Analyzing the Antis
Reproduced from Abortion is a Blessing by Anne Nicol Gaylor.
THE ANTIABORTIONISTS like to proclaim that theirs is an ecumenical movement, and not predominantly Catholic. Although statistics on the composition of their various groups are not public information, anyone who reads their literature, subscribes to their national newspaper, or attends one of their state or national gatherings cannot avoid the impression that Catholics are running the show. At one meeting of a Wisconsin group, the members spent an hour discussing whether they should identify themselves as Catholics in the letters they wrote to newspapers. Opinion was sharply divided on divulgence of this important information, not because there were non-Catholics present but because one faction thought it bad P.R. to be identified as Catholics, while the other argued that being Catholic is "nothing to be ashamed of."
Whether or not the Catholic composition of the antiabortion movement is in doubt, one fact is not, and that is that the resistance to giving women the right to choose abortion is religious. When you scan lists of groups opposing abortion, you find all of them are religious in nature.
Organized religion has done great harm to women. The pervading put-down of women detectable throughout the Bible, the myth of Eve's sin, the ludicrousness of a virgin birth (as though there really were something wrong with ordinary sex)--all this has damaged women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who fought for women's equality in, the nineteenth century, said forthrightly: "The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women's emancipation." Another of her statements that has been widely quoted strikes a responsive chord with those exposed as children to dogmatic religions: "The memory of my own suffering has prevented me from ever shadowing one young soul with the superstitions of the Christian religion."
The desire of so many clergymen to keep women subservient, dependent, voiceless, is in itself an appalling commentary on both religion and male supremacy. Man has stood for so long with one foot on woman's neck that he finds he cannot stand up any other way. The posture is crippling.
Ostensibly we are a country devoted to the principle of separation of church and state, a principle that is germane to any discussion of abortion, because the conflict surrounding abortion is a conflict of the various beliefs on the beginning of life. There are obviously many beliefs about when life begins. Some people believe life starts at conception, others that life is present before conception and exists in the sperm and the egg. Some people believe life starts with movement of the fetus; the dictionary defines "quickening" as "to come alive." Others believe life starts with viability (capability of the fetus for independent survival). Still others think it starts with birth. One of the reasons abortion was so readily accepted by the Japanese was because the Shinto religion defines life as starting at birth.
Now, in a country which says church and state are separate, there should be room for all religious beliefs, particularly in areas of private concern where the public interest is not in question. The woman who believes life starts with conception should be free to carry through her prenancy, just as the woman who believes life starts with quickening should be free to terminate her pregnancy.
But with no abortion laws, say opponents, women will be asking for abortions at eight and a half months. Not so. A woman who does not want to be pregnant does not want to stay pregnant a day longer than she has to. Women who want abortions want them early, the earlier the better. Many choose menstrual extraction when it is available, opting for the procedure even before a urine test to confirm their pregnancy is valid. Fewer and fewer women are seeking abortions after three months, as early abortion becomes more readily available to them. The longer the antiabortionists continue to fight legal abortion, the longer there will continue to be late abortions, because it is lack of access to abortion that results in late abortion in many cases . Almost the only women asking for second trimester (four to six month inclusive) abortions, in areas where abortion can be found easily, are teen-agers who have been afraid to tell anyone they are pregnant, women with highly irregular periods who have no way of knowing they are pregnant, or women who think they are in menopause and discover it is pregnancy. A surprising number of women have periods after becoming pregnant and find, to their dismay, that they are four or five months pregnant rather than the two or three months they had calculated. Women who suspect they are carrying damaged fetuses cannot receive confirmation of this through amniocentesis until the fourth month of pregnancy, and do not have the option of choosing early abortion.
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In Wisconsin the shrill insistence of the Catholic Church that all Wisconsin must live by Catholic doctrine is particularly ironic, when one realizes that Catholic women are the major group seeking abortions in Wisconsin. In 1971 in a survey of 200 consecutive women referred by Madison ZPG, 54 per cent were Catholic. Edith Rein, formerly of Milwaukee and the founder of the Wisconsin Committee to Legalize Abortion, the first referral group in the state, reports 75 percent Catholic women referred over a four year period. Rev. Elinor Yeo of the Clergy Consultation Service in Milwaukee reports approximately 80 percent Catholic women referred in 1972 and 70 percent in 1973. The Catholic Church obviously cannot sell its ideas to its own people; what arrogance that it should attempt to impose these beliefs by law on others.
Instead of frantically attempting to bolster its fractured church by the same old pronouncements on the evils of contraception, sterilization, and abortion, the Catholic Church would be far more profitably and relevantly employed in asking itself: What have we done to our women? Why do so many Catholic women seek abortions?
The answers are obvious, of course. A woman brought up to regard contraception as sinful is far less apt to protect herself from an unwanted pregnancy than a woman who has been taught that contraception is intelligent. A Catholic woman is more apt to experiment with rhythm, one of the least effective methods of birth control. A Catholic woman is more apt to have been denied a tubal ligation by her Catholic physician in her Catholic hospital. She is more apt to seek abortion because she is worn out from childbearing, because she has had a baby every year until she is about to die from it.
Whenever I hear a Catholic priest condemning abortion, I remember the young woman whom I counseled extensively both before and after her abortion, who needed far more support than most of the women I refer. She had been impregnated by her priest.
The most unsuccessful birth control and abortion reform groups in this country have been led by those who say, "But what will people think if we criticize religion? We don't want to alienate our Catholic friends." It's a cop-out and a very serious one. When I first heard that the proabortion forces working to win the referendum in Michigan were not planning to utilize religious arguments in their battle, and were going to refrain scrupulously from any criticism of the Catholic Church, I shuddered. This is what the battle is all about. When the Catholic Church is trying to ram its doctrine down the throats of everyone in sight, you are not going to beat them off if you tiptoe around saying how nice they are.
The progress that has been brought about in women's rights, and birth control and abortion law reform, has been brought about despite the Catholic Church, not because of it. There is no point in our pretending that official Catholic views are enlightened and humane, or that Catholics are not different from anyone else. Catholics are different from others--they are quite willing to associate themselves with an organization that has done and continues to do an immense amount of damage to women, to families, to countries, and to the world. If the Catholic doctrines on sex (no contraception, no sterilization, no abortion) could prevail, all the world would be miserable instead of just some of it. All the world would be hungry. The world would end.
Repeatedly in my conversations with Catholics around the state of Wisconsin, I have urged those who have expressed sympathy with the contraception and abortion causes to start a "Catholics for the Right to Choose Abortion" or "Fond du Lac Catholics for Contraceptive Law Repeal." To a woman (or man), they have shuffled their feet, looked uncomfortable, and said, "Oh, I couldn't do that." When I say, "Well, at least quit giving money to your church and tell your priest why--no more money until these positions are changed," they reply, "Oh, but our priest is quite liberal." People like this are part of the problem; they are not part of the solution. They are totally unwilling to accept responsibility for the monstrous actions of their church.
If people had chosen to tiptoe around other harmful organizations, for example the Ku Klux Klan, and say, "Oh, they mean well; they're really nice people," the Klan would prosper. It is social disapproval and social pressure, as well as intellectual persuasion, that causes individuals to avoid groups or stop supporting them. If, through politeness, we smile and agree with our Catholic acquaintances that there are indeed many liberal Catholic priests, and, yes, hasn't the Church changed, they are going to keep on forking out the money and support that keeps the Catholic Church going, and buttresses its continued denial to women all over the world their right to practice contraception and have sterilizations and abortions.
Think of the millions of dollars the antiabortionists have already spent attempting to deny American women their right to choose abortion. Financial support for antiabortion candidates, full page ads in the country's most expensive newspapers, demonstrations, radio and television ads, books placed in libraries, films and slide shows, their own antiabortion newspaper--think of the good that money might have done. All over the world there are miserable, starving, needy Catholic children. Why, in the name of morality, aren't they helping children already born, rather than trying to force unwilling women to produce more unwanted children?
Think of the "Birthright" groups, those antiabortion counseling services that follow the lead of their mentors, the so-called "Right-to-Lifers." They, too, like to emphasize that they are not really Catholic groups, but ecumenical groups, and that is is sheer coincidence that so many of their offices are located on the premises of Catholic welfare organizations, such as homes for unwed mothers.
Another coincidence seems to be that Birthright, like the Catholic Church, opposes contraception and sterilization as well as abortion. Article 111, Section 2 of the Birthright Charter Document reads:
The Policy of every Birthright Chapter and everyone of its members and volunteers is all that chapter's efforts shall be to refrain in every instance from offering or giving advice on the subjects of contraception or sterilization, and to refrain from referring any person to another person, place or agency for this type of service.
No contraception, no sterilizations, no abortions--tell us, Birthright, what are women supposed to do?
But the real pity of the Birthright movement lies not in its attempts to conceal its Catholic pedigree, but in its conception as an antiabortion gesture--not out of concern for women, but because of adherence to religious doctrine. Had there been no freedom for women to choose abortion, there would have been no Birthright movement. The frightened pregnant woman who needed someone to turn to was always there. Birthright materialized and took an interest in her only when her right to choose abortion challenged sectarian belief.
Along about my two hundredth abortion referral, I became aware of a sort of refrain among the callers. "I asked my doctor for the pill, but he is Catholic and he won't help me." "I wanted a tubal ligation, but my doctor is Catholic and he wouldn't do it." "The specialist said not to have another baby or I might not live through it, but our hospital here is Catholic, and he couldn't do a ligation." Or, "After my last baby I wanted to go on the pill, but we're Catholic, and my husband wouldn't let me."
There is no way of assembling and evaluating the damage done to women, families, and society by the Catholic Church, but we can talk about it. Not to do so would be the equivalent of the emancipators of 120 years ago saying, "Oh, they own slaves, but they're nice people, so we won't say anything."
Birth control and abortion are our greatest steps forward in social and moral progress since we freed the slaves. A woman's right to control her own reproductive life is a blessing, a blessing for her and a blessing for society. There is no reason to be bashful or apologetic about supporting women's freedom to choose abortion; there is every reason to be ashamed of supporting a religion that opposes that freedom.
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