Abortion and Wokeness
Looking back on the Roe v. Wade era.
Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
October 1974 was the month I turned 18. It was also the date on the issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction containing Philip K. Dick’s unforgettable short story “The Pre-Persons.” An avid subscriber to F&SF, I’d spent much of my teens devouring science fiction, including such classics as Arthur C.Clarke’s “The Star,” and the moment I finished reading “The Pre-Persons” I knew that this powerful story, with its deeply disturbing message, would also would become a classic.
In 1973, the Supreme Court had ruled, in Roe v. Wade, that women possessed a fundamental right to an abortion. During the preceding years, many states had rolled back restrictions on the procedure, giving America some of the most liberal laws in the world in regard to the termination of pregnancy. In the wake of Roe v. Wade, which took things to a new level, “The Pre-Persons” imagined an America of the not-so-distant future in which, the Supreme Court’s logic having been taken just a bit further, children under twelve are considered “pre-persons” and can therefore, upon their parents’ request, be picked up by the “abortion truck” and euthanized.
At the beginning of the story, a twelve-year-old boy named Walter sees the “abortion truck” in his neighborhood and freaks out - only to be mocked by his mother, Cynthia, who reminds him that he’s too old to be aborted. Later, we learn that she longs to get pregnant so that she can get an abortion. "Wouldn't that be neat?” she asks her husband, Ian. “Doesn't that turn you on?...it's the in thing now, to have an abortion." Suddenly, Ian realizes what he’s married to. And when Walter comes to him for the comfort he didn’t get from Cynthia, Ian explains to him: “It's a certain kind of woman advocating this all. They used to call them 'castrating females.' Maybe that was once the right term, except that these women, these hard cold women, didn't just want to - well, they want to do in the whole boy or man, make all of them dead, not just the part that makes him a man. Do you see?"
At the time I read the story, I was pro-life. During his years as a hospital physician, my father had been obliged to perform abortions involving deformed fetuses and mothers at risk, but he hated abortion, and when I was young he described the procedure to me in all its graphic horror to ensure that I wouldn’t have any pretty liberal illusions about it. At the time I read “The Pre-Persons” I’d just started college, and not long afterwards, at a dormitory meeting that drew about a hundred students, the topic of abortion came up. When somebody asked for opponents of abortion to identify themselves, mine was the only hand to go up.
In the ensuing decade or so, I developed close friendships with several women and was surprised to learn that every last one of them had her own abortion story. They told me the details, which were uniformly harrowing. For each of these women, having an abortion had been an unforgettable trauma. I couldn’t blame any of them for the decisions they’d made. For a while, then, I was pro-choice. At the time, the pro-choice line was that abortion is always a solution of last resort that takes a devastating psychological toll on a woman. Bill Clinton, every woman’s friend, famously said in 1992 that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” For a long time, pro-choice advocates parroted him religiously.
But some more years went by, and the stigma of abortion disappeared almost entirely. I saw women having serial abortions, taking them very lightly indeed, and using them as birth control. Abortions began to be described routinely as “health care” - a reprehensible whitewash. Again, my views shifted. And as even more years went by, pro-choice rhetoric - already a patchwork of euphemism and equivocation, not to mention an utter denial of basic biology - moved ever further from reality and responsibility. The very term “pro-choice,” of course, is a dodge; a few days ago, amusingly, the House Pro-Choice Caucus made headlines (and won jeers) by suggesting that it’s time to retire the word “choice” - not because it’s a dodge, but because it’s not enough of a dodge. (As Planned Parenthood explained, some women just don’t have a choice.)
As for “safe, legal, and rare,” it disappeared some time ago into the mists of history. To say that abortion should be rare, noted Atlantic staffer Caitlin Flanagan in a 2019 article, implies that there’s something wrong with it - and these days the mere suggestion that there’s anything at all wrong with abortion is deeply offensive to, well, a certain kind of woman. “Today’s young feminists,” wrote Flanagan, “are determined to rid abortion of any lingering stigma, including the stigmatizing notion that it should be rare. They share their stories publicly and take part in a culture in which abortion is recognized and celebrated in stand-up comedy, television shows, movies.”
Case in point: actress Lena Dunham, star of the HBO series Girls, who was asked on a 2016 podcast to recount “her own abortion story.” She didn’t have one, poor thing. And she later explained that when the question came up, she perceived that she “was carrying within myself stigma around this issue….I had internalized some of what society was throwing at us….Now I can say that I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had.” In the same year, comedienne Natasha Leggero, who’d recently converted from Catholicism to Judaism, told Conan O’Brien in an interview that one of the pluses of being a Jew is that “abortions are cool.” She added: “I’m not saying I’m going to get an abortion, but it’s like AAA [The American Automobile Association]. You’re not going to use all those tows, but no, it’s just nice to know.”
The dictionary tells us that a woman is “an adult female person” and that a female, in turn, is “an individual that bears young.” Most women used to embrace their natural biological role. Whatever else a woman might do with her life, being a mother - for those who chose to become mothers - was viewed as the very essence of womanhood. It was the one thing women could do that men couldn’t. (This was before the era of “birthing persons.”) Even women who believed in a right to abortion under certain circumstances didn’t try to sidestep the fact that it amounted to the killing of a baby - an act that, they knew very well, should never be trivialized. Today’s woke mentality is utterly different. Woke women identify womanhood less with giving birth than with its exact opposite - with the absolute, inalienable right to have a baby vacuumed out of your womb, on command, at any point whatsoever during a pregnancy. The pride in one’s ability to bear a child has been widely replaced by a pride in one’s ability to kill it.
When it comes to the nuts and bolts details of abortion - the inconvenient truths, as it were - woke women manage to embrace the most extraordinary fictions. Feminist columnist Katha Pollitt doesn’t just deny that a fetus being killed is a human being; she considers such a contention intolerably offensive: “fetal personhood,” she says, “is maternal punishment.” (True enough, I guess, if a woman has pangs of conscience over having murdered her child.) Ethics professor Rebecca Gordon (who says that “choosing not to bring another resource-devouring, fossil-fuel-burning, carbon-dioxide-emitting American into the world might actually have been the most unselfish thing I’ve ever done”) dismisses “fetal heartbeat” - a thoroughly real phenomenon - as a term disingenuously applied by fanatical pro-lifers to “the throbbing of a millimeters-long collection of cells.” (Perhaps the silver lining to the cloud of Gordon’s abortion is that she’d obviously have been a horrible mother.)
A recent Facebook comment by a doctor named Rochelle Pudlowski Eissenstat provides an interesting contrast to the likes of Pollitt and Gordon. Eissenstat recalls that when she was a medical student she assisted at abortions. “Do you know what it feels like,” she asks, “to examine the little fragments of recognizable though tiny human beings[?] Hmmm, I see one femur here; but where’s the other one? These were first trimester abortions only back then. We had to make sure that no remnant was left in the uterus! AH, here’s the other part of the head! This was absolutely nightmarish.” In response, another woman on that Facebook threat told Eissenstat to “[s]top peddling this nonsense.” Alas, “deny, deny, deny” is the pro-choice mantra: if pro-choicers didn’t reflexively dismiss as “nonsense” the gruesome, candid testimony of people like Eissenstat, they probably wouldn’t be able to live with themselves.
Back in the days when more people went to church and took its rituals seriously, the baptism of one’s newborn child was a special moment. For many woke women today, the sacred aura that once surrounded baptism envelops abortion, and preserving one’s absolute right to an abortion - at any time, in any place - is as important, as precious, as having access to the sacraments is for a devout Christian. People used to tell anxious expectant mothers that having a baby was “the most natural thing in the world”; now, in the words of the “Shout Your Abortion” network, posted recently at the Nation website, “Abortion is normal. Our stories are ours to tell. This is not a debate.” (No, none of the left’s pet prevarications - whether about racism, say, or about gender identity - is ever up for debate, because if you confront these fantasies with facts, instead of assenting to them meekly, they’ll evaporate.)
Before Roe v. Wade, even states that permitted abortion restricted it after the second trimester. Ever since Roe v. Wade, it’s been a fundamental tenet of American leftist orthodoxy that perfect justice would require nothing short of universal, unlimited abortion rights on demand. By this logic, every restriction placed on abortion - however minimal by historical or international standards, and however reasonable and just when the fetus’s natural rights are taken into account - is perceived as sheer evil. What pro-choicers rarely acknowledge is that American abortion laws are, on average, considerably more liberal than those almost everywhere else on earth - a fact that won’t change appreciably after the Supreme Court decision takes effect.
Leftists love to compare America unfavorably with Europe. But In most of Europe, abortion is legal on request only during the first trimester. In Britain, it’s only permitted if necessary to save the mother’s life, prevent injury to her - or her children’s - health, or prevent the birth of a child with serious birth defects. (On May 10, the U.S.-based Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi ranted that American women’s civil rights were being wiped out - even though abortion laws in the U.S. will still be far more liberal than those in the U.K.) Seventeen European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, require waiting periods for women seeking abortions; in those three countries and several others, such women must undergo counseling. And in Andorra, Malta, and San Marino, abortion is illegal, period.
By contrast, in 19 U.S. states abortion is permitted up to the point of viability, while in Oregon, Vermont, New Jersey, Colorado, New Mexico, and Alaska, an abortion may be performed right up to the moment when a baby is about to be born. (The only European countries with comparable laws are Sweden and the Netherlands.) It’s been pointed out that some of these American laws would presumably allow a doctor to deliver a live baby and then let it die. Recall Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s enthusiastic promotion of a 2019 bill that would’ve permitted just that: “If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
Why all the rage, then, over the incipient and effectively all but meaningless overturning of Roe v. Wade? Because that Supreme Court decision has become a symbolic landmark in the history of the women’s rights movement, and a litmus test for leftism. Since half a century of euphemism and evasion has obscured the harsh reality of baby-killing, the issue can sometimes seem to have nothing at all to do with speculums and dilators and suction machines; like many other first-order left-wing dogmas - for example, the claims that whites are all oppressive racists and that a man becomes woman the moment he says he’s one - the sanctity of abortion rights seems oddly abstract, untethered from everyday reality. Which explains, I guess, how “reproductive justice advocate” Renee Bracey Sherman can say with a straight face that a “commitment to women’s abortion rights” is “profoundly life affirming.” Could anything be further from the truth, or from simple morality?