by Elena Muller Garcia, M.A. in Religious Studies
About ten years ago one of my co-workers approached my desk and began to address me by saying:
“Did you see those illegals — ”
I stopped him abruptly midsentence.
“Calling undocumented immigrants ‘illegals’ is the same as calling the unborn child a ‘fetus’. Both terms are used to veil their humanity,” I said. He listened and went back to his desk.
Although this might seem to be an insignificant conversation, the demeaning way in which he said “illegal” still rings in my ears. My dear co-worker was then, and still is, a committed Catholic and an ardent pro-lifer. The sharp contrast between what I knew to be his pro-life advocacy and his abrupt anti-immigrant rant, which I managed to stop that day, saddened and worried me. Unfortunately, he was not alone in his inconsistency. Worse yet, ten years later the tear in what should be a consistent advocacy both for the immigrant person and the preborn child has exponentially widened.
As I remember this incident, several life experiences coalesce in my mind. All Americans, except native Americans, have an immigrant ancestor somewhere on their family tree, but I am the immigrant on mine. I was also an unplanned child. In addition, doing post-graduate work at the University of Miami in the 1970s had led me to do research on the personhood of the unborn child. I still remember some of the arguments that were proposed then to justify abortion by denying personhood to the early embryo, describing it as a blob of protoplasm or by comparing the fetus to an unconscious violinist attached to an unwilling person for nine months.
I have shared my experience of arriving in the United States as an unaccompanied minor in different venues and publications. Although I initially did not want to leave my native country, Cuba, much less without my parents, I eventually agreed to do so and left the island when I was thirteen years old. I am one of more than 14,000 children who left Cuba and arrived in the United States thanks to Operation Pedro Pan between late December of 1960 and mid-October of 1962. This was a transformative experience, many times painful but also at times joyful, that constitutes part of the core of the person I am today, sixty years later. Early on I came across John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants. In the midst of my deep longing to be with my parents who stayed behind in Cuba for three more years, and the intense feeling of rootlessness that sometimes overwhelmed me, the book helped alleviate my pain. It made me feel welcome in what eventually became my adopted country. I don’t recall in great detail the content of the book itself. Remembering the title, even to this day, helps sustain my welcoming attitude towards today’s immigrants.
I do not often share my experience of first suspecting and then confirming that I was an unplanned child. I had a happy childhood in Havana, Cuba. I was the fourth child and only girl. I loved my parents and my siblings. My life centered on my family, my school, my friends, and my Catholic faith. My family life contrasted sharply with the political unrest that had plagued the island nation and had come to a seeming end on January 1, 1959, when the dictatorship of President Batista ended. Tragically, the autocracy only replicated itself in a more virulent strain with the Castro-Communist takeover, which is the reason why I left Cuba, followed, one by one, by each of my brothers and three years later by my parents.
As I was trying to become acclimated to my new country, in the early sixties, the sexual revolution was well underway as well as concern about overpopulation. I used to dream of someday having a large family. If it was true that human population was a threat to civilization and to the planet, then it was not advisable for me to fulfill that dream. Two opposing views were published in 1968: the much-maligned encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI and Paul Ehrlich’s best seller The Population Bomb: Population Control or Race to Oblivion. Although the encyclical and the book are diametrically opposed as far as what course of action should be taken, Paul VI expressed concerns about overpopulation. I read the encyclical but not the book. Thus I became interested in natural family planning. It was then that I started suspecting that I had been an unplanned child myself since I was the caboose child. In Cuba my parents had been able to make ends meet, but that was it. We lived on a shoestring budget although my Dad worked two jobs and my Mom worked outside the home too.
I moved in with my parents again several years after they immigrated to the United States, but I did not ask my mother the question. I harbored a fear that confirming that I was unplanned would devastate my self-esteem. Decades later when I was studying to become a certified teacher of natural family planning I gathered my courage and asked her: “Mami, was I planned?” Her quick answer did not surprise me: “No, you were not planned.” What surprised me was my reaction. Far from feeling shattered, I felt elated by a deep sense of worthiness and freedom. In twelve-step program terms, I realized I was here because of a higher power. I was also overcome by a deep sense of gratitude towards my parents who, though I was unplanned, never made me feel unwanted and always took loving care of me.
Two Strikes Against Me
Sometimes I feel that if I were an immigrant today, I would not be admitted in the United States and that, since I was the fourth and unplanned child, if I had been conceived today, I would probably have been aborted. My personal experience makes me pro-immigrant and pro-unborn child. Unfortunately, as I experienced that morning years ago when my pro-life co-worker started to berate illegal immigrants, many people do not see the connection. For many, one can be pro-life and anti-immigrant, and for many others one can be pro-immigrant and pro-abortion.
In general, pro-lifers who are anti-immigrant will make a big fuss about being “pro-legal immigrants,” but instead of advocating for a change in our immigration system that would allow for more immigrants to come here legally, they tend to support greater and greater restrictions to legal immigration and initiatives for the building of walls. I was able to come to the United States legally because the United States government created a visa waiver program for Cubans fleeing Communism which is to say, because immigration laws changed. Immigration laws should be changed to answer the needs of today’s migrants.
Pro-immigrant advocates who are pro-abortion will not admit to being so. They will claim to be pro-choice. I have to admit that in recent years I have come to see that there is some daylight between being pro-abortion and being pro-choice. However, the pro-choice position would still not protect me if I were to be an unplanned child in the womb today. The legal status-quo should change to provide more protections, not less, to the bond between pregnant mother and pre-born child.
Peas in the Same Pod
Apart from my personal conviction that pro-immigration and pro-life belong together, is there an objective connection between the anti-immigration and the pro-abortion movements? There is. The pod that contains these two peas is the population control movement. Not pretending to give exhaustive proof, let me just mention one internet site.
The Overpopulation Project lists organizations around the globe concerned with the issue. I would like to point out two of many listed under America.
Numbers USA is a foundation “providing a civil forum for Americans of all political and ethnic backgrounds to focus on a single issue, the proper numerical level of U.S. immigration. The group favors reductions in immigration numbers toward traditional levels that would stabilize the U.S. population.”
Negative Population Growth is described as a national nonprofit membership organization aiming “to educate the American public and political leaders about the devastating effects of overpopulation on the environment, natural resources and the overall standard of living. They advocate for a significant reduction in current population numbers in the U.S.”
The Kissinger Report of 1974 includes this mantra: “No country has reduced its population growth without resorting to abortion.”
Ken Cuccinelli, who was acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Trump administration, had joined in 2007 a group called State Legislators for Legal Immigration. Shortly after he joined the association it issued a statement asking that then President George Bush “terminate” illegal alien invasion to protect Americans.
Terminating the life of the unborn child and terminating the flow of immigration fit snugly into the same pod.
For more of our posts that include immigration policy, see:
by Rachel MacNair
The Consistent Life Network names its e-newsletter Peace & Life Connections. We make a big point of covering peace issues as the same as life issues and life issues being the same as peace issues. We dislike the political red/blue divide that pits “peace” and “life” against each other in terms of who supports what, since we assert that they belong together.
So a question just recently occurred to me: why do we entirely refer to the “consistent life ethic” and not also the “consistent peace ethic”?
Next question: why did this only recently occur to me, when I’ve been active on this for decades?
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, major portions of abortion opposition used reasoning against war and executions to make the case against feticide, and liberal Democrats who favored protecting fetal children weren’t unusual (see the book, Defenders of the Unborn). It was most strongly under the candidacy and administration of Ronald Reagan that a more distinct right-wing/left-wing divide was perceived. As Dr. Jack Willke put it to me once, in his Catholic diocese, the Respect Life office and the Peace and Justice Office didn’t talk to each other. I responded to him that that was so sad; they ought to be all the same office.
Bubbling up from this situation were people that also thought peace and life issues went together. Eileen Egan, co-founder of Pax Christi, coined the “seamless garment” concept in 1973, and it was picked up and publicized by Cardinal Bernardin in a lecture at Fordham University, Dec 6, 1983.
The term “seamless garment” had the all-inclusive, cover-all-issues character that was the hallmark of what we wanted to advocate. So when we decided at the final meeting of Pro-lifers for Survival to establish a network, we called it the Seamless Garment Network. People didn’t know what that meant, but we thought we would educate them. What we found is that even after we directly educated people in person, they still mixed us up with a garment workers union. So we changed to Consistent Life Network. By then the phrase “consistent life ethic” – also “consistent ethic of life” – had become well established.
Peace and justice activists commonly do think in terms of connecting issues. Military spending is connected to poverty as it misdirects resources away from social support. War causes poverty directly. Executions are strongly connected to both racism and poverty. And so on. When we speak this way, we’re using language that peace and justice activists are entirely accustomed to.
And then we added abortion and euthanasia into the mix. We were taking an entirely normal peace-movement approach, and expanding it to those issues, on the grounds that this is obvious when opposing socially-approved killing.
I was active in the later years of Pro-lifers for Survival, and I was at its final meeting where the Seamless Garment Network was established, so I know who we were. We weren’t long-time pro-lifers that decided what we really needed to do was expand to all issues of killing. We were long-time peace activists who were having the roof fall in on us when we told fellow peace and justice advocates that we wanted to make an anti-abortion case.
We joked that we were communist on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but fascist on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
When Pro-lifers for Survival tried to join the National Mobilization for Survival, a coalition against the nuclear arms race, the Boston chapter said that all pro-lifers were “racist, classist, misogynist anti-choice reactionaries.” We made t-shirts with that, and danced a conga line to it, which is why I still have it memorized all these years later. We weren’t easily intimidated.
We had, and still have, trouble with peace organizations not allowing us to participate in tables or marches or sponsorships because of our anti-abortion stand. By contrast, participating in pro-life events, while not entirely trouble-free, has more often been a matter of just signing up, as the single-issue folks tend to be happy to have an all-hands-on-deck approach.
So I see the answer to the questions as: the term “consistent life” is because we were communicating to pro-lifers that we were pro-life, because that’s a crucial point for them, and we were communicating to peace and justice activists that we were pro-life because that’s the difference we were advocating for and needed to get across. And this was so clearly what we needed to do in both cases that it didn’t occur to me otherwise.
But there’s a problem that’s bedeviled us from the start: the use of consistency not for persuasion but for attack.
There are some people (several politicians spring to mind) for whom inconsistency is a fair criticism, and their inability to catch the underlying moral principles of the pro-life position raises questions about their sincerity even when considering just the abortion issue alone. Dialog and persuasion are called for.
But consistency includes solidarity with pre-born children along with everyone else. Instead, we see the idea of consistency used as an attack weapon against those whose major focus is to protect those children, by people who are thereby proposing that such children aren’t important enough to be anyone’s focus.
There are a vast number of hard-working activists who are generally and rightly sick of it. Too often they hear “These anti-choice people aren’t really pro-life, they’re just pro-birth. They don’t care about anyone after birth. If they were really pro-life they’d also oppose X, Y, and Z, like I do.”
Mind you, this would be happening whether the consistent life ethic existed or not. Those who want to argue against the pro-life position are bound to come up with such thoughts.
And I’ve watched in horror as people do exactly this: they use the consistent life ethic to attack the right-to-life movement as not being good enough to suit them. Pro-lifers naturally resent this when it’s used as an attack.
I explain over and over again that this is a grotesque abuse of the consistency concept, which is meant to challenge people to think through more issues with the same moral principles – not disparage people for being on different sides of the political spectrum. I explain to pro-lifers, but they have the experience of having to put up with this. I explain to people who are misusing the CLE that way, but they’re speaking to crowds that cheer them on for saying such things. I explain and explain. I’m trying to hold back the ocean with a broom.
Therefore . . .
We want to challenge both “sides,” and peace advocates need to understand that the ideal of consistency applies just as much to them as to everyone else. Consistent Peace Ethic means the exact same thing, after all. Even though I just coined the term myself.
I propose that we pay attention to times when it makes more sense, or at least perfectly good sense, and start using this as a synonym. This would sometimes be instead of the Consistent Life Ethic, and at other times in addition to it.
If others agree, it will happen, and if they don’t, it won’t. But I think we may discover that in our work of being persuasive, it’s a useful idea.
by John Whitehead
President Biden met, for the first time since his inauguration, Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16 in Geneva. While the summit meeting didn’t produce any dramatic breakthroughs in US-Russian relations, it did provide some encouraging signs. The two countries’ joint statement, released after the summit, contained an important declaration on the evil of nuclear war that peace activists had urged the American and Russian governments to make. The summit might open the door for limited but significant cooperation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
Hopeful Signs at the Summit
These events, and the generally arctic state of US-Russian relations, were the context for the Geneva summit meeting. Nevertheless, a few flashes of hope emerged from Biden and Putin’s meeting.
The US and Russia will send their ambassadors back to their posts, restoring that line of diplomatic communication. The joint US-Russian statement released after the summit says, “The recent extension of the New START Treaty exemplifies our commitment to nuclear arms control” and promises future talks on arms control, as well as measures to reduce the risk of conflict.
Perhaps most significant, the joint statement contains the comment “Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Such language echoes that of the famous 1985 joint US-Soviet statement, released following Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s meeting in Geneva. The 1985 statement, coming at another time of great international tension, provided reassurance that both nations recognized the catastrophic threat of nuclear war and were determined to avoid it.
Also, the joint statement responds, intentionally or not, to an appeal made shortly before the summit by a coalition of American and Russian advocates for nuclear arms control.
The appeal, organized by the Arms Control Association, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and Global Affairs, called on Biden and Putin to reaffirm the 1985 Geneva statement on nuclear war. The appeal also urged both presidents to “a bilateral strategic dialogue…leading to further reduction of the nuclear risk hanging over the world and to the re-discovery of the road to a world free of nuclear weapons.” While nothing so significant is currently planned, the promise of future talks is at least a step in the right direction.
Beyond these specific outcomes, the overall attitude both Biden and Putin expressed after the summit is encouraging. Each president was measured in his evaluation of the US-Russia relationship, being neither highly optimistic nor pessimistic about the future.
Biden told reporters that he and Putin “share a unique responsibility to manage the relationship between two powerful and proud countries — a relationship that has to be stable and predictable…[W]e should be able to cooperate where it’s in our mutual interests.” He also commented, “[T]his is not about trust; this is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.”
Putin similarly said, about working with Biden, “This does not mean we have to peek into each other’s souls, look into each other’s eyes and swear eternal love and friendship – not at all. We defend the interests of our countries, our peoples, and our relations are always primarily pragmatic in nature.”
While hardly effusive declarations of friendship, these presidential comments suggest at least a desire for a stable working relationship. The restrained rhetoric is actually reassuring, as hopes for a friendly US-Russian relationship are hardly realistic at present and would likely just be disappointed. Proceeding in a sober, pragmatic spirit is probably best.
What remains to be seen is whether these hopeful signs will lead to results. In particular, the promise of future arms control and risk reduction measures must be kept. Peace activists should not leave this matter purely to policymakers but should continue to push for a more stable US-Russian relationship. We need to lobby for further arms control agreements—and, if feasible, a restoration of the Open Skies Treaty. We also need to lobby against sinking any more money into building or renovating nuclear weapons. The encouraging words of the Geneva summit need to be translated into action.
For more of our posts on nuclear weapons, see:
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons
Cut off your head to be rid of
All those pounds of ugly fat!
Can’t you find any better
Solution than that?
“Got to end this endless war,”
Said President Truman,
So he pulled out all the stops,
Did something inhuman.
Tony Timpa got excitable
(It was cocaine self-pollution),
So they arrested his cardiac,
Called it conflict resolution.
Your child was inside of you,
I know you wished it weren’t.
Now the earth is scorched,
And innocence burnt.
It’s now the 21st Century
Since the Golden Rule,
That bright idea
That we learned in school.
For more of our posts with poems, see:
Let us all agree on this one simple thing: It is not OK to kill people. by Robert Randall
by Fr. Jim Hewes
Top Ten Reasons
- Wars killed over 100 million people in the last century. It took a hundred years to reach that number. The United Nations estimates 45-50 million abortion each year, so it would take only two or three years of abortions to surpass that number.
The brutal reality is that the lives of 900,000 pre-born children end every year in the United States from abortions. What would we think if 900,000 school children or 900,000 immigrants were killed every single year (or 900,000 lives lost to Covid-19)? Abortion is the number one cause of violent death in the world and in the United States, making abortion the number one priority. The immensity of that violence dwarfs every other issue by a mile.
In addition, there are millions of women wounded and damaged for many years after their abortions, which also affect fathers, siblings, grandparents, other family members, and abortion industry workers.
- There is the undeniable fact that if one doesn’t exist, then other human rights won’t come into play. Since abortion is at the very beginning of life, it sets the trajectory of what kind of society we are creating: not a culture of life but a culture of death, which excludes a whole group of human beings simply based on arbitrary characteristics of their size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency.
- An injustice has almost never ended unless the evidence of the injustice has been shown. There’s the heartbreaking photo of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, after a napalm attack in 1972, showing the horror of war. One can view the 3-year-old Syrian refugee child, Alan Kundi, lying dead, face down on a beach in Turkey, to demonstrate the plight of refugees. One can show pictures of homeless people in cardboard boxes, living on the streets, to show their terrible situation. One can watch emaciated bodies to see the effects of hunger or poverty.
Yet you rarely ever see pictures of pre-born children. Pre-born children are viewed differently, especially by the media which shapes so much public opinion on issues. They never show abortion victims, because they are being hid away and forgotten, which absolutely lessens their value. So, society is never brought face-to-face with the ugliness and the horrifying nature of this terrible evil.
The day of George Floyd’s death, with all the subsequent media coverage and protests, there were 800 African American pre-born children killed, completely unnoticed.
- Pre-born children are never heard, only silent screams; they’re never able to give horrifying testimonials of what’s been done to them. They’re the one group that doesn’t get asked about the meaning of their abortion. They need the unparalleled attention, the strongest protection, and the most outspoken voices advocating on their behalf, lest they continue in silence to be marginalized, ignored, and brutally destroyed. In abortion. the pre-born are basically without a voice because they’re not considered human, but a mere concept (a product of pregnancy) or an abstraction (health care / reproductive rights); in abortion their humanity isn’t even recognized but simply seen as an outpatient surgical procedure, or just mere cells.
- Violence and death are more readily accepted by society to solve complex problems when vulnerable life is destroyed at the very beginning of life, and the killing takes place within the very heart of, and with the complicity of the family. As Mother Teresa stated: “abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships.”
- Those who have died by euthanasia, the death penalty, the crime of murder, or in war are ordinarily afforded some type of dignity, by a funeral service and burial. Pre-born children are dismembered, then thrown in a trash bag as medical waste, and dumped as garbage.
- Seventeen death-row inmates were executed in 2020. If even one person is executed, it’s one too many. But would there have been an earth-quaking event of a civil war back in the 1860’s, if there were a total of 17 slaves in the entire country? When slavery was legal in much of the U.S., with about four million slaves, 13% of the nation’s population, it took on paramount importance. Slavery wasn’t the only evil in 1860, but it was a fundamental evil and thus a preeminent social issue. It had to be eliminated to create a new foundation for true justice to emerge across a wide variety of other social issues. To say that slavery was the most important social issue didn’t detract from the importance of other issues (like child labor, etc.). Instead, it highlighted the foremost evil that had to be overcome for the good of the entire nation. Such is abortion today.
Another example: imagine we’re in Germany during the early 1940’s (or Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the 1970’s or Rwanda in 1994) and someone stated: “I don’t understand the argument for giving the Holocaust more weight than all other killings in Germany. People’s lives are no less taken away when killed outside the Holocaust than within it. If during the early 1940’s in Germany, the Holocaust is inherently more important than all other issues, then all other issues are inherently less important than the Holocaust.” Would this approach make any sense?
Just because a particular issue is the defining issue, which surpasses all other important issues of life in a particular time and place, this wouldn’t diminish the other life issues, just highlight what needs the most focus as long as that overriding injustice lasts. Those previous situations of intrinsic evils no longer exist and are no longer priorities now, because the circumstances have dramatically changed in those countries. If the pre-born were declared persons by the Supreme Court and abortion became illegal for the entire country (not just returned to the states to decide) then the pre-eminence of abortion might change in the United States.
- We’re not so much choosing the approach of pre-eminent priority, but rather it’s being forced on us by the magnitude of the injustice and the vulnerability of pre-born children. When a society legally and morally/ethically removes protection from any group of people, then you endanger the protection of everyone else. The principle applies no matter what group of people you formally deprive of personhood. It just that the pre-born are the only group today who have been deprived of that legal status. So, in a sense, it is not we who choose to make abortion the priority issue. The court and society chose it.
- Abortion has lessened the value of life outside the womb and has desensitized us to the horror of violence for those who have already been born.
If a parent can kill an innocent, helpless, unwanted child because of “choice,” why can’t anyone kill someone else because of “choice”? This was exactly what Mother Teresa of Calcutta said: “If we say that a mother can kill her own child, how can we tell others not to kill one another?” Also: “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love but to use violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
- People who don’t have solidarity with the pre-born lay the groundwork of not being in solidarity with anyone vulnerable after birth. Most CLE people would generally agree that there should be “a preferential option for the poor;” no one is poorer, more weak, more defenseless, more vulnerable, more marginalized, more frail than pre-born children.
One of the confusions, especially around election time, is the mistake of thinking that a “single-issue voter” has the same meaning as one who holds “abortion is a preeminent priority.” Abortion as “a preeminent priority” always sees an essential strong link of abortion with all the other issues of the consistent life ethic / seamless garment / non-violence. If abortion is really a true preeminent priority, it doesn’t automatically mean that abortion is the only issue; nor does it mean that one sets aside all other issues of life. One’s opposition to abortion, as well as holding the preeminent priority of abortion, will not really be credible if one does not work against the other threats to life outside the womb.
It’s human nature and the make-up of American society to tend to be competitive. But prioritizing an issue doesn’t lessen other issues or other lives, unless it’s looked at only through a competitive lens. It’s not meant to cloud out all other considerations of life issues.
For it’s not just about having a right to be born, but a right to an abundant life, It’s vitally important to help those same babies who are not aborted for the rest of their lives. This includes supporting mothers who are single parents or struggling in poverty or facing violence in wars or other conflicts.
Unfortunately, too many single-issue voters don’t challenge anti-abortion politicians on other important social issues. These also have an impact on those not aborted as well as other human lives. What happens too often after anti-abortion politicians get elected is that many single-issue voters remain silent and give these politicians a “pass” because they were against abortion. They allow the pre-born to be “weaponized” for certain political purposes or for helping one political party.
Those who hold abortion as a preeminent priority, on the other hand, know it’s not enough to just get a human life born and prevent that life from being aborted, if that same life is then destroyed or gradually harmed by certain policies that perpetuate the violence of war or poverty, or leave women after the birth of their child with little or no support.
If you take into account all these reasons (and more), the right to life is foundational and the centerpiece to the whole structure of society’s existence and underlies every right. The right to life precedes and undergirds every other issue of life, and prioritizing abortion is the key underpinning for all other issues of life. Abortion outweighs all other issues and doesn’t admit of exception or compromise. It’s intrinsically always unjust, and gravely immoral regardless of motive or circumstance. Abortion is first and foremost wrong universally, in every place and in every conceivable circumstance. Without the right to life, all meaning and purpose is erased and lost forever.
All evils are not equal, which is why abortion is of such paramount importance. If the fundamental right to life is not secure but contingent on others, no rights are ultimately secure. If there is no right to life, society and all other rights are built on sand.
It’s just a reality that none of us can do everything, so we naturally prioritize something. This preeminent priority approach doesn’t diminish the value of the other issues or other lives, nor does it mean ignoring or neglecting the other issues of life; for each and every life is in God’s image and likeness, with infinite dignity.
For more of our posts from Fr. Jim Hewes, see:
For differing opinions on the balance of issues, see:
Is Abortion Different from Other Violence? / Julia Smucker
Equal Concern for Each Human Being, Not for Each Human Issue / Richard Stith
Does the Consistent Life Ethic Water Down Life Issues? / Bill Samuel
by John Whitehead
Racism against Americans of Asian heritage has received significant attention recently. Concerns about anti-Asian hate crimes arose last spring as the Covid-19 pandemic began to affect the United States. The horrifying murders of eight people, six of them Asian, in the greater Atlanta area in March 2021 revived concerns about bigotry toward Asian Americans. As activists and others work to counter this evil, we should consider the role that hostile US policies and attitudes toward China—which go beyond the response to Covid-19—may play in fostering anti-Asian prejudice.
Hate Crimes at Home
Covid-19 raised the possibility that people of Asian descent would be scapegoated for a pandemic that originated in Asia. Early in 2020, the FBI predicted that anti-Asian crimes would rise “on the assumption that a portion of the US public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.” Soon after, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned about “the potential for hate crimes by individuals and groups targeting minority populations in the United States who they believe are responsible for the spread of the virus.”
Over a year later, the scale of anti-Asian hate crimes since Covid-19 broke out in the United States is hard to measure confidently. The FBI’s national report on hate crimes committed in 2020 won’t be available until November. In the meantime, we have some preliminary, partial numbers and anecdotal evidence that are cause for concern.
The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism (CSHE) at California State University, San Bernardino, released a report this spring on anti-Asian incidents. Analysis of official preliminary police data showed anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 146% from 2019 to 2020 across 26 of the largest American jurisdictions. The increase is all the more striking given that hate crimes generally increased by only 2% in these jurisdictions during this period. The study also compared reports of anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 large US cities and counties in the first quarter of 2020 versus the first quarter of 2021. It found a 164% increase, from 36 to 95, between 2020 and 2021.
STOP AAPI Hate, a coalition of community organizers and academics, created an online, multilingual portal through which people could report anti-Asian incidents. The portal collected reports of 3,795 incidents, both criminal and non-criminal, in 2020 and early 2021. Police data for some large cities show noticeable increases in anti-Asian hate crimes compared to previous years. New York City had an average of 6.4 anti-Asian incidents annually during 2015-2019 and had 28 in 2020. For Los Angeles, the numbers were 6.6 annually during 2015-2019 and 15 in 2020.
As noted, these data have limitations. The STOP AAPI portal doesn’t try to verify the incidents reported to it, and since the portal was created in 2020 we cannot compare its numbers to previous years. Also, the apparent increase in incidents might be the result of increased media attention rather than a real increase. Nevertheless, the numbers suggest a possible pattern of increased anti-Asian hatred.
The reported incidents might also be just the tip of the iceberg: many hate crimes might go unreported for various reasons. Quyen Dinh, the executive director of Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a civil rights group, comments, “A lot of our community members don’t know they can report, or they are afraid to report to law enforcement…They would rather share with the community groups they feel comfortable with.”
Beyond the patterns suggested by numbers, anti-Asian bigotry turns up in multiple specific incidents reported since March 2020. A New York Times compilation of 110 such incidents provides disturbing details. To take just a handful of examples:
- March 2020: In Midland, TX, three members of an Asian American family, including a 2-year-old and 6-year-old, were stabbed in a grocery store because their attacker thought they were Chinese and had Covid-19.
- November 2020: In Washington, DC, a tea shop owner was confronted by a customer who shouted “Chinese” and “Covid-19” and eventually pepper sprayed the owner.
- February 2021: In Los Angeles, a Korean American man was hit in the face by two attackers who called him racial slurs and “Chinese virus.”
- March 2021: In New York City, multiple violent attacks on Asian Americans took place, including an incident where a Filipino American woman was knocked down and kicked while her attacker yelled “You don’t belong here.”
- March 2021: In San Jose, CA, a woman was sexually assaulted by an attacker who shouted anti-Asian slurs.
These and other anti-Asian incidents have taken place in the context of fears about Covid-19 and political rhetoric that identifies the virus with China. Former President Trump sometimes referred to the virus as the “China virus” or the “Chinese virus” (although he later backed off from those words and called for tolerance of Asian Americans). Trump also once used the term “kung flu,” which was also used in multiple anti-Asian incidents.
However, other circumstances beyond Covid-19 might contribute to anti-Asian attitudes within the United States today. Even as Covid recedes (we hope), hostility between the United States and China continues to be a serious problem.
The Biden administration has identified China as a leading US rival. CIA Director William Burns has called China “the biggest geopolitical challenge that we face.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has said “no challenge we face rivals the holistic threat posed by China, and more specifically the Chinese Communist Party.” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), arguing against cuts to the US defense budget, tweeted that “China’s goal is nothing less than the complete destruction of the United States.”
Meanwhile, the Senate is considering a bill, the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, targeting China. The bill calls for spending $300 million annually “to counter the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party globally.” The funds would go to, among other purposes, “expose misinformation and disinformation of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda” and “support civil society and independent media to raise awareness of and increase transparency regarding the negative impact” of various Chinese economic initiatives.
As Jessica J. Lee and Rachel Esplin-Odell of the Quincy Institute comment, the Act could encourage paranoia and hostility toward China and skew media coverage of China, “in favor of anti-China journalism, [while] drowning out more unbiased analyses and reports on constructive engagement with China.” While the Act, to its credit, condemns anti-Asian racism, it may nevertheless encourage general hostility to China that will influences attitudes toward Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans.
Fears of foreign influence might already be influencing the treatment of Asian Americans within the State Department. The Asian-American Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA), which represents diplomats of Asian heritage, has long expressed concerns about how security clearance rules intended to reduce “targeting and harassment by foreign intelligence services as well as to lessen foreign influence,” are applied to Asian Americans.
In March 2021, 100 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from the foreign policy and national security fields released a statement saying “the xenophobia that is spreading as U.S. policy concentrates on great power competition has exacerbated suspicions, microaggressions, discrimination, and blatant accusations of disloyalty simply because of the way we look. Many of us have been targeted because we are either ethnically Chinese or simply look Asian.” The statement goes on to say “Treating all Asian-Americans working in national security with a broad stroke of suspicion, rather than seeing us as valuable contributors, is counterproductive.”
Some positive steps to counter anti-Asian racism have been taken. Congress recently passed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which contains provisions to improve multilingual reporting of hate crimes, access to support services, and public education about hate crimes. The 2021 State Authorization Act, currently being considered in Congress, would reform State Department security clearance procedures. The new procedures would allow diplomats to appeal clearance decisions and have the decisions reviewed independently. Meanwhile, the Strategic Competition Act should be rejected, at least in its current form.
We should also step back from the general hostility toward China that is increasingly embraced by both US political parties. This need not mean stopping all criticism of the Chinese government over, for example, its human rights record in Hong Kong or Xinjiang. However, it does mean scaling back extreme anti-China rhetoric and balancing criticism with recognition of the need for great power cooperation. Hostility among nations is always dangerous. Such hostility has the added danger of turning inward and harming vulnerable communities at home.
For similar posts from John Whitehead, see:
by Sarah Terzo
Jacqueline Middler had two abortions and deeply regretted them. She wrote a book, White Stick, hoping to convince other women not to make the same choices. (All quotations below are from this book).
Middler became pregnant her first year of college. She didn’t know what to do but was leaning towards choosing life. Then she spoke to a friend who’d had an abortion.
The friend said there were many things Middler wouldn’t be able to do if she had a baby. She wouldn’t finish college, she would lose her scholarship, and her boyfriend, whom she wanted to marry, would break up with her.
Middler said, “But I can’t kill my baby.” (p. 30)
The friend told her there was no baby, only cells. Middler writes, “Finally, words that comforted me. I wouldn’t be killing a baby – just a group of cells.” (p. 31)
Midler didn’t know that a preborn baby’s heart is beating at 21 days, and some scientists think it starts even earlier. She didn’t know that a child in the womb was already right or left-handed at eight weeks, or that by 10 weeks the baby has fingerprints and sucks her thumb.
Middler had doubts, but she silenced them. If she had an abortion, she reasoned, no one would ever know. She could continue with her life as if nothing had happened.
When Middler told her parents of her decision, they said they didn’t agree, but they would support her choice. Middler recalls wishing they would step in and forbid her from having an abortion, or at least give her more direction. But the full burden of the choice was placed on her shoulders.
Middler says, “[I] had already hardened my heart… Once I made the decision, I never wavered. I became like a soldier going to battle, determined to win and get my life back on track.” (p. 32)
Whether in abortion or through war, it isn’t human nature to kill. People must suppress their instincts and harden their hearts to do so.
Middler bled after the abortion. She began to see her abortion as killing a baby:
[M]y constant pain and blood loss reminded me of what I had done. Within the discharge from my body were pieces of tissue, and I wondered what part of my baby they represented. (p. 42)
She suffered emotionally and became addicted to drugs and alcohol:
I cried so much. I had hoped to never think about my choice again, but now I thought about it every second of every day. I couldn’t share these thoughts with anyone… As the ugly head of my grief and pain came roaring up to crush me, I beat it back down into the small place in my heart where I let it reign. If the noise got too loud, I reached for drugs or alcohol to quiet the pain.
Outwardly, I looked the same… But inwardly I struggled to process the shame and guilt. Somehow, I finished the term and began packing for home. As I stepped aboard that plane, I was not the same girl who had come to school. My inner being was broken, hardened, and numbed by my choices and my drug use…By taking my baby’s life, some of my own life had died too. (pp. 42-43)
Middler became extremely promiscuous after her abortion, going to parties, drinking and drugging, and going home with various men. At one point, she managed to stay sober for several months, only to find out she was pregnant again. She “celebrated” her decision to have another abortion by drinking again. She got mindlessly drunk and used marijuana.
At the time, she thought that the heavy drinking and drugs had damaged her baby. She says she “didn’t want the baby to suffer in this life with physical deformities or mental incapacities, so ending his or her life before it started seemed like a good thing to do.” (pp. 52-53).
Years later, she would admit to herself:
These thoughts had nothing to do with the baby’s well-being but had everything to do with my own selfish desires not to be inconvenienced by a damaged baby. I knew my life would forever be tied to this baby’s father as well. I knew he would want to be part of the baby’s life. But I knew I did not want to be tied to any one person. I’d grown too numb to think of anyone but myself. (p. 53)
Things got even worse for her after the second abortion. She says, “I felt more than broken – I felt destroyed. In this dark place, I could see no light, no hope.”
She spent the rest of her time in college in a drunken, drug-induced haze. She says:
I alienated everyone, including good friends. I bought drugs and smoked them by myself, often disappearing into the woods to spend many hours staring endlessly into the vast forest, wishing I could disappear. I was not the same person anymore. In fact, I knew that the carefree girl I’d been before my abortions would never return. My choices had affected every aspect of my life and had now destroyed it. I sat in a dark place…
When I returned to school this time, my life felt empty. To protect myself, to be able to move through the motions, I shut down my emotions. I locked them up tight within. I felt more than broken – I felt destroyed. In this dark place, I could see no light, no hope. (pp. 52-53)
Eventually, she stopped abusing substances and began attending church, finding comfort in Christianity. When she got married, she had two miscarriages. Each miscarriage brought back memories of her abortions and thoughts that God was punishing her. She still had to face her abortion and the harm it had done to her life. She says:
As a result of my choice to murder, I made other bad decisions – one after another. Abusing alcohol and drugs, alienating friends, choosing bad partners, screwing up good jobs – the list goes on and on. (pp. 105-106)
Through church ministries, prayer, and “taking responsibility” she found healing:
I acknowledged what I did – took responsibility – and grieved for my choices. I cried. I got angry. I accepted it. Then I decided to let it go. It wasn’t easy. I still look at my abortions as a time I ruined my life. However, I no longer beat myself up for those choices. I allow myself to feel the grief and then fill myself up with God’s words of love for me instead. (p. 109)
She went on to give birth to three children.
Years later, she and a friend went to a concert by a singer they both liked. Before the concert, they were shown a pro-abortion video. The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-choice:
I had no idea that this artist’s concerts had morphed into pro-choice events. I watched and listened as many different women and doctors appeared on the screen talking about how important it was to have the choice of abortion. The main speaker talked about how she had eight abortions and how she thought abortions were just another form of birth control. Her callous remarks and hardened heart hurt me. (p. 133)
The singer yelled pro-choice slogans into the microphone, and the crowd stood up and cheered.
She and her friend were the only ones not standing and applauding. Middler says:
I looked around and saw every woman in the audience cheering for their freedom, and I wondered if they knew the shackles that would bind their souls. I wondered if there was a voice for the people like me who had abortions and knew abortion was wrong, knew that choice was life-altering, knew the depths of hatred one could have for oneself, and knew the choice would be with you forever. I wondered if there was a voice for us – someone who could tell others not to go this route…
At that moment, I told God I would be the voice for women like me if he wanted me to. I would share my story. (pp. 114-115)
Middler has the following message for women considering abortion: “Choosing abortion will change the direction of your life, but not in the way you might think. Having an abortion is not the easier choice.” (p. 114)
She hopes that her book will change hearts and minds on abortion and encourage women to choose life.
For more of our posts on personal journeys, sees:
My Personal Journey on Veganism, War, and Abortion / Frank Lane
Off the Fence and Taking My Stand on Abortion / Mary Liepold
Sharon Long: My Personal Pro-life Journey / Sharon Long
Reconstruction of a Nation: Resilience in the Face of Terror / Aneeza Pervez of Pakistan
Brown v. Board of Education and Me / Bill Samuel
by Rachel MacNair
I’m about to make some heavy criticisms of the way the Covid vaccines came to be, so I start by saying I’ve now gotten both of my Moderna vaccinations. I encourage everyone qualified to be socially responsible to the community by getting theirs as well. Failing to do so, under current circumstances, is taking part in a major massive threat to life.
But as for the criticism, I start by observing that it was large corporations that came up with the vaccines. It had to be; smaller outfits don’t have the wherewithal to do something so complicated.
Yet people in very large groups can so easily fall into mind-numbing bureaucracy. Large corporations get us huge military projects that use up resources and hurt the environment for death-dealing machines that shouldn’t exist. Large corporations lobby to lower their taxes and therefore to cut desperately needed social spending. They also underpay their workers, so poverty increases. Large corporations are the major polluters of the environment; as individuals, we don’t do nearly so much, and when we do, it’s usually because of what large corporations sell us.
One major problem on the vaccines, as I see it, is that the large corporations that came up with them have shown similar callousness by using fetal cell lines somewhere in the process. Moderna and Pfizer used it in testing, but not in production. Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca used it in production (see An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs). The fetal cells themselves aren’t in the final product, so no one need fear that they’re getting the fetal cells injected in their arms. Nevertheless, I resolved not to get the J & J and to hold out for the ones that only used it in testing. It didn’t matter since Moderna was what I was offered, but still, I had resolved that.
The baby that was killed and then used for the cell line was killed decades ago. I’m not a Catholic – I’m a Quaker – but Catholic arguments I’ve heard are: we aren’t actually materially participating in abortion, nor making any more abortions happen. If there were an alternative that had no use of the fetal cell line at all, of course we’d make a point of using that. But there isn’t – just the distinction in how much they did it. We all have to use products that have some evil in them – for example, we use buildings that were built by enslaved people. We aren’t in any way supporting, or failing to oppose, the horrific evil of slavery by continuing to use those buildings. Most important of all, the massive life-saving to be achieved by the vaccine is absolutely, absolutely necessary.
I buy those arguments, or I wouldn’t have taken the vaccine. But there are Catholic people and others who are aghast at the abortion connection of the vaccines and therefore dead set against them.
Of course there are.
The health researchers should have expected that. This is the real world.
The response of many pundits has been to try to argue such people into dispensing with their tender consciences on this point, and to take the vaccine anyway. I assert they’re arguing with the wrong people.
We as a society always knew that a mass vaccination campaign requires that people be persuaded to take the shots. Health promoters need to talk many people into it.
Therefore, it’s grotesquely, grotesquely irresponsible to have used anything in production that might add to vaccine hesitancy. Add to it by leaps and bounds. Add to it by maybe millions of people. Specifically, people of tender conscience.
No, the researchers ran roughshod over those consciences. The very mindset that allowed the researchers to discount the lives of unborn children goes with the mindset of discounting people of tender conscience. As if we don’t exist. Or shouldn’t.
Therefore, though the researchers could have used alternative methods that would have avoided leaving so many people queasy, they forged ahead with them. Then, upon discovering that there are people that they’ve inflicted this burden on, rather than realizing what a humongous mistake they made and expressing contrition, they argue with the people of tender conscience that they just shouldn’t have the tender conscience. Those researchers themselves don’t, and they’ve made non-persons out of all of us who do.
They weren’t paying attention to this most basic detail when using the fetal cell line. They argued against opponents of using it, inasmuch as they paid attention to us at all.
So now that they discover a problem – one that should have been foreseeable – their idea of a solution is to bully us into accepting their definition of the situation instead of our own.
We as a society are stuck in the situation, and we can’t change the past. But all arguments that we as advocates for life ought to behave as if our current situation is a given run aground for me when that past could have been different if large corporations had been more responsible.
I could handle their arguments for the current vaccines better if they realized their mistake, apologized, learned from the experience, and promised not to do it any more. Without that, the arguments from people who discount both babies and their defenders can never sit well with me. I’ve gotten my vaccinations and encourage others to do the same, but I resent the disrespect toward me and my group that their production decisions entailed.
That disrespect is deadly, because it fosters the predictable result of greater vaccine hesitancy and resistance.
For more of our blog posts on the pandemic, see:
The Random Death Sentence: COVID in Prisons and Jails / Sarah Terzo
by John Whitehead
Certain historical episodes of nonviolent resistance to injustice are famous: the Indian struggle for independence; the American civil rights movement; or the Arab Spring uprisings come to mind. However, many people who are aware of such episodes aren’t familiar with the larger history of nonviolent resistance nor with how such resistance can be used most effectively. For those wishing to learn more about nonviolent resistance, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know (2021), by Erica Chenoweth, is a good introduction.
Chenoweth is a political scientist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who has written extensively over the past decade about how nonviolent civil resistance is more effective than violence in overcoming injustice. This latest book provides a clear, popular overview of the topic, presented in the form of answers to possible questions about nonviolent resistance. Consistent life ethic advocates and other activists will find the book a valuable guide to why and how nonviolent methods of resistance can succeed.
Changing the Power Balance within a Society
The book defines “civil resistance” as a “method of active conflict in which unarmed people use a variety of coordinated, noninstitutional methods—strikes, protests, demonstrations, boycotts, alternative institution-building—to promote change without harming or threatening to harm an opponent.” (p. 28) Such resistance differs both from violent rebellion and activism that works purely within official institutions, such as voting for candidates in an election. Indeed, as noted, civil resistance may involve creating parallel political or economic institutions to the official or mainstream ones within a society.
Civil resistance campaigns seek to overturn some unjust status quo, whether a repressive regime, a colonial occupation, or a social injustice such as racial segregation. Civil resistance works to achieve such goals by exerting enough pressure to get people and groups supporting the unjust status quo—the military, business leaders, religious or other influential institutions—to shift their support to the resistance campaign. This support may take the form of actively helping the resistance or merely not working against them: security forces, for example, might refuse to use violence against resistance members.
These loyalty shifts don’t require those in power to agree that the current situation is unjust, merely to recognize that their interests now lie in siding with the resistance. For example, economic resistance techniques such as strikes and boycotts can create enough economic pressure to make business leaders support the resistance campaign’s goals.
Achieving such a crucial loyalty shift generally requires that the resistance campaign has a large, diverse membership; uses diverse resistance tactics; and remains disciplined and resilient even when they encounter state repression. Chenoweth emphasizes that successful resistance campaigns don’t rely solely on protests or other public demonstrations. Less confrontational methods, such as boycotts or staying at home rather than going to work or school, can exert pressure in ways less vulnerable to repression.
Another point Chenoweth frequently repeats (with an urgency that seems born of frustration) is that successful civil resistance campaigns require a high degree of organization and long, careful planning and preparation. A loosely organized movement that takes to the streets without a clear strategy is less likely to succeed, she argues.
However, a successful civil resistance campaign doesn’t require a single charismatic leader, such as a Gandhi. Relying on such leaders makes a campaign vulnerable to collapse should the leader be imprisoned or killed.
Chenoweth cites a variety of quantitative studies, many of which she conducted with collaborators, to support her claims about civil resistance, including civil resistance’s superiority to violence. Of 627 campaigns that occurred between 1900 and 2019 and that aimed to overthrow governments or create new nation-states, over 50% of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded within a year of the campaigns’ point of greatest popular participation. In contrast, only about 26% of violent campaigns during this period succeeded.
She also cites a 2014 study that examined 46 mass killings between 1989 and 2011. The study concluded that campaigns can succeed even in the face of violent government repression of nonviolent protests, provided the campaign is well organized. Also, another study cited notably concludes that nonviolent campaigns generally suffer far fewer deaths than armed rebellions do.
Chenoweth offers plausible arguments for why nonviolent resistance campaigns tend to be more successful than violent ones. Nonviolent campaigns attract larger, more diverse followings because they are less dangerous, don’t require people to overcome scruples about using violence, and are open to people not suitable for military service. Nonviolent campaigns also earn more sympathy from the general population (Chenoweth cites a variety of opinion surveys from various countries on this point). Last, nonviolent campaigns make defections by state security forces more likely, while violent rebellion makes such forces more likely to close ranks.
Chenoweth also addresses the hard cases of resistance to genocidal or otherwise extremely violent regimes and offers a blunt, sobering assessment: “genocidal or totalitarian regimes…are difficult to confront with any kind of resistance, violent or not… nonviolent resistance does not always work, even when many people are using it together,” but “taking up violence may be even more disastrous” (pp. 156, 157).
Problems and Limitations
Although Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know contains much that will be useful to consistent life ethic advocates, this is not a consistent life ethic book. Chenoweth writes sympathetically of public suicide by self-immolation, questionably regarding such protest as “nonviolent” (p. 82). The book’s few mentions of pro-life activism are generally negative, with Chenoweth suggesting that such activism might be an example of how nonviolent resistance can sometimes be immoral.
Moreover, Chenoweth’s argument for nonviolent resistance is essentially pragmatic—nonviolence is preferable simply because it is more effective—and she largely refrains from condemning violence on moral grounds. This attitude will likely be disappointing to pacifist, and many non-pacifist, consistent life ethic advocates.
Civil Resistance also fails to address some crucial questions about nonviolent civil resistance. The book’s focus is various struggles within states, in which the government being challenged is either some homegrown regime or a more or less established colonial regime. What is not addressed is how to struggle against aggressive foreign states that have not yet established control of another state. Granting that nonviolent civil resistance is more effective than violence in challenging an established regime, would such nonviolent resistance also be more effective than violent resistance in stopping an invasion by an outside state? The answer may well be “Yes,” but the book doesn’t address the question.
Another largely unaddressed question is how to deal with nonviolent civil resistance that is used for bad ends. While one might not categorize pro-life activism this way, certainly scenarios in which civil resistance is used to thwart or disrupt just laws or policies are easy to imagine. The January 6, 2021, Capitol riot was hardly nonviolent, but purely nonviolent resistance could have similarly disrupted the conduct or ratification of an election. How should governments and activists respond to harmful civil resistance? How do such cases fit into a larger theory of civil resistance? (Chenoweth makes a few attempts to talk about this issue, but they are under-developed.)
Despite such limitations, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know is a solid introductory guide to civil resistance’s methods and potential. Consistent life ethic advocates should read it, ponder it, seek out other works on the topic (the book contains a list of suggested resources), and decide how best to employ nonviolent resistance in their own work.
For more of our posts on the theory of nonviolence, see:
Remembering Gandhi at 150: The Power of Nonviolence and Respect for Life
by Sarah Terzo
A book published in 2010 revealed that the military had a policy that all servicewomen who became pregnant had to abort or face discharge – and this policy was in place before Roe vs. Wade, when abortion was still illegal throughout the United States.
The U.S. military’s purpose is to wage war. Killing enemy combatants, fellow human beings, is part of that mandate. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that an industry based on killing wouldn’t value the lives of preborn children either – or, as it turns out, the right of women to choose to have their children.
Requiring Abortion – before Roe
In 1970, the Department of Defense issued a policy permitting military hospitals to commit abortions on military members and their spouses. In 1970, abortion was illegal in most states, and was only just being legalized (usually with heavy restrictions) in a few. In fact, that year New York became the first state to legalize abortion for any reason up to 24 weeks for all residents and nonresidents.
Military hospitals, however, were performing abortions even in states where the procedure was legally banned.
In addition, the military required servicewomen who became pregnant to have abortions or face discharge.
Records show 4,041 women in the Air Force alone were discharged for getting pregnant and refusing abortions from 1969-1971. Possibly 7,000 women across all military branches were discharged because of pregnancy from roughly the late 1940s to the mid-1970s.The number of women who aborted is unknown.
An Air Force regulation read:
“A woman officer shall be discharged from the service with the least practical delay when a determination is made by a medical officer that she is pregnant” or “has given birth to a living child,” unless the “pregnancy is terminated.”1
Military policy required female Air Force officers who became pregnant to abort or lose their jobs. A pregnancy would end a female officer’s military career – unless she had an abortion.
The Susan Struck Case
Captain Susan R. Struck, a career officer in the Air Force, became pregnant while serving as a nurse in Vietnam.
At first, she planned to have an abortion. The Guardian quotes her:
“But that night I had a dream,” recalled Struck, now aged 75, speaking in a joint interview with the Guardian and WNYC in the city of Sierra Vista, Arizona, some 50 years later.
She dreamed about the fetus, and being called “Mommy”, and the next morning she says: “I sat up in bed, and I said, ‘No way. No way are they going to do this. Susan Struck is not going to fall for this crap.’”
Struck was also a Catholic, and this influenced her choice to have her baby.
She was able to hide the pregnancy for seven-and-a-half months, but received a discharge notice when her pregnancy was discovered.
She gave birth to her child, a baby girl named Tanya, and put the child up for adoption.
Her punishment was discharge, but unlike Air Force officers before her, she decided to fight back. She went to court, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawyer assigned to her case was Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice. She obtained a stay of discharge, but it turned out only to be temporary. She lost both in the United States District Court in Seattle and in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Both sets of judges ruled that she could be discharged for her refusal to get an abortion.
Though it first was sought during her pregnancy, at this point her discharge was purely punitive. There was no reason Struck couldn’t resume her duties. Her pregnancy was over, her baby gone. She wouldn’t be impeded by a medical condition or the need to care for a child. But the Air Force was determined to discharge her anyway.
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. But perhaps fearing bad publicity, the Air Force changed its policy. According to authors Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel, it did not reverse the policy. Female Air Force officers who became pregnant would still face discharge if they didn’t have an abortion. What the Air Force did was allow officials to waive enforcement of the policy in individual cases. They then waived the policy in Struck’s case in 1972.
There is a discrepancy in sources here. A military-sponsored website implies that the policy was abandoned, not revised. The Guardian, another source, is ambiguous on this point, saying only that the discharge would no longer be ‘automatic.’ Whether Greenhouse and Siegal have it wrong or whether the military is trying to sugar-coat its history is unclear.
Because Struck was no longer facing discharge, the Supreme Court dismissed her case as moot.
Interestingly, this whole event played out while abortion was illegal in most states. Abortion wasn’t legalized until Roe vs. Wade in 1973.
It’s likely that members of the fledgling pro-choice movement knew about Struck’s case. However, there doesn’t seem to be any documentation that they ever publicly addressed or opposed the coerced abortion policy. They focused all their attention on legalizing elective abortions across the United States. They didn’t rally to defend Struck’s right to have her child. This was despite their professed commitment to women’s “right to choose.”
I have read contemporary books by early pro-choice activists such as Bernard Nathanson (who later became pro-life), Larry Lader and Malcolm Potts and perused many early pro-choice documents. I have never seen reference to Struck’s case.
It’s hard to see a bigger violation of the “right to choose” than women being forced to abort under pain of their careers being ended. Yet pro-choice forces didn’t advocate for the women suffering under the military’s policy.
Despite winning the lawsuit, Struck faced so much hostility that she left the Air Force anyway and became a pediatric nurse. She eventually established a relationship with the daughter she placed for adoption.
Another coerced abortion policy was in place in Great Britain. According to pro-choice feminist Janet Hadley:
[T]he British military had a policy of kicking women who became pregnant out of the service if they did not abort. If a woman was found to be over 16 weeks pregnant, she was discharged, even if she was in a clerical or office job or other noncombat position.2
As we can see, this coerced abortion policy applied to women whose jobs wouldn’t be compromised by the physical condition of pregnancy. It wasn’t limited to potential combatants.
One victim of the policy, a telephone operator at the Women’s Royal Navy Service, who had an abortion, said:
They gave me a weekend to think about it. It was like I was going to the dentist to have a tooth out. There was no compassion and no counseling… My boyfriend didn’t want to know, I had no choice.3
Women went to court to challenge the policy. According to a lawyer who represented the women:
There was a culture of abortion. If you went to the medical officer, you got told how quickly an abortion could be arranged and that the military hospital was lined up ready to do the operation.4
Fortunately, this policy did end, and military personnel are no longer required to get abortions in Great Britain.
These forced abortion policies give insight into the nature of the military, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. The military, whether in our country or another, puts its members in harm’s way and endangers their lives as a matter of course. It isn’t surprising that in addition to not valuing its members’ lives, it tends not to value their right to choose against abortion. Nor is it surprising that an industry predicated on killing would have no scruples about mandating more killing.
- Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel, eds. Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate before the Supreme Court’s Ruling (New York: Kaplan Publishing, 2010), pp. 198 – 199
- Janet Hadley Abortion: Between Freedom and Necessity (Great Britain: Virago Press 1996), p. 102
- “Abortions Test Case for Army” Guardian March 28, 1994
- Hadley, p. 104
For more of our posts on similar themes, see: