and Janey sitting in a tree,
First comes love,
Then comes marriage,
Then comes Janey with a baby carriage.
education is the good cop of conservative "family re-planning," by
which human relations are restored to what the Right views as a
"traditional" structure (Dad on top, Mom next, kids below that} and
sex to its "traditional" function, procreation. But if a teen cannot
be persuaded to tarry in celibate, parent-controlled childhood and insists
on being both young and sexual, the Right has a bad cop. Its job is to
barricade the option of abortion. This imposes a sentence of immediate and
irrevocable adulthood on any "child" who crosses the sexual line and
makes a mistake. Compulsory motherhood can be effected in two ways, legally
the legal front, the anti-abortion movement has had a mixed record, with many
of its initiatives found unconstitutional. Nevertheless, its record over
nearly thirty years shows a dogged climb toward success. Almost from the
moment the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973,
lobbyists and activists have kept up a steady presence in every legislative
chamber, including Congress. Only four years after the ruling, President Jimmy
the Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal Medicaid funding for abortion, which hit
the youngest and poorest women -- who also happened to be women of color --
especially hard. [*1] Hyde's first fatality was Rosie Jimenez, a twenty-seven-year-old single
Texan mother receiving welfare and Medicaid while working in an electronics
factory and going to college part time. She died after an illegal abortion, with
a seven-hundred-dollar scholarship check in her pocket, having chosen her
education over paying for a legal procedure. [*2]
By 2001, thirty-two states required parental involvement, either notification or consent, in a minor's getting an abortion [*3]
(in one of the last holdouts, Vermont, a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives released a bill from the committee where it had been locked up by Democrats for a decade).
year, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional Nebraska's law prohibiting
so-called partial-birth abortion by a slim five-to-four majority, but
anti-abortionists went immediately back to work in the states to craft
legislation that would pass constitutional muster. The next Supreme Court
appointment, which is likely to occur during the anti-choice George W. Bush
administration, could bring the fragile edifice of abortion rights down.
they aren't walking the statehouse halls, anti-abortion activists are on the
pavements, outside the clinics, shouting and praying. [*4]
Their protests are not
always lawful. From 1993 to 1997, the Justice Department recorded more than
fifty bombings and arson attacks at abortion clinics, [*5] and from 1993 to 1999,
seven people, including clinic workers and doctors, were killed by anti-abortion
considering the amount of clamor it raised, the anti-choice movement has achieved
a monumental, and paradoxical, triumph in the decades after Roe: it has
wrought a near-total public silence on the subject of abortion in the discourse
of teen sex.
In spite of the significant increases in expense, danger, and worry that their laws have exacted on young women seeking abortions; anti-choicers have not achieved their main goal: to stop teen sex and abortions.
Studies in the 1990s showed that the majority of girls throughout the world have sex in their teens, [*7] and, while abortion rates are dropping, primarily because of increased use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission, American teens still get abortions at
almost the rate they did just after Roe; [*8] women under twenty are involved in about 30 percent of all surgically terminated pregnancies. [*9] Moreover, women continue to procure abortions at strikingly similar rates worldwide, whether or not the procedure is legal [*10] -- just like American women before Roe, who put their lives in the hands of barbers and gangsters to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
(In the 1950s, illegal abortions killed an estimated five thousand to ten thousand women a year.) [*11]
In most developed countries, the
surgical termination of a pregnancy is a legal, normal part of women's
Even opponents of abortion have abortions. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute,
"Catholic women have an abortion rate 29% higher than Protestant women, and one in five women having abortions are born-again or Evangelical Christians." [*12]
Yet the American Right's unceasing condemnation, expressed in sentimental language, illustrated with mutilated viscera, and enforced with fatal bullets, has transformed the emotional and moral conception of abortion no less than the practicalities of getting one.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, one can hardly speak of abortion without a note of deep misgiving or regret, if one speaks of it at all.
"Abortion on demand and without apology," a feminist demand before Roe,
is as rare in 1999 as it was in 1959. What this means for unmarried teens
is that unwanted pregnancy has regained its age-old resonance of sin and doom,
and motherhood again has come to feel like the near-inevitable price of sexual
the right to terminate a pregnancy is still protected by the Constitution and
polls show that support for choice has not significantly waned overall, [*13]
the support is more qualified. [*14] Most important, according to an annual study
conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles, among incoming
college freshmen (the very women most likely to need abortions) support for
choice has declined every year except one since 1990. [*15]
quarter century after Roe, the grassroots pro-choice movement is all
but moribund. A splashy Feminist Expo for Women's Empowerment sponsored by the
Feminist Majority Foundation in the mid-1990s could find no room for a speech
or panel about women's right to choose. In an influential article in the New
Republic in 1995, "power feminist" Naomi Wolf scolded
middle-class women for those putatively blithe "suburban country-club
rite-of-passage abortions; the 'I don't know what came over me, it was
good Chardonnay' abortions" and extolled feminists to reconsider abortion
within the "paradigm of sin and redemption." [*16]
At a clinic in Texas,
where the Christian "crisis pregnancy center" opened next door and
Right-to-Lifers held prayer vigils almost daily, journalist Debbie Nathan
observed besieged front-line workers succumbing to a kind of Stockholm
syndrome, adopting their captors' doubts as to whether abortion was such a great
idea after all.
The Australian pro-abortion activist Marge Ripper called this new tone the "awfulisation of abortion." Under its influence, abortion's proponents become its apologists, espousing the arguments of their antagonists, slightly softened: abortion is an evil, though a "necessary evil." It is a deeply private "family" affair and never preferable to contraception.
As the journalist Janet Hadley commented, this last argument implies, incorrectly, that contraception is always reliable and "safe," as opposed to abortion, which is not. This makes contraception the "responsible" option and abortion therefore "irresponsible." [*17]
(In fact, according to a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute published in 1996, six in ten abortion patients had been using contraception, but it failed.) [*18]
As early as
1980, American pro-choice feminists started to cast themselves as
"pro-family," some even implying that if the state provided good child
and health care, everyone would want babies, and abortion would become obsolete.
the 1990s, the pro-choice lawyers were still in court, the doctors were taking
the bullets. But few advocates of choice seemed willing to defend the ethical
position for abortion itself -- as complex as any serious ethical
position -- that women's right to terminate a pregnancy is a moral good. Few
argued that women's right to control fertility, the biological handicap of the
female sex, amounts to full existential equality with men; and that the use of
one's body against one's will amounts to nothing less than slavery. The only
moral argument for choice was made on children's behalf: that wanted children
fare better in the world, which is already overpopulated with hungry,
neglected, and abused kids. [*19]
Hollywood sure isn't defending choice. Pregnancy panics have long been
melodramatic staples, for their obvious tear-jerking potential, and so, for
dramatic resolution purposes, are false
and miscarriages. But if a pregnancy lasts on screen, abortion is never an
option and always a tragedy. Indeed, the A-word is rarely even uttered.
alarms and miscarriages. But if a pregnancy lasts on screen, abortion is never an option and always a tragedy. Indeed, the A-word is rarely even uttered.
On Beverly Hills 90210, a young woman and
boyfriend vow not to make "the biggest mistake of our lives" by
doing "something we'll regret" forever (terminate her pregnancy).
On the CBS lawyer drama The Practice, the ambitious, sensible thirtyish African American office manager confesses, unable even to utter the forbidden word:
"I got pregnant when I was fifteen. ... I couldn't take care of a baby. ... Yeah, I did it. ... But there's not a day goes by I don't think about it."
Whole movie plots turn on
babies who in the real world would never
get a chance to gestate. Even the ultra-cynical, penniless, baby-hating,
Machiavellian anti-heroine of The Opposite of Sex and her gay boyfriend
These plots enact a psychological "syndrome" invented in the late 1970s by anti-abortion "scientists": "post-abortion syndrome" or "post-abortion psychosis," a condition of lasting guilt, regret, and physical damage allegedly caused by abortion. [*20]
syndrome has been proven nonexistent. When nearly fifty-three hundred women, about half of whom had abortions, were administered annual
questionnaires over eight years, their levels of emotional well-being were
found to be unchanged by the procedure. [*21] Claimed links between abortion and
breast cancer have also been discovered to be unfounded. [*22]
But the idea that abortion is inevitably awful has taken hold, particularly among teenage girls. For those too young to have experienced the panic and peril of an unwanted pregnancy before Roe (or, in many cases, after it), the high melodrama and black-and-white morality of the anti-abortion script holds particular appeal.
A fourteen-year-old black Brooklyn teenager who miscarried
told me, "I never would have an abortion, because I'd be thinking
about that baby the rest of my life."
A pregnant sixteen-year-old in El Paso, a wealthy white girl who was a star runner and honors student (and whose maid was going to take care of the child), was having a baby for the same reason.
"My mom wanted me to [have an abortion]," she told me. "But oh, I couldn't live with that. Every year I'd be wondering, like, my baby would be this many years old and what would he be like?"
Even a teen
leader of the youth caucus of the leftwing, militantly pro-choice Refuse
& Resist! at the podium of a pro-choice speak-out in 2000, wondered out
loud whether her recent abortion "was the right thing or the wrong thing
to do." She went on, accompanied by hip-hop hand movements, to
doubts were "probably planted in my mind by the anti-choice fascists."
She suspected she was being brainwashed to feel guilty, in other words. But she
felt guilty all the same.
The little quantitative research on the subject suggests that these girls' feelings are widespread. In the early 1990s, Rebecca Stone and Cynthia Waszak ran focus groups on abortion with thirteen- to nineteen-year-olds. On the whole, the youngsters expressed
"erroneous and anecdotal evidence about abortion more often than sound knowledge, portraying the procedure as medically dangerous, emotionally damaging, and widely illegal."
The source of this information, said the researchers, was largely anti-abortion propaganda, which was abundant and often targeted expressly at suggestible teens. Pro-choice opinions, they believed, were less widely propagated and less likely to be pointed directly at teens. [*23]
In 1998, concerned about this imbalance, the
Pro-Choice Education Project surveyed sixteen- to twenty-four-year-old women
nationwide with an eye toward designing a pro-choice public-service advertising
men are also affected by anti-abortion propaganda, which may reinforce the
masculine pride of paternity and their belief in paternal privilege, whether
or not they want to be active fathers. A significant minority of Canadian and
American young men -- about a third -- told researchers that they believed a father
should have a legal prerogative to prevent a partner from having an abortion. [*24]
If kids are learning about abortion in school sex ed at all, they learn that it is a bad thing. The 1995 survey of state laws on sexuality education conducted by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) found that only nine states specifically named abortion in their sex-ed statutes. Of these, only Vermont required giving students neutral information on the procedure; the others either forbade teachers from talking about abortion as a reproductive health method or allowed discussing its negative consequences
In the quarter of American school districts that "Sex Respect" purportedly reaches, kids learn that abortion means "killing the baby" and that its risks include "guilt, depression, anxiety," as well as "heavy blood loss, infection, and puncturing of the uterus." [*26]
In fact, after Roe, abortion's risks plummeted, with 0.3
deaths per 100,000 abortions. In 1990, pregnancy termination carried
one-eleventh the risk of childbirth, one-half the risk of a tonsillectomy,
and one-thousandth that of a shot of penicillin. [*27]
At this writing, you can barely find the word abortion in the pages of the "comprehensive" sex-ed curricula, either. Girls Incorporated's Taking Care of Business, for "young teen women ages 15-18," recommends using birth control and discusses the relative effectiveness of various methods but does not discuss the medical solution if the condom breaks or the daphragm fails. [*28]
ETR's "abstinence-based" curriculum, "Sex Can Wait," tells instructors to discuss the stresses of handling marriage, school, work, and parenting and to suggest the "often overlooked" option of adoption. But abortion zips by in one ominous (and in my view, inaccurate) sentence: "Abortion, adoption, and single parenting are equally complex options." [*29]
The thorough New Positive Images, written by two dedicated advocates of adolescents' reproductive rights, names every contraceptive method, including "emergency contraception " (also called the morning-after pill), but skims over the word abortion. [*30]
(Its authors at Planned Parenthood are working on anew text on teaching about abortion, though it is hard to imagine that many public schools will adopt it.) [*31]
Programs for boys, finally understood as the missing link in sexual responsibility, often instruct teens in birth control methods, but especially those aimed at inner-city youth zoom right past abortion to put the emphasis on marriage and fatherhood.
With cozy names like Dads Make a Difference, these programs transmit the warning, If you're going to have sex, get ready to support a baby. While this might be the right message to young couples who choose to have a child, it assumes they will make that choice, especially if they are poor, black, or Latino.
Statistics bear out this assumption: Whereas almost
three-quarters of higher-income teenagers who get pregnant have abortions so
they can they can go to college, establish a career, and marry before having
children, teenagers from poorer families with narrower prospects have less
incentive to delay starting a family. So only 39 percent of poor and 54
'low-income adolescents terminate unplanned pregnancies. [*32]
Still, the propaganda aimed at young men jumps too quickly to the
conclusion that, because poor teens are likely to have the children
they conceive, they therefore want to conceive them and therefore must be
dissuaded of that desire.
Hector Sanchez-Flores, who runs Spirit of Manhood, a program with young Chicano men in San Francisco, refuted this notion soundly. At a Planned Parenthood conference in 1998, he reported that fully three-quarters of the guys in his program did not want their partners to get pregnant, and four out of five wanted to share the responsibility for contraception. [*33]
it is curious that comprehensive sex educators, almost universally pro-choice,
have seemed willing to throw abortion overboard, perhaps there's an unspoken
reason. Besides the bigger holes bored by the Right, there is another, less visible leak in their boat. As we saw in
chapter 5, by the 1990s the comprehensives were engaged in a contest to be best
at preventing teen sex, not preventing unwanted pregnancies or unwanted
children. In such an atmosphere, a call for abortion is almost an admission of
by the Right, there is another, less visible leak in their boat. As we saw in
chapter 5, by the 1990s the comprehensives were engaged in a contest to be best
at preventing teen sex, not preventing unwanted pregnancies or unwanted
children. In such an atmosphere, a call for abortion is almost an admission of
If abortion is disappearing as a reproductive "freedom," with all the emotion that word entails, it is also a fleeting right, especially for teenagers. By the late 1990s, there were no abortion providers in nearly a third of the nation's metropolitan areas and in 85 percent of American counties, according to NARAL. [*34] Almost a third of obstetrics and gynecology residencies failed to teach abortion procedures in 1992. compared with just 8 percent that did not in 1976. [*35] And while young women's right and ability to get an abortion declined steadily, their parents' prerogative to stop them increased. As of 1999, parental notification or consent laws were in effect in forty states. [*36]
Two-thirds of girls talk voluntarily to their mothers or fathers before choosing to end a pregnancy, and even more than that percentage of parents are supportive. [*37] But girls who do not inform their mothers or fathers usually have good reason: many have already experienced violence at home and, when they tell, are met with more. [*38] Parental notification statutes do not increase family communication, as they are meant to do. [*39] Rather, they greatly increase the risks to the pregnant young women by delaying their abortions. [*40]
In all, the American Medical Association reported in 1993 that "minors may be driven to desperate measures"
by such laws. "The desire to maintain secrecy has been one of the leading
reasons for illegal abortions since 1973." [*41] Yet propaganda claiming that
parental consent and notification laws protect minors has been effective. A
majority of parents and young women endorse these laws. [*42]
In the late 1990s lawmakers fenced pregnant young women into an even smaller familial corral, forbidding any unrelated person, whether a close friend of the family, a trusted minister, or even a relative who was not legally the young woman's guardian, to help her terminate a pregnancy.
A Pennsylvania woman was convicted in 1996 of "interfering with the custody of a minor" when she drove the thirteen-year-old girlfriend of her nineteen-year-old son to New York State, where there are no parental consent rules, to get an abortion. (The young man was convicted of statutory rape in the consensual relationship.) [*43]
In the summer of 1998, legislation was introduced in Congress making it a
federal crime to take a minor across state lines, from a parental-consent state
to one without that regulation, to get an abortion. Sponsors heard testimony
from public health professionals who called the bill "harmful and
potentially dangerous" and from Karen and Bill Bell, an Indiana couple
whose daughter, Becky, had died from complications of a back-alley abortion
because she was abashed to tell them of her situation. [*44]
Promoters touted the
bill as a child-protective measure anyway, [*45] but the name of the proposed law,
the Child Custody Protection Act, unwittingly revealed its real intent. The
bill, which passed the House in 1998 and 1999, would protect not the child but
custody itself. [*46] When abortion is involved, the bill's authors implied, the
life of a pregnant girl is less valuable than an abstraction called the family.
Throughout most of the developed secular world in the twenty-first century, abortion is considered a normal part of women's reproductive lives. But in the United States, a link between sex and babies, uninterrupted by contraception and abortion, is now assumed by policymakers at every level.
What has resulted are coercive, ineffective "solutions"
to non-marital pregnancy, single motherhood, and the welfare dependency that is
presumed to go with it, including resurrected "jailbait" laws and the
old-fashioned shotgun wedding. The political center has shifted so far rightward
and the symbolic time frame so far backward that even mainstream organizations
anachronism and calling it innovation. At its three-day Roundtable on Adolescent
Pregnancy and Prevention in 1998, the venerable social-service behemoth the
Child Welfare League took up pregnancy termination in none of the scores of
workshops and panels. Instead, the league devoted a special series of sessions
to running that staple location of 1950s melodramas, "homes for unwed
Without abortion, the narrative of teenage desire is strangely, and artificially, unmoored from modern social reality. Instead of sound policy, the anti-abortion movement has rewritten a pre-modern parable, in which fate tumbles to worse fate, sin is chastised, and sex is the ruination of mother, child, and society.
Gone is pre-meditation in sex; gone too the role of technology, of safe contraception or
"planned parenthood." Gone far away is the relief, even joy, of ending
an unwanted pregnancy and women's newfound power to decide what they want to do
with their bodies and their lives and when they want to do it.
modern social reality has not gone away, and girls are caught in the middle. In
that bizarre match over the morality of single motherhood between a fictional
television character and a real-Iife politician, single mom Murphy Brown KO'd
her censurer, Dan Quayle. Asked by pollsters in 1994 whether they would become
mothers if their childbearing years were waning and they hadn't yet married,
more than half of teens said they would. [*47]
on the other, shadowy side of the culture, the taint of "unwed
motherhood" grows to a deep, bloody stain. Desperate girls, including
middle-class high schoolers with every opportunity before them, hide their
pregnancies, give birth in hotel rooms, then swaddle their babies in Hefty
bags and deposit them, alive or not, in closets and Dumpsters. [*48]
For these young
women, "getting caught," both as sexual beings and as dumb-Iuck
mothers, is fraught with shame and denial. Abortion has moved beyond the pale, a
terrible secret worse than any imaginable fate. For these teenagers, there are
reproductive "options" at all.