In the weeks since the leak of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion, defenders of Roe v. Wade have reverted to a number of red herrings to avoid confronting the abortion precedent on its own extraordinarily weak merits. One particularly curious distraction has been to note the absence of women in the framing of the original 1787 Constitution or the amendment invoked by litigants on the abortion issue, the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868.
Of course “[t]here is nothing in that document about women,” writes Harvard history professor Jill Lepore. There were no women judges, legislators, participants in the ratifying process, or (with fleeting exceptions) even voters. Victoria Nourse of Georgetown Law similarly complains that “Alito’s opinion is all about an understanding of the 14th Amendment in 1868, turning the clock back to a day when women could not vote or practice law and legally dissolved into their husbands.” She concludes, “If originalism is the ‘only way’ to read the Constitution, then women are invisible.” Other commentators, prominently including former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse, hinge their critiques on the absence of women in the Dobbs draft itself. The implication seems to be that if women of the time had been given a voice they would have spoken in favor of a right to abortion. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Ironically, of the thousands of words that are cumulatively written by these and other pro-Roe authors, not one is offered to cite the views of women who lived during these constitutionally formative periods in American history on the abortion issue. As they carp about the invisibility of women who did not have a voice, their articles keep the women of the generation that first fought for women’s suffrage mute.
There is an obvious reason for pro-abortion commentators to omit the most prominent American women who lived during the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment: They shared a virtually unanimous abhorrence of abortion. The Revolution, the newspaper established by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, refused to publish advertisements for “Foeticides and Infanticides” and had the following to say about women who had abortions:
[N]o matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh, thrice guilty is he who drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime!
Stanton classified abortion as a form of “infanticide,” denounced the “murder of children, either before or after birth,” and asserted, “We believe the cause of all these abuses lies in the degradation of women.” Among several recorded statements reflecting her disapproval of abortion, Anthony similarly lumped abortion with infanticide and other forms of killing among the negative consequences of the “monster evil” of “intemperance.”
The prevailing attitude of feminists of that era was expressed by the activist Matilda E.J. Gage—“that most of this crime of ‘child murder,’ ‘abortion,’ ‘infanticide,’ lies at the door of the male sex.” Even radical adherents of the “free-love” wing of feminism shared the abhorrence of abortion expressed by activists of a different stripe. Perhaps the consummate example is Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. “The rights of children . . . as individuals, begin while yet they are in foetal life,” she asserted in an address in 1871, and she added in a letter to the editor a few months later, “I hold abortion (except to save the life of the mother) to be just as much murder as the killing of a person after birth is murder.” That was a view repeatedly expressed in her newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.
The strain of feminism that has adopted abortion as its cornerstone is a relatively recent phenomenon in American history. So weak is the pedigree of the notion of a right to abortion that even Margaret Sanger, the founder of what became Planned Parenthood, rejected it. She called the practice “an alternative that I cannot too strongly condemn” and advocated its use only to save the life of the mother. She lived until 1966, a century after Congress proposed the Fourteenth Amendment.
It should be no surprise, then, that commentators who seek to defend Roe would resist acknowledging what any of these women had to say about abortion. To suggest that the Constitution would have been protective of abortion if women were allowed equal participation in the political process flies in the face of Stanton’s own proposal that the “only remedy” to the “crimes” of abortion and feticide was in fact “the education and enfranchisement of woman.” Knowing well the views of women of her time, she was confident their participation in the political process would in fact move the laws to be more protective of life, not of abortion.
In truth, many of today’s pro-abortion commentators not only keep the women of the past invisible, but also ignore the voices of today’s pro-life women. They write as if women’s political participation can only legitimately translate into advocacy of abortion—an assumption that is as insulting and morally callous as it is incorrect.
Today’s pro-life movement is impossible to imagine without women. Indeed, the largest pro-life organizations, including National Right to Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, the March for Life, and Americans United for Life, are headed by women. They and the millions of American women they represent are not invisible, and no pro-life policy achievement in the future will be possible without women. They are making their voices heard, just as the suffragists of the past would have wanted them to.