Discover more from The Harvard Salient
Is abortion a sign of women's liberation? The founders of the "Revolution" didn't think so.
On January 8, 1868, the first issue of the classic suffragist newspaper, the Revolution, was released, bearing on its first page a declaration of principles that condemned, inter alia, “quack or immoral advertisements,” an oblique reference to abortifacient drugs.1 In doing so, the Revolution bequeathed to later generations a struggle over its legacy, in which pundits on both sides attempt alternately to minimize or exaggerate the anti-abortion sentiments of the paper, its proprietor Susan B. Anthony, and its editors Parker Pillsbury and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Yet however often modern writers may attempt to write off the Revolution’s condemnations of “foeticide,” the fact remains that one will search the paper in vain for the slightest hint of a defense of abortion.2 Naturally enough, the editors took pains to point out that the blame for foeticide, infanticide, and all similar ills lay almost entirely with men, but if they blamed men for the practice, they ipso facto did not endorse it.3
But, the fact-checkers point out with their usual partisan irrelevance, Anthony and Stanton never publicly called for a legal ban on abortion.4 No matter that, in their newspaper, infanticide and feticide are conflated and regarded “with shuddering horror;”5 no matter that the paper published an article dealing with the prevalence of abortion under the simple title “Child Murder;”6 no matter that the paper lauds a female doctor who broke professional confidentiality in order to report to the police a man inquiring about obtaining an abortion for a lady friend.7 Let the right-thinking reader ignore all that, and comfort himself with the fact that the editors of the Revolution did not call for a law that already existed.8
The obfuscatory efforts of all later ideologues can do nothing to conceal the opinion of the editors on the subject of abortion, whether procured early through “quacks and their drugs” or late through surgery, which is clearly and consistently expressed whenever the issue arises. This view was that abortion was a moral and human calamity, attributable to the breakdown of the relationship between men and women and brought about by a corrupt social order. They summarized it like this: “When the conditions of society are so false that mothers kill their own children, the trouble lies deeper down than ‘Restellism.’”9 In other words, abortion is the symptom of broader social dysfunction; its existence serves as a powerful indictment of society at large. It remains such an indictment. We would add that abortion, in addition to being a symptom of the corruption of our social order, also reinforces and perpetuates it. It not only arises from, but exacerbates, the breakdown of the crucial human relationships whose prosperity is vital to a healthy society.
Did the editors of the Revolution believe that “Restellism” had to be criminalized in order to be eradicated? Unsurprisingly, they did not feel it necessary to support laws that at the time were not a matter of controversy. But when they remark that “the frightful and increasing extent of the crime of Restellism is full warrant for honest, earnest protest against it, from whatever quarter,”10 we should certainly understand the word “crime” not only in its strictly legal sense, but also in its pejorative moral sense. For the editorial voice, the “we” of the Revolution, Restellism did not need to be criminalized in order to be criminal; it was a crime whether the law recognized it or not.
Whatever conclusion we draw from the antipathy which the editors of the Revolution regularly showed towards abortion and infanticide, we should at least be willing to allow this: opposition to the societally normalized practice of abortion for non-medical reasons did not and still does not arise from some Freudian desire to “control women’s bodies,” nor does it originate from pure religious dogma. The regular slurs do not stick to the early suffragists. Fascists they were not. Slaves to the patriarchy they were not. Fundamentalists they were not.
Opposition to abortion arises, instead, from the shameful causes and deleterious effects of the practice. The suffragists of the Revolution opposed abortion because they knew its causes; we oppose abortion because we know its effects. Whoever wants to escape the haze of lies that obscures this issue must confront this fact: the reason people are dissatisfied with abortion is that they live in the world it helped to create and the system it helps to perpetuate. Having experienced it, they perceive its faults, which are considerable; they have concluded that abortion is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The simple truth is that abortion is a very poor “fix” for the issues created by the breakdown of relations between the sexes. This is the primary reason that people oppose and will continue to oppose abortion. It is a poor solution not only because of its consequences for the fetus, but also because it violates the predictable, reliable dispositions of human nature.
“When the conditions of society are so false that mothers kill their own children, the trouble lies deeper down than Restellism.”
Maternal affection is not something that people invented. The mother-child relationship is not something that we discovered through experimentation. The editors of the Revolution recognized that regardless of whether the fetus is a “person,” it is indisputably a child—that is, the biological descendant of its mother. It may not be a citizen, but it is a son or daughter; it may not be part of a civic relationship, but it is part of a biological, human relationship, created at the moment of conception, that cannot be imagined away. Where abortion is practiced, this relationship is violated; where abortion is normalized, this relationship is cruelly suppressed.
But why do mothers continue to resort to such an extremity? I point the reader to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s article “Prostitution and Infanticide,” where she expresses herself to this tune:
“Scarce a day passes but some of our daily journals take note of the fearful ravages on the race, made through the crimes of Infanticide and Prostitution.”
“We believe the cause of all these abuses lies in the degradation of woman.”
“Let us [not] weep, and whine, and pray over all these abominations; but with an enlightened conscientiousness and religious earnestness, bring ourselves into line with God’s just, merciful, and wise laws.”
“Strike the chains from your women; for as long as they are slaves to man’s lust, man will be the slave of his own passions.”11
How could one make the point any clearer? Only a society that treats women like prostitutes will expect them to kill their children. The solution to this problem, needless to say, is not to kill more children.
Supporters of abortion emphasize choice but do not dwell on what choices are available and when they are made. If society does not honor, facilitate, and promote motherhood, if it breaks up the relationships that support raising children, and undermines the material foundations of the family, but offers abortion as a means of avoiding motherhood—this is a fool’s choice, and only dupes will call it liberty.
The purpose of society is to be useful to motherhood; it is not motherhood’s purpose to be useful to society. Therefore, if a certain social order makes motherhood seem unprofitable, difficult, and inconvenient, then it is useless and worthy to be discarded. Concretely, if the abortion of a healthy pregnancy ever seems to be, though it in fact never is, the best available option, this means that society at large is simply corrupt and unfree. This is the basic and endlessly repeated insight of the editors of the Revolution.
We are not naive enough to believe that the problem will be fixed by law alone. Neither are we blind enough to suppose that it can be fixed unless law leads the way. The social expectations and material relations that reinforce the system of abortion must be shattered, not coaxed out of existence. Hercules must behead the hydra before Iolaus can sear the stump. Unless law champions the advance, all good intentions and social programs will be impotent. The Dobbs decision has already encouraged millions of American women to switch to more effective means of preventive contraception, unavoidably reducing the rates of abortion.12 This is an enormous improvement on the former status quo, and we have the Supreme Court to thank for it. Sex strikes, if they actually occur, will also reduce the number of aborted pregnancies, and we welcome them.
We completely reject all of the misdirections, prevarications, and outright lies that are used to shield abortion and the social order that upholds it. From the ugly habit of using the alleged future challenges of aborted children to justify their death, to the motte-and-bailey fallacy whereby the uncontroversial though tragic termination of ectopic pregnancies is used as cover for the termination of healthy pregnancies, to the dishonest and partisan reporting that poisons and obscures the whole issue, we condemn every attempt to mitigate, minimize, or distract from the practice and its inhuman consequences.
The comfortable, conceited status quo does not like to be troubled by the pangs of conscience. Its defenders like even less the suggestion that the system where they have made their nests rests on an injustice. We, however, are not willing to be soothed and conciliated by the promise of peace, stability, and acceptance within the status quo. We will not be resigned to things as they are.
In short, when a system violates the reliable dispositions of human nature, poisons basic human relationships, and resorts to deception and scapegoating in order to justify itself, I would not hesitate to call it inhuman and corrupt. When the government, along with an assortment of international corporations, pays considerable sums so that women can regularly terminate their biological offspring in order to allow men to pursue desire without consequence, excepting the consequence of seeing their biological offspring destroyed, I call this a bankrupt system. Abortion may be a choice, but it is not freedom. It is a choice between different forms of exploitation.
We do not want a system in which women are expected to terminate their biological offspring regularly; we do not want a system in which men have no say over the lives of their children. Either way, human life is irreparably damaged, and the relationships between husband and wife, parent and child are poisoned. Resentment is inevitable; hatred is probable. Men will not be happy, in spite of their various sexual conquests, and women will not be happy in spite of their empty houses. They will have a thousand choices for what kind of life to live, but a happy and prosperous life will not be among them.
As long as abortion is held up as the panacea for the problems faced by women and men in relation to one another, no one who accepts this lie will be able to offer or entertain a constructive solution to these problems. They will be left boxing with shadows and blaming a non-existent fundamentalist conspiracy for their difficulties, instead of confronting the real sources of the problem. It is up to those who are not satisfied with the solution of abortion, who are open-minded enough to think beyond the canards and myths that obscure this issue on both sides, to offer a vision of the future where women and men can live together harmoniously; where death is not held up as the solution to poverty; and where mothers can truly rule.
A version of this article originally appeared in Matriarchy, the September 2022 print issue of the Salient.
Editors of the Revolution. “The Revolution will advocate:” Revolution (New York: NY), Jan. 8, 1868, 1.1:1.
Parker Pillsbury, “Decision Diabolical!,” 4.4:57.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Infanticide and Prostitution,” 1.5:65. Notably in this case infanticide and abortion are conflated, as the context makes clear.
Lynn Sherr, “No, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Were Not Antiabortionists,” Time, November 10, 2015.
Parker Pillsbury, “Quack Medicines,” 1.12:178.
Editors of the Revolution, “Child Murder,” 1.10:146.
Editors of the Revolution, “Restellism Exposed,” 4.22:346.
Ibid. Let the unconvinced note further that the editors were happy to publish a piece by suffragette Mary Walker, MD, in which she says of a new, stricter “law leveled directly against that infamous class who sell or distribute drugs and nostrums to prevent conception or procure abortion,” that “it cannot fail to lessen the disgrace we are subjected to now by the number of beings who make a living by the slaughter of their race.”
Mary Walker, MD, “Quacks and their Drugs and Deeds,” 2.20:23.
Editors of the Revolution, in response to “What the People Say to Us,” 1.24:374. The editors insist that merely criminalizing abortion is inadequate for preventing it, but nowhere do they suggest that it should not be criminalized. On the contrary, they recognize that criminalization, though inadequate on its own, is a necessary step towards preventing abortion altogether.
Editors of the Revolution, introduction to Thomas R. Hazard, “Foeticide and Infanticide,” 2.9:134. May we note that this editorial introduction precedes a contribution so outrageous, occupied primarily with spirit mediums and the occult, that we must take the editors at their word when they say “from whatever quarter.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Infanticide and Prostitution,” 1.5:65.
Tara Law, “21% of Women Reported Switching Their Birth Control Method Post-Roe,” Time, July 26, 2022.