The Unholy Politics of Abortion

For the last month, I’ve been reading a book (Frank Schaeffer’s Sex, Mom, and God:  How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—And How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway) that, along with a history lesson, has given me a deep understanding of why abortion has become such a polarizing issue in this country.  As I’ve been reading this book, I’ve also been watching as state after state introduces laws that attack abortion at any cost, including (in the cases of Texas and Arizona) the cost of the life and well-being of both the mother and her potential child.  In some cases, these laws are not only anti-abortion—they are assailing the idea of a woman having sex for pleasure rather than procreation.

Here’s what I’ve learned from Mr. Schaeffer’s book (for those of you who already know some or all of this, bear with me):

  • The decision:  In 1973, when the Supreme Court delivered the decision in Roe v. Wade, abortion was already legal in several states.  No one was making much of a fuss about it.
  • The politics:  The Republican party, in an effort to get more voters charged up and going to the polls, consciously created a political issue out of abortion.  Frank Schaeffer, the son of an Evangelical preacher who was following in his father’s footsteps, made a movie series and related book, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? that was used in this effort.  With help from the movies and book, the Republican party framed abortion as the relevant issue, and created a long-term strategy for overturning Roe v. Wade.
  • An unholy union:  The religious right (which is now deeply intertwined with the Republican party) is influenced not just by Evangelical thought (which takes the Bible literally—including a lot of stuff about women and sex being wrong with a capital W), but by a very strict interpretation of Evangelical thought known as Reconstructionism.  Reconstructionism states that those who do not follow the Bible literally should be stoned to death; it even goes so far as to conclude that a government that does not follow Biblical teachings has forfeited its standing as a government—which means violence against said government is acceptable. (To be clear, not every Evangelical Christian believes these tenets—but the movement is influenced by Reconstructionist writings, and these teachings are evident in some of what, for example, Rick Santorum says.)
  • Another decision: Roe v. Wade was so broad that it needed clarification; another decision, Doe v. Bolton, refined it in such a way that late-term abortions, even of children who would be viable outside the womb, are permissible in some cases.  There have been atrocities committed in the broad strokes here that are absolutely horrifying.  (To clarify my own position here:  We should not allow this to be, any more than we should allow women to die in the name of a group of cells. Pro-choice should not mean blind allegiance to a set of laws that are being followed too liberally.)
  • A ticking time bomb:  This political climate—and the reactions of both parties to it—set up a situation in which abortion is only discussed as a binary:  the health and life of a baby vs. the health and life of a mother.  As Mr. Schaeffer puts it, “At a stroke the Supreme Court handed America (and the Left in particular) a time bomb and then walked away.” (Sex, Mom, and God, p. 199)

That time bomb is exploding.

The “abortion issue” isn’t just about the secular ethics of when and how it makes sense to terminate a pregnancy—it is a question of whether or not all American women are going to adhere to a strict fundamentalist Christian view of sex, a woman’s body, and children.

Holy uterus, Batgirl!

That takes a moment—or forty years—to absorb.

And it means we can’t have a reasonable conversation about abortion.  Not until we’ve had a fight about a woman’s right to her own body.  That fight, it seems, is going to be bloody and long.  I believe women will win it—I believe we must win it, for ourselves and for our children.  The world cannot sustain life without choice, simply because a few wish to impose their views on the many.  Here are the things that must be established by the end of this fight:

  • Public Health:  Unwanted pregnancies are a public health issue.  When we take care of our women, when we make sure they are having healthy babies that they want to have, everybody wins.  When we don’t, everybody loses.
  • Contraception:  Birth control is the best way to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.  The current battle about birth control is really a fight about the pill—not vasectomies and tubal ligations (which are already covered by insurance), not condoms (which prevent STDs), but the pill.  Which means this fight is about the right of a woman to have sex for pleasure—her own pleasure.  Those religious extremists go crazy at this very idea.  (To them I say:  consider the clitoris.  Seriously.)  Regardless of what you believe, religion shouldn’t be a part of the equation at all.  Women of any faith and no faith have the right to sex, to their bodies, and to make choices about motherhood.
  • Maternal Freedom:  The principle of religious and sexual freedom for every woman needs to become so entrenched in our national conscience that it can no longer be questioned, just as the right to vote is no longer questioned.

Once these basic tenets have been established, I believe we need to have a reasonable discussion about abortion.  That discussion should include the following:

  • Honesty: Pro-choice advocates have contributed to the polarization of this issue, understating or ignoring facts that might lead to open discussion about multiple and late-term abortions.  To get to a place where we are handling sex, women’s bodies, and parenthood in the best possible way, everyone is going to have to get less political and more honest.
  • Development:  We need to draw a firm distinction between a zygote and a viable fetus.  Those on the conservative side of this debate would have us believe that some dividing cells equal a human life; those on the liberal side would have us believe that a fetus so far along it could be considered a baby is still a good candidate for abortion. Both of those views are extreme—the only reasonable solution lies in the middle.
  • Fatherhood:  To listen to our conversations about raising children—from pregnancy to college—you’d think women created kids by parthenogenesis (meaning we spawn them without help, like a queen bee). We need to discuss the father’s role in pregnancy and abortion—his rights and responsibilities, and when he forfeits them (in cases of rape and domestic abuse, for example).
  • Adoption:  This third alternative is not a part of the discussion, which I find bizarre.  My husband was born in August of 1969 to a woman we don’t know—he was adopted in December of that year by the most wonderful, loving parents he could have asked for.  It seems to me that if we draw a line on late-term abortions, we should be connecting the dots between the mothers of these children and people who want children very much.

This conversation can only be held among rational and ethical people who value the life of a mother, the life of a child, the basic human right of a woman to choose motherhood, and the basic human right of a viable but premature infant to life.  There are tons of American people who understand the grays here, and are willing and able to have that conversation.  Sadly, there are not enough of them in power, and the conversation is impossible to have.  You know what that makes me want to say, with every rational, ethical fiber of my being?

God help us.

6 thoughts on “The Unholy Politics of Abortion

  1. Frank Schaeffer says:

    Elizabeth, thank you so very much for the thoughtful reading and use of my book. I’m grateful for your interest in my writing and in this subject. Best, Frank Schaeffer (


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Absolutely, Frank! Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post, and to share it. I think you’ve written a very important book!


  2. Georgina says:

    A great exploration of the issues. So much of the abortion debate is really about women’s rights in an unequal world, with abortion being the flashpoint. And the debate has become so polarised that we often ignore the common ground that exists between people on each ‘side’. Thanks!


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks for your comment! I love your use of the word “flashpoint”–you are absolutely correct about that!


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