What Underlies the Debate about Abortion?

I was deeply disturbed by last year’s revealing back and forth between the ads from Friends Witness for a Pro-Life Peace Testimony and the many readers who wrote censorious letters to the editor outraged that the ads had been printed. I welcomed Rachel MacNair’s recent article about being pro-life and the Quaker Peace Testimony (“My Personal Journey on the Abortion Issue,” FJ Feb.), but I have some thoughts and queries for Friends on both sides of the debate.

This January I was in Washington, D.C., just after the March for Life, which annually mourns the R oe v. Wade decision. While near the Capitol I came upon a leaflet on the ground that reminded me perfectly why, as a sex educator, a Christian, a feminist, and a Quaker, I still vehemently support, advocate, and fight for the right to abortion for women who need it.

The leaflet, “An Appeal for Insistence,” is a tri-fold from the organization The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property that goes by the acronym TFP:

Thus, pro-abortion radicals understand all too well what is at stake. Take abortion away and the whole edifice of the sexual revolution comes crashing to the ground. Loose permissive relationships will no longer be possible. People will be forced to deal with their sexuality in the manner which nature prescribes— namely traditional marriage.

It is my belief that the people like MacNair who earnestly believe that abortion is an unacceptable violence are being used by groups whose real goal— as frankly stated in the above quote and echoed by other, far more mainstream organizations such as Focus on the Family—is to undo the sexual revolution and return women in the U.S., who have enjoyed greater social gains in the last 50 years than ever in history, to a system in which unintended pregnancy is a dire consequence of nonmarital sex and the only acceptable place for women is as wives of men.

For some women unintended pregnancy continues to be such a punishment. Women in the United States, particularly those who are poor, still do not have universal access to contraceptive and other health services that could prevent pregnancy and thereby render abortion mostly unnecessary. As a sex educator, 95 percent of the work I do is focused around preventing unwanted outcomes from sex—pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, assault, etc.—but abortion is always there, a specter on the horizon, the nuclear option for when all else fails.

In Texas, where I work as a sex educator at the state’s flagship university, I daily encounter the sinister effects of abstinenceonly “education” programs, which, by the way, are also produced by organizations whose explicit goals are to reverse the sexual revolution and the gains women have made as a result, hiding behind such language as “changing the culture” around sex. Friends, what they mean when they say “change the culture” is to return us to a time when unwed women who became pregnant had three choices: shotgun marriage, social banishment, or dangerous, illegal abortion. I have read too many stories of back-alley procedures and young women sent away to “maternity homes” where, at the end of their pregnancies, they would be sedated, restrained, and their newborn babies taken from them before they ever had a chance to see him or her, to cede an inch to that kind of talk. If that is the “culture change” that pro-life organizations want, then, to paraphrase the famously pro-life Sarah Palin, “Thanks but no thanks.”

The student body at the university where I work is more than 50-percent female. Increasing numbers of professional schools, including law and medical schools, are more than half women. The opportunities now available to women exist precisely because women can control their fertility. Access to contraceptives—and, for some, abortion—is essential to women’s equality and a basic human right.

As a Christian, feminist Quaker I cannot abide any national policy that has the effect of controlling women’s lives. That is not my Peace Testimony. MacNair may not realize this, but the men behind the curtain on this issue want to control women and their sexuality. Since R oe v. Wade, use of contraception has increased, and abortion, unplanned pregnancy, and rape have all decreased. Allowing women to control their own bodies gives them agency, and the changing indicators above prove that things for women are better when we are in charge.

Susan B. Anthony, a Quaker feminist routinely valorized by Feminists for Life, with which MacNair is also associated, said the following in her speech “Social Purity,” in 1875: “The work of woman is not to lessen the severity or the certainty of the penalty for violation of the moral law [referring to abortion and infanticide], but to prevent this violation by the removal of the causes which lead to it” (quoted in The American Feminist, Spring 1998).

My query to MacNair—and to the well-meaning Quakers who objected to the ads she placed in FJ last year—is: What are we, as Friends, doing to remove the social and systemic violence women face that denies them vital options and as a result forces them to turn to abortion? Efforts to re-criminalize abortion will not “protect innocent life” and that is not their goal; they trap and punish women who dare to set and achieve goals outside of the framework of “traditional marriage.”

Anthony, as well as Lucretia Mott and many of our Quaker foremothers before them, fought long and hard for women to have the opportunities we have today. Contraception and abortion are a part of the picture. We cannot stop abortion but we, as Friends, can work to reduce women’s need for it by advocating for comprehensive sex education, universal access to healthcare that includes contraceptives, and teaching our own youth. I agree with Anthony and Stanton about our work, and we have it cut out for us—but it is not only the work of women; it is the work of all Friends.

Guli Fager

Guli Fager is a member of Austin (Tex.) Meeting. She works as the Healthy Sexuality Education Coordinator at University of Texas at Austin and developed the FGC workshop "Healthy Sexuality as Quaker Testimony." She blogs about sex and sexual health under the name Julie Sunday at http://thisisgotogirl.com.