The pro-life myth is a cultural myth. It’s a myth that implies a vague notion of a world in which abortion is either rare or obsolete, and if rare, then only occurring for specific reasons. It’s a myth so powerful that even a lot of pro-choice people pay lip service to it.
While 47% of Americans identified as pro-choice in the most recent Gallup poll, only 29% thought that abortion should be legal in any and all circumstances. Half of those polled thought abortion should only be legal in certain circumstances (19% thought it should not be legal under any circumstances; 2% had no opinion). But is that world realistic? If abortion were restricted by reason, what would it look like for women seeking an abortion for just one of these reasons; because they had been the victim of a rape that led to pregnancy?
Presumably, for women seeking to terminate a pregnancy that resulted from rape, just the claim that they had been raped would not be enough. If it were, then there would not really be a point in having a standard for legal abortions, since a woman would only have to tell her provider that she had been raped to get one. The laxest possible standard that could be applied would be requiring a woman to have reported the assault that led to the pregnancy she wished to terminate.
According to RAINN (The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), only about 334 out of every 1,000 rapes is reported to the police. Perhaps this statistic would rise if female rape victims knew they would be forced to carry to term a pregnancy that resulted from the rape if they didn’t report, but it is almost certain that some rapes would still go unreported, particularly those that are unreported due to fear of reprisal. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, this group made up about 20% of female rape victims who didn’t report the assault to police between 2005 and 2010.
But even if the proportion of rapes that get reported increased dramatically, would it be enough to have reported a rape? Or would a rape victim only be eligible for an abortion if her report leads to her rapist being convicted, or perhaps just arrested? Even taking the latter of these standards would exclude the vast majority of women who report rapes from being eligible to terminate a pregnancy resulting from rape. RAINN reports that of those 334 reported rapes only 63, just over 6% of all rapes, will lead to an arrest (and only a fraction of that number will lead to prosecution, let alone conviction).
Assuming that it were somehow possible to guarantee abortions to all women who sought them for reasons that most Americans approve of (pregnancies resulting from rape or incest and that present significant medical problems for the woman or the fetus), what would happen to the other women who wanted to end pregnancies? Would abortion end? There is absolutely no reason to think so. In fact, abortion rates are actually higher in countries with highly restricted access to abortion. Estimates of abortion rates in the decades prior to Roe v. Wade, when abortion was illegal in most parts of the US, rival and even exceed the most current figures. Illegal abortions account for 44% of abortions worldwide.
This is not as paradoxical as it seems; societies that restrict access to abortion tend not to prioritize sex education and access to contraceptives. This is also true of every major pro-life organizations in the United States. As Katha Pollitt writes in “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights”:
“...not one major anti-abortion organization supports making birth control more available, much less educating young people in its use: not Feminists for Life, National Right to Life, or the Susan B. Anthony List; not American Life League, Americans for Life, or Pro-Life Action League, to say nothing of the US Council of Catholic Bishops, Priests for Life, and Sisters for Life. Anti-abortion organizations either openly oppose contraception, or are silent about it.”
This opposition to contraception is rooted in a myth about how contraceptives work and reflective of what many in the pro-choice community believe are the pro-life movement’s true aims, which are less concerned with reducing the amount of abortions and more about imposing a restrictive and highly moralized view of sex through legislation.
Hormonal contraceptive methods prevent pregnancy primarily by preventing ovulation, since no egg is released, sperm has nothing to fertilize. Scientific, medical, and legal standards hold that a pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall, which only occurs naturally about half of the time an egg is fertilized.
The pro-life movement contends that pregnancy begins when an egg is fertilized, and argues, despite lack of any scientific evidence, that artificial forms of birth control work by preventing implantation (only the copper IUD actually works this way, but only when it is inserted as an emergency means of birth control rather than as a preventative measure). These two pieces of fiction have been used by the movement to oppose even very common methods of birth control, like the Pill.
If the pro-life movement were truly concerned with reducing or eliminating abortions, it stands to reason that it would be an energetic proponent of birth control. After all, the two-thirds of American women who consistently use contraception have only about 5% of the nation’s abortions. But as Cristina Page points out in her book “How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America”, pro-life groups take issue with birth control anyway, because it separates sex from procreation. It allows men and women to enjoy sex without the anxiety of a potential pregnancy. It is easy to underestimate how great that anxiety would have been for families in the pre-birth control, pre-Roe v. Wade era.
The current fertility rate in the United States is approximately half of its post-WWII heights. Many modern women take it for granted that they can delay pregnancy and plan it around their careers, rather than the other way around, if they have children at all. The impact of the ability to control fertility cannot be underestimated. It’s what allowed women to delay marriage, go to law school, become engineers, doctors, and lawyers. Jonathan Eig, author of “The Birth of the Pill”, described how this is exactly what inspired him to write specifically about birth control:
“I was listening to a rabbi's sermon — this was maybe five or six years ago — and he began by saying that the birth control pill may have been the most important invention of the 20th century...His case was that it had changed more than just science, more than just medicine. It had changed human dynamics. It had changed the way men and women get along in the world. It changed reproduction, obviously, but it also created all kinds of opportunities for women that weren't there before, it had spread democracy.”
The changes were so dramatic because the status quo for many women prior to the availability of birth control was so stark. Eig points out that while the rich have always found means to limit the amount of children they have, the poor have not been so fortunate. In his book, Eig reprints a letter sent to Margaret Sanger (founder of what would eventually become Planned Parenthood) in 1925 by a young mother desperate because she finds herself pregnant again:
“I am 30 years old have been married 14 years and have 11 children the oldest 13 and the youngest one year. I have kidney and heart disease, and every one of my children is defictived [sic] and we are very poor. Now Mrs. Sanger can you please help me. I have miss [sic] a few weeks and don’t know how to bring myself around. I am so worred [sic] and I have cryed my self [sic] sick…Oh Mrs. Sanger if I could tell you all the terrible things that I have been through with my babys [sic] you would know why I would rather die than have another one...Doctors are men and have not had a baby so they have no pitty [sic] for a poor sick Mother. You are a Mother and you know so please pitty me and help me. Please Please.”
It would not be until 1960 that the pill was approved for contraceptive use. While there has never been a world without abortion (there is evidence that they are at least 4,000 years old), a world without reliable contraception is recent history.
A 2016 Gallup survey indicates that almost 90% of Americans believe that birth control is morally acceptable. With only about 46% of Americans identifying as pro-life, this suggests that even the vast majority of pro-life Americans disagree with the pro-life movement’s opposition to contraception. But because the pro-life movement has branded itself as opposed to abortion, it has managed to veil the fact that what it really objects to is the transformation of society into one in which being a mother is an option, rather than an obligation.
Behind the myth of a world without abortion is another myth, just as vague and just as unrealistic. It’s a myth about world in which a woman’s primary role is to be a mother. This myth has a distinctly 1950’s air of nostalgia about it, bringing to mind vintage ads with immaculately styled stay-at-home mothers in aprons standing next to shiny new appliances. This highly gendered image is also profoundly racialized and class-biased. The image of the happy housewife was almost invariably white and upper class, which reflected a real disparity. Evidence suggests that black mothers have always been employed outside of the home, and that even in the post-WWII boom, many families did not have the means to have a mother that had withdrawn from the workforce.
Because that era is so often held up as the gold standard of American prosperity, the cultural myth propagated by the pro-life movement resonates for many on a subconscious level, despite the fact that even those mid-century domestic goddesses were often unhappy. Betty Friedan described this unhappiness as “the problem that has no name” in The Feminine Mystique:
“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question-- 'Is this all?”
Friedan’s portrayal of the reality of American housewives is often credited as ushering in second wave feminism. As women realized that their unspeakable feelings were shared by others, they began to see that the problem was not in themselves, but in the society that asked them to sublimate their individual ambitions in order to be wives and mothers. Birth control and access to safe abortions gave these women and the greater number of women who have always juggled the demands of motherhood and work the ability to make a space for those ambitions. The pro-life myth is a cultural myth. If it becomes a cultural reality, that space will disappear.
Check back next week for the last part of this series on reproductive rights.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.