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Reproductive rights are once again in the news this fall with Texas’s latest attempt to restrict access to abortion. Though litigation surrounding Texas’s new abortion law is ongoing, there’s no doubt that antiabortion activists will continue to fight for restrictive measures, and ultimately the reversal of Roe v. Wade, even if this latest attempt in Texas fails. The law in Texas is only one example in a long list of restrictive abortion laws enacted in states in the last few decades, and I am not surprised by this latest iteration in Texas. As I’ve tracked in my own research on the movement, it’s the result of decades of efforts by the antiabortion movement to restrict access to abortion at both the national and state level.

Though a national ban on abortion has always been the movement’s ultimate aim, the focus shifted over the course of the 1980s. By the end of that decade, when their repeated efforts to reverse Roe and enact a human life amendment failed in Congress and the courts and it became clear that a national ban on abortion might not be feasible, antiabortion activists turned their attention to the states and began to chip away at reproductive rights in other ways. The goal has always been the same though: making all abortions illegal. But this zero-sum approach and single-minded focus on banning all abortions has never left much room for compromise. It has stifled efforts within the movement to broaden its aims and enact policies and programs to help women and their children, and also alienated potential allies.

Two aspects of this latest development have been weighing on my mind since the law in Texas went into effect. First is the cruelty of the antiabortion movement. For a movement that is supposedly based on valuing all life and helping women and their children, it frequently acts cruelly toward the women it purports to help. The cruelty manifests itself in big and small ways—from added inconveniences when seeking an abortion to outright violence and harassment. Second is the misconception that we could ever ban all abortions. On the face of it, this seems like a simple or even obvious observation, but as someone who grew up learning the antiabortion movement’s narratives and rhetoric, I was raised to think that before Roe v. Wade abortions didn’t happen and that if we could only make abortion illegal again, abortion would simply disappear. I’ve since learned that story is simply not true.

Texas’s new law is particularly cruel. Abortion is banned after six weeks, so early that some women won’t even know they’re pregnant. Private citizens are authorized to enforce the law and sue those who help people access abortion care in any way. Sadly, it’s not a surprise that this is the tactic antiabortion activists and legislators would pursue. In many ways this cruelty is baked into the movement—a movement that’s spent decades devising ways to make abortion care inconvenient, demeaning, and dangerous for those who need it. Women seeking abortions—whom the antiabortion movement professes to care about—are hurt the most.

When I first read about the law in Texas and the ways it allows private citizens to target abortion providers and clinics and others who help people seeking abortions, I immediately recalled a primary source I assign to my students each fall when we discuss the political battle over abortion. In class, we read excerpts from the testimony of directors, doctors, and staff of abortion clinics recounting the violence and harassment they faced in their line of work.[i] The testimony is striking. Jeri Rasmussen’s account, in particular, is always hard to read. Rasmussen served as the director of a women’s health clinic in Minnesota. At the hearings, she testified before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on the years of harassment and threats she faced working as the director of the clinic. She detailed the ways the harassment had negatively impacted her life and the fear that had made her limit normal activities like gathering with friends and family or going for walks around her neighborhood. “Yes, I am changed,” she lamented. “I look over my shoulder more often. I am short with my staff. I have moved my bed for safety. I am considering a gun which seems just abhorrent to me and a bulletproof vest on especially bad days.”[ii]

It was logical for Rasmussen to worry; abortion providers know that harassment easily turns into violence. At the hearings, Susan Hill followed Rasmussen’s testimony, speaking about the murder of her colleague, Dr. David Gunn, and the death threats against other healthcare workers who provided abortions. She was incredulous: “How is it possible that in a country founded on religious freedom and individual rights, we providers of abortion care have come to live in fear of religious groups, who pronounce themselves the judge and jury of our fate?” Like Rasmussen, Hill detailed the horrific and cruel treatment she had faced, including a troubling anecdote about the ways her dying sister was accosted: “They called and harassed my twin sister dying of cancer, telling her that she was dying because of what I did.”[iii]

The violence and harassment recounted by Rasmussen and Hill weren’t an anomaly. In the late 1970s, the pro-choice group NARAL began documenting acts of violence such as arson, bomb threats, and vandalism. Clinics reported a rash of incidents in several areas around the country.[iv] In the 1980s, clinics were bombed, and in the 1990s and early 2000s, several doctors who worked at these clinics were murdered, including Hill’s colleague, Dr. Gunn.

These examples make it clear that the antiabortion movement has regularly engaged in vigilantism, targeting people who seek abortions and those who help them. Women have been tracked as they left clinics.[v] Doctors, nurses, and clinic directors faced retribution for their work. Antiabortion activists used many tactics: harassing phone calls, vandalism at the clinic, or death threats, anything that might deter or punish the staff—and they boasted it was their right as American citizens and their duty as Christians to act in these ways.[vi] Vigilantism against abortion providers is nothing new, though the Texas law makes it state-sanctioned. With the new law in Texas, abortion providers and clinic support staff now not only worry about harassment and violence but potential lawsuits from private citizens.

Violence and harassment are overt examples of the antiabortion movement’s cruelty, but it’s important to note that the cruelty is also more mundane. We can think of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits Medicaid from paying for abortions. When it passed, the National Right to Life Committee called it a “giant step” toward ending legal abortion, but the Hyde Amendment simply punishes the most vulnerable, those who rely on Medicaid for their health coverage. We can think too of the myriad ways since then that the antiabortion movement has attempted to impede women seeking abortions. From picketing in front of clinics to instituting mandatory waiting periods to imposing rules that close most clinics in a given area, the antiabortion movement has sought to make seeking an abortion inconvenient, embarrassing, and cruel. In the best case, this cruelty robs women of their autonomy and dignity in making healthcare decisions for themselves. In the worst case, it has led to harassment, violence, and even murder.

Implicit in the arguments of the antiabortion movement is the idea that banning Roe v. Wade will end abortion in the United States. This is part of the reason the early movement was so intent on passing a human life amendment and why the current movement continues to focus on reversing Roe v. Wade. However, even before Roe v. Wade, abortions were happening—legally and illegally–in the United States. Legal abortions were happening with hospital approval, women with means were traveling to other countries where abortion was legal, and women were seeking unsafe illegal abortions when they had no other options.

The pre-Roe world is not one to which we should wish to return. Women who needed an abortion before Roe were forced to deal with a complicated situation with few options and little support. Women who tried to play by the rules and secure an abortion through legal means were often stigmatized. We can go all the way back to one of the first high-profile cases of abortion in the United States: the case of Sherri Finkbine. Finkbine was a mother and children’s television personality in Phoenix. During her pregnancy, Finkbine took some of her husband’s thalidomide, not knowing the drug caused severe birth defects. Once she learned its effects, she consulted her physician who recommended an abortion. Despite this recommendation, the hospital committee refused to approve the procedure after Finkbine spoke out publicly about her situation and her plan to seek an abortion (she’d spoken out in hopes of warning other women about the dangers of thalidomide). Ultimately, she decided to travel to Sweden for the procedure.[vii]

No doubt countless other women found themselves in a similar predicament as Sherri Finkbine but weren’t wealthy and white and didn’t have the means or the support to seek out safe and legal reproductive health care. Most tragic are the many women who were either forced to carry to term, or resorted to potentially unsafe abortions, or tried to cause an abortion themselves. These abortions could have horrific complications. And studies show this continues to be true in countries where abortion is banned—abortions still happen, but the risk to women increases exponentially.

It’s also important to remember that before Roe v. Wade, legal abortions were happening. They were performed in hospitals, though only with the recommendation of a doctor and hospital committee, almost always exclusively made up of men—these were called therapeutic abortions. They also took place illegally in private homes or secret clinics. If the antiabortion movement succeeds, we will see a return to that earlier era: women with means will be able to travel to get an abortion, women with less means might have to resort to dangerous measures to secure an abortion. This is already happening in Texas, where women are traveling across state lines to get abortions.

I’m not making a novel argument here—the women’s movement has been telling these stories and making these arguments for decades. Pro-lifers might not want to hear this, but the women’s movement is not making these things up. When I was doing research for my dissertation, I was struck by the records of dangerous abortions prior to Roe v. Wade. This history was not a factor in any of the antiabortion literature, movies, or rhetoric that I encountered while growing up.

Soon the U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments about the Texas abortion law and, in December, about Mississippi’s restrictive measure. No matter the outcome, it’s clear antiabortion activists won’t soon give up the fight to reverse Roe v. Wade. As I’ve written previously, the current focus of the antiabortion movement is banning abortion, not concerning itself with the well-being of women or improving the material conditions of their lives. The Texas law and the many other iterations of restrictive abortion measures in other states are retaliatory against women and those who help them, penalizing people for making a private choice related to their body and healthcare. And while banning abortion might seem like a grand moral victory, it will be real people who pay the price if the antiabortion movement succeeds.


[i] U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, Abortion Clinic Violence: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, 103rd Congress, 1st session, April 1 and June 10, 1993.

[ii] Abortion Clinic Violence, Statement of Jeri Rasmussen, 17-20.

[iii] U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, Abortion Clinic Violence (statement of Susan Hill), 20-22.

[iv] For NARAL documentation of clinic incidents see records in Box 31, Folder 12, National Abortion Rights Action League, Additional Records, 1967-2004, MC 714, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[v] Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 370.

[vi] The House Debates “Pro-Life” Civil Disobedience 1985, 1986, in Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Matthew Avery Sutton (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013), 96-101.

[vii] Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 62-65.


 

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics, whose research focuses on the development of the antiabortion movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Her work was published most recently in the essay collection Evangelicals and Presidential Politics: From Jimmy Carter to Donald Trump (Louisiana State University Press, 2021).

13 Comments

  • John vanStaalduinen says:

    So, should we allow some murder because it falls under the misused term , reproductive rights?
    Have you given yourself the privilege to watch the movie “Gosnell”? It should be required as part of your class instruction.

  • Tom says:

    As far as I know, you have never stated your personal position on abortion (pro or against), but in your frequent rants against the pro-life movement, you certainly sound like you lean on the pro-abortion side of the issue. If that’s the case, I would appreciate you laying out your case for why abortion should not be considered a great stain on this nations history, similar to slavery. And though your argument would likely focus on a woman’s right to control her own body, please do not start there, because the woman’s body is not the body most affected by the ‘choice’ to abort. Once you can convince me, based on both the science and any theology you want to cite, that anything less than a human being is being destroyed, then I will listen to you arguments about choice.

    Yes, there are limits to what can be accomplished by making certain things illegal – that applies to many things. But please acknowledge that by allowing some access to legal abortion in order to avoid ‘back-alley’ abortions is really just allowing one evil act in order to mitigate another evil act.

    • Ann Conklin says:

      The use of “pro-abortion” is misleading and offensive. It is a heart-wrenching decision that should be between a woman, her physician, and pastor (or other spiritual guide). In the case of rape, it is beyond cruel to require the victim to carry the result of such trauma to term. Yes, some choose this and that is their prerogative. For others it is nothing short of added trauma, not to mention the terror of delivery that recapitulates the rape. Further, the case would most likely be tied up in the courts by the due date so an exception for rape isn’t realistic.
      In terms of the comments referring to the body most affected by abortion and “anything less than human being destroyed,” an entry level college embryology course would address and answer these questions.
      Clearly this is a complex and emotionally charged issue. Since it affects women to a greater degree than men, I encourage us to listen to women’s voices, experience, and wisdom. I applaud the author for her well-written and researched work.

      • Tom says:

        OK, so abortions that result from rape account for 1% of total abortions (per the Guttmacher Institute), so let’s put that small set of cases aside and deal with that as a separate issue – most pro-life proposals make make exceptions for rape and/or incest. As a practical matter, I would concede to that. As a matter of principle, though, I don’t understand why a completely innocent person should face the death penalty.

        Not sure in which direction you believe that “an entry level college embryology course would address and answer these questions”. I guess I’d agree with you – at conception, the scientific facts are that the embryo is a unique human life, genetically different that the mother or the father; if allowed to develop, barring miscarriage or abortion, that embryo will always become a human being, never anything else; after conception no other dramatic transformation occurs that would support an argument that a “clump of cells” transforms into the human being at some later date.

        Yes, this affects women more than men, that’s a result of how God created us. The fact is that, as difficult as it may be to go through a pregnancy, death is a worse fate. The fact that it’s a heart-wrenching decision doesn’t make it right.

        Re: the point of this and previous essays, Allison VanderBroek has consistently pointed out the ‘cruelty’ of the prolife movement. But, while parts of her analysis of the pro-life movement may be factually accurate (I, too, believe that the movement should be bi-partisan and cross all political boundaries), but I’ve never have I seen her note that the pro-choice movement drives that political wedge at least as strongly as the pro-life movement (ask former democrat congressman Dan Lipinksi of Illinois, who was primaried out of office by national effort from the pro-abortion movement). And she ignores the scores of Christian pro-life organizations that support women in their choice to carry the child and to raise that child, so it’s a bit of a straw-man argument to paint the pro-life movement as cruel and heartless.

        The history is that pro-abortion forces knew back in 1972 that they could never achieve a right to abortion through political means because, on the whole, people did not support that. Working toward a legislative solution would likely have resulted in something closer to what most of Europe has – a right to abortion, but not through the full term – exactly the compromise that she says she argues for. So, instead, they went took the route of the courts, knowing that the Supreme Court leaned progressive and would invent a right to abortion out of thin air, which they did. That move by itself, took compromise off the table.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    General thoughts on abortion controversy:
    Pro-Life stance falls flat when the term isn’t broadly applied to gun culture, capital punishment, support for war; not to mention a society that runs roughshod over the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. The label is mis-named—it should be Anti-Abortion.
    Pro-Choice ignores the life burgeoning within, relegating embryos to just tissue, part of the mother’s body.
    It used to be a discussion about when life begins. Is it at conception? is it at birth? Is “life” detected within cells/zygotes/embryos/fetuses the same as a “person?” Oft-quoted from the Psalms: “in my mother’s womb you knew me; you knew me before the beginning of time . . .” is that to be read as literal or poetic? The evangy songwriter puts it a bit differently: “From life’s first cry, to final breath / Jesus controls my destiny . . .” again, reference to the literal span of a person’s life, or poetic expression?
    Other debates used to be about infants—are they innocent, or sinful? Do they need baptism immediately, or is there an “age of accountability?” So are they less than fully-developed, spiritually, exceptions made; is an embryo less than fully-developed physically, less-than-a-person, exceptions made? “Life” aside (the sperm and egg are alive also, as are all the body’s cells), when does that union become a “person”—at conception, at birth, somewhere in between—perhaps the old term “quickening?” Developing cells became the “Unborn”; a fetus and all earlier stages of cellular development became a “Baby”; abortion–at any stage, for any reason– and frankly any form of contraception became “Murder.”
    Medical obstetric science has given trimesters for gauging development, viability. Fundys and evangys use science when it’s convenient—how closely observed is that embryo—yet they will disregard or deny science elsewhere: e.g. creationism/young earth v fossil record/astrophysics/environmental studies/climate change, etc. Or immunology. epidemiology.
    Passing laws —to support and encourage responsible behavior— also can remove responsibility to love and support our neighbor, at govt/societal level as well as at individual level. Texas’ recent laws are beyond punitive.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thank you for your courage, Allison, to express these important things. I also am pro-life, so it matters greatly that followers of Jesus be consistent in word and deed with our Lord.
    Pro-life, I believe, means that, for Jesus’ sake, we cannot condone violence in words or actions as a strategy to protect the lives of the un-born.
    It’s painful to face the truth of what you write. Yet, it is the question today, and not just on this issue: Do Christians, as they seek to affect the world for Jesus, actually look, sound, and act like Jesus?
    If we could, I believe we could save many lives.

  • Betty Gonzales RN says:

    Please check out the work and writings of abortionist, Dr Warren Hern, of the Boulder Abortion Clinic in Colorado. He is a really compassionate abortionist who has had his life threatened many times. He is one of the rare persons who will perform late term abortions for severe birth anomalies. He is an American hero and defender of women’s rights.
    Betty Gonzales, RN

  • William Harris says:

    For such an important topic, and especially with the issue on the Supreme Court docket, I would have enjoyed a tighter address on the issues at hand. For instance there is plenty of discussion about the Texas law following the Supreme Court review; the mechanism of the law is quite problematic as numerous commentators on left and right have noted. Further, it is something of an over generalization to assert that those opposing abortion don’t care about maternal health or the conditions that drive women to end unwanted pregnancies. Those voices are there, albeit in a minority. The views of Karen Swallow Prior (Baptist), Elizabeth Bruenig (Catholic) and Democrats for Life all share views that put opposition to abortion in the context of other social issues, not least the death penalty. Finally the intersection of poverty and abortion could also have been profitably addressed. Here both the Texas law and the provision of abortion align: both do nothing to relieve the conditions that drive so many to abortion. While Texas immiserates, the abortion provider accommodates the demands of economic inequality.

  • Mary Buitendorp says:

    There have been studies done that show that when women are offered accessible, reliable, long term, free birth control, along with education, abortion rates plummet. Why don’t we spend all the money and energy we are spending on anti-abortion efforts by providing birth control and education. Abortion might become a non issue.

  • Susan says:

    Thank you Allison This article should be published and read every day all over the US
    The information is so important to the health of women. You report the facts. I regret the negative feedback you get for your courage.
    I never shop at Hobby Lobby. They support abortion because they do not fund birth control for their women employes. If they wanted to stop abortions they need to fund all health care for women.

    • Tom says:

      Just to be clear, Hobby Lobby does not object to covering contraceptives, only methods of ’emergency contraction’ (such as the morning after pill) which end a pregnancy after it has begun.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I think this article gets at some issues but I wish we could have a open conversation about how our society treats women. As mentioned above studies connect education and birth control to reduced abortions, but that’s not all we know. A thriving economy and care for poor women also dramatically lowers abortion. If we care so much about a fetus or unborn child in the womb, why do so many “pro-life” advocates seem to stop caring after the child is born?
    If we wanted to limit and come as close to ending abortion, here are some suggestions:
    1. Universal health care, so all women will receive the best care possible through pregnancy.
    2. Universal basic income, so every woman that has a child can raise that child with a basic financial safety net.
    3. Universal early child care, so every woman that wants it can have quality child care and then be able to work.

    I know. I know. We could never afford it, but you know what, if this is a mass-murder event, rising to the level of slavery (not my perspective but raised by so many), how can we not afford it?

    A few last thoughts:
    I hear many people raise the idea that life either begins at birth or conception or we must find an arbitrary middle. The vast history of humanity found life to begin at birth. Have you ever noticed that basically every headstone notes the birth of the deceased with the death, defining the persons life? There is a reason for that.
    If we move to the notion of conception as the beginning of life, we’ll then what do we make of the approximately 75% of conceived eggs that don’t implant in the uterine wall? Is God the biggest abortionist in history? I would say no, but it’s hard to come to some other conclusion if human life starts at conception.
    I’ve written enough. Hope the conversation is more fruitful going forward

  • Fred Lanting says:

    It is a shame that the words “Reformed” and “Grand Rapids” appear on the pro-abortion side. I went to schools operated by the Reformed and Christian Reformed denominations and these words were associated with conservative, pro-life, traditional reformed-doctrine Christianity. Has “The Reformed Journal” appropriated that group of believers? Perhaps it should be called “Re-reformed”. My soul’s hands are soiled enough… I wouldn’t want pre-born babies’ blood on them.