Yet, it has also proved deeply controversial. Every year since Roe, a March for Life is held in Washington to protest the ruling. This year, it is scheduled for Friday.
March organizers have selected the theme “Life Empowers: Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman,” and tied the event to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting sex-based restrictions on the right to vote.
Serrin Foster, head of Feminists for Life, explained the link in organizers’ minds: “What most people don’t understand is that the first-wave feminists were, without known exception, all pro-life. They believed in the rights of slaves to be free, the right of women to vote, and they believed in the right of women and children to be protected from abortion.”
As scholars, including the editor of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s archival papers have shown, many of these claims are based on repeated factual errors. The claims often mislead in another way as well: by omitting essential features of the suffragists’ beliefs about gender, justice and the law.
Antiabortion claims linked to Anthony — whose name headlines an antiabortion political action committee and is mentioned in a two-minute promotional video for this year’s March for Life — are commonly tied to an article that appeared in the Revolution, a women’s rights newspaper that she and Stanton, her political partner, published for two years.
The 1869 article denounced “child murder” and labeled abortion “a most monstrous crime.” But there is a major problem with attributing these sentiments to Anthony. Scores of writers published content in the Revolution. This column was signed “A.,” while when Anthony wrote in the newspaper, she used her initials, “S.B.A.” For this reason the editors of Anthony’s archival papers maintain that she did not write the article. Yet, the problem runs deeper than misattribution.
However little “A.” approved of abortion, the author wrote the article to oppose an effort to criminalize abortion that had been recently proposed by the influential New York Medical Gazette — reasoning that women should not be held legally accountable for the decision to end a pregnancy, given the injustice of the marriage laws that gave men control over the conditions in which women conceived and bore children. “A.” argued that the problem of abortion could only be resolved by changing the law of marriage to make it an equal partnership in which women could decide when to become a mother.
As “A.’s” protest illustrates, even when suffragists judged abortion wrong, it was not the central issue for Anthony and other activists like Stanton, whose legacy is also being appropriated by the organizers of the March.
The vote was their primary cause — and suffragists hoped to use the vote to transform the family by changing the unjust laws governing the conditions in which women conceived, bore and raised children. In particular, they opposed marriage laws giving a husband an absolute legal right to his wife’s sexual “services” and her labor in exchange for his obligation of financial support.
Suffragists called for voluntary motherhood, which they understood in the decades before and after the Civil War as a wife’s right to say no to sex in marriage to control the timing of children. In the 1850s, Stanton even ranked voluntary motherhood — which she defined as “the sacred right of a woman to her own person” — as more important than the vote. To Stanton, it was clear that woman’s “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of her individual happiness” depended on retaining control of the decision “when a new being should be brought into the world.”
As Stanton’s contemporary, Lucy Stone, explained, “It is very little to me to have the right to vote, to own property … if I may not keep my body, and its uses, in my absolute right. Not one wife in a thousand can do that now, & so long as she suffers this bondage, all other rights will not help her to her true position.”
Criminalizing abortion was not on the suffrage movement’s agenda.
In fact, those concerned about criminalizing abortion in the Civil War era were openly hostile to the woman’s rights movement.
Men in the medical community like Dr. Horatio Storer of Boston from the newly formed American Medical Association led the movement to ban abortion. They successfully pushed laws that either strengthened restrictions on abortion that had been put in place before the Civil War or imposed new bans. These mostly Anglo-Saxon Protestant medical men opposed abortion as life-taking, but they also openly spoke of other reasons for banning abortion: They wanted to enforce women’s roles as wives and mothers, and to preserve the racial and ethnic character of the nation by compelling women of their social class to have more children.
The doctors were preoccupied with the notion that these women were having far fewer children (in part by seeking abortions) than immigrants and women they believed were of inferior social classes. Storer asked: “Shall [America’s west and the south] be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.”
Storer, who, like other leaders of this antiabortion movement was hostile to women’s suffrage and expanded legal rights, argued that the wife’s role was to bear children, and that the “true wife” did not seek “undue power in public life, … undue control in domestic affairs, … [or] privileges not her own.” The doctors’ view was the antithesis of the vision for women inside and outside the home advanced by suffragists like Stanton and Anthony.
However individual suffragists may have judged the practice of abortion, suffrage leaders called for marriage law to recognize a woman’s right to make decisions about sex and motherhood. This more closely anticipates modern feminists’ calls for reproductive autonomy than the claims of those organizing the March for Life in this centennial year.
There is another dissonance between the suffragists and the coming March for Life. Many people attending the march feel so strongly about making abortion illegal that they are one-issue voters, siding with the modern conservative Republican Party, which supports both opposition to legal abortion and related ideas about the nuclear family and traditional gender roles.
But this single-issue opposition to abortion, shared by many of the groups participating in the March, does little to support women making decisions about whether or how to raise families. Even though lack of economic resources is the primary reason for seeking an abortion, the Republican Party has repeatedly attacked the Affordable Care Act and does not back bills that would empower women who need or want to care for families — such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would eliminate pay disparities between men and women, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act that allows pregnant employees to keep their jobs or proposals for paid Family and Medical Leave.
Suffragists sought the vote precisely to enact laws that would improve the lives of women and their families. Their top priority upon obtaining the vote was to pass the first federal health care law in 1921, which they designed to protect the lives and health of women and infants. A movement that seeks to ban abortion — without enacting laws to support women and men raising children — is not “pro-life” or “pro-woman” in the way suffragists envisioned. Antiabortion advocates who work only to re-criminalize abortion, or to restrict abortion and limit contraception, do not honor the suffragists’ legacy: They betray it.