Although the U.S. seems to be as woke and post-biblical as any other transformed Western country, our abortion laws since Roe v. Wade (1973) have been wildly out of line with those of the rest of the West. Betsy Clarke, writing in Chronicles’s sister publication, Intellectual Takeout, offers this well-considered observation on the subject:
The 1973 Court seems to have discovered this federal right guaranteeing abortions within the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which apparently guarantees liberty, privacy, and the right to pursue a career without the drag of annoying little kids.… The United States has among the most permissive abortion laws in the world. It is one of only seven countries in the world that allows elective abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation, a distinction it shares with the Communist governments of North Korea and China.
To be more specific, 47 out of 50 European countries limit abortion—exactly like the new Mississippi law—to the first 15 weeks of gestation; most restrict the practice to the first trimester; and one member of the EU (Malta) forbids it altogether. Meanwhile, the U.S. stretches abortion rights out until the hapless baby comes down the birth canal. Indeed, former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a beloved hero to Planned Parenthood and the National Organization of Women, was quite happy to allow women to “terminate pregnancies” even after giving birth.
Why is the U.S. so much more permissive about late-term abortion, a pattern that has become well established here since Roe? And why are most Americans polled opposed to overturning that decision, even if they inconsistently express misgivings about the length of time that abortion is permitted for a pregnant woman? Finally, why do people believe the laughable lie that if the modest Mississippi law is upheld, abortions will have to take place in back alleys? It is far more likely that the abortion business would continue almost as frequently even if this law were upheld by the Supreme Court. The only difference would be that a few red states, like Mississippi and Texas, would require women’s health providers to furnish their grim services within the first 15 weeks after conception.
The sheer hysteria that has greeted even these minimal efforts to “roll back Roe” makes me think that we are not dealing with a reasonable response to reasonable limits. What is at stake for abortion advocates is preserving a practice that has gotten out of hand and turned into good-old-fashioned homicide.
In the U.S., being for or against our extravagant “reproductive rights” has turned into a continuing media spectacle. Soccer moms and society ladies stand on one side treating abortion as a religious sacrament and considering anyone who wants to limit this religious practice as a reprobate. These women are no longer traditional wives and mothers; they are indignant beings who are shaking off millennia of oppression and are now on their way to healing from the scars of the sexist past.
But these militants are not the only ones playing to the crowds. Their right-to-life opponents are just as theatrical, which may be necessary given the implacable opposition they face from the culturally radicalized media. These abortion opponents hold prayer vigils and marches for life, most dramatically each year in the nation’s capital. They also belabor what for me are astounding comparisons between antebellum slavery and the killing of the unborn.
Without necessarily defending either practice, the legalization of human bondage does not seem quite as heinous as snuffing out innocent life, if that is how one understands abortion. But since those who favor abortion as a sacrament do not regard the fetus as human life, this comparison seems to have no persuasive value, other than to underscore the anti-racism of abortion opponents.
For those exposed to the fruits of late-term abortion, including the deeds of Dr. Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia, who gruesomely murdered infants who survived his initial butchery, or else the chit-chat recorded by Project Veritas’s investigative reporters about selling the body parts of aborted fetuses, what is learned about this procedure may be shocking. Still, it seems impossible to persuade the majority in this country, who view unlimited abortion rights as a religious thing or a settled legal matter, to budge significantly from their position. This may be the case no matter how unpleasant the pictures or accounts of late-term abortions may strike most Americans.
No one is disputing that abortion has had truly grave results outside the U.S. In Europe it has resulted in tens of millions of deaths inflicted by the autochthonous population upon itself. This has occurred while European countries, especially Germany and France, have welcomed unskilled Third World populations with open arms and lavish social programs. Enjoying the combined support of corporate capitalists and woke media, this suicidal behavior leads to increases in violent crime and the weakening of traditional national cultures. It is wreaking social havoc while contributing to demographic replacement, starting in birth wards.
We are therefore not speaking merely about the effects of abortion, which are as apparent in Western Europe as they are in the U.S. Rather we are looking at the peculiarly American preference for allowing abortion to extend through the third trimester and occasionally beyond birth. How did this practice come to be widely accepted, and why has it persisted so long?
To say it happened because of Roe is to place the wagon before the horse. The Supreme Court decision has stood firmly because of a vast support system behind it. One of our two national parties, the Democrats, enshrines the right to virtually unrestricted abortion at almost any time. The other party has usually moved quite gingerly on restricting abortion, but has flaunted its general opposition as a tool for roping in the religious right.
Speculating as an historian, it seems America’s devotion to almost unlimited abortion has to do with the prominence of women’s rights in the national agenda since the 1960s. In 1964 women were included in a landmark Civil Rights Act with blacks, another group that was deemed to need special governmental protection. Although this inclusion has been attributed to the intention of Virginia Rep. Howard W. Smith, a staunch segregationist, to torpedo the bill by having it embrace women, Slate may be closer to the truth when it explained in its June 2020 article, “The Real Story Behind ‘Because of Sex:’”
But that narrative, enjoyable though it may be, is not quite complete, wrote Christina Wolbrecht, political scientist and author of The Politics of Women’s Rights: Parties, Positions, and Change, in a Twitter thread. ‘Smith later claimed he introduced the “sex” amendment as a joke,’ she wrote. ‘Yes, it was introduced by a segregationist … but BECAUSE women’s rights advocates had laid the groundwork for DECADES, and BECAUSE women members of Congress were there to shepherd it through the long legislative process.’
With this added context, Smith’s little “accident” looks a bit more like somebody else’s well-laid plan.
Feminist groups had been working to provide access to abortions for decades. The Planned Parenthood Federation, which saw itself as empowering women by giving them the power to control “reproductive rights,” came into existence in 1916. Note that its founder, Margaret Sanger, favored the vigorous distribution of birth control information but balked at the barbarity of abortion. The National Organization of Women, formed in 1966, used the Civil Rights Act to push first for contraception and then for abortion as a woman’s inalienable right.
Feminism enjoyed a more central importance in the U.S. among progressives than it did on the postwar European left. In Europe it had to contend with anticolonialism and antifascism as crusading causes. Western European Communist parties claimed to stand for “women’s rights,” but long mirrored the attitudes of the bourgeois parliamentary parties in their countries. The disillusioned French Communist author Annie Kriegel, who wrote a famous account of France’s Communist Party in 1972, examined the strange combination of attitudes and sentiments among the Communist rank and file. French Communists were sympathetic to the Soviets in international relations and favored massive redistributions of money and resources to benefit the working class, Kriegel wrote, but they also reflected what were often conservative Catholic upbringings. They held traditional views about the sexes and never thought about “women’s rights” very deeply, no matter what their party programs proclaimed.
In the U.S. by contrast, the feminists presented themselves as a group disadvantaged from birth, thus crying for government-led reform. Much of this wailing was disingenuous because it typically issued from the privileged. Feminists enjoyed bluestocking Republican support from luminaries like the Rockefellers, Bushes, and New York Mayor John V. Lindsay.
For a long time, feminism seemed a safe thing for the established classes to support. It was not like Communist-front organizations or the Black Panthers. How dangerous after all could activist women be who came from prominent families, went to prestigious colleges, and often were intermarried with socially prominent families? If they wanted “reproductive rights,” why shouldn’t American democracy give it to them, whether that meant greater access to contraceptives or the right to end an unplanned for pregnancy?
The most comprehensive abortion law passed up until that time came under the Republican administration of Nelson Rockefeller on April 12, 1970. It provided for abortion on demand until the 24th week of pregnancy for anyone who requested the procedure. Three years earlier an almost equally permissive abortion bill was signed by “conservative Republican” California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Even as president, Reagan would only address annual March for Life rallies by phone, lest he be seen acting in a way that might offend part of his voter base. Since Reagan has been praised lavishly by pro-life groups as someone who cared about the unborn, these details may be relevant for a fuller assessment of his stance on this issue.
That both Rockfeller and Reagan, pacesetters on “women’s issues” in the 1960s and early 1970s, were Republicans was not accidental. Unlike the Democrats before their transformation, Republicans didn’t have to worry about a core constituency made up of devoutly Catholic Northern workers and Bible Belt residents. Abortion advocates often emerged from what was believed to be the “conservative” party, the one that featured anti-Communism and talked about the “free market.” It was this party that the feminist cause conveniently rode until the Democrats moved sharply to the social left in the 1970s.
Since Republican PR people are eager to tell us about “the hidden history” of the Democratic Party, which is usually located in the distant past, perhaps they would like to illuminate this more recent dark chapter in Republican history. I won’t hold my breath until they do.