Revolutionaries and the Fight for Legal Abortion
Mar 31, 1974
Every year, 800,000 women, i.e., one pregnant woman out of two, go through abortion in France. The women involved, or those who help them, risk jail sentences and heavy fines according to the still existing 1920 Act against abortion in France. So abortions are performed illegally, meaning at a very high cost, under dangerous conditions, and always with psychological and physical damage.
Since the publication three years ago of the “Manifesto of the 343” in which 343 women, mostly intellectuals and actresses, claimed that they had had an abortion in spite of the 1920 Act, the fight for the repeal of this criminal, hypocritical and medieval law has spread steadily. Some organizations in favor of the right to legal abortion have been set up (mainly “Choisir” and also the MLAC: Movement for Free Abortion and Birth Control) and they have already carried through a few spectacular and successful fights.
The law against abortion has been made futile by all the groups and personalities who have engaged in this fight, and who do openly what used to be done underground; by all those who have decided to publicly challenge the law and certain hypocritical authorities; and by all those who have boldly taken risks. The government is placed in an intolerable situation where it can no longer fulfill its task of enforcing the law. Those opposing this law have proved that an unfair law can be enforced only so long as it is obeyed by those whom it oppresses.
During the coming session of the Parliament which starts in April, the government will surely not be able to avoid discussion on this issue. Moreover, it is highly probable that the government will have to repeal the 1920 Act. But what will be put in its place?
We fully support that struggle, carried on by people from various backgrounds, for the repeal of the repressive 1920 Act.
The government is well aware of the facts on illegal abortions. Article 317 of the penal code, dealing with the prevention of abortion, starts with a cynically detailed list of the various “means of provoking an abortion... through food, drinks, drugs, artifice, violence, or any other means.” But while well aware of the desperate solutions to which so many women have recourse, and of the serious consequences for their lives, the government chooses to remain passive.
Under the present conditions, women have no choice but abortion. So, at a minimum, they should be allowed the best material and psychological conditions; women can do without the veil of shame thrown upon them by so-called French justice and the medical establishment.
At a minimum, the government and the system it defends should stop condemning women for what is its responsibility.
This is why we support the fight for the repeal of all repressive laws in matters of abortion, a fight carried on by people from different philosophical and political backgrounds, by Christians and by Marxists as well. But our solidarity with the people who expose all the hypocrisy and cynicism of the present government and of all the previous governments since 1920, does not imply that we share their point of view on abortion, birth control, and human life in general.
As Marxist socialists, we deeply respect life. Ours is not the fake respect displayed by hypocrites of all sorts; ours is not the supposed respect which tolerates racist crimes and wars, and only exposes crimes against baby seals, three-week old embryos and unfertilized ova. Ours is a deep respect for life in all its forms, a respect for human life as well as for that of fetal life. The upholders of capitalism talk about “overpopulation;” since Malthus, they have believed or pretended to believe that in parts of the world, people lead hard lives because of overpopulation. But socialist revolutionaries have always maintained that human society has enough control over nature to allow a boundless expansion of human life. Once again, so-called over-population problems are in fact the problems of a production system incapable of fulfilling the needs of the whole population, not because of a shortage of material possibilities, but because the capitalist organization of society prevents us from offering these possibilities to all mankind.
We stand against bourgeois Malthusianism in the matter of birth control. Some bourgeois states like Japan have set up ultra-liberal legislation in favor of abortion: there are 70 legal abortions in Japan for every 100 births. But this does not mean that we are against any form of birth control. The greatest freedom should be granted to all members of society, and in particular, women and couples should be free to decide whether or not they want children, how many and when. And this freedom presupposes that society provides them with the means to act accordingly.
We are in favor of voluntary and conscious conception. Does present-day society grant such freedom? Do the current birth control techniques in relation to which abortion is only the last resort give such freedom to women? Is abortion, even when legal and available to all, a means for women to freely dispose of their own bodies, as some people claim?
We do not believe so, and we do not share the viewpoint of people like the members of CIAC in Grenoble (Committee for Free Abortions and Birth Control). They favor a generalization of abortion without medical care, as practiced with the Karman method. They say this method is revolutionary in two respects:
1) Birth control can be provided by experienced, non-medically trained women, with assistance from doctors for difficult cases only.
2) Birth control and abortion can be combined with the Karman aspiration method. When applied two or three times a year, a woman may find it a better type of birth control than the IUD, or the obligation to take pills for the 30 years of her fertility.
Throughout their pamphlet, the Grenoble CIAC assumes that, thanks to this new style of abortion, women can “take charge” of their own abortions. Though presented as vanguard ideas, and supported by people who claim to be revolutionary, such ideas are, in fact, extremely reactionary.
First, if something is to be changed in the present relationships between doctors and patients, it surely is not the scientific knowledge of the doctor. The state of mind of many a doctor (as well as that of many patients) certainly needs to change, and the level of consciousness of everyone must be raised. But this problem will not be solved by demanding that non-medically trained women should be able to perform abortions. Women who are forced to go through abortion should benefit from all the medical and technical facilities that society can presently offer.
Secondly, abortion can in no way be considered a “revolutionary method” as the CIAC claims, nor even a “good birth control method.” The technique of abortion, whether by aspiration or dilation and curettage, changes nothing about the question. The right to an abortion is at stake, nothing else.
What is the meaning of the word `abortion’? In a figurative sense, in current speech, it means a failure. This figurative use illustrates how women often feel about abortion. To abort is to put a brutal end to a biological process. In the case of pregnancy, there are consequences - the birth of a child - which the woman does not desire but was unable or unwilling to prevent. It means that she must stop something she has not been able to master, thus it can never be a freely chosen act. It is always something she does under coercion, precisely because it is too late for freedom of action. Whatever the supporters of a “free” abortion may think, the woman who goes through abortion “assumes” it as “freely” as one who commits suicide “freely” assumes his own death.
In a society where people are denied the economic, social, and cultural means that would enable them to raise their children harmoniously, to have the children they want and not to have those they do not want, abortion is a barbaric solution which many women feel forced to choose. Women who resort to it do so against their will and only when no other solution is available. And to put abortion forward as a liberating and “revolutionary” act is both incorrect and reactionary.
For thousands of years, human societies practiced infanticide. Then, owing to the progress of science and technology relative progress, that is, involving rather crude techniques human societies developed abortion as a means of breaking the vital process a little earlier than was the case with infanticide. In this way only can abortion be considered less barbaric than infanticide... but still it remains a barbaric solution.
Contrary to widespread belief, abortion is not inhuman simply because, as in France, it is performed behind closed doors and in questionable or even dangerous conditions. It is also inhuman because it means the sudden end of a process involving the development of a human embryo, of human life a fact deeply felt by all women, whatever the time at which abortion is performed. And, the later the date, the more deeply this resentment is felt.
Most controversies on this problem of abortion have revolved around the question: “Is abortion a crime?” Thus, the reactionaries who covered walls with propaganda posters showing an embryo stabbed with a dagger were answered by some supporters of abortion with the claim that abortion was not a crime because the embryo was not a human being. It was only a mass of undifferentiated tissues. In doing so, supporters of abortion did not realize that they were fighting the reactionaries on their own ground. Gisele Halimi, a lawyer who devoted a whole chapter of her book called The Cause of Women to this controversy, wrote:
Let us talk seriously: this whole idea of a link between the origin of a human being and the fertilization of the ovum is neither to the point, nor common knowledge, nor accepted in legal terms, nor even logical. And whether its supporters choose to admit it or not, their notion is rooted in religious principles.
Then she states that since the fetus is not autonomous, it is not a human being and thus, by destroying it, we do not commit a crime. Some “progressive” Catholics more or less use the same justification when they say that as long the embryo is without a soul (that is, before the sixth month), we can destroy it without committing a mortal sin!
These polemics are ridiculous. If we do not admit that the origin of the human being coincides with the fertilization of the egg and many reasons are found to justify this position at what point do we situate it? After six or seven months, when the embryo becomes autonomous? Then is this six month child more of a human being than a non-autonomous five month embryo? Of course it is. But still, it is not as “human” as it will be later on when it will have acquired articulated language, the distinctive feature of its species, or even later, when its intelligence and human consciousness will have developed and bloomed. From the moment of fertilization, processes of life undergo different phases none of which alone can be said to transform a non-human being into a human being. To say otherwise would be to open the door to reactionary eugenic theories.
Insofar as abortion is the sudden end to a vital process, why not admit that, in a sense, it is a crime?
We are not afraid to call a spade a spade: abortion, even when performed under the best possible conditions, is a traumatic experience only suited to a barbaric past. Furthermore, we do not need to prove that it is not an attack on life in order to claim that women have the right to it, because in many circumstances, present-day society has no other “solution” to offer women but this cruel necessity.
There is contraception, of course. And most of the people who fight today for legal abortion also put forward the demand for sexual education for all, including general information on birth control methods. But, just as this present society of exploitation is incapable of allowing us to master the production of the means of survival, so too it is incapable of allowing us to master the reproduction of our own kind. And the obstacle standing in the way of humanity is not a technical one but a moral one.
Even before the capitalist market offered hormonal and other supposedly modern contraceptives, some couples within the more educated layers of society had been able to control the number of children they had without abortion. But full control implies reciprocal confidence and respect as well as self-control on the part of both men and women. So technical means can only be correctly chosen by couples who are already fully aware of the problem and are willing to cope with it.
In fact, humane and efficient birth control first requires different ethics and social relationships between people than those now existing. Instead, inequality, constraint, and contempt describe relations between men and women in this society of exploitation.
In India, contraception on a large scale is sponsored by government authorities. The method most widely used is a very up-to-date, very scientific, and very efficient one: the definitive sterilization of men. Millions of Hindus have accepted sterilization and are offered in return a transistor radio or some other gadget produced by industrial societies. This example illustrates the fact that the problem of contraception, of the mastery of human reproduction, is not a technical problem but a social one.
Present-day society will never be able to offer to the whole of humanity the general and scientific education and the ethics without which contraception i.e., the mastery by humans of our own procreation remains nothing but a pious wish.
In the absence of decent contraception, more or less barbaric techniques prevail. Women from industrialized countries, or at least the favored minority, can protect themselves against the dangers of an unwanted pregnancy by swallowing a pill every day as if they were ill, without knowing much about the effect of these drugs.
But the majority who are not among the “privileged” either have recourse to procedures even more barbaric, like the IUD, or to operations injuring their reproductive organs. Or else, they use no contraception, relying as a last resort on luck and... abortion.
Regardless of which legislation is passed by bourgeois states, present-day society only gives women one way of preventing unwanted births: abortion. Legal when economic necessity and moral traditions authorize it, illegal and thus clandestine in the opposite case, abortion is always used as a last resort to limit the births of the majority.
Abortion is used because the material and cultural conditions which capitalist society imposes on the majority does not permit them to reach a higher level of consciousness and a greater mastery of themselves. Capitalist society does not permit the majority the conditions in which the arrival in the world of a child poses no problems.
So when society only allows abortion, throwing possible imprisonment into the bargain adding one injury to another, we socialists must put ourselves forward and demand at least the right to abortion. We demand it because, in the strictest sense, it is the right of women over their own bodies. But we must be careful not to endow abortion with revolutionary virtues it does not have.
Reprinted from Class Struggle #18