Protecting the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church
Freethought Radio

Coping With the Antis: Questions and Answers


Reproduced from Abortion is a Blessing by Anne Nicol Gaylor.


THE SHRILLNESS OF THE antiabortion clamor in this country has not lessened with the United States Supreme Court decision in 1973. Those opposed to a woman's right to choose abortion, primarily members of the Catholic Church and various fundamentalist sects, have announced that their ultimate goal is the overthrow of the decision through constitutional amendment. In the meantime, their strategy is to weaken its impact through the passage of unconstitutional bills at the state and national level, which then must go through the long, laborious process of challenge in the courts.

That the antiabortion forces have numbers and money is not in doubt. They have lobbying offices in Washington D.C., and a national monthly newspaper devoted entirely to antiabortion news. They have had the resources to publish antiabortion books and place them in tens of thousands of schools and libraries, to run full page "fetus ads" in newspapers across the country, and to finance public relations gimmickry such as smothering the Capitol in roses signifying "lost lives"--embryonic lives, naturally, not women's lives. Their demonstrations at state capitals and in Washington D.C. have drawn substantial crowds. The various antiabortion bills and riders, especially those in the restriction of physicians' access to public and private hospitals for purposes of performing abortions and sterilizations, have been somewhat successful.

But their blitz, the big fight, the passage through Congress of an amendment to the Federal constitution to ban abortions, has made only noise, not progress. And hopefully it will continue to spin its wheels, as more individuals and groups speak out on behalf of the right to choose abortion.

Every day that abortion is legal and available in this country new adherents are gained for its continued legality. All Americans, including antiabortionists, have been able to see for themselves that abortion can become a private decision for a woman and her physician, and the world does not fall apart; in fact, it becomes a healthier, kinder, saner, less punitive place. Most counselors, social workers, clergypersons, or members of the medical community who finally deal firsthand with the reality of abortion become quiet converts. That we could return to the useless devastation of women's lives that was the norm before abortion availability seems unthinkable now.

But no freedom ever comes easily, nor is it retained without constant vigilance. Women must work to protect and extend their right to choose abortion. Pendulums swing and the swing toward women's rights could be countered, unless groups supporting women's freedom make it clear once and for all that a woman's uterus is not a political football.

Advocates of the right to choose abortion have too often allowed their opponents' tactics of distortion to go unchallenged. Chronically, antiabortionists represent abortion as involving an elephantine fetus about to walk and talk, when, in truth, the typical abortion has more in common with a menstrual period. With outrageous disregard for truth, antiabortionists have been allowed to portray an embryo or fetus as a person, while the story of the real person involved, the only person involved--the woman who has an abortion--has gone untold. Almost every grass-roots community in America has had the opportunity to see the antiabortionists' distorted, inaccurate, gory slide presentations. Few have had the chance to see a suction abortion performed although these medical movies are available. (See Appendix D.)

Education, of course, is the answer. The antiabortionists have been allowed to blur the picture but when the focus clears, the legality of abortion will remain secure. Had the proponents of legal abortion had the access to money, to schools and churches, and to the media that the antis have had, the only proponents of a ban on abortions in this country today would be those zealots who oppose not only abortion but contraception, and in the final analysis, sex itself.

Since the controversy goes on, it may be useful to review some talking points in coping with the zealots. In fielding questions on abortion on talk shows and before civic, school and church groups, I have found the antis' questions fall into patterns. Here are some typical questions with answers that worked for me.

QUESTION: How can your group condone abortion when it is murder?

Obviously we do not regard abortion as murder. We do not equate an embryo or fetus with a human being. While we recognize that there is everything in a human embryo to produce a person, we know that substantial growth and development are necessary before any person exists. In reality everyone does distinguish between potential and actual existence. You do not insist, for example, that an acorn is an oak tree. If someone drives over an acorn in your yard, you do not rush out and exclaim, "Why did you destroy my oak tree?" Yet there is everything in an acorn to produce an oak tree except growth and development. You do not insist that the egg you ate for breakfast was a chicken, yet a fertilized egg has everything in it to produce a chicken except growth and development. If you go to the store to buy apples and are given a handful of seeds, you will not pay for apples, even though the storekeeper might argue correctly that indeed apple seeds do produce apples. Just as blueprints are not a completed building, so a human fertilized egg is not a person. A conceptus, an embryo or fetus is potential life. Birth makes babies and a great deal of growth and development must go on before a fetus can sustain life, other than parasitically.

At the end of the second month of development, and most abortions in the United States are performed before the end of the second month, an embryo is approximately an inch in length and weighs one- thirtieth of an ounce. To say that this embryo in its primitive development is a human being is an affront to honesty. Think for a moment what you would do with such an embryo if you had one. You could not rock it, or feed it, or sing to it. All that you could do would be to put it on the shelf because it is an embryo; it is not a baby. It is potential life; it is not a human being.

QUESTION: I have talked to lots of people who say abortion isn't really legal? Is abortion legal?

Yes! On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court, by ruling oppressive Texas and Georgia abortion statutes unconstitutional, legalized abortion across the country.

Although abortion may not be available in every state, it is legal in every state. The only regulation a state may make about abortion in the first three months is to require that it be done by a licensed physician. For the second three months of pregnancy, a state may, if it wishes, say abortions must be performed in hospitals, or similarly regulate conditions protecting the health of the woman. Only in the final three months of pregnancy may abortion be prohibited by state law, and even in that period a woman may have an abortion to protect her life or health.

Don't let any antiabortionist tell you differently!

QUESTION: How can you support abortion when that unborn child that is murdered might turn out to be another Beethoven or Shakespeare?

While it is possible that an aborted embryo or fetus might have turned out to be another Beethoven or Shakespeare, it is equally possible it might have turned out to be another Genghis Khan, another Adolf Hitler. As one proponent of abortion has so aptly said, the overwhelming chances are that it would have turned out to be just another Joe Blow. It is possible to speculate endlessly about what might have happened, about the nonexistent.

In our world of almost four billion persons, it is highly probable that a Beethoven or Shakespeare already exists who will never see a piano or learn to read, because the child lives in a Chicago ghetto or Manila slum or Rio de Janiero favela. The potential of millions of children already born will never be realized because of malnutrition, illness, and poverty. Antiabortionists, in their obsession with the quantity of life, ignore the quality of life. Their consuming concern for embryos rarely is paralleled by a concern for children already born.

QUESTION: You say a woman should be able to make this decision for herself. Why shouldn't the father be able to say whether or not an abortion can be done? After all, the child belongs to him, too, doesn't it?

We believe no woman should have to bear a child she does not want. Compulsory pregnancy compounds problems; it does not solve them. We are against enforced pregnancy no matter who is doing the enforcing whether it is the state, the church, or an individual man.

From a practical point of view, if a couple does not agree on something as basic and important as having a child, what kind of parents are they going to be? What kind of marriage must they have? At best, they are going to produce a half-wanted child.

And why shouldn't pregnancy be a woman's decision when she contributes so much more to the pregnancy than does the man? An ejaculation, which takes a few seconds, can not be equated fairly with nine months of gestation, and delivery. You must remember that pregnancy is not much fun. For many women, by the time they have quit vomiting they have started to bulge, and the whole process can be nine months of acute discomfort.

If a woman produced one or two eggs in her lifetime then what happened to those eggs would be of great concern, not only to her, but to society. But she doesn't produce one or two eggs, she produces about 400 mature eggs. Obviously they can't all become persons. Clearly society can afford to let her determine for herself which eggs she sees through to personhood.

QUESTION: I can see abortion in cases of rape or incest or if there is a strong possibility that a fetus is retarded or deformed but if some sixteen-year-old tart goes out and gets herself pregnant, why should she be able to have an abortion?

She should have an abortion because no sixteen-year old girl should have to bear a child. No woman, regardless of age or circumstances, should be forced to have a baby. You are viewing pregnancy and the consequent birth of a baby as punishment. What a wretched reason for a baby to be born! A teen-aged girl who becomes pregnant has a legitimate claim to anyone's sympathy, to any doctor's help. She is physically immature, mentally immature, insolvent, unhappy, her education incomplete. What sense does it make to compel her to become a mother when the safe, simple alternative of abortion is available?

QUESTION: Won't abortion mean fewer and fewer babies to adopt in this country?

Perhaps, and hallelujah! No woman should have to turn herself into a breeding machine so somebody else can adopt a child. A scarcity of babies to adopt means that so many of the formerly unadoptable-- the older children, the black children, the mixed race children, the children with handicaps--are finding homes. Also, there is new pressure to ease the ludicrous restrictions on intercountry adoptions. There are literally millions of homeless children in the world; there are also artificial, bureaucratic barriers keeping them and potential parents apart.

In relation to adoption, it is valuable to contrast our attitudes toward adoptive and natural parents. For years we have insisted that adoptive parents be not too old or too young, that they have stable personalities and even stabler incomes, that they supply references, that they survive group and individual in-depth interviews as to their suitability for parenthood. Yet, on the other hand, we have forced the thirteen-year-old girl, the mother worn out from childbearing, the penniless woman and the woman who is ill--all of whom did not want to be pregnant, none of whom could have got a foot in the door of an adoption agency--to continue pregnancies and to become parents. How ludicrous that we should maintain such lofty standards for parenthood on the one hand, and have absolutely no standards at all on the other.

QUESTION: Doesn't abortion make women sterile?

No. Improperly performed abortions may result in cervical damage, sterilization, or even death. But properly performed abortions, especially those done in early pregnancy using a local anesthetic and a suction aspirator, are very safe, several times safer for a woman than childbirth. (In 1973 the death rate for women in childbirth in the U.S. was 14/100,000, for abortion 3/100,000. The death rate for first trimester abortion was 2/100,000. Death rates can be expected to decline still further when physicians become more skilled at abortion techniques.)

QUESTION: Don't most people object to the legalizing of abortion? Doesn't the referendum in Michigan prove this?

Most of the polls done in 1974 show the country about evenly divided on the issue, with those persons favoring legal abortion a few percentage points ahead.

Antiabortionists love to refer to the 1972 Michigan referendum, in which a proposition to legalize abortion was defeated 61-39 per cent, but that particular referendum probably only proves that the Catholic Church has a lot of money. A comparison is useful here. In one of the western states a few years ago a modified ban on cans was proposed and went out to referendum. Polls showed that an overwhelming percentage of the state's voters would favor the referendum and wished to put an end to the waste of basic materials and the unsightliness of scattered cans. Then those who objected to the can-ban got busy. They launched an expensive public-relations campaign deliberately designed to cause apprehension, inferring a can-ban might mean a recession in the state's economy and a consequent loss of jobs. In the end the can-ban, whose backers had spent a small sum, failed.

In Michigan early polls showed 56 per cent of the voters favored legalization of abortion. Opponents, who hired an advertising agency, staged a three-week blitz before the referendum, saturating television throughout the state with antiabortion commercials. As an example of their diligence, they came over to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to place commercials, since Green Bay serves some of the upper peninsula of Michigan. Gory and inaccurate brochures found their way to almost every one's door; one woman reported receiving thirteen pieces by mail and personal delivery. The Catholic Church used its tax-exempt machinery openly for the political purpose of helping defeat a referendum, and of course it won. (Detroit Free Press, March 4, 1973) Tyranny is always better organized than freedom.

The lesson to be learned from the Michigan referendum is that advertising campaigns, especially when they are inaccurate, blitz campaigns that are not countered, may sway voters.

It is of questionable constitutionality, of course, to put individual rights out to referendum. It's as undemocratic as letting Alabama and Mississippi decide whether blacks should vote. Basic human rights, including a woman's right to control her own reproductive life, are guaranteed by the Constitution. They are not to be decided by popular referenda or church edicts or male legislatures.

* * * *

Since I have spoken quite widely in Wisconsin on the abortion issue, people who will be participating themselves in formal discussions or debates on abortion frequently call me, wanting pointers on fielding questions or handling cross fire. Besides touching on the material already discussed in this chapter, I suggest the following:

Challenge your opponent's vocabulary. The arguments and materials used by antiabortionists are quite predictable, and to a man or woman, they will use the same vocabulary. All embryos are "children" to them, all women are "mothers," and all men are "fathers." Challenge them! Point out that an embryo or fetus is just that; it is not a "child." Let your opponent and your audience know that a pregnant woman is not a "mother" unless she now has, or has had, a living child. Likewise a man who has impregnated a woman is not necessarily a "father"; he is more apt to be a sperm depositor. Remind them that abortion is not ,"murder"--it is a legal, medical procedure--and that slander and libel laws exist to protect persons unjustly accused of advocating murder.

Euphemisms are not honest, and there is no need to accept your opponent's estimate of him or herself as a "right-to-lifer." Those who oppose abortion are not "right-to-lifers," they are antiabortionists or compulsory-pregnancy people. Those who adhere to the pure Catholic doctrine, and do not believe in abortion even to save a woman's life (and there are a surprising number of these on the speaking circuit), quite properly can be described as being against the right to life for women. Remind your audience that before abortion was legalized in the United States, many thousands of women were admitted every year to hospitals for care after botched abortions, and another 300 women died each year from backstreet or self-induced abortions. (The statistics game is a difficult one to play regarding abortion, because prior to its legality there were few firm figures available. In 1960, for example, 300 death certificates in the U.S. carried abortion as the cause of death, according to the Population Institute of New York City. However, because of the stigma attached to abortion and to outof-wedlock pregnancy, it is logical to assume that many deaths from abortion went unreported as such, and were attributed to other causes, such as peritonitis. Data from the National Health Survey further indicate large numbers of illegal abortions reflected in hospital admissions, for women needing medical care as a result of interrupted pregnancies. Although these figures are not broken down and include spontaneous abortions, therapeutic abortions, and induced abortions, there were 358,000 such admissions in 1965, a figure that fell to 282,000 by 1971, when legal abortions were becoming regionally available.) Anyone wanting to return women to that situation does not respect life.

If your opponent uses graphic aids, use yours, too. If you are consenting to take the proabortion side of a discussion or debate, be sure you know the ground rules. If pictures, slides or films are being used by the opposition, get some of your own. If gory pictures are what is on the agenda, then go prepared with your own pictures of women dead from botched abortions, of deformed fetuses, beaten babies, and starving children.

Two short, informative films that are excellent aids in presentations are "Women Who've Lived Through Illegal Abortions" and "Aspiration Abortion." (See Appendix D, "What You Can Do" for details.)

Zero in on punitive attitudes. If you have hostile people in your audience, questions will quite often have a punitive twist. Plan to pounce on them. The question quoted earlier: "If some sixteen-year-old tart goes out and gets her self pregnant. . ." is a typical example of this--there's one like that in every audience. You will make points with your listeners when you note that a sixteen-year-old probably isn't a tart, that this may have been a first sexual experience or a forced sexual experience, that she obviously did not get herself pregnant, and that she needs an abortion, not the punishment of enforced pregnancy. "Why punish?" is a question I keep asking, and it is a question hostile people need to hear. Some religions bolster punitive attitudes in their followers. They preach tolerance, forgiveness, and understanding, but what comes through on the abortion issue is: "If she plays, she pays." Wanting people to be punished seems to be an old Christian habit.

Don't be afraid to show emotion if you feel emotional. It's warranted. Your opponent in most cases will be an individual who wants to deny abortion to any woman-to victims of rape, to child victims of incest, to women worn out from childbearing, to women who are ill, and even to women who may die if they are not aborted. Getting emotional in debates about tax structures may seem insincere; getting emotional about a woman's right to have an abortion is an inevitable reaction.

Don't be apologetic. Remember that no one has ever suggested a law compelling a woman to have an abortion. The premise you defend is that NO WOMAN SHOULD BE DENIED AN ABORTION BECAUSE OF THE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OF OTHER PEOPLE.


Back to the Table of Contents.