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.