Why Did We Run an Anti-Abortion Piece in 1979?

A look back at the historical context and where we went wrong.

Jessica Stites August 28, 2018

The April 4, 1979, issue of In These Times ran letters from 34 feminists criticizing the publication of an abortion debate in the Feb. 28, 1979, issue.

In Feb­ru­ary 1979, In These Times pub­lished the debate, Pro and Con: Does free abor­tion hurt the poor and minori­ties?” The then-news­pa­per was flood­ed with let­ters to the edi­tor from a who’s who of fem­i­nists object­ing to both the fram­ing of the debate and its par­tic­i­pants — Eliz­a­beth Moore, a Catholic right-to-life advo­cate, and Karen Mul­hauser, a leader of the Nation­al Abor­tion Rights Action League (NAR­AL).

The edi­to­r­i­al deci­sion-mak­ing process is lost to his­to­ry, but this much we know: The Catholic Left held sway with ITT in the 1970s. A July 1977 edi­to­r­i­al called for seri­ous dia­logue with sin­cere right-to-life’ advo­cates [who oppose abor­tion] out of gen­uine reli­gious or moral con­cern for the sanc­ti­ty of life.” ITT ran pieces by Juli Loesch, a major force in the Catholic con­sis­tent life” move­ment, which wed­ded anti-nuclear, anti­war and anti-abor­tion pol­i­tics. Loesch and oth­er Catholic fem­i­nists were even­tu­al­ly pushed out of anti-abor­tion lead­er­ship by patri­ar­chal evan­gel­i­cals, who kept the Catholic left­ists’ direct action tac­tics of clin­ic pick­ets and harass­ment, which esca­lat­ed into murder.

Moore and Loesch were among the cofounders of Pro­lif­ers for Sur­vival, inspired by the 1979 Three Mile Island dis­as­ter to pro­tect life by oppos­ing nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion and abor­tion.” But Moore preached to ITT read­ers in the lan­guage of eco­nom­ics, not reli­gion, argu­ing that state-sub­si­dized abor­tion was a scheme against welfare:

One of the most com­pelling argu­ments of the [abor­tion] fund­ing advo­cates is that pay­ment for a poor woman’s abor­tion is cheap­er than live birth and sub­se­quent AFDC [Aid to Fam­i­lies with Depen­dent Chil­dren] pay­ments. It should come as no sur­prise that the poor become high­ly sus­pi­cious when basic neces­si­ties of life remain unat­tain­able while unlim­it­ed abor­tion funds are offered as a solu­tion to the high cost” of welfare.

As evi­dence that eugeni­cism under­lay these poli­cies, Moore quot­ed the pro-abor­tion argu­ment of syn­di­cat­ed colum­nist Har­ri­et von Horne: There are too many births … par­tic­u­lar­ly to the dis­ad­van­taged and the genet­i­cal­ly unfit. … [The coun­try] tru­ly can­not afford any more wel­fare babies.”

Some of the anti-Moore let­ters sug­gest­ed that she was what the inter­net would now call a con­cern troll” — one who pre­tends to be an ally voic­ing cri­tique, but is actu­al­ly a foe. The anti-abor­tion Right had already begun to devel­op the cyn­i­cal racial rhetoric that would lead it to post bill­boards in Atlanta in the 2000s read­ing Abor­tion is black geno­cide.” One of the 1979 let­ters to the edi­tor, signed by Mar­i­lyn Katz and ten oth­ers, charges ITT with “[falling] prey to the new Right’s increas­ing­ly bold strat­e­gy of fraud­u­lent left­ism’ and spu­ri­ous anti-racism.’ ”

It’s like­ly, how­ev­er, that Moore was sin­cere. Accord­ing to his­to­ri­an Jen­nifer Don­nal­ly, Moore clashed with the con­ser­v­a­tive wing of the antiabor­tion move­ment and argued that fem­i­nists and oth­ers would best help women in cri­sis preg­nan­cies by advo­cat­ing for bet­ter wel­fare poli­cies and health­care.” (Such points of agree­ment had led NOW pres­i­dent Eleanor Smeal to call a peace sum­mit in Jan­u­ary 1979, but pro-life fem­i­nists refused to come unless all abor­tion clin­ics shut down oper­a­tions for the day; a small con­tin­gent from Ohio did show up, and bran­dished the body of an abort­ed fetus.)

Con­cern troll or no, many of Moore’s crit­i­cisms hold water. They echo the argu­ments of Nation­al Wel­fare Rights Orga­ni­za­tion (NWRO) chair­per­son John­nie Till­mon in her land­mark 1971 Ms. mag­a­zine essay, Wel­fare is a Women’s Issue”:

Wel­fare is like a super-sex­ist mar­riage. You trade in a man for the man. But you can’t divorce him if he treats you bad. He can divorce you, of course, cut you off any­time he wants. But in that case, he keeps the kids, not you. The man runs every­thing. In ordi­nary mar­riage, sex is sup­posed to be for your hus­band. On AFDC, you’re not sup­posed to have any sex at all. You give up con­trol of your own body. It’s a con­di­tion of aid. You may even have to agree to get your tubes tied so you can nev­er have more chil­dren just to avoid being cut off welfare.

Till­mon, like Moore, called out the eugeni­cism and clas­sism of some white fem­i­nists and the myopia of their focus on abor­tion rights. Yet Moore’s con­clu­sion — to oppose abor­tion — does not nec­es­sar­i­ly fol­low. Till­mon wrote, Nobody real­izes more than poor women that all women should have the right to con­trol their own reproduction.”

Accord­ing to his­to­ri­an Karis­sa Hauge­berg, this was in line with work­ing-class black women of the 1960s and 1970s: Although some sought to make the link between eugen­ics, forced ster­il­iza­tion and state-financed abor­tions, many more under­stood how the state had his­tor­i­cal­ly sought to con­trol women’s bod­ies through these mech­a­nisms, and that legal abor­tion would enable women to make deci­sions of their own accord.” It would also presage the repro­duc­tive jus­tice move­ment start­ed by black fem­i­nists like Loret­ta J. Ross in the 1990s (see page 16), which sees abor­tion rights as part of broad­er repro­duc­tive self-determination.

If ITT want­ed to know whether the poor and minori­ties” were hurt” by free abor­tion,” we could have asked them. And, as Katz et al. not­ed, the social­ist news­pa­per might have solicit­ed a social­ist fem­i­nist per­spec­tive (which NAR­AL does not rep­re­sent).” Appar­ent­ly it’s who you know, not what you know” holds in social­ist as well as cap­i­tal­ist cir­cles. The ITT of 1979 seems not to have been well-acquaint­ed with the wel­fare rights move­ment — and to have inex­plic­a­bly for­got­ten the phone num­ber of ITT’s social­ist-fem­i­nist found­ing spon­sor Bar­bara Ehrenreich.

Jes­si­ca Stites is Exec­u­tive Edi­tor of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing and edits sto­ries on labor, neolib­er­al­ism, Wall Street, immi­gra­tion, mass incar­cer­a­tion and racial jus­tice, among oth­er top­ics. Before join­ing ITT, she worked at Ms. mag­a­zine and George Lakof­f’s Rock­ridge Insti­tute. Her writ­ing has been pub­lished in the Los Ange­les Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advo­cate and Alter­Net. She is board sec­re­tary of the Chica­go Read­er and a for­mer Chica­go Sun-Times board member.

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