The first shot in the feminist abortion wars was fired in 1969 in a New York City Health Department auditorium, where a panel of male psychologists, doctors, clergy, and lawyers (and one woman, a Sister Mary Patricia) debated exceptions to New York’s law forbidding abortion. They were discussing whether a woman should be allowed to have an abortion if her health was in danger, or if she had been raped, or if she had already given birth to four children.
A shout came up from a woman in the audience: “Now let’s hear from the real experts on abortion!” Then, “Repeal the abortion law, instead of wasting more time talking about these stupid reforms!” Then, “We’ve waited and waited while you have held one hearing after another. Meanwhile, the baby I didn’t want is two years old!” More women stood to object and testify. “Why are fourteen men and only one woman on your list of speakers—and she a nun?” The committee members “stared over their microphones in amazement,” wrote Edith Evans Asbury in the New York Times. The chair tried to shush the women, arguing that everyone was really on the same side: “You’re only hurting your own case.”
But they weren’t on the same side. One side wanted to reform the abortion law yet still maintain control of women by restricting who could access an abortion and determining under what circumstances they could do that and when. This side is codified in Supreme Court decisions starting with Roe v. Wade that base their arguments around privacy and not freedom, strengthened by laws restricting abortion, and reinforced every time someone makes an argument that abortion should be legal because “what about rape, incest, and cancer?” On the other side were women who wanted to repeal the abortion law completely, the women who wanted full reproductive liberty. This is an opposition that continues to this day.
This book argues that the other side, the argument from women’s liberation, was a winning strategy, and could be again. It was massive feminist mobilizations, fueled by women publicly discussing what was once secret and stigmatized, that won us the abortion rights we have. The movement brought hundreds of thousands into the streets, won abortion on demand in New York State, and in just four years forced a reluctant Supreme Court to legalize most abortions across the country. How did they do it?
That day in 1969, the women distributed a flyer:
We say, the only real experts on abortion are women! Women who have known the pain, fear and socially-imposed guilt of an illegal abortion. Women who have seen their friends dead or in agony from a post-abortion infection. Women who have had children by the wrong man, at the wrong time, because no doctor would help them. Any woman can tell you: Abortion laws are sexist laws, made by men to punish women . . . Support Constance Cook’s bill, repeal all abortion laws. —Women’s Liberation Movement.
Kathie Sarachild, who led off the disruption, recalled:
We were counseled that to oppose abortion reforms—to press for . . . total repeal of abortion laws was asking too much, but we just knew that we didn’t want to fight at all if it wasn’t going for what we really want—that abortion reform was just more insult and humiliation for women.
The disruption continued for thirty minutes. Finally the chair moved the hearing to another room and locked out the public. The women who started the disruption, an action group within New York Radical Women that would soon take the name Redstockings, decided to hold their own hearing, with women testifying about their illegal abortions and forced childbearing.
The 1969 Redstockings Abortion Speakout, the first ever, broke the silence around abortion—the secrecy born of illegality and the self-blame that resulted when women never even told each other about their abortions. “Twelve young women faced an audience of more than 300 men and women and with simplicity and calm and occasional emotion and even humor told of incidents in their personal lives which they formerly had consigned to the very private,” Susan Brownmiller reported in the Village Voice.
One woman testified:
When I had [the abortion] I thought I was the lowest of the low... To find out that my mother, that my cousins, that people I was close to, had abortions, helped me more than most of the therapy that I had to go through... I’m sure there are women sitting out here right now who are feeling the same thing that I’m feeling. So stand up, do something!
Irene Peslikis, one of the testifiers, recalled later, “All of a sudden there were a whole bunch of women telling the truth about abortion. Finally! Finally! We were saying, yeah, we did it, we had it, and we want our rights. We want to have legal free abortion.”
The speak-out was a public version of the consciousness-raising that women’s liberation groups had already been doing for a year and a half. Using a method they adapted from the Southern Civil Rights Movement’s “Tell It Like It Is” sessions, women went around the room and told each other the truth about their lives, their pain, their secrets, and their hopes. They discovered that their “personal problems” were shared by many other women.
Peggy Dobbins recalled later, “If you spoke your personal experience, you discovered it was shared. If it was shared, it was social. And if it was social, it was political. And if it was political, you could do something about it.” This realization led to the slogan “The personal is political,” a phrase meaning that things that seem to be personal struggles in fact have political roots and solutions. Perhaps nothing seemed more personal and secret than abortion. These women made abortion public and political.
The speak-out approach also inspired a new grassroots legal strategy on abortion. While previously the focus had been on creating exceptions to the law, such as rape or a health crisis, the new strategy was to overturn all laws restricting abortion. Diane Schulder and Florynce Kennedy said the speak-out “triggered the idea in our minds to have women testify as women and as experts in the federal case to attack the constitutionality of the abortion law.” When these feminist lawyers sued to overturn the law, they defied legal models that focused on the rights of doctors to practice without interference, instead basing their challenge on the experiences of women. They held public depositions in which women spoke of their abortions and forced childbearing. New York’s district attorney complained of a circus.
Gloria Steinem, then a moderately known journalist, also attended that first speak-out. She wrote: “Suddenly, I was no longer learning intellectually what was wrong. I knew. I had had an abortion when I was newly out of college, and had told no one.” In a flash, the personal became political for her.
The abortion reform movement (as opposed to repeal) had bumped along for decades trying to encourage public discussion of abortion. “They spent a lot of time debating with priests about When Life Begins, and Which Abortions Are Justified,” wrote feminist abortion strategist Lucinda Cisler in 1970. “They were mostly doctors, lawyers, social workers, clergymen, professors, writers and a few were just plain women—usually not particularly feminist.” They drafted model reform laws, creating narrow exceptions to criminal codes that banned all abortions, and they had won such reforms in ten states by 1970.
But, Cisler wrote, part of the reason the reform movement was very small was that it appealed mostly to altruism and very little to people’s self-interest: the circumstances covered by “reform” are tragic but they affect very few women’s lives, whereas repeal is compelling because most women know the fear of unwanted pregnancy and in fact get abortions for that reason... It is the women’s movement whose demand for repeal—rather than reform—of abortion laws has spurred the general acceleration in the abortion movement and its influence.
Cisler’s group, New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal, put out its own model law, a blank page, to show the difference between reform and repeal. Abortion should be treated like any other medical procedure, women’s liberationists argued, it should fall under no special law restricting when, where, how, why, or by whom it is performed. Because the reform proposals helped few women, there was no mass movement to push for them. The women’s liberation movement was the mass movement that was needed for a breakthrough, and after it arose, victories came in quick succession. Not just Roe in 1973 but similar breakthroughs allowed abortion on demand in Denmark (1973), Tunisia (1973), Sweden (1974), France (1975), Austria (1975), Italy (1978), Norway (1978) and laws were liberalized in Great Britain (1967), Zambia (1972), West Germany (1976), and Israel (1977).
Additionally, the fact that all the socialist bloc countries had made elective abortion available by the 1950s put helpful pressure on the capitalist world. In the middle of Cold War competition over which political system represented true emancipation, women from the “free world” were fleeing behind the iron curtain to Poland, where they could obtain abortions for $10.
While the reverberations were echoing worldwide—Scandinavian feminists named their movement Redstockings—back in the United States by the mid-1970s, feminist gains slowed, then started to unravel, as radical leaders were picked off and the movement was pushed back into safe channels. For example, two years after Gloria Steinem’s revelation at the speak-out, she set up Ms. magazine with a million-dollar grant from Warner Communications. She would use the publication as a platform to redirect the movement toward less radical goals. Those actually responsible for the changes became invisible. The history taught by the time I was in high school was one of an enlightened Supreme Court changing the law, while the women who actually caused the changes were never mentioned.
I recall this history because we are often told that what we need in the abortion fight is a professional approach, a clever legal strategy, expensive polling research, a polished public relations campaign, and plenty of donations to groups that do these things. But these recommendations lead us back to emphasizing worst-case scenarios (rape, incest, health crises); privacy and the relationship between patient and doctor; and the use of confusing euphemisms to avoid the word “abortion.” They replay the efforts of professionals in the 1950s and ’60s reform movement, and have produced similarly meager results. It was the women’s liberation repeal strategy that won us the gains we have, and when it was abandoned, we started to go backward.
We now face extraordinary obstacles. The rate of unintended births in the United States is twice that of countries with good access to abortion and birth control. The biggest problem is price. Medicaid won’t cover abortion in most states, hitting low-wage workers and the unemployed the hardest. Then there is a long list of state restrictions: There are waiting periods and required ultrasounds, which require more time and drive up the price. Clinics are few and far between due to laws designed to put them out of business and restrict the supply of doctors. Six states have only one remaining abortion clinic. Most states have parental consent or notification laws. In some states, doctors are forced to read antiabortion scripts that lie to women, telling them abortion increases their risk of breast cancer, suicide, or infertility. Then there are fake clinics run by antiabortion zealots, designed to look like medical facilities to confuse women, now receiving public funds in fourteen states. Pill abortions are walled up behind FDA restrictions, which make them just as expensive and inconvenient as a surgical abortion. Contrast this to Canada, where abortion is free at any stage of pregnancy through the country’s national health care system.
As this thicket of restrictions has put reproductive rights further out of reach, mainstream discussion of abortion has again focused on that “other” woman, the one with cancer, or the one who was raped. Once again, professional experts are devising the strategy for preserving what little we have left of abortion rights. All too often, their arguments are apologetic and downplay the central role of abortion and birth control in women’s freedom. Here are some leading arguments that aren’t helping.
Unhelpful argument #1: “Abortion is about individual choice.” This removes abortion from the realm of political power and narrows it to an individual decision. “Choice” loses the deep feminist truth that women must be able to determine the use of their reproductive organs. Abortion and birth control constitute women’s right to refuse to do reproductive labor in the face of bad reproductive working conditions, like lack of affordable childcare, health care, and paid leave. Secondly, “Choice is not a compelling vision. It’s not the vision needed to mobilize the kind of movement capable of winning clear and consistent victories,” writes Loretta Ross of the reproductive justice organization SisterSong. Most important, “choice” is used to back away from the word “abortion.” As this book will argue, hiding our demands is a losing strategy.
Unhelpful argument #2: “Abortion is not birth control.” This is designed to make women sound like they surely are very good girls, avoiding abortion at all costs, and that abortion is a regrettable last resort. But three in ten women have abortions, so it’s hardly an emergency measure or even an unusual situation. A testifier at a recent consciousness-raising session in New York said, I work at [an abortion provider]. There’s a thing I hear a lot: “Abortion is not birth control.” Fuck you—yes it is. Why not? Why wouldn’t it be? It’s one of the safest procedures, one of the most common. It’s a patient’s choice. The NuvaRing doesn’t work for people. The IUD hurts. You have a lot of options. Why not choose abortion? In medical theory, if anything, it is the most directly true birth control that exists.
Throughout history, abortion and birth control have been restricted together and freed together. Courts and legislatures certainly think abortion is birth control; that’s why they seek to restrict both. And for women’s freedom, abortion and contraceptives have the same result.
Unhelpful argument #3: “Abortion is a matter between a woman and her doctor—legislatures should not intervene.” This assumes women have a doctor as opposed to a string of one-time encounters with various medical personnel. And it ignores that doctors have a long, unsavory record of coercing women to have children they don’t want by refusing abortions—and conversely, of sterilizing women against their will, especially women of color. It was medical doctors who first pushed to outlaw abortion in the nineteenth century to put their competition—midwives and lay practitioners—out of business. And when a court vacated the abortion law in the District of Columbia in 1969, not a single doctor except the individual who challenged the law was willing to perform abortions. In California, hospital boards made up of doctors kept women from getting abortions when that law was loosened. Historically, doctors have had too much say. The brave doctors who have fought for abortion rights, and who provide abortions today, are exceptions, not the rule. Doctors may be allies or enemies, but they certainly aren’t partners in our decisions about abortion.
Unhelpful argument #4: “Abortion is our right to privacy.” It was not feminists but the US Supreme Court that used the idea of a privacy right in the Constitution to loosen laws against contraceptives in 1965, and then applied this to abortion in Roe v. Wade eight years later. The women’s liberation movement never made an argument based on privacy. On the contrary, feminist activists found that it was necessary to break the taboo on discussing abortion in order to make it a public issue and a political demand. Appealing for our rights on the basis of privacy assumes abortion is something to be hidden. Feminists have countered this over the years not just with speak-outs but also with T-shirts stating “I had an abortion,” and “Shout Your Abortion,” a social media campaign started in 2015. Abortion stigma is designed to keep abortion a shameful secret. The answer is to tell the truth about our abortions publicly, as Irish feminists did with great success in their 2018 referendum.
Unhelpful argument #5: “Abortion is not political—legislators should stop ‘politicizing’ abortion.” This is the logical result of the previous positions: Abortion should not be political but personal. But political means “about power,” and few things are so much about power as the ability to control your reproduction.
Indeed, we should make it more political, to expose that abortion is about power rather than denying that it is. Making the seemingly personal political has been an essential women’s liberation strategy. We gain when we expose that there are competing interests at stake and what they are. If we are to win full access, it will be a political struggle, based on the power of women versus those who want to control our reproductive organs. And it won’t just be a few brilliant women making a smart legal argument. A successful struggle will require women to unite as a collective force along with anyone else who is willing to join our side against reproductive tyranny.
Jenny Brown was a leader in the fight to get the morning-after pill over the counter in the US and a plaintiff in the winning lawsuit. She is co-author of the Redstockings book Women’s Liberation and National Health Care: Confronting the Myth of America. While editor at Labor Notes magazine, she coauthored How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers. She writes, teaches, and organizes with the feminist group National Women’s Liberation and is the author of Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work.
Excerpted from Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now by Jenny Brown, on sale October 1 from Verso Books. Reprinted with permission.