Elective Abortion flies in the face of classic feminism.
While feminism today in the U.S. is largely in favor of abortion, seeing it as necessary to ensure equality for women within society, the early feminists found abortion to be a societal evil that dishonored woman and killed children.
Historically, feminism has been about equal rights for all people, especially equal rights for women. Feminists have worked toward establishing equal representation in society, without domination and oppression by men. In the U.S., there have been three basic waves of feminism in the past two centuries. The first wave mainly concerned the woman’s right to vote, or woman’s suffrage, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The second wave concerned equality for woman in the workplace, gender discrimination, and reproductive rights in the 1960s and 70s. The third wave began in the 1990s and concerns perceived failures in the second wave and debates about differences (or lack thereof) between the sexes.
Feminism today is very much in favor of a woman’s right to an abortion (e.g., it is one of the main goals of the National Organization for Woman to keep abortion safe and legal). The earliest (“first wave”) feminists, however, saw abortion, not as a necessary right for women to achieve equality, but as a device that hurt and exploited woman, dishonored motherhood, and was contrary to nature. To them, abortion was a device promoted by men to hide their elicit sexual activity. Beyond this, the early feminists also had concern for the child growing in the womb, finding the practice of abortion to be on par with murder. The following is a series of quotes from prominent early feminists on the issue of abortion:
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), who was credited with inspiring the first American and European feminists, wrote:
Women becoming, consequently weaker, in body and mind, than they ought to be have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and… either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born. Nature in everything demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom violate them with impunity… [M]en ought to maintain the women they have seduced… on means of stopping an abuse that has an equally fatal effect on population and morals. (Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ch. 8)
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), America’s first female physician, wrote:
The gross perversion and destruction of motherhood by the abortionist filled me with indignation, and awakened active antagonism. That the honorable term ‘female physician’ should be exclusively applied to those woman who carried on this shocking trade seemed to me a horror… an utter degradation of what might and should become a noble profession for woman. Being at that time a reader of Swedenborg, and strongly impressed by his vivid representation of the unseen world, I finally determined to do what I could ‘to redeem the hells’ and especially the one form of hell thus forced upon my notice.” (quoted in Isabel Ross, Child of Destiny: The Life Story of the First Female Doctor, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1949, 88)
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), one of the most well-known early feminists, in her newspaper The Revolution on 8 July 1869, wrote:
All the articles on this subject that I have read have been from men. They denounce women as alone guilty, and never include man in any plans for the remedy. . . Guilty? Yes. No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed [abortion]. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; But oh, thrice guilty is he who drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime!
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), close friend of Susan B. Anthony, wrote (in an 1873 letter to Julia Ward Howe recorded in Howe's diary at Harvard University Library): “[W]hen we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.” In the Revolution newspaper she wrote:
We are living today under a dynasty of force; the masculine element is everywhere overpowering the feminine, and crushing woman and children alike beneath its feet. Let woman assert herself in all her native purity, dignity, and strength, and end this wholesale suffering and murder of helpless children. With centuries of degradation, we have so little of true womanhood, that the world has but the faintest glimmering of what a woman is or should be.” (Revolution, 29 January 1868)
Dr. Anna Densmore French (1800s), in an article about her in the Revolution newspaper, it was said:
Those who had the privilege will never forget the startling effect of the truths that she revealed relative to the primitive and ever present vitality of the developing embryo, as evidenced by the fainting of several self-convicted participators in the crime of premeditated child destruction before birth… I am sure that women would rarely dare to destroy the product of conception if they did not fully believe that the little being was devoid of life during all the earlier period of gestation… Dr. Densmore demonstrated to us fully and clearly that the fulfillment of life processes were going on from the very beginning of embryonic development, and showed us how, step by step, was added bone, muscle, and nerve… And that even before the mother could assure herself that she was to wear the crown of maternity by realizing the movements of the child, that the educated ear of the physician could often distinguish the beating of its heart. (Revolution, 19 March 1868)
Mattie H. Brinkerhoff (1800s), the first denominationally ordained woman reverend in the U.S., wrote:
When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society – so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged. (Revolution, 2 September 1869)
Dr. Alice Bunker Stockham (1833-1921) wrote:
Many women have been taught that to think the child is not viable until after quickening, and that there is no harm in arresting pregnancy previous to the feeling of motion; others believe that there is no life until birth, and the cry of the child is hear… When the female germ and the male sperm unite, then is the inception of a new life; all that goes to make up a human being – body, mind, and spirit, must be contained in the embryo within this minute organism. Life must be present from the very moment of conception… Is it not plain that the violent or forcible deprivation of existence of this embryo, the removal of it from the citadel of life, is its premature death, and hence the act can be denominated by no more mild term than murder, and whoever performs the act, or is accessory to it, is guilty of the crime of all crimes? (Tokology, 2nd ed., Chicago, IL: Sanitary Publishing Company, 1887, 245-51)
These quotations make it clear that those later feminists who fought for abortion rights, stood squarely against their feminist foremothers. The early feminists in the U.S. celebrated the biological capacity of woman to bear children and did not wish to see this capacity reproached by abortion. They believed that a society where abortion was necessary was a society that had greatly failed woman, and men were often to blame for this. Moreover, in line with the strong feminist conviction of equality for all people, the earliest feminists believed such equality should extend to the unborn child in the womb.
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