies have been killed. For more on how abortion relates to other kinds of socially-approved killing, see any consistent-life literature; for more on how it hurts women, see any pro-life feminist literature. Targeting of unborn babies from racial minorities, those with disabilities, and fetal females for elimination has sabotaged the assumption that all people in such groups should be treated with respect.
Overturned? No, and it still has widespread support in the population. This is the only one on this list that isn’t widely recognized as a horror story. Yet.
Conclusion: Dealing with Roe v. Wade
Pro-lifers have of course been eager to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision since the second it was announced. Here are four approaches:
A constitutional amendment, as with Dred Scott. This requires much more of a societal consensus than we now have.
The court overturning itself, as with Plessy. This has been the main anti-Roe strategy, to work to elect presidents who will appoint Justices to overturn it. This is a hope some people have had with Trump – but it was also a hope they had with Reagan, who gave greater indications of understanding the abortion issue than Trump does. Yet through his appointments, Reagan delayed this possible goal by decades. Even if Trump were more reliable, it’s likely to take years before a suitable case would be in place, and the Court has to have a case it can rule on before it can make any decision.
But when thinking of this possibility, this is crucial to understand: when Plessy was overturned by Brown, many years of intense work for desegregation had to follow. There was a passionate backlash. That would surely be the case with overturning Roe anytime soon as well. Far too many people would see such overturning as something wrong with the Court, rather than something wrong with Roe.
The decision working its way to irrelevance, as mainly happened with Buck v. Bell.
This is where the grassroots excel. Fortunately, the pro-life movement has known all along how to be effective this way, with pregnancy help centers, post-abortion therapy, public education, protesting, raising scandals, and more. Abortion numbers and clinics are falling dramatically, a trend likely to continue.
This is also where the consistent life ethic excels. While single-issue pro-lifers in the U.S. have focused on a situation where abortion was mainly illegal (yet widely practiced) and in one fell swoop was legalized everywhere, consistent-lifers are familiar with how several different social movements work. We’re active in more of them.
Activists against all kinds of socially-approved violence have observed that there’s no magic button – no amendment, court decision, or legislation – which will solve the whole problem.
In the case of war, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 outlaws it. We see how well that turned out. It has a positive place in the long-term struggle against war, but it certainly wasn’t a magic button.
Grassroots turnaround. It may be that in the end, we have it backwards. The Court could overturn the decision many years from now without backlash, not because of appointments or amendments, but because they’re ratifying and solidifying a social change that’s already happened. The Court will not be causing the social change so much as noticing it and making it more permanent.
It’s up to us to make that social change happen. Get to work!
by Carol Crossed
There was a village and a river ran through its center. Every day at 4:00 people would go to the church to pray for those who were drowning in the water.
The farmers put aside their plows, the students put down their books, the mothers took their children by the hand and they would go into the church to pray.
This went on for years, and a wise person came along and was so impressed with the faithfulness of these people, but said, “Why don’t you also go to the edge of the water and pull the people in who are drowning?”
So every day at 4:00 the farmers put down their plows, the students put aside their books, and the mothers took their children by the hand, and some went into the church to pray and others went down to the river. Some made inner tubes. Others had the idea of teaching swimming lessons.
This went on for many years, until a wise woman came along. She marveled at the dedication and steadfastness of love of neighbor. But she had another idea: “Why don’t you go upstream and find out why these people are in the water?
These are the 3 ‘p’s of ministry: the Priestly, the Pastoral, the Prophetic. The priestly is our spiritual life together. The pastoral is charitable works of mercy: our soup kitchens, crisis pregnancy centers, drug and alcohol addiction programs, and other direct charities. We see face to face the poor we serve. We dry them off and see their smiles.
Going upstream is the prophetic approach.
Justice always asks the question why. Does the bridge need repair? Are there too many people on the bridge? Why are so many going hungry? Why are parents, by aborting their children, throwing them overboard? Why is the military’s budget so high that it takes from social programs? Why is it killing people, including civilians, in drone warfare? Why are the elderly and the disabled at greatest risk for assisted suicide?
Could it be that we are running across the bridge with reckless abandon, intent to get to the other side, and others are in our way?
It’s my lifestyle, my body, my life. There are too many children in the world, too many single moms, we are taxed out of sight. Keeping prisoners on death row is expensive, so let’s have fewer levels of appeal. Let’s throw them overboard.
But while we are up on the bridge asking the question “why,” we cannot be blind to the people falling overboard. What do we do? We involve ourselves in the peace and nonviolent movements of justice: We build human guard rails on the bridge and we work for laws that will build guardrails. We stand on the sides of the bridge and hold signs that say “Stop Drone Warfare!” at Griffiss Air Force Base rallies. “Don’t abort your child” at the 40-days for Life Vigils. “Assisted Suicide: Another name for killing!” at the State Courthouse.
There are all sorts of people holding signs on the edge of the bridge: the progressive, the conservatives, the religious, the humanists. Because of our differences, huge gaps in the guardrails exist because we do not join hands. Your-issue-is-not-my-issue breaks the chain on the bridge and people fall overboard. Do we not threaten our own vulnerable group because the guardrail is not continuous? Can we drop our fears and work together, no matter if the person we want to save is a refugee from Syria, or an aborted child, or a person on death row? The consistent life ethic challenges us to go beyond our ideologies and love all human beings.
by Rachel MacNair
In an episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation, the Klingon Worf was in an accident leaving him paralyzed. According to Klingon tradition, this meant he should commit ritual suicide. He was intent on doing so.
The doctor was appalled. She tried to research Klingon physiology to find treatment, but Klingons had no advice to give. Since they always committed suicide on such occasions, they had no information.
Various creative things were tried for allowing him to live and function with dignity even if not with full use of his legs. Finally, the doctor found a procedure which cured him. Solutions could be found because one option – the option of suicide – was, in the doctor’s mind, foreclosed.
When a specific option is unavailable, others must be sought. Medical breakthroughs, along with treatment options and other caring options for those with disabilities, require that the option of suicide be off the table.
Once a violent solution is on the table, it precludes the development of alternatives. Violence as a problem-solving technique has the apparent advantage of being quick and efficient. One need only ignore the long-term aftermath and other negative impact on society.
Nonviolent alternatives must take more care, attention, resources and time. They have obvious advantages in the long run. But the short-term consequence is more work.
This leads to the ironic outcome that foreclosing an option, taking it off the table, means more options available, rather than fewer.
Vegetarians, for example, who foreclose the option of eating meat, actually have more variety in their diets than those eating standard fare. There’s no reason in theory why those who eat meat can’t also eat the variety of vegetarian options. Often they do. But excluding meat seems to open up creativity in the diet.
Those who oppose abortion have a much more extensive and complex set of services offered through pregnancy help centers, maternity homes, mentoring, and government social services than the relative simplicity of the abortion clinic.
In the case of war, those who by definition foreclose it as an option entirely – pacifists – have offered a wide array of ways of dealing with problems of violence and injustice: conflict resolution, diplomacy, solving problems when they’re still small and haven’t yet blown up in violence, and a wide variety of other approaches. People inclined to resort to weapons are less likely to be creative in finding alternative ways of resolving problems. Those who oppose war must come up with such alternatives.
Therefore, creativity is another of the side-effects of assertive nonviolence. In the psychology of creativity, this is called “divergent thinking.” Many possible solutions are generated when people don’t limit themselves to the obvious or conventional.
by Sharon Long
I am a liberal. I believe in a comprehensive government funded social welfare network, national health insurance, more spending on foreign aid, a reduced military budget. I am also a liberal Jew. I believe in a symbolic interpretation of the Bible and support women’s equality within Judaism.
I am also a right-to-lifer and have been very active in fighting to make abortion illegal and to prevent women from having abortions for close to thirty years.
My opinion of abortion first developed in my 10th grade health class, about a year after the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide. After learning inaccurate information, I decided that a fetus became a human being at about 12 weeks of pregnancy. Therefore, abortion on demand should be permitted before then. I could not understand why I saw “Abortion is murder” bumper stickers or why another student wanted to start a pro-life group in my high school.
However, I began doing some volunteer work in a local veteran’s hospital and I began to think about what gave life meaning and purpose. Did I believe that the people for whom I was caring, so debilitated mentally and physically, as well as so dependent, truly had lives worth living? Later, I worked summers as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home and continued debating these questions within myself.
In the summer after my sophomore year in college, while working at a nursing home, I was fortunate to find at my small town library two of the books that have made the most impact on my life. One was In Necessity and Sorrow by Magda Denes, a psychologist observing what went on in an abortion clinic. The book provided graphic descriptions of aborted fetuses as well as interviews with the women having abortions, most of whom felt forced into the abortion because of circumstances. The other was Aborting America by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, an atheist gynecologist of Jewish ethnicity. He was the medical director of one of the first free-standing abortion centers in the country and had also been a leader in the abortion rights movement. He described how he had become pro-life through his study of fetal development and ultrasound in a very dispassionate and rational way that made sense to me. I continued to wonder where the line could be drawn in fetal development as to when a human life became a person. I also wondered when in the continuum of human life did a human being stop being a person?
I viscerally knew that the lives of my nursing home patients had meaning and purpose. My patients, regardless of how “useless” they might be in the eyes of society or even their own eyes, were of infinite value and worth, that is, they were sacred by virtue of being human.
I asked myself, if I believed in personhood at the end of life, then logically what should my belief be as to the value of the fetus?
The answer was clear. If life that was debilitated and dependent at the end of life was sacred then human life at its beginning must also be sacred. A fetus, regardless of the value conferred upon it by others, had to be a person.
I became a reluctant pro-lifer.
I could hardly believe it myself. I was liberal and hip. I went to a feminist women’s college. How could I not believe that a woman had a right to control her own body under all circumstances, and that the right to control one’s own body was the right on which all other rights were based, as I was told over and over? How could I be so politically incorrect?
In my junior year of college 1979 I went to Costa Rica where I first heard about liberation theology, which combined Catholic theology with a Marxist economic analysis. I will never forget the college debate between the feminist group on campus and the Catholic group. The Catholic debater said immediately that this was not about theology. The issue to be debated with feminists was not about whether fetuses had souls.
Instead, the issue was about whether abortion helped women advance in society. The debater explained that abortion does nothing to solve any social problem or advance the rights of women in any way. What it does do is enable society to maintain the status quo by forcing women to kill children rather than require social, economic, and political change to enable society to support them.
I thought, “That makes so much sense!”
While in Costa Rica I worked in a refugee center during the Nicaraguan civil war where I saw pregnant women who would not consider abortion. They considered having a baby as an act of defiance against oppression– that although they were refugees, they were still entitled to have children and extend their legacy.
Although it may have been more politically correct to be a pro-life progressive in Costa Rica it remained a problem when I returned to the U.S. I stayed in the closet about my pro-life beliefs until I was 25 and saw what abortion was doing to my friends. I saw how trapped they felt into having abortions and the lingering grief afterwards.
After this happened several times I decided that I was through with being politically correct. I called the National Right to Life Committee and said that I was a liberal but I was pro-life–was there anything out there for me? The person on the other end of the line chuckled as she referred me to Feminists for Life.
FFL sent me pamphlets that blew me away, especially those by Rosemary Bottcher and Elise Rose explaining how abortion maintains women’s oppression in society and does nothing but maintain the status quo. Rather than meeting the real needs of women and children we offer abortion. I asked myself, “Where have you, that is, Feminists for Life, been all my life?”
I also went to volunteer at the city’s crisis pregnancy center. I said to the middle-aged rosary-toting ladies that I lived with my boyfriend and used birth control but that their cause was my cause and I was with them. After some discussion among themselves (I later found out) they said, “Welcome aboard,” for which I will always be grateful.
Soon the right-to-life movement and pro-life feminism became the center of my life. I involved myself with many pro-life organizations, some progressive, some not. I wrote and spoke on pro-life feminism at every opportunity. I traveled all over the country attending conferences. I joined the executive board of Feminists for Life. I volunteered at crisis pregnancy centers. I contributed thousands of dollars and hours to the pro-life movement. Most of my close friends were pro-lifers. I bored my family by talking about it so much.
I also became a caseworker in child support enforcement. Although I could have earned double the salary as a nurse, I believed that I was preventing abortion. In addition, I was empowering women by enabling women to fight for the resources they needed to care for themselves and their children.
I frequently felt culturally alienated in many pro-life circles, sometimes very painfully so, but I have found in general that pro-lifers are more tolerant of progressives than progressives are tolerant of pro-lifers.
My romantic life was another story. I felt compelled to tell men immediately that I was pro-life. I knew that this was not just theory. My refusal to have an abortion should I be faced with an unplanned pregnancy would have very serious implications in a relationship.
Needless to say, I had many boyfriendless times in my life. Men with whom I might otherwise have a lot in common were frightened by someone who would not consider abortion as a backup. Even the few who were privately sympathetic did not want to be associated with a public right-to-lifer.
Why was I willing to make such sacrifices? Why did I stay so involved in the movement? I was angry. I became furious at ads for abortion that I believed preyed on the panicked and the vulnerable. I saw the genocide of the unborn that was happening in my own country and how it was directly caused to the exploitation of women and the impoverished.
However, through the years my anger slowly began to cool. Maybe it was my weariness with the constant stories I heard about women’s economic and relational oppression in my child support enforcement job. Maybe it was the lack of success pro-lifers were having in the political arena of my state (New York). Maybe it was that on the national level we seemed to be only putting out fires and treading water. Maybe it was the shift to the right of some of my beloved pro-life organizations. But eventually my anger turned to resignation.
Although I had known all along that pro-lifers’ only real enemies were the economy and the culture, I had believed that the law would act as teaching tool. A change in the law would help change the culture and force economic and social welfare policy changes which would empower women to have and raise their children.
Initially I, along with many others, had fought like crazy because I believed that time was running out. I knew that the longer that abortion remained legal, the longer it would become entrenched in our culture. It would therefore become difficult to decrease abortion even if it did become illegal.
I believe that time has now run out, at least in the northeast United States. Making abortion illegal will not make it unacceptable in the short or even in the long run anymore. Just changing the law at this point in time will not substantially decrease abortion.
I now believe that the abortion fight should be handled like the fight against smoking, also another important pro-life issue. It took a massive thirty-year advertising campaign, still ongoing, along with every possible support, such as free smoking patches and support groups, as well as gradual legal restrictions, to reach the point where smoking has become abhorred in our culture. The only way to end abortion is to follow the same strategy.
If we enabled women to have real choices, choices that do not pit their survival against the survival of their children, very few would choose abortions. This will require a massive investment in government services and a very focused and aggressive advertising campaign. Neither political party right now has the will to do this. However, if we work with others who are interested in human and economic rights issues, and especially those who wish to empower women and poor people, we may have a chance.
Ultimately the root cause of abortion is alienation, which sociologists define as powerlessness. After close to thirty years in the pro-life movement I have spiritually come full circle, reuniting with my progressive community. By uniting with everyone, including those who disagree with us, to empower women and achieve a more just society, we will liberate not only pregnant women but ourselves as well.
Editor’s note: Part of this article is slightly revised and republished from The American Feminist with permission from Feminists for Life of America. All rights reserved.
For more blog posts on personal journeys, see:
Supporting the Dignity of Every Life (Bill Samuel)
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons (Karen Swallow Prior)
Off the Fence and Taking My Stand on Abortion (Mary Liepold)
On Being a Consistent Chimera (Rob Arner)
by Mary Bennett
Mothers and Daughters boasts an impressive ensemble of stars, including Susan Sarandon, Sharon Stone, Christina Ricci, Courtney Cox, Mira Sovino, and Selma Blair. It features interconnected stories based on the theme of motherhood – complete with the trials, heartache, and rich reward that accompany it.
Rigby Gray (Selma Blair) is a photographer whose voice narration attempts to serve as a connective element throughout the movie. Gray is a single photographer who’s at a career high when she finds herself pregnant and alone, recently dumped by her boyfriend who decides to give his marriage another try.
As a single immersed in her career, Gray initially turns her thoughts to abortion, feeling it is her best option. She has a consultation with her doctor and decides to schedule an abortion, only to discover that she is not able to go through with it. Her decision leads to much introspection, giving her a refreshed spirit and enabling her to reexamine her estranged relationship with her own mother, whose health is deteriorating.
The unconditional love a mother feels for her child is never questioned in the movie. This, coupled with the fact that Gray, though pregnant at an inconvenient time and under less than ideal circumstances, decides to keep her child, make this a movie worth watching. However, the movie could have been much more effective and imprinted a longer-lasting impression on the minds of viewers, had there been fewer relationships to follow, and less melodrama to offer distraction.
Ultimately, the fact that Hollywood decides to have Blair’s character embrace her pregnancy (at a time when far too many women choose to terminate) is enough to elicit a recommend for Mothers and Daughters. Yes, much could be improved, but by watching the movie, the audience is reminded of the fragility of life and the rewards that come from respecting life, even when, or perhaps especially when, it seems the most somber and difficult.
by Rachel MacNair
In the US, the 40th anniversary of the Hyde amendment’s first passage was September 30, 2016. The amendment is a legislative provision that taxpayers, especially through the Medicaid program, don’t pay for most abortions. Medicaid provides health care for low-income people and goes state-by-state, so when the amendment passed, some states immediately stopped funding, but others continued funding abortions on their own.
Here are several reasons why the impact of the Hyde amendment has been positive:
Abortion funding helps promote racism.
Social worker Erma Clardy Craven points out:
“It takes little imagination to see that the unborn Black baby is the real object of many abortionists. Except for the privilege of aborting herself, the Black woman and her family must fight for every other social and economic privilege.”
(Hilgers, Thomas W. & Dennis J. Horan, eds. 1972. Abortion and Social Justice. New York: Sheed & Ward)
One of the abortion doctors she has in mind, Edward Allred, was quoted in the San Diego Union, October 12, 1980:
“When a sullen black woman of 17 or 18 can decide to have a baby and get welfare and food stamps and become a burden to us all, it’s time to stop. In parts of South Los Angeles, having babies for welfare is the only industry the people have.”
Dr. Allred’s aversion to government subsidies did not prevent him from accepting millions in California tax dollars for his abortion practice.
Abortions may cause poverty.
(For a longer explanation including references, see Studies Suggesting Induced Abortion May Increase the Feminization of Poverty)
An increased feminization of poverty – that is, poverty in which women are a larger portion of those afflicted – coincides remarkably closely to the period of increasingly legalized abortion.
Some argued that the availability of abortion should help avoid this phenomenon, with women not losing jobs due to childbirth and having no burdens of child care. But with the pattern worsening during the period when there was an upsurge in abortions, abortion has at the very least been inadequate at solving the problem.
Instead, abortion may be contributing to the problem. Through an increase in broken relationships, psychological difficulties, and substance abuse, a practice which is performed exclusively on women may put them at greater economic disadvantage.
The many studies that show a correlation between abortion and a reduction in women’s economic well-being don’t prove a clear causation. Some argue the causation is in the other direction. It’s not that the abortions cause the difficulties, but that problems with unhealthy sexual relations with men, domestic violence, and similar challenges may cause both the abortions and the subsequent problems that are correlated with them.
However, another causal factor must be taken into account: how much does the ready access to abortion cause the problems of exploitational sexual attitudes and self-righteous denials of responsibility by men?
Medicaid funding of abortion causes abortions.
One study from the research arm of Planned Parenthood showed that women on Medicaid in states which don’t fund abortion in their Medicaid programs have an abortion rate 1.6 times higher than women of higher income. So it’s likely that poverty leads to more abortions, a point that few would be surprised by.
But the same study reports the abortion rate in states with Medicaid funding is 3.9 times higher for women on Medicaid.
As mentioned above, after the Hyde amendment passed, several states stopped funding abortions right away, but others continued to fund abortions for low-income women. This set up a natural experiment: states that had abortion funding one year and didn’t the very next year could be compared to states that kept abortion funding the same.
A review of 38 studies on the impact of Medicaid funding over the years essentially showed that in those states which stopped such funding, both abortions and childbirths went down. In other words, the abortions that didn’t happen because of the lack of funding were not on the whole replaced by women continuing the pregnancies; many of them were replaced by couples taking more care about becoming pregnant.
The assumption behind Medicaid funding has been that pregnancies occur whether or not funding is available, so funding only determines whether those pregnancies continue or not. However, the impact of funding doesn’t appear to be as neutral as people are assuming. This leads to the next point:
Medicaid funding of abortion means government subsidizing of male domination in sexual relationships.
Most of the time, when a person engages in behavior that could lead to a need for a medical procedure, that same person is the one that goes through the procedure. If I don’t brush my teeth, I’m the one who gets cavities. Even if cavity-filling is free of cost in money to me, I’m motivated to avoid it because of the cost in time and unpleasantness.
The same applies for a woman who engages in behavior that can lead to pregnancy. Yet it doesn’t apply to the man who engages in the same behavior. He’s not the one that has to go through surgery.
If he knows the government will take care of the monetary cost, then sex is free to him. It’s government-subsidized. This won’t matter in situations where women have strict control over their own sex lives, but can be devastating in those situations where men have more control or ability to pressure for sex.
Medicaid funding of abortion means government participation in pressure and coercion of women.
From high school counselors and social workers to family members and the unborn child’s father, it’s often true that other people have decided what’s good for a pregnant woman, and aren’t interested in her participation in that conversation. As long as the abortion is government-subsidized, their ability to pressure her – or give her insufficient time to think it over – becomes all the greater.
For more on connections of poverty and racism to both abortion and the death penalty, see chapter 7 of Consistently Opposing Killing: From Abortion to Assisted Suicide, the Death Penalty, and War, published by Praeger in 2008.
For more on the impact of various kinds of abortion restrictions – not only in the US, but world-wide – see Chapter 15 of Peace Psychology Perspectives on Abortion.
For more of our blog posts on abortion and the law, see:
by Graciela Olivarez, 1972
Commissioner appointed by US President Richard Nixon
from the “Separate Statement of Graciela Olivarez”
in Report of the President’s Commission on Population and the American Future
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972
To brush aside a separate statement on the issue of abortion on the grounds that it is based on religious or denominational “hang-ups” is to equate abortion—a matter of life and death—with simpler matters of religion such as observance of the Sabbath, dietary restrictions, abstention from coffee and alcoholic beverages, or other similar religious observances. I believe that even nonreligious persons should be concerned with the issue of life and death as it pertains to the unborn. . . .
Advocacy by women for legalized abortion on a national scale is so anti-women’s liberation that it flies in the face of what some of us are trying to accomplish through the women’s movement, namely, equality—equality means an equal sharing of responsibilities by and as men and women. With women already bearing the major burden for the reproductive process, men have never had it so good. Women alone must suffer the consequences of an imperfect contraceptive pill—the blood clots, severe headaches, nausea, edema, etc. Women alone endure the cramping and hemorrhaging from an intrauterine device. No man ever died from an abortion.
[What] kind of future [do] we all have to look forward to if men are excused either morally or legally from their responsibility for participation in the creation of life?
Women should be working to bring men into the camp of responsible parenthood, a responsibility that women have had to shoulder almost alone. Perhaps in our eagerness for equality, we have, in part, contributed to the existing irresponsible attitude some men have toward their relationship to women and to their offspring. Legalized abortion will free those men from worrying about whether they should bear some responsibility for the consequences of sexual experience. In the matter of divorce where children are involved, for instance, very few men fight or even ask for custody of their children. It is customary to measure male responsibility in terms of dollars and cents, rather than in terms of affection, attention, companionship, supervision and warmth.
And laymen are not the only ones who reflect this attitude. Blame must also be placed on churchmen, who throughout the tumult and controversy surrounding legalized abortion, have expressed their concern only as abortion affects the moral and psychological problems of women, adroitly avoiding the issue of man’s responsibility to decisions connected with his role in the reproductive process. . . .
To talk about the “wanted” and the “unwanted” child smacks too much of bigotry and prejudice. Many of us have experienced the sting of being “unwanted” by certain segments of our society. Blacks were “wanted” when they could be kept in slavery. When that ceased, blacks became “unwanted”—in white suburbia, in white schools, in employment. Mexican- American (Chicano) farm laborers were “wanted” when they could be exploited by agribusiness. One usually wants objects and if they turn out to be unsatisfactory, they are returnable. How often have ethnic minorities heard the statement: “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to where you came from?” Human beings are not returnable items. Every individual has his/her rights, not the least of which is the right to life, whether born or unborn. Those with power in our society cannot be allowed to “want” and “unwant” people at will.
I am not impressed or persuaded by those who express concern for the low-income woman who may find herself carrying an unplanned pregnancy and for the future of the unplanned child who may be deprived of the benefits of a full life as a result of the parents’ poverty, because the fact remains that in this affluent nation of ours, pregnant cattle and horses receive better health care than pregnant poor women.
The poor cry out for justice and we respond with legalized abortion. The Commission heard enough expert testimony to the effect that increased education and increased earnings result in lower fertility rates. In the developed countries of the world, declining fertility rates are correlated with growing prosperity, improved educational facilities, and, in general, overall improvement in the standard of living.
But it is not necessary to go beyond our own borders to verify this contention. Current data indicate that the same holds true for minority groups in this country. The higher the education attained by minorities and the broader the opportunities, the lower the fertility rate. . . .
Infant mortality rates are not reduced by killing an unborn child. How sad and incriminating that quality health facilities and services, denied to the poor for lack of money, are being used for performing abortions instead of being utilized for healing of the sick poor. But then, one represents a profit and the other an expense. It is all a matter of values. . . .
by Rachel MacNair
We’ve recently had the idea of what would happen with abortion if men could get pregnant come up twice. In last week’s blog, Mary Liepold said:
“I still agree with blessed, angry Florynce Kennedy, may she rest in peace, that if men could get pregnant abortion would be a sacrament. That’s consistent with the history of patriarchy in the church and the world.”
But Mary Krane Derr was quoted in the Quotation of the Week for Peace and Life Connections just a few weeks ago:
“It’s been said that if men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. On the contrary: if men got pregnant, pregnancy would be treated as the sacrament; abortion would be considered blasphemy against their sacred bodies and lives and those of their children; and pregnant humans would finally, finally receive the alternatives they deserve instead of what one social activist calls, from bitter experience, the ‘choice’ between ‘abortion or else.’”
(“Pro-Every Life, Pro-Nonviolent Choice”; ProLife Feminism: Yesterday and Today, second edition, p. 375)
I’ll say what my first thought was about the if-men-could-get-pregnant question: of course abortion would then be a sacrament. Men treat war as a sacrament. In days of yore, human sacrifice was literally treated as a sacrament. The perversion of applying sacredness to killing has long been one of the ways such violence has been sustained.
Then, of course, there’s the obvious point that if men could get pregnant, they would be women and not men anymore. The ability to get pregnant is a major part of the definition of what makes each gender each. This has been part of the dynamic of male domination throughout history.
Indeed, men have been regarding women’s abortions as part of men’s own privilege for a long time. Rodney Stark in his book Discovering God discusses the Roman Empire in the first three centuries of the Christian era:
“Once married, pagan girls had a substantially lower life expectancy, much of the difference being due to the great prevalence of abortion, which involved barbaric methods in an age without soap, let alone antibiotics. Given the very significant threat to life and the agony of the procedure, one might wonder why pagan women took such risks. They didn’t do so voluntarily. It was men – husbands, lovers, and fathers – who made the decision to abort. It isn’t surprising that a world that gave husbands the right to demand that infant girls be done away with would also give men the right to order their wives, mistresses, or daughters to abort.” (HarperCollins, 2007, p. 321)
An Entirely Different Tack
Yet all of these views take male domination as a starting point. They don’t consider the vision of a world where such domineering is no longer prevalent.
One of the strong links among the many life/peace issues is that domination of any group by any other should cease. We should treat each other as equals. We need to be sensitive to one another. In this case, we must move beyond male domination, and recognize where it’s already fading.
My own son is the soul of gentleness. And check out the tenderness in the photo of my father with me as a baby:
Then multiply that by the millions.
So here I want to make an entirely different answer to the point:
Men do “get” pregnant.
Biologically, the part they do is to help get the pregnancy started. Their contribution there is indispensable, and you can’t get more important than indispensable. And while they’re physically capable of running off and abandoning the pregnancy, and many do, they’re still a psychological hook there. The best men know the value of this.
I had a friend once who, in referring to himself and his wife, talked about the time when “we” were pregnant. My first thought was to be bemused. She was clearly doing all the biological part, everything connected with having the child inside her body. But as I thought more about it, I decided it made perfect sense. He was fully participating.
Some men have had sympathetic physical symptoms. Men have certainly been intimately involved in all kinds of aspects of nurturing and nourishing. While women are capable of doing a pregnancy alone and men aren’t, when the two of them do their pregnancy together, beauty results.
I think this positive vision is the best of all the answers to the “if-men-were-pregnant” idea.