‘My chair was getting crowded in,” Nancy Pelosi recounted recently, albeit not for the first time. She was recalling her first White House meeting as the first woman Speaker of the House when she found Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, and Sojourner Truth, among others, all sitting in her chair. “I could hear them say: ‘At last we have a seat at the table.’ And then they were gone.”
Some fun was had with the claim, which I wasn’t so much astonished by as disappointed by. I was sorry that Anthony and Stanton, for example, weren’t able to stick around long enough to have a fuller encounter with the trajectory of modern feminism. What must they think about Pelosi’s role as a leading advocate of legal abortion, and as a strong force behind the health-care legislation so fundamentally unfriendly to conscience rights? Anthony, Stanton, and other suffragettes, after all, recognized the rights of the vulnerable unborn as clearly as they did their own rights as women.
While the blogosphere was still buzzing about Pelosi’s sister session, President Obama was in Denver, being introduced by Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law activist who has become the poster gal for his administration’s contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing-drug mandate. He made the point, as he regularly does, that this mandate is both equivalent to and at the core of women’s health care, but he insisted that he had reached a reasonable compromise with Catholic schools and hospitals. The truth of the matter is quite different, however, as even the University of Notre Dame, which honored the same president three years ago, is now suing him to protect its religious liberty. Even Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association — formerly a key ally of Obama’s on the health-care law — has found herself having to reject administration claims that an acceptable accommodation has been drawn up.
At the heart of the Obamacare mandate is the notion that fertility is best handled through “preventive services.” This is an idea that would be foreign to many of the women who crowded into Pelosi’s chair, who didn’t consider their femininity and very biology shackles.
Pelosi hasn’t identified all her visitors that day, but among them may have been Dr. Charlotte Lozier, in whose honor Chuck Donovan has just established the Charlotte Lozier Institute. The institute will be the education and research arm of the more expressly political Susan B. Anthony List.
As Donovan tells me, “Lozier secured a medical degree against the staunch resistance of the scientific establishment of her day, served as a vice president of the National Working Women’s Association, bore three children of her own, stood for women’s suffrage alongside Susan B. Anthony and other contemporaries, and was profoundly pro-life.” Donovan explains that Dr. Lozier “viewed abortion as an assault on the healing profession and clearly did not see it as a pathway to women’s equality or freedom.”
Dr. Lozier, Donovan emphasizes, “fought against a tide that told her she could not be a mother and pro-life feminist and still win a degree in medicine. We have something of the opposite problem now; we are told that women cannot realize their ambitions in the world of work without having abortion available. Charlotte Lozier and her allies rejected that idea — in an era when women’s options for dealing with sexual behavior, pregnancy, and career opportunities were far narrower than they are now.”
“We know life is present from the beginning, in its miraculous details,” Donovan says. “The task of recovering our wonder is what is urgent. The womb must not remain an area for warfare. It is our first shelter, the most intimate we will ever have. Science and medicine should prize and protect that period in human life, the mother’s and the child’s.”
“The issue of life has put us under duress as a people,” Donovan reflects, “and daily one sees how the boundaries between religious denominations and people of various faiths are being crossed — not to change beliefs, necessarily, but to spread the warming fire of charity.”
Donovan cautions against leaving these issues entirely in the political arena. “The danger is that we may trade our denominational silos for political ones. I witnessed recently a group of pro-life men and women in North Carolina who talked about their conviction that the laws on abortion would never change. The goal, they said, must be to make progress no matter who is in power. If consciences are dulled, we have to sharpen the instruments we’re poking with. But consciences are not political property.”
Of course, this necessitates well-formed consciences in the first place, people grappling with these issues with moral honesty and scientific truth.
Which brings us right back to this year’s presidential election, which President Obama has made a battle over conscience rights, forcing a fight over the definition of religious liberty, arguing that his radically secular view of women’s health trumps this first freedom.
But as evangelical Wheaton College has to sue the federal government to avoid being forced to provide abortion-inducing drugs as a matter of basic health insurance, all Americans should pause and take stock.
Has this become a fundamental American value? Insisting that women are free only when we’ve all been forced to embrace contraception, sterilization, and abortion as basic health care? A value so fundamental that religious liberty can be cast aside, and that those who refuse to comply can be subject to crippling punitive fines?
Pelosi’s visitors can offer some guidance here, if we’re up for a longer reflection. And one trailblazing doctor in particular — who was known to demonstrate as much compassion as conviction in her work to protect the lives of children and mothers and the integrity of her medical profession — may have a winning prescription. The “We girls can do anything if we have ‘free’ contraception” propaganda obscures what we really face today: choices about matters of basic freedom, cultural conscience, and the very soul of our nation.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.