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Frederica Mathewes-Green on feminism and abortion

December 24, 2011

Denny Burk has cited Frederica Mathewes-Green on abortion and given his post the title Why Abortion is the Sacrament of Feminism. So I would like to cite further from Mathewes-Green, pointing out that she recognizes the early feminists, whose goals were to enable women to earn a living wage and provide for their children. She writes, 

Earlier strains of feminism saw this issue more clearly. Susan B. Anthony called abortion “child murder” and called for “prevention, not merely punishment…[of] the dreadful deed.” The nineteenth-century feminists were unanimous in opposing abortion. Elizabeth Cady Stanton grouped it with infanticide, and proclaimed that if it was degrading to treat women as property, it was no better for women to treat their own children as property. Perhaps their colleague Mattie Brinkerhoff was clearest when she likened a woman seeking abortion to a man who steals because he is hungry.

For the question remains, do women want abortion? Not like she wants a Porsche or an ice cream cone. Like an animal caught in a trap, trying to gnaw off its own leg, a woman who seeks an abortion is trying to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self-loss. Abortion is not a sign that women are free, but a sign that they are desperate.

How did such desperation become so prevalent? Two trends in modern feminism, both adapted from the values of the masculine power structure that preceded it, combine to necessitate abortion. Re-emerging feminism was concerned chiefly with opening doors for women to professional and public life, and later embraced advocacy of sexual freedom as well. Yet participation in public life is significantly complicated by responsibility for children, while uncommitted sexual activity is the most effective way of producing unwanted pregnancies. This dilemma–simultaneous pursuit of behaviors that cause children and that are hampered by children–inevitably finds its resolution on an abortion table.

If we were to imagine a society that instead supports and respects women, we would have to begin with preventing these unplanned pregnancies. Contraceptives fail, and half of all aborting women admit they weren’t using them anyway. Thus, preventing unplanned pregnancies will involve a return to sexual responsibility. This means either avoiding sex in situations where a child cannot be welcomed, or being willing to be responsible for lives unintentionally conceived, perhaps by making an adoption plan, entering a marriage, or faithful child support payments. Using contraceptives is no substitute for this responsibility, any more than wearing a safety belt gives one the right to speed. The child is conceived through no fault of her own; it is the height of cruelty to demand the right to shred her in order to continue having sex without commitment.

Second, we need to make continuing a pregnancy and raising a child less of a burden. Most agree that women should play a part in the public life of our society; their talents and abilities are as valuable as men’s, and there is no reason to restrict them from the employment sphere. But during the years that her children are young, mother and child usually prefer to be together. If women are to be free to take off these years in the middle of a career, they must have, as above, faithful, responsible men who will support them. Both parents can also benefit from more flexibility in the workplace: allowing parents of school-age children to set their hours to coincide with the school day, for example, or enabling more workers to escape the expenses of office, commute, and childcare by working from home. We must also welcome women back into the workforce when they want to return, accounting their years at home as valuable training in management, education, and negotiating skills.

Women’s rights are not in conflict with their own children’s rights; the appearance of such a conflict is a sign that something is wrong in society. When women have the sexual respect and employment flexibility they need, they will no longer seek as a substitute the bloody injustice of abortion.

I have been reading in Nasar’s Grand Pursuit, how feminism rose out of the same social and economic conditions as those that caused Malthus to formulate his explanation of poverty, that population incresases geometrically and the means of subsistence only increases arithmetically. For Malthus, starvation of the surplus population was inevitable unless marriage was delayed or restricted to only some adults and not all. In the first half of the 19th century, infant mortality rose, the average adult height ( and thereby nutrition) decreased, and breastfeeding was at its all time historic low. Women rallied around the need to earn a living wage, so they could feed their children without resorting to prostitution.

Studies today show that France and many European countries have a fraction of the North American abortion rate. This study suggests that in addition to health care, education, childcare and economic opportunity; a major difference is that in Europe women are typically older, in a stable relationship, and working before they get pregnant. They see age, relationship and career as markers of adulthood and preparation for parenthood; whereas in the USA, bearing a child in and of itself is seen as a marker of adulthood. This suggests that detaching childbearing from a woman’s self worth, and replacing it with the common goals of a mature and stable lifestyle, including a job, as most important, would delay both pregnancies and abortions. There is no known positive corelation between anti-abortion laws and the abortion rate.

In my own experience, the more education a girl aspired to, the less likely it was that she would have an early or unplanned pregnancy. Let’s encourage our young women to aim high, and become fully responsible adults, ready to parent children at a later age.

The Greek and Romans considered abortion to be an appropriate way to keep the population in line with the means of subsistence, and the only illegal abortions were those a woman had without her husband’s permission. However, a husband could impose an abortion on his wife.

So who said that abortion was the sacrament of feminism – not Frederica Mathewes-Green. I could not trace the phrase back to anyone other than Denny Burk. But Florynce Kennedy, likely refering to the Catholic Church, did say, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

Mathewes-Green explains that a flexible workplace in which women could establish a career, take time off work and return to work, benefits women and enables them to best bear children and provide for them.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2011 4:52 pm

    But Florynce Kennedy, likely refering to the Catholic Church, did say, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

    This post is a wonderful correction to Denny Burk’s post. (I see his first commenter suggests that Burk may have drunk deeply from the well of Rush Limbaugh: “I remember listening to Rush Limbaugh on his radio program years ago saying, ‘that feminism is a religion, and that abortion was the sacrament to that religion.'”)

    The best thing that Burk does is to get his readers reading for themselves by linking to Frederica Mathewes-Green’s essay. The worst thing Burk does is to disparage the good work of feminists on behalf of women and of slaves and of others marginalized in societies. If you took the word feminism out of Mathewes-Green’s post, then you’d think she might even be a feminist all over again:

    Pro-lifers easily speak of God creating new life, ordaining that the woman and unborn child be knit together, and they should recognize that God has appointed a third person in that situation as well. I wince when I hear pro-lifers use euphemisms like “she found herself pregnant”; it sounds Victorian, like “piano limbs.” It’s as if the woman just discovered the baby in a parking lot. No, she had help with that project. For every “unwanted” pregnancy there is a dad who needs to be challenged to do the right thing, for his own sake as much as his new family’s.

    And if Burk would advocate for women as Mathewes-Green does and not spend so much time knocking feminists and abortionists as if their advocacy for women and for others didn’t matter, well, he might be easier to read.

  2. December 24, 2011 9:27 pm

    Hi Suzanne controversial topic for Christmas.

    I think religious Christians are caught between wanting a bunch of irreconciliable things.

    1) They want late marriage. They don’t want to be marrying kids in their mid to late teens.
    2) They do not want a culture where premarital sexuality is normalized.
    3) They want children born to married parents and raised primarily by nuclear families, not tribally.

    Well pick any (2). At a practical matter (2) has already been reversed, we have late marriage and we have normalized premarital sexuality. And that means contraception should be a norm. We know how to have a low abortion rate, as you mentioned it works in Scandinavia. Lots of sex ed and free quality contraception drops abortion by about 2/3rds to 3/4s. But we can’t have that if we are going to pretend that teen sex is abnormal behavior.

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 24, 2011 9:45 pm

    Hi CD,

    Good to see you here. I wanted to find out who coined the phrase “abortion is the sacrament of feminism.” Very catchy, and Burk makes it appear that Mathewes-Green said it but she didn’t.

    Here is Rush Limbaugh,

    ‘I prefer to call the most obnoxious feminists what they really are: feminazis. The term describes any female who is intolerant of any point of view that challenges militant feminism. I often use it to describe women who are obsessed with perpetuating a modern-day holocaust: abortion.

    A feminazi is a woman to whom the most important thing in life is seeing to it that as many abortions as possible are performed. Their unspoken reasoning is quite simple. Abortion is the single greatest avenue for militant women to exercise their quest for power and advance their belief that men aren’t necessary. Nothing matter but me, says the feminazi; the is an unviable tissue mass. Feminazis have adopted abortion as a kind of sacrament for their religion/politics of alienation and bitterness.”

    Limbaugh is refering to the most obnoxious of feminists. I certainly nave a few choice names for the most obnoxious of that class of person to which Limbaugh belongs. But that does not justify Denny Burk’s title statement, which he implies that Mathewes-Green coined.

  4. December 24, 2011 10:23 pm

    Over on a Mormon blog I’m having to defend that Grudem, Ware… have any following at all among the conservative reformed and aren’t just fringe.

    Anyway maybe I wasn’t making my connection clear.

    Frederica Mathewes-Green argues that pregnancy became bad for primarily political reasons. I disagree I think it happened primarily for economic reasons. Our society is not in great need of children. So right now we have constructed our economic system so that parents receive almost no financial benefits from children, but pay a huge amount of money. Society in general receives the benefits from children and while it does subsidize them, it doesn’t nearly cover the full cost. And subsidy is being reduced.

    That is a formula for later marriage and few children. Evangelicals and the religious right are fully in support of this system (on average). You would expect careerism to arise in a society that is trying to reduce its fertility.


    As for the research on “abortion is the sacrament of feminism.” good job! That’s good research and coming from Limbaugh it doesn’t mean much other than Burk is preaching to the choir.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 24, 2011 10:36 pm


    I have multiple thoughts on Mathewes-Green’s article First, I think Burk misrepresented her. And second, I don’t agree with most of what she said. I remember distinctly that birth control was being strongly promoted by conservative men. They didn’t think much of women who “bred like rabbits.” There has been quite a turn around now, with young Christian couples not using birth control. That has really surprised me. Many contractions on this front. I agree that causes are economic, but larger social forces come into play as well.

  6. December 24, 2011 11:11 pm

    Hi Suzanne —

    Again we may be hitting the USA / Canada thing. At least in the states the 1910s birth control movement (Mary Dennett, Margaret Sanger) got support from people like:

    Upton Sinclair — Socialist
    Emma Goldman — Anarchist
    H. L. Mencken — liberal social critic and anti-fundamentalist writer.

    Some of this may be religious based. The Republicans were the socially liberal Protestant party back then (and till Reagan), with the overwhelming majority of Catholics being Democrats and socially conservative. And of course Protestants were more mixed on birth control while Catholics were opposed.

    During my life this pattern pretty much continued, with the only problem being the parties were (are) flip flopping on who was socially conservative and who was socially liberal. On the other hand, the most conservative state in the union (Mississippi) where still over 40% of the population supports anti-miscegenation laws just upheld birth control by a large majority even when phrased as an abortion issue.

    And it is well known that 80% of Catholics believe the Pope is totally wrong on this issue. So I’d say at least politically the issue of contraception is dead. Groups like Quiverfull are a small fringe even among evangelicals.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 24, 2011 11:27 pm

    So my experience is quite different. When I was of the appropriate age, I knew some conservative Christian men who made acid remarks about any women who had more than 2 kids. Most couples of my age had only 2 or 3 kids.

    But now, my kids have friends in their peer group who don’t believe in brith control – go figure! This is in a moderately complementarian church.

    In the post war era, in the great missionary rush of the late 1940’s and 50’s, some couples delayed marriage and delayed child-bearing in order to become doctors and nurses, and ministers, etc. And after that they limited births – so 2 kids max. They spoke, some of them, as if having children was the weak and wordly concern of uneducated women. It was carnal to want to have children.

    There is such a mixed bag of opinions on this.

  8. December 25, 2011 8:35 am

    But now, my kids have friends in their peer group who don’t believe in brith control – go figure!

    How old are they? People who claim not to believe in birth control and don’t have 10 kids are generally being hypocrites on the issue or they don’t believe in theory in birth control….

    They spoke, some of them, as if having children was the weak and wordly concern of uneducated women. It was carnal to want to have children.

    And this was among Protestants? I can understand why that wouldn’t happen here. During the mid – late 1970s there was an anti-child movement in the USA but it was about overpopulation concerns, and again it was a manifestation of women reducing their fertility. It turned careerism into a virtue.

    But the sort of contempt for child bearing women …. in America that would be hard to avoid a racial or ethnic tinge to it at this point. The same way concern about illegal immigration is seen as “anti-Hispanic”.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 25, 2011 10:35 am


    These are young couples and I have no idea what they will really do. All I am saying is that the influence of Quiverful has had some impact, which surprises me.

    “During the mid – late 1970s there was an anti-child movement in the USA but it was about overpopulation concerns, and again it was a manifestation of women reducing their fertility. It turned careerism into a virtue.”

    Yes, that is exactly the time I am talking about. This trend was expressed by some conservative Christians, and especially among those trying to recruit missionary couples, to encourage women to delay and limit childbearing, and preach birth control in the third world. Remember the Club of Rome and Limits to Growth. 1972. Malthus all over again.

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