Is it anti-woman to be anti-abortion? | WORLD
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Is it anti-woman to be anti-abortion?

Abortion advocates try to rewrite the history of feminism


A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Wikimedia Commons

Is it anti-woman to be anti-abortion?
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The organizers of the “Women’s March” made headlines in 2017 when they removed pro-life feminists as sponsors, prompting more than one observer to note with irony that if Susan B. Anthony were living today, she would politely be asked to step aside and let the “real feminists” have their day. As thousands gather again to march in January to purportedly “secure abortion access and counter far-right extremism,” the question that must be asked is this: Is it anti-woman to be anti-abortion?

This question of the relationship between women’s rights and abortion permeates Monica Klem and Madeleine McDowell’s timely book, Pity For Evil: Abortion, and Women’s Empowerment in Reconstruction America. In it the authors thoroughly and definitively debunk the myth that feminism is historically synonymous with pro-abortion politics. The reality, they argue, is precisely the opposite.

In today’s inhospitable political climate for transgressing woke orthodoxy, Klem and McDowell recall an era when women’s rights and anti-abortion politics went hand in hand. Furthermore, through their analysis of 19th-century social conditions, Klem and McDowell show how a fusion of pro-life and pro-woman’s causes changed structural as well as legal conditions. Feminists traced rising abortion rates in the 19th century to factors such as “the sexual double standard, ignorance about sexuality, maternity, and embryology, and insufficient economic opportunities for women.” Abortion was illegal but sadly not all that rare. In order to reduce rates of abortion, 19th-century feminists argued that changes to social conditions and not just laws were needed.

Such an understanding should inform pro-life rhetoric and messaging. For instance, Klem and McDowell note that in the mid-19th century, abortion was prosecuted under the common law as an offense against the mother, who was not considered the guilty party. In other words, pro-life feminists held the doctors performing the abortions and the men paying for the procedure responsible. After all, the aborted children are the victims of pro-choice policies, but so too are the women “choosing” abortion. As such, early feminists wanted more than restrictions on abortion. They wanted women to not have to resort to abortion in the first place. Increasingly, that work involved addressing the “sexual double standard.”

Rather than opposing high standards of sexual ethics, first wave feminists argued that men ought to be held to the same already-high standard of women—the ideal of the “chaste woman.”

At the heart of Klem and McDowell’s book is what has been called the “double standard of sexual ethics.” In a word, the double standard means that in most societies women are held to a higher standard of sexual ethics than men. Rather than opposing high standards of sexual ethics, first wave feminists argued that men ought to be held to the same already-high standard of women—the ideal of the “chaste woman.” Under such an approach, women who contracted pregnancies outside of wedlock were victims of male sexual violence to be protected. Far from a solution, abortion only exacerbated the sexual double standard by risking the health of the mother and ending the life of the child. Suffragists thus argued against abortion while seeking to alter the social conditions that increased their frequency, including poverty, rape, and prostitution. They passed age-of-consent laws in dozens of states and organized maternity homes where unmarried mothers were cared for and their children delivered in safety.

It was second wave feminists who rejected this approach, abandoning high standards of sexual ethics as antiquated relics of Victorian-era prudery, and arguing that women’s freedom consisted in imitating the sexual license of men. The solution? The pill, with the added backstop of abortion-on-demand.

The distinctive contribution of Pity For Evil, however, is that feminism need not be understood as synonymous with pro-abortion politics. A more historically rooted feminism grounds the value and dignity of women in their capacity for virtue and care, not in their ability to mimic male sexual appetites.

In spite of the lip service paid to diversity, the progressive left has become intolerant of self-described feminists who oppose unrestricted access to abortion. Were Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Ida B. Wells alive today, they would politely be asked to refrain from joining the Women’s March, if for no other reason than their stance on abortion. But for 19th-century social reformers and feminists, fighting for equality meant holding forth a high standard of sexual ethics and working for social conditions in which female virtue was protected and prized—a fight that continues to this day.


Caleb Morell

Caleb Morell (M.Div., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a senior pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. He lives with his wife and two children in Washington, D.C.


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