Democracy Under Assault
Theopolitics, Incivility and Violence on the Right

Michele Swenson

Apocrypha and other Distortions Surrounding Abortion
Abortion was legal when the Constitution was written
The Catholic Church and Abortion — Opponents of contraception have the highest rates of abortion

Re-circulated apocrypha on the right holds that rape victims cannot become pregnant from rape - a falsehood resurrected by 1998 Arkansas Republican Senate candidate Fay Boozman (an eye surgeon). The pernicious lie that "fear prevents ovulation" conveniently blames women for their own abuse - another conceit that has historically protected perpetrators and oppressors.

Because it is much easier to sensationalize the issue of abortion, the right have largely sidestepped the issue of contraception - central to the debate about making abortion "rare." The ultimate intent of the religious right was expressed in the ‘80s by Nellie Gray, who called contraception "murder" because it "prevents the sperm from meeting the egg." Gray has been relegated to the background of the abortion debate because her arguments ring so extreme to the mainstream. It is increasingly apparent that Gray’s intent to outlaw contraception remains the ultimate goal of the religious right, as they increasingly encourage pharmacists to refuse to fill contraceptive prescriptions, while defining more and more forms of contraception as "abortifacients."

Recipes for herbal abortifacients were common in cookbooks during colonial times when the Constitution was written. The Ninth Amendment guarantees that all existing rights at that time should be retained. While the political right seeks to grant "equal protection" to fetuses under the Fourteenth Amendment, some have protested protecting women’s Fourteenth Amendment rights as illegitimately "reading feminism" into the Constitution. Further elevating fetal rights over women’s rights, Paul Weyrich defined the anti-abortion political litmus test —women should "step aside and make way for new life" — as an organizing political tool for the purpose of uniting conservative Catholics and Protestants as a voting block. Further expanding the right’s litany of hot-button issues, Pat Robertson subsequently vowed to make homosexuality "the abortion issue of the ‘90s."


The Catholic Church and Abortion

Acknowledging mutual goals of outlawing contraception and abortion, Pope John Paul II made overtures to Muslims of Iran and Libya in 1994 to bring to bear the full weight of their shared opposition to goals of the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.

The absolute ban on abortion is relatively new in Catholic history. Prior to 1869, when demographic alarms were raised, the Church accepted abortion until "quickening," or prior to "ensoulment." Abortion in early pregnancy was not regarded murder. Jesuit scholar John Connery (who takes the most conservative position on abortion) wrote: "If anyone expects to find an explicit condemnation of abortion in the New Testament, he will be disappointed. The silence of the New Testament regarding abortion surpasses even that of the Old Testament." Most Biblical scholars agree with Baptist theologian Paul D. Simmons that there is no clear biblical prohibition against abortion, though abortion was common when the Jewish and Christian scriptures were written.

A constant of Catholic orthodoxy has been the notion of female inferiority - the Aristotelian notion of "natural" male superiority. St. Thomas Aquinas stated in the 13th century, "In terms of nature’s own operation, a woman is inferior and a mistake." The historic Catholic theory of "ensoulment," traceable to the Middle Ages, also reinforced women's subordinate status, holding that a male fetus attained human form, and therefore a soul, about forty days after conception, in half the time of a female fetus. Reducing women to the status of reproductive objects is no better than treating them as sex objects. The Vatican, quick to endorse Viagra, still condemns contraception for the health and well-being of women.

Significantly, the very groups most vehemently opposed to contraception have the highest abortion rates. Since 1973 the U.S. Catholic Church has spent $1 to $5 million a year lobbying against contraception and abortion. One result has been a sustained rate of abortion, with the highest rates among Catholic women.  The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior (1993) by Drs. Samuel and Cynthia Janus is one of a series of surveys reporting that 29% of Catholics and 27% of ultraconservatives reported having abortions, compared to 17% of the rest of the population. One implication is that no woman knows what her health or future situation holds, nor can she predict her choice until she faces the reality.

The historical imperative for control by men of women’s reproduction —Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo lamented that "Roe v. Wade has emasculated us"— was illuminated by Dr. George S. Walter’s statement ("Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology," 9/70): "The pregnant woman symbolizes proof of male potency and if the male loosens his rule over women and grants them the right to dispose of that proof when they want to, the men feel terribly threatened lest women can, at will, rob them of their potency and masculinity. This flaunting of traditional subservience may...function in the frequent professional insistence upon sterilization as a 'package deal' with abortion. In this way, the male physician can maintain control." 

Reinstatement of the global Gag Rule by George W. Bush has jeopardized not only free speech, but also women’s health. International family planning funds have been eliminated for women in developing countries, where 99% of maternal mortalities occur. Worldwide annual maternal mortality rates are over 500,000. Significantly, an African woman is 200 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than a woman in an industrialized country. In addition to contributing to maternal mortality, denying women access to contraception actually increases the rate of illegal abortion, further contributing to the numbers of women’s deaths.