The following article appeared in Human Life Review, Summer 2011. Copyright © 2011 by Mary Meehan

Marchers with LIFE banner

Why Liberals Should Defend the Unborn

Mary Meehan

Why does the warm heart of liberalism turn to ice on the subject of unborn children? Why do so many liberals support abortion and Roe v. Wade? These are not easy questions to answer, given liberal convictions that should lead to opposition instead. As someone with an early background in antiwar politics, and one who lived through the legalization of abortion, I will suggest reasons why so many liberals support it. Then I will offer many reasons why they should, instead, defend the unborn. Most of those reasons should also be of interest to radicals and libertarians. I hope that all will consider my case, both in their personal lives and in thinking about public policy.

Whatever Happened to the Joy of Life?

In 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade, liberals still revered the Court for its defense of civil rights and civil liberties in the 1950s and 1960s. They trusted the Court, and especially trusted three liberal justices who bore much responsibility for Roe: William Brennan, William O. Douglas, and Thurgood Marshall. They also had faith in the American Civil Liberties Union, which supported legal abortion. Led astray by institutions and people they relied on, many liberals did not follow their own better instincts. Nor did they do the hard thinking they should have done on a matter of life or death.

Gloomy European ideologies, left over from the 1800s and early 1900s, also influenced liberals and radicals of the Roe era. Too often those ideologies overrode earlier American views that were less rigid and more hopeful. Karl Marx's materialism deeply influenced the secular left; so did an essay by his colleague, Friedrich Engels, that was hostile toward marriage and indifferent to children.(1) Sigmund Freud's sexual theories led many liberals to assume that sexual restraint is psychologically harmful. Freudian faith--and our homegrown Alfred Kinsey--paved the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which treated children as unwelcome byproducts of sex. That revolution gave many people, both men and women, a personal stake in abortion.

Thomas Malthus's obsession with population numbers, and Francis Galton's ideas about breeding better humans through eugenics, eventually led to a U.S. population-control movement that attained major power by the late 1960s. The more astute American eugenicists, such as Frederick Osborn and Alan Guttmacher, used euphemisms and humanitarian language to cloak their targeting of poor people and ethnic minorities for birthrate suppression. But Guttmacher, as president of Planned Parenthood (and former vice president of the American Eugenics Society), slipped up when he explained the advantage of using the United Nations to spread population control. "If you're going to curb population," he said, "it's extremely important not to have it done by the damned Yankee, but by the UN. Because the thing is, then it's not considered genocide. If the United States goes to the black man or the yellow man and says slow down your reproductive rate, we're immediately suspected of having ulterior motives to keep the white man dominant in the world. If you can send in a colorful UN force, you've got much better leverage."(2)

Eugenics also had substantial influence on European socialists and on leading U.S. scientists of a leftist persuasion (especially on the issue of preventing births of people who might be disabled). The socialists and scientists, in turn, influenced many American liberals. Some older, upper-class liberals took eugenics for granted, since its influence was strong in Ivy League universities they had attended and in other institutions of the "power elite."(3) Others on the left were just very naive. When population controllers argued for legalization and public subsidy of abortion on the premise that poor women should have access to what rich women had, many on the left fell for that approach--hook, line, and sinker. They went out and campaigned for abortion, viewing it as a matter of justice for the poor. It didn't occur to them that they were doing the heavy lifting for eugenics.

The influence of Marx, Engels, Freud, Kinsey, Malthus, and Galton dealt blows to the earlier hope and optimism of American liberals and radicals. It conditioned them to a bleak view of humanity--a view at war with their better instincts and their principles.

Marchers with 'Michigan Loves Life/Protect the Unborn' banner

The abiding influence of the gloomy Europeans also affected the new American feminism that arose in the 1960s.(4) A higher and more hopeful view of human nature might have saved the new feminists from their disastrous alliance with abortion. Leaders of the first wave of American feminism, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had been resolutely anti-abortion. They saw it as harmful to women and deeply unjust to children. But many women of the 1960s and 1970s had deep anger and resentment over treatment they had received from individual men or from society: exclusion from many occupations and leadership positions; sexual harassment on the job or in the streets; being let go from jobs--or expelled from high schools--because they were pregnant; rape; and abuse by husbands or boyfriends. With the take-no-prisoners stance of the new feminism, they rolled out their heavy artillery and fired it at nearly everyone in sight. Their devastating crossfire did more damage to unborn children than to anyone else.

Many 1960s feminist leaders and writers believed women needed the ability to be un-pregnant at will in order to have equality, especially in employment. They saw abortion as a non-negotiable demand. All too many liberals accepted that demand without asking whether abortion betrayed their key principles. While there was some debate about abortion in liberal/left publications in the 1970s and early 1980s, that debate was never as widespread as it should have been. On the secular left, it petered out as abortion forces gained enormous power within the Democratic Party.(5) The remaining pro-life liberals were made to feel like Hendrik van Loon, an historian who died in the 1940s. Called "the last of the old-fashioned liberals," he said the Smithsonian wanted to acquire him for its collection.(6)

There is a great need to engage liberals intellectually--and press them hard--on the ways that abortion breaks faith with basic liberal principles and traditions. We need the kind of robust dialogue and debate that should have occurred decades ago.

Back to Basics

Liberals respect science, and science confirms that a new human life begins at fertilization.(7) Each of us started as a tiny embryo: the President of the United States, every justice of the Supreme Court, every member of Congress, the window-washer on a skyscraper, the teacher in the classroom, the lawyer in the courtroom, the farmer in the fields, the truck driver on the highways. We should think about our own humble origins, rather than disdain the tiny size of the newest humans. That tiny size is deceptive, for the embryo is a "self-assembler"(8) who grows by leaps and bounds. We should view the complexity and rapid development of human embryos with awe and respect.

Defending those who cannot defend themselves has long been the pride of the left. When no one else would do it, liberals and radicals stood up for the little guys and the little gals: day laborers and domestic workers, abused children, African Americans and other minorities, elderly patients with dementia, the poor, the unloved and unwanted, the down-and-outers. The unborn are the most defenseless members of the human community. Others can cry out for help, and some can defend themselves, but unborn children cannot. To abandon them is to abandon the heart and honor of the left. Instead, liberals and radicals should stand by unborn children in the spirit of the old movement songs, "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "We Shall Overcome."

Another liberal tradition, much neglected now, is optimism about the future and the possibility of progress. A gloomy and pessimistic view of life never characterized liberals at their best. Nor did they view children as liabilities, or as predestined for bad outcomes by poverty or disability. Instead, liberals saw children as a sign of hope. And progressives used to be the can-do people of our politics. They used to say, "Let's change conditions that keep people down. Right now!" The anti-slavery movement, early feminism, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement did not begin in pessimism and despair--and certainly did not end there. Liberals and radicals belong on the side of life. They should remember Lucinda Matlock and her love of life as she gathered flowers by Spoon River, "Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys."(9) They should recapture the joy of life. They should see life as a grand adventure and have a sense of solidarity with all of their companions on the journey.

Trees and boulder on a hill

The right to life underlies and sustains every other right we have. To destroy human beings at the beginning of their lives is to destroy, with just one blow, all of their rights and liberties. Deprived of their entire future, they will never exercise the rights to free speech or a free press. They will never organize, vote, or run for office. They will never pursue or enjoy happiness. Civil libertarians who support abortion are profoundly wrong and are actually attacking their own principles. By undermining the right to life at its beginning, they endanger that right--and all other rights--for humans of all ages and conditions. Thus, within a dozen years of Roe v. Wade, many Americans supported the denial of lifesaving surgery for handicapped newborns. Roe also emboldened advocates of euthanasia for adults.

It is a mistake to argue that abortion must be legal because some disagree about when each human life begins. The scientific evidence for fertilization as the starting point is overwhelming. It is reactionary to appeal, as some abortion advocates do, to the mistaken embryology of Aristotle or medieval philosophers in order to promote doubt on the matter. In his Roe v. Wade opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun acknowledged that briefs in the case had outlined "at length and in detail the well-known facts of fetal development." Then he proceeded to ignore those facts, saying the Court "need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins." Yet that question had been resolved by science long before Blackmun wrote.(10) All the Court had to do was take judicial notice of a fact already known and accepted. Liberals, given their respect for science, should be dismayed by the Court's failure on this key point.

Intellectual Chaos

Some liberals claim that one can be a human being without being a person and that we have a right to kill "non-persons." They fail to realize what a heavy burden of proof they must meet here, especially since they cannot even agree among themselves on when personhood begins. (Some favor weeks after fertilization, while others say months later, or even at birth.) Restating a classic ethical case in the plural: Hunters notice movement in a thicket, but don't know whether it is caused by a deer or another human being. If they shoot without determining the facts, and kill a human, they are guilty of homicide. Many abortion supporters say they cannot find out, yet they are willing to shoot anyway.

Libertarians for Life founder Doris Gordon comments: "Abortion choicers try to get around the intellectual chaos on their side by saying, 'Let the woman decide.' If one is free to decide whether another is a person, then whoever is strongest will do the deciding, and we all had better be thinking about our own prospects." She also notes: "No sperm or ovum can grow up and debate abortion; they are not 'programmed' to do so. What sets the person aside from the non-person is the root capacity for reason and choice. If this capacity is not in a being's nature, the being cannot develop it. We had this capacity on Day One, because it came with our human nature."(11)

One could even contend that it is worse to kill human beings before, rather than after, they develop the potential their nature gives them. At least the rest of us have the chance to use our potential. Whether we use it well or poorly, we have our day in the sun. As a recent March for Life sign asked: "You got a chance/Why can't they?" And if we discriminate against others on the basis of intellectual ability, we reject the principle of equal rights. We establish two classes of humanity--those who have rights and those who do not. That dangerous precedent places many other people at risk: newborn babies, stroke survivors, people who are retarded or demented, accident survivors who have severe brain injuries. Liberals should ponder the words of the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who said that our era keeps "defining personhood upward so that fewer and fewer of us make the cut." He warned that "everything, including your life, my friend, is up for discussion."(12)

"All I Can Believe in Is Life"

Young woman with sign for

The right to life is a bedrock right for secular people as well as religious believers. Perhaps non-believers should defend life even more ardently than believers do. Existence on earth should be more precious, not less, to those who believe it's the only one we have. Nat Hentoff, the noted author and civil libertarian, said that "it's a lot easier for an atheist--at least, this atheist--to be against abortion because all I have is life, this life. All I can believe in is life." As Hentoff and others realize, attacking the right to life of a whole class of humans undermines that right--and thus all other rights--for everyone else as well. Non-believers also can rely on the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," which has been honored through the centuries by both religious and secular people. Bernard Nathanson, once an abortion doctor, was an atheist when he joined the pro-life side. He described the Golden Rule as "a statement of innate human wisdom" and applied it to abortion. "Looked at this way," he said, "the 'sanctity of life' is not a theological but a secular concept, which should be perfectly acceptable to my fellow atheists." A group called notes that the "human right to life is affirmed in the Declaration of Independence, the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution, and many other human rights documents.... You don't have to be religious to join one of today's most important human rights movements!"(13)

Religious people have done most of the organizing and speaking against abortion, and their opposition claims that they are trying to impose their religious beliefs on others. Yet most great movements for social change in American history, although separately justifiable on secular grounds, have been deeply rooted in the religious community. Quakers and evangelical Protestants led the anti-slavery movement.(14) "Labor priests" were important to the rise of the labor movement. Quakers, Mennonites, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews have provided much leadership for the peace movement. Religious people have been deeply involved in efforts to abolish the death penalty. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other ministers made the African American churches the backbone of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. No one suggests that civil rights laws passed in that era are invalid because their advocates had religious motivation for their work. There should not be a different standard today for the religious motivation of many pro-lifers. Besides, the right to life is not the private property of any church. It is a universal human right.

Don't Shove Her Out in Mid-flight!

Abortion is an escape from an obligation that parents owe their children. By bringing a child into existence, Doris Gordon notes, the parents place her in a state of dependence with a need for care. "Liberals believe we have enforceable obligations toward strangers, including other people's children. Why not our own?" she asks. She says that conceiving and then aborting one's child "could be compared to capturing someone, placing her on one's airplane, and then shoving her out in mid-flight without a parachute."(15)

Roe v. Wade does not acknowledge the obligation of parents to protect from harm the human beings they bring into existence. It ignores the father's obligation. It treats the mother as having no responsibility for the child before birth, yet virtually total responsibility if she decides against abortion. "Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future.... Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care," the Roe justices declared. Nothing there about the father's joint responsibility for children and child care. If the justices were determined to act as a legislature rather than a court, they at least should have called for more male responsibility, not less.

Man holds sign: 'ABORTION/neat, quick easy way out......for Men'

They were remarkably negative toward parenting and children, referring to "the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child."(16) As the late Hispanic activist Grace Olivarez once said, "Those with power in our society cannot be allowed to 'want' and 'unwant' people at will.... I believe that, in a society that permits the life of even one individual (born or unborn) to be dependent on whether that life is 'wanted' or not, all its citizens stand in danger."(17) The Roe justices also ignored the preamble to the Constitution, which speaks of securing "the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." Posterity means all descendants. Our Founders were deeply concerned about posterity, and they did not make deadly distinctions between wanted and unwanted children, nor between born children and "fetuses." General George Washington, when perplexed about a problem during the American Revolution, said that what Congress wanted him to do "I know no more than the child unborn and beg to be instructed."(18) This was just ten years before Washington presided over our Constitutional Convention.

"We Created a Monster"

The Roe justices should have upheld the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments: that no person may be deprived of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Instead, Roe pushed local and federal governments into defending abortion clinics with police, federal court injunctions, and federal marshals. That is governmental action to deprive unborn human beings of their lives. So is the subsidy of abortion that many states provide. The governments involved do not hold trials to give due process to the unborn. After all, of what crime could they be accused? The crime of existing?

The Roe justices dealt briefly and unconvincingly with the Fourteenth Amendment, claiming that its use of "person" does not cover the unborn. This is where they established a legal policy of two classes of humanity. Under the 1857 Dred Scott decision, African American slaves were the non-citizens of our Constitution, but the Dred Scott majority at least called them a "class of persons." Southern state laws offered slaves some protection. Although those laws were often ignored in practice, a few whites were sentenced to death for killing slaves.(19) Under Roe, however, unborn children are non-persons, lacking even the right not to be killed.

Roe places women in an adversary position toward their own children and, in a real sense, toward themselves. This is what Joan Appleton faced when she saw women go through emotional trauma over abortion. As head nurse of an abortion clinic in Virginia, Appleton was a committed feminist who saw her clinic work as a chance to help other women. Although she counseled women carefully, she saw many go through emotional ordeals over abortion. She said some came back to her, months or even years later, as "psychological wrecks." This and other evidence led her to conclude: "We created a monster, and now we don't know what to do with it." Like Dr. Nathanson, Appleton joined the pro-life side.(20)

When young men face a draft in wartime, this forces them to start adult life by deciding whether to kill other human beings. There is never a good time to make such a decision, but the volatile teen years are an especially bad time. Now young women face the same decision in their teens, often under strong pressure from others to destroy their own children. This sets them up for psychological problems. Dr. David Fergusson, a New Zealand professor, has led major studies of abortion's psychological effects on a group of young New Zealand women. In 2006 he and his colleagues reported that those who had abortions had higher rates of depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide than other women in the group. The rates were especially high for those who were 15 to 18 years old. Fergusson, who described himself as pro-choice and "an atheist and a rationalist," acknowledged on a television program that he was surprised by results of his study. Another Fergusson-led study in 2008 found that women in the group who had abortions "had rates of mental health problems that were about 30% higher than rates of disorder in other women."(21)

Pro-Life Feminists, Then and Now

But what about the argument that women need abortion availability in order to have true equality with men? This was not the view of American feminists of the 1800s such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Elizabeth Blackwell. Writer Mary Krane Derr and her colleagues show that early feminists thought men--through unreasonable sexual demands, abandonment, or outright coercion--bore the greatest responsibility for abortion. But they also show that those feminists did not condone abortion or see it as a good for women. Nor did they say it should be legalized. The Anthony-Stanton newspaper, The Revolution, attacked abortion and those who practiced it.(22) Elizabeth Blackwell decided to become a physician partly in response to "Madame Restell," an illegal but wealthy abortionist who plied her trade in New York City. "That the honorable term 'female physician' should be exclusively applied to those women who carried on this shocking trade," Blackwell later wrote, "seemed to me a utter degradation of what might and should become a noble position for women." She added that "I finally determined to do what I could 'to redeem the hells' and especially the one form of hell thus forced upon my notice."(23)

The early feminists thought equality, both within marriage and in society, was the best preventive of abortion. Today's pro-life feminists carry on that tradition when they say we should change society to accommodate mothers, rather than vice-versa. Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life of America, works hard to spread this view around the country and on Capitol Hill. She is keenly aware of economic pressures that push women toward abortion. She knew that such pressures resulted in abortion for Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. That knowledge, Foster said, "inspired me personally to work for child-support enforcement" when Congress debated welfare reform some years ago.(24) Her group works to make college life easier for women who are pregnant and students who are caring for small children. The Feminists for Life have a can-do approach, and they are willing to work with people on all sides of the abortion issue to make life better for women and their childen.

Feminists for Life magazine cover features
'Remarkable Pro-Life Women'

How About the Dads?

How much attention did Roe v. Wade pay to the interest of fathers in the lives of their unborn children? Precisely one footnote, which said that they were not discussing "the father's rights, if any exist in the constitutional context..." In later cases, the Court struck down a state requirement for a husband's consent before an abortion could be done--and then even a requirement that a husband be notified of his wife's intent to have an abortion.(25)

A man still has an ethical responsibility to protect the children he helps bring into existence, yet he cannot stop an abortion doctor from killing them. He cannot even try to persuade his wife or girlfriend not to have an abortion if she decides not to tell him about the child's existence. Victoria Thorn, who has counseled many people after abortion, once described the mixed signals we send to fathers: "You have no rights. were a sperm donor; now be on your way. Now, on the other hand, if she wants this baby, then we'll be after you for child support. But in the meantime, we won't let you bond, because there's always this chance she's gonna do away with your baby."(26)

This places a man in a terrible situation and often leads to frustration, deep anger, and grief. It sometimes leads to guilt, if he tries to dissuade a woman from abortion, but doesn't try quite hard enough. Too often his family and friends do not urge him to do so--or even urge him to support the abortion. A writer who had been involved in abortion as a young man said there had been relentless pressure for the abortion on his girlfriend and himself, and he could not recall any voices on the other side. No one told him, he said, that "you have been a be a man."(27) Other men, thinking of 18 years of child support, manipulate or pressure women to have abortions. Some use one of the oldest and most effective forms of coercion: the threat or reality of abandonment. As one man said, "Too many men have sex for entertainment, sex for experience, sex for status, sex out of boredom, sex to make you feel like 'a hell of a man.' If a man has sex and abandons the woman, and the woman abandons her child, who's the real abortionist?"(28)

That's a good question, and here's another: Why should we worship at the shrine of choice? "Abortion" is a terrible word, and a terrible reality, so we should not be surprised that its advocates prefer to say "freedom of choice," "pro-choice," and "the choice issue." Yet the glory of humanity does not consist in making choices as such, but in making them wisely and well and in a way that avoids harming other people. We should not fear being called "anti-choice" when we support laws that are needed to prevent great harm to others, especially when that harm will end their lives. Ginny Desmond Billinger, a pro-life feminist, once wrote an essay called "Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic." She was anti-choice not only on abortion, but also on spousal and child abuse, drunk driving, unsafe disposal of hazardous wastes, and more.(29) A little reflection shows that liberals are anti-choice on many issues. They should add abortion to the list.

Wouldn't You Prefer a Nonviolent Solution?

Antiwar liberals should realize that abortion is another kind of warfare, but one that does not even pretend to abide by just-war standards. It kills civilians only--the youngest, weakest, and most defenseless civilians. As an army veteran once wrote, in abortion "the enemy isn't shooting back."(30) Weapons of war such as napalm and cluster bombs appall many liberals--and rightly so. They should also be dismayed by medical instruments that are used for killing instead of healing. Years ago, a supporter of legal abortion described how she felt when she was about to witness one. The cart by the operating table, she said, "is full of gleaming, vicious-looking metal instruments. My heart begins to pound. This is for real. These people are not kidding...."(31) Both war and abortion have euphemisms to cloak reality: "softening up" or "taking out" an adversary, "interrupting" a pregnancy or removing "products of conception." Abortion clinics have bland names such as Choice Medical Group, Healthy Futures for Women, and Women's Health Services.

Yet the camouflage words do not always help clinic workers. Involved in the daily and methodical destruction of other human beings, many are traumatized by their work. Some have terrible nightmares and depression; some consider suicide; and many turn to alcohol or other drugs. Those who must reassemble tiny body parts, to guard against maternal infection from retained parts, have special problems. It was this work that led Mississippi physician Beverly McMillan to say that "I just couldn't look at the little bodies anymore." She joined the pro-life movement. Nita Whitten, working as a secretary in a Texas abortion clinic, became very depressed. "I took drugs to wake up in the morning," she reported later. "I took speed while I was at work. And I smoked marijuana, drank lots of alcohol.... this is the way that I coped with what I did."(32) Rachel MacNair, a psychology expert, has studied severe reactions suffered by people who have killed others in abortion, war, and executions. She believes there is a good explanation for those reactions. "It isn't merely that killing is not in our nature," MacNair says. "It is against our nature."(33)

Two men hold banner that proclaims: 'Consistent Life/
Pro-Peace, Pro-Life'

For all of these reasons, peace people should be in the front ranks of the pro-life movement. They should be asking, "What are nonviolent solutions to difficulties that pregnancy presents? What can we do to advance those solutions and create others?"

Targeting Poor Children and Minorities

Anyone concerned about civil rights should be alarmed by abortion as lethal discrimination against poor people and ethnic minorities. Eugenicists long have targeted both groups for population control. The 1956 membership list of the American Eugenics Society could have been called Who's Who in Population Control. It included sociologist Kingsley Davis, ethicist Joseph Fletcher, biologist Bentley Glass, birth-control leader Margaret Sanger, physician Alan Guttmacher, and other movers and shakers in public policy. Some of them later suggested coercive population control, and many supported abortion as a quick way to reduce birthrates. Most were white males who didn't care about adverse health effects on women of the early Pill, IUDs, and surgical abortion. They were not worried about women's health or about ethics; they just wanted to get the numbers down. Some had major influence on the legalization of abortion.(34)

But where eugenicists of the 1920s were blunt about their disdain for the poor, their heirs of the 1970s presented abortion as a good for poor women. In 1971 Dr. Guttmacher (by then the president of Planned Parenthood) wrote Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York to support Medicaid funding of abortion for poor women. Guttmacher said a recent cut-back of such funding, was "grossly discriminatory against the least privileged citizens of this State." He asked, "What are such poor souls to do in the future?" Then he added, as abortion advocates often did--and many still do--an economic argument for eliminating poor children: "To save a few million dollars now the State must pay far more eventually for prenatal care and delivery and the eighteen-year annual upkeep of children likely to become financial burdens of the State."(35)

Planned Parenthood leaders fought hard in Congress and the federal courts for subsidized abortion. When they lost at the federal level, they fought and often won in state courts. Naive liberals did much to aid those fights. So did the American Civil Liberties Union. Aryeh Neier, who was the ACLU executive director in 1970-78, later referred to "whites who were eager to eliminate or limit the number of welfare mother babies out of an anti-black feeling" and acknowledged that "I dealt with some supporters of abortion who are very much in favor of abortion for exactly that reason." Interviewed by one of his law students at New York University, Prof. Neier said two foundations, one in Pittsburgh and one in Missouri, supported abortion efforts because of such racist views. "I don't regard it as dirty money," he said, "so long as people don't try to impose conditions on what you can do with the money.... So as long as they don't try to impose restrictions, I will always take the money."(36)

African Americans and Latinos with 'Defend Life' signs

The abortion rate for poor women is far higher than the rate for middle-class and upper-class women. In the year 2000, the abortion rate for African American women was nearly four times that for white women, according to a survey report by--ironically--the Alan Guttmacher Institute. The authors estimated that of all pregnancies among black women in 2000, 43 percent led to abortion.(37) Civil rights activist Dick Gregory was right, many years earlier, when he called abortion "a death sentence upon us." The late Fannie Lou Hamer, a great civil rights activist in Mississippi, shared his view.(38) Many African American women have suffered bitter regret and depression as a result of abortion. Pamela Carr had one when she was just 17 and headed toward college. "The anguish and guilt I felt were unbelievable," she wrote later in Ebony. "I became deeply depressed.... Over time I was able to forgive myself and go on with my life, but always with the knowledge that I had swept away a part of my future which could never be recovered." Her question about the unborn: "How many more of them have to die before we realize that abortion is not a solution but another, more troubling, problem plaguing our community?" Arlene Campbell had a legal abortion that nearly killed her: "Depression became a major part of my daily existence.... I now speak of life, but for many years all I could think of was death."(39)

Disability Rights for the Unborn

Abortion also involves lethal discrimination against children with disabilities. Some writers suggest that a "new eugenics" produced prenatal testing and abortion of the handicapped unborn. Actually, it was the same old eugenics that for decades supported compulsory sterilization of the "feebleminded." After the Nazi era, though, U.S. eugenics leaders realized they had to be more subtle. Frederick Osborn, the shrewd chief of the American Eugenics Society, was co-founder and first administrator of the Population Council. He used the Council to advance all of his eugenic interests. In addition to other population-control programs, the Council funded medical-genetics fellowships for students who were recommended by a committee of Osborn's eugenics society. His society also promoted heredity counseling, which it called "the opening wedge in the public acceptance of eugenic principles."(40)

Osborn supported the new American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG), which other eugenicists had started, and served as that group's vice president in 1958. Many other ASHG leaders and members were deeply involved in developing or advocating prenatal testing for fetal handicaps such as Down Syndrome and spina bifida. But prenatal testing would have meant little had abortion remained illegal. Big money took care of that problem: In 1962 a project to develop a Model Penal Code for the states, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, proposed the legalization of abortion for fetal disability and other hard cases.(41) Several states followed its advice; then Roe made special exceptions unnecessary.

It is tragic that the disability rights movement was still getting off the ground in the 1970s. Had it become a major force decades earlier, eugenics might not have developed into such a powerful monster. But the disability rights movement came of age after Roe v. Wade, and it includes both people who support Roe and people who oppose abortion and are appalled by its use as a tool of eugenics. Joseph P. Shapiro, who authored a history of the movement, said it has dealt with abortion "largely by keeping its distance."(42)

Liberals usually side with people who have disabilities, insisting that they have equal rights. That's where liberals and disability rights activists should be on the issue of eugenic abortion. They should remind everyone that most of us have one or more disabilities, ranging from poor eyesight to severe problems, and that we will have more as we grow older. As disability rights activist Mary Jane Owen has said, "developing a few glitches, developing impairments, is not the end of the joy of life," and "we can enjoy life learning new functions and new ways of being."(43)

Young man holds sign that says, 'Pre-med Student for Life

Protect the Children, and "Live Lightly on the Earth"

Liberals should realize, too, that abortion harms children who are not aborted, but hear about abortion when they are very young. One psychiatrist reported, "I have had children who suffer from night terrors and who fear to fall asleep because they overheard their parents discussing an abortion they had or planned to have. These children fear they may be gotten rid of the next time they make their parents angry."(44) Drs. Philip G. Ney and Marie A. Peeters-Ney wrote that some children suffer from "survivor guilt" because they know that one or more siblings were aborted. Children who know their parents considered aborting them, the doctors suggested, tend to be fearful and over-eager to please. And the Neys quoted someone who had cancer at the age of twelve: "My mother told me she was going for prenatal diagnosis to make sure the baby was alright [sic]. I knew what would happen if the baby wasn't. One night I thought perhaps if I did not get better the doctors would get rid of me too. I never trusted my mother after that. In actual fact I never trusted anybody after that."(45)

Abortion also goes against the harmony with nature that environmentalists celebrate and encourage. Childbirth, after all, is the natural way to end a pregnancy. Why, then, do so many environmentalists promote abortion? Many do so because they see all human beings--except, perhaps, themselves and those they love--as threats to the natural environment. They assume that the fewer people there are, the less pollution and resource exhaustion we will have. Some of their messages make people feel guilty to be alive or to have children. Yet environmentalists overlook what seems to be a perverse result of population control: The fewer people there are, the more things each person wants. Despite today's norm of two children per family, American houses are larger than ever before. Many tiny families rattle around in mini-castles--and drive huge, gas-guzzling vans and SUVs. Where a family used to have one television, many now have one per bedroom, plus others scattered around the home. Has all of this led to greater happiness? That seems doubtful, given how hard people work to buy all their stuff, to take care of it, and then to buy even bigger houses to store it all. "Live lightly on the earth" is a splendid environmental slogan, and that is where our emphasis should be. Instead of eliminating people, we should return to simpler and less stressful lifestyles.

Liberals, like most Americans, tend to acquire too much stuff. They also have inherited much ideological debris from recent generations of the left. Neither kind of junk makes them happy. If they discard both, they will have plenty of room for children and for life. Then they might, like Lucinda Matlock, shout to the wooded hills and sing to the green valleys.

Trees frame river, wooded hill, and blue sky


Many thanks to Doris Gordon
for helpful suggestions on the text.

1. Friedrich Engels, "The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State," in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 734-59.

2. William Stump, "Dr. Guttmacher - Still Optimistic about the Population Problem," Baltimore Magazine 63, no. 2 (Feb. 1970), 25 & 50-53, 51-52. Guttmacher was listed as vice president of the American Eugenics Society in issues of the Eugenics Quarterly from 1956-63.

3. Diane Paul, "Eugenics and the Left," Journal of the History of Ideas 45, no. 4 (Oct.-Dec. 1984), 567-90; Mary Meehan, "Eugenics and the Power Elite," Social Justice Review 88, nos. 11-12 (Nov.-Dec. 1997), 167-70; Mary Meehan, "The Road to Abortion," Human Life Review 24, no. 4 (Fall 1998), 76-89, and vol. 25, no. 1 (Winter 1999), 68-82; Mary Meehan, "What's Wrong with the Science Establishment?" ibid., vol. 26, no. 4 (Fall 2000), 63-85; and Gunnar Broberg and Nils Roll-Hansen, ed., Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, 2nd ed. (East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 2005).

4. On Marxist influence, see Daniel Horowitz, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998); and Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: William Morrow, 1970). My thanks to writer Dale O'Leary for references to The Dialectic of Sex and the Engels essay cited in n. 1.

5. To the extent there was debate on the left, it was mainly in religious publications. Exceptions included debates provoked by: Juli Loesch and others, "Abortion: A Question of Survival?" WIN, 1 Aug. 1980, 15-28; Mary Meehan, "Abortion: The Left Has Betrayed the Sanctity of Life," The Progressive, Sept. 1980, 32-34; and Nat Hentoff, "How Can the Left Be Against Life?" Village Voice, 16 July 1985, 18 & 20.

6. Van Wyck Brooks, An Autobiography (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1965), 379.

7. In the case of identical twins, a second human life begins when the first embryo divides. Triplets and higher multiples can be identical, fraternal, or a combination. See Keith L. Moore and others, Before We Are Born, 7th ed. (Philadelphia: Saunders/Elsevier, 2008), 2 & 88-90.

8. John Walker, "Power and Act: Notes Towards Engaging in a Discussion of One of the Underlying Questions in the Abortion Debate," International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 19, nos. 3/4 (1999), 54-64, 57 (available at; go to "Library").

9. "Lucinda Matlock" in Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 239. Masters based the fictional Matlock on one of his grandmothers (ibid., p. 8).

10. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 at 156 & 159 (1973); Alan Frank Guttmacher with Ellery Rand, Life in the Making (New York: Viking, 1933), 3; and George W. Corner, Ourselves Unborn: An Embryologist's Essay on Man (New Haven: Yale, 1944; reprint, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books/Shoe String Press, 1972), 1. Corner wrote, "When a man is born, he is already nine months old."

11. Doris Gordon, "Abortion and Rights: Applying Libertarian Principles Correctly," International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 19, nos. 3/4 (1999), 97-127, 112 & 111. This is the best, richest, and clearest philosophical article on abortion that I have ever read. It is available on the Libertarians for Life website, (go to "Library").

12. "March for Life 2011 Photos,", accessed 28 March 2011; and Bernard Nathanson, The Hand of God (Washington: Regnery, 1996), 4 & 5.

13. Nat Hentoff, "You Don't Have to Believe in God to Be Prolife," U.S. Catholic, March 1989, 28-30, 28; and Bernard N. Nathanson with Richard N. Ostling, Aborting America (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979), 227. (Nathanson eventually joined the Catholic Church.) See, also: "Is Abortion a Religious Issue?" (under "Publications"), accessed 30 March 2011.

14. On evangelicals' role in the anti-slavery movement, see Benjamin P. Thomas, Theodore Weld, Crusader for Freedom (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers, 1950); Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin's, 1998); and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve, 1969).

15. Doris Gordon, telephone conversation with the author, 15 April 2011; and Gordon (n. 11), 120.

16. Roe v. Wade (n. 10) at 153.

17. "Separate Statement of Grace Olivarez" in U.S. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, Population and the American Future (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972), 160-64, 161 & 163.

18. George Washington to Benjamin Harrison, 19 Aug. 1777, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1931-44), vol. 9, 95-96.

19. Roe v. Wade (n. 10) at 156-59; Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 Howard) 393 at 403, 404, 407, 409, 411 & 422 (1857); and Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (New York: Knopf, 1956), 217-24.

20. Joan Appleton, Remarks at "Meet the Abortion Providers" conference, 3 April 1993, sponsored by the Pro-Life Action League, Chicago, Ill., audio recording.

21. David M. Fergusson and others, "Abortion in Young Women and Subsequent Mental Health," Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 47, no. 1 (2006), 16-24, 19; Australian Broadcasting Corporation, "Higher Risk of Mental Health Problems After Abortion: Report," transcript of 3 Jan. 2006 broadcast; and David M. Fergusson and others, "Abortion and Mental Health Disorders: Evidence from a 30-Year Longitudinal Study," British Journal of Psychiatry (2008), 444-51, 449.

22. The Revolution, 5 Feb. 1868, 65; 12 March 1868, 146-47; 26 March 1868, 177 & 178; 7 May 1868, 279; 28 May 1868, 327; 8 July 1869, 4; 2 Sept. 1869, 138; 2 Dec. 1869, 346.

23. Mary Krane Derr and others [ed.], ProLife Feminism: Yesterday and Today, 2nd ed., rev. ([Kansas City, Mo.]: Feminism and Nonviolence Studies Association, 2005), 36. Blackwell apparently found the phrase "to redeem the hells" in the writing of Emanuel Swedenborg.

24. Serrin Foster, interview by author, 22 Jan. 1998, Washington, D.C., transcript.

25. Roe v. Wade (n. 10) at 165 n. 67; Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 at 67-72 (1976); and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 at 887-98 (1992).

26. Victoria Thorn, telephone interview by author, 12 Dec. 1997, transcript.

27. Richard Cowden Guido, "Papa's Post-Operative Blues: A Father Looks at Abortion," ALL About Issues, June-July 1989, 43.

28. "Name Withheld," letter to the editor, P.S., Dec. 1980, 7.

29. Ginny Desmond Billinger, "Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic," in Gail Grenier Sweet, ed., Pro-Life Feminism: Different Voices (Toronto: Life Cycle Books, 1985), 77-78.

30. Phil McCombs, "Remembering Thomas," Washington Post, 3 Feb. 1995, D-5.

31. Magda Denes, In Necessity and Sorrow (New York: Basic Books, l976), 213.

32. Mary Meehan, "The Ex-Abortionists," Washington Post, 1 April 1988, A-21; and Nina Whitten, Remarks at "Meet the Abortion Providers" conference, 18 Feb. 1989, sponsored by the Pro-Life Action League, Chicago, Ill., audio recording.

33. Rachel M. MacNair, "Understanding How Killing Traumatizes the Killer," in Rachel M. MacNair and Stephen Zunes, ed., Consistently Opposing Killing (Westport, Conn.: Praeger/Greenwood, 2008), 39-46, 45.

34. American Eugenics Society, "Membership List, 1956," Eugenics Quarterly 3, no. 4 (Dec. 1956), 243-52 (Margaret Sanger listed under her married name of Margaret Sanger Slee, 249); Meehan, "The Road to Abortion" (n. 3); and Rebecca Messall, "The Long Road of Eugenics: From Rockefeller to Roe v. Wade," Human Life Review 30, no. 4 (Fall 2004), 33-74.

35. Alan F. Guttmacher to Nelson Rockefeller, 12 April 1971 [mimeographed copy distributed to media], Alan Frank Guttmacher Papers, H MS c155, box 4, f. 45, Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston, Mass.

36. Aryeh Neier, interview with Thomas J. Balch, 3 Nov. 1979, in Balch's "Convincing the Courts on Abortion," a paper for Prof. Neier's "Litigation and Public Policy" course [New York University School of Law], Fall 1979, appendix, 12-13. See, also, Mary Meehan, "ACLU v. Unborn Children," Human Life Review 27, no. 2 (Spring 2001), 49-73.

37. Rachel K. Jones and others, "Patterns in the Socioeconomic Characteristics of Women Obtaining Abortions in 2000-2001," Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 34, no. 5 (Sept.-Oct. 2002), 226-35, 228.

38. Barry Farrell, "Running with Dick Gregory," Ramparts, Aug.-Sept. 1975, 26 ff., 54; and Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (New York: Dutton/Penguin, 1993), 260-61 & 274.

39. Pamela Carr, "Which Way Black America? Anti-Abortion," Ebony 44, no. 12 (Oct. 1989), 134 ff., 138; and Arlene Campbell, "A Shattered Life," Black Americans for Life newsletter, Washington, D.C., Spring 2005, [3].

40. American Eugenics Society, Five-Year Report of the Officers: 1953-1957 (New York, n.d.), 9-11, 10.

41. Mary Meehan, "The Triumph of Eugenics in Prenatal Testing," Human Life Review 35, no. 3 (Summer 2009), 28-40, 33-36.

42. Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity (New York: Times Books/Random House, 1993), 278.

43. Mary Jane Owen, telephone interview by author, 31 July 1992, transcript.

44. Edward J. Sheridan, interview by John G. Gatewood, Georgetown University Right to Life Journal 2 (Fall 1981), 1-5, 1.

45. Philip G. Ney and Marie A. Peeters-Ney, Abortion Survivors (Victoria, B.C., Canada: Pioneer Publishing, 1998), 26-27 & 33.