The Racist Roots of the Pro-Life Movement

2 Oct

Most people probably think of abortion as being a fairly modern convenience, and imagine that the pro-life movement has probably been around for quite some time. For one thing, people who are pro-life often cloak their message in the Biblical idea of thou shalt not kill, and, you know, the Bible has been around for like forever. With that in mind, it would totally make sense for anti-abortion sentiment to have been rampant and widespread for the last couple of hundred or even thousand years.

Except that it hasn’t been.

The roots of the modern pro-life movement can actually be found in late 19th century America. Laws criminalizing abortion in the United States didn’t begin appearing until the 1820s, and even then they were still fairly rare. In the 1860s (so, during and after the civil war), these laws became more common, and by 1900 abortion was illegal in every state.

Before that, abortion was totally legal up until the “quickening”, i.e. when the mother first feels the fetus move. This was partially because at the time, there was no definite way of knowing that a woman was pregnant until she felt fetal movement; of course there were other signs, such as lack of menstruation or things like morning sickness or breast tenderness, but any of those could be symptoms of conditions other than pregnancy. Because of that, the moment when a woman felt her baby “quicken” (which typically happens in the 4th, 5th or even 6th month pregnancy) was really the moment when society considered her to be pregnant. Before that, she was just a woman with an irregular or disrupted menstrual cycle.

Which is why most advertisements for 19th century abortifacients looked like this:

Most patent medicines promised to do things like “correct irregularities”, or, even more abstractly, offering “relief for ladies”.

Abortion was actually one of the most common forms of birth control in 19th century America. Doctors estimated that there was one abortion for every five or six live births. In fact, the 1867 Richmond Medical Journal reported that,

“Among married persons so extensive has this practice become that people of high repute not only commit this crime, but do not even shun to speak boastingly among their intimates of the deed and the means of accomplishing it.” 

Abortion was so common that classy ladies were chatting up their friends about the best ways to do it.

Probably not what you would expect to hear at a Victorian tea party, right? Kind of amazing to picture, though:

Won’t you please pass the cucumber sandwiches, Priscilla? Oh and did I tell you about this absolutely smashing new way I’ve discovered of aborting unwanted fetuses?

Someone please invite me to that tea party.

So what the hell happened?

Well, people started worrying that if women were allowed to control their own fertility, bad things might happen. Like the end of society as we know it!

Let’s take a look at the historical context: the 1860s were obviously a very turbulent time, especially with regards to racial issues. The fact that there was such an increase in abortion legislation during and immediately after the civil war is quite telling. The aftermath of the war inspired a growing panic among white people that people of colour, who they were sadly no longer able to enslave, might try to take over “their” country. Maybe as payback for all those years of slavery? This panic paved the way for the idea of “race suicide”.

What, exactly, is race suicide, you might ask? I’ll just let my old friend Teddy Roosevelt explain it to you:

” …if the average family in which there are children contained but two children the nation as a whole would decrease in population so rapidly that in two or three generations it would very deservedly be on the point of extinction, so that the people who had acted on this base and selfish doctrine would be giving place to others with braver and more robust ideals. Nor would such a result be in any way regrettable; for a race that practised such doctrine–that is, a race that practised race suicide–would thereby conclusively show that it was unfit to exist, and that it had better give place to people who had not forgotten the primary laws of their being.”

(On American Motherhood, by Theodore Roosevelt, 1905)

That’s right – race suicide is the idea that white people will become “extinct” if they don’t have enough babies.

This fear, that people of colour would out-baby us, is where we find the actual origins of the pro-life movement. It didn’t come out of the idea that abortion was a sin, or the dogma of be fruitful and multiply, but rather the panicked notion that white people might not run the world anymore.

This racism still exists in the pro-life movement, although usually in more subtle ways. I’ve heard of white women requesting abortions and being asked, pleadingly, by medical professionals, if they know how wanted white babies are. And, of course, the pro-life movement is stunningly racist in other ways, for example when they posted this what-is-this-I-can’t-even billboard:

Look, I’m not saying that if you’re pro-life, you must be racist, or that everyone who hates abortion also hates people of colour. But what I am asking you to do is take a look at the history of the movement, educate yourself, and re-examine why you hold the beliefs you do.

I’m also asking you to admit that when it comes to anti-abortion sentiment, it’s not always about God or saving babies or whatever; it’s also about white people, and our xenophobia, and our desire to maintain our death grip on a society that we perceive as being only for us.

ETA: Sadly, the pro-choice movement has a pretty racist history as well. Stay tuned for the next in this series, The Racist History of the Pro-Choice Movement. Racism. It is why we can’t have nice things.

24 Responses to “The Racist Roots of the Pro-Life Movement”

  1. Judithann October 2, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    Have you ever actually read any of Margaret Sanger’s books? She was very much into eugenics. She saw birth control and abortion as a way of eliminating those whom she considered “unfit”. The pro-choice movement has a racist history. I am not saying that all pro-choicers are racist, but let’s not rewrite history when the truth is inconvenient.

    • bellejarblog October 2, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

      Oh totally! The origins of the pro-choice movement are equally ugly, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

      I’m going to write another post called The Racist Roots of the Pro-Choice Movement. Maybe I’ll just do a whole series called The Racist History of Everything Ever, or History Lessons For White Dudes :/

      I’ve added something in at the end so it doesn’t look like I’m trying to say that the pro-choice movement is totally guiltless. I just need to educate myself more about Margaret Sanger and forced sterilizations for coloured women etc. before I can write the next part.

      • emmawolf October 2, 2012 at 11:48 pm #

        It so funny that she mentioned this because I was just going to say how the anti-choice movement likes to take Margaret Sanger out of context and historical context and call her a racist!

      • Jo March 22, 2013 at 5:27 am #

        Margaret Sanger was about so much more than just the forced sterilization of colored women, and to be honest I don’t think there’s anything very concrete out there to prove it. So she remains this elusive figure that no one can pin down. And we shouldn’t necessarily waste our time trying to do so.

        I like to put her in the larger context of the Socialist movement (she was a member of the Socialist Party), and when you realize that this movement was about *shaping* society, moulding the masses into a utopian ideal, things become clearer. I’m all for freedom, hence my pro-choice stance, and as such I’m 100% against social engineering. It’s completely irrelevant for me if all of *my* personal ideals for a harmonious society eventually become reality through these engineering efforts; the masses should not be tricked in various ways, whether outright aggressive or more insidious, to become what a small clique of better to do ruling class folks think would be a “neat” society, whatever that is (I suppose more easily controlled and manipulated for the highest level of creative output).

        The social evolution they speak of, as something somehow bound up in ‘natural’ laws, is a bunch of crap. And the very reason why humanity is brought through endless of devastating crises and revolutions to further it.

  2. Judithann October 2, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

    If you are curious, I recommend the book Women And The New Race by Margaret Sanger; you can get it online through Barnes and Noble.

  3. mandaray October 2, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    Thank you for this. It is unfortunate that many people in the pro-life movement are too wrapped up in their righteousness and their fear to examine the history of their own movement. But maybe a few of them will be able to see the other side of the argument, rather than just making sweeping condemnations.

    • bellejarblog October 5, 2012 at 12:27 am #

      I feel like it’s such a stalemate; no one’s ever going to convince me that abortion is wrong, and I’m never going to convince anyone else. But maybe a few people who are on the fence will read this and have it make sense to them!

      • mandaray October 5, 2012 at 5:08 am #

        I hope so. And I hope that people who are on the other side of the fence can at least reach the point where they understand our point of view. (And vice versa)

  4. Judithann October 3, 2012 at 12:54 am #

    I encourage people to read Margaret Sanger’s books and make up your own mind. If, by “taking out of context” you mean that practically everyone back then was racist, that is true, but by that logic, bellejarblog was taking Theodore Roosevelt out of context.

    • Jo March 21, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

      So true. We should not take this apologist stance towards Sanger and her like only because the intellectual majority of her time espoused these ideas in unison. She certainly had some racist leanings as evidenced by her writings, but we should also not reduce her to only that. She worked equally hard to restrict births in white households. She worked for elitist agendas.

      When people say Sanger and other racists of the time are taken out of historical context, I think they assume that racism is sort of natural and that we evolve socially to rid ourselves of those natural but destructive tendencies. I don’t believe this is true at all. Living side by side with other ethnicities does not necessarily produce xenophobic sentiments. Only when political powers desire it, does it happen. The racism of the late 1800s, early 1900s came out of that.

  5. CitySnacks October 3, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

    Very interesting!

  6. Judithann October 3, 2012 at 11:31 pm #

    Also, the classical version of The Hippocratic Oath prohibited abortion. A doctor who took that oath had to swear that he would not give a woman “an abortive remedy.” Obviously, the oath has changed in recent times, but opposition to abortion has been around since the beginning of time; it has been around at least since Ancient Greece, since before the advent of Christianity.

    • bellejarblog October 4, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

      Oh, I’m not saying that it hasn’t been around. But I’m specifically referring here to the origins of the present-day pro-life movement. I’m down with the Hippocratic Oath telling doctors to do no harm, but as for it going into specifics of what no harm is, I don’t really have time for that. I’m not overly interested in what a bunch of people who had very limited anatomical and biological knowledge think of what I should and shouldn’t do with my body.

      Considering that your blog is called “undoing feminism”, I doubt that we will agree on much, though.

  7. shannon October 4, 2012 at 12:00 am #

    You belong in a PhD program, m’lady.

    • Judithann October 4, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

      Thank you! But really, the only reason I know about the history of abortion is because I was raised in the pro-life movement, and my parents taught me well. 🙂

      • Audra Williams October 16, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

        I don’t think she meant you.

    • bellejarblog October 4, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

      That would be nice! I can dream, can’t I?

  8. Judithann October 4, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    It was actually a very interesting way to grow up; I am pro- life, but my husband is pro-choice, and I know and love several women who have had abortions and don’t necessarily regret them. Most of the people on both sides mean well.

    • Mappy October 15, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

      Except pro-life people can’t accept that it’s a personal choice so they are forcing their decisions on other people. It’s not just an “argument between two sides,” in my mind. It is sexism and oppression and silencing and control on the side of pro-life, vs. giving everyone the choice to say yes or no to an abortion.

  9. 8Dave December 26, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    Always good for a laugh:

  10. Mark March 4, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    (a) If the pro-life movement is really all about “men controlling women’s bodies”, then why is there such a large number of women involved in the movement? Take it from me, I couldn’t care less about controlling women’s bodies—the mentality of the woman who screams “anti-abortion men are trying to control my body!” is wholly laughable. My concern is for the children. I’ve seen how poorly most people (not just women, but men too) treat their bodies. Believe me, controlling your body is not on my list of priorities. I wouldn’t touch your body with a ten-foot barge pole–don’t anybody dare cast dispersions about what my motivations are for being pro-life. This is the same reason why I’m a vegan: it has nothing to do with controlling your body—it has everything to do with protecting the animals, who, like unborn children, are voiceless and unable to protect themselves.

    (b) At what point does a foetus become a child with rights in the eyes of a pro-abortion fanatic? That’s something that, without exception, not one pro-abortionist has ever been able to answer. The truth is, a child is a foetus from the beginning of the foetal stage until the moment it leaves the womb—something that pro-abortion fanatics love to deny (clearly, these pro-abortion zealots are not scientists). In other words, if you’re a pregnant mother who believes that a foetus isn’t a real person, and your “child” is delivered still-born, you shouldn’t feel at all upset—your “child” died before it left the womb, so according to you, you’ve really just delivered a motionless foetus, which wasn’t a real person, anyway. I’ve pointed this fact out to a number of pro-abortion fanatics in person. Same response every time I confront a pro-abortionist about this in person: “I don’t want to talk about it anymore” (then they turn and walk away). Funny that, hey?

    (c) The pro-abortion movement always harps on about the Church, religious fanatics, blah-blah-blah. This neatly overlooks the (non-theological) arguments of the atheist pro-life movement (yes, we do exist). Pro-abortion zealots love to blather on about those “evil sexist men in the Church” with their irrational belief in God, because that way, they don’t have to confront the scientific arguments put forth by the rationalist-atheist pro-lifers. And as I’ve stated above, pro-abortionists wave the white flag every time when they (a) argue that a foetus isn’t alive, (b) have it pointed out to them that a foetus is sentient, breathing and growing, therefore by definition is alive, and (c) by definition, a child remains a foetus until the instant it leaves the womb.

    (d) Without meaning to sound crass, abortion is like high heels—invented by a man so that women can endure discomfort for male satisfaction. If you really think that abortion was invented for the benefit of women, you have your head firmly planted in the sand. You’ll get no argument from me if you tell me that an overwhelming number of men have zero respect for a woman’s sexuality, and by far too many male minds, abortion is seen as manna from heaven—the prevailing attitude among men who see women as nothing but sex objects is “well, if she gets pregnant, she can always have an abortion”. How convenient and thoughtful of these “noble” pro-abortion men to think of women in such a manner. Speaking for myself, I don’t treat women as sex objects, and I believe that if you’re a man and you get a woman pregnant, you should be a real man and help her raise that child, not be a coward and use the male-invented convenience of abortion to get yourself of the hook.

    As for the mainstream pro-life movement, I don’t have a great deal of respect for it. The thing that sickens me is your typical pro-abortionist has no understanding of alternative pro-life movements, nor do they engage in meaningful discourse with atheist pro-lifers. I agree that the mainstream (often religious) pro-lifers are wholly hypocritical when they say no to abortion, yet support warfare and capital punishment (two things which, as a pacifist, I oppose with every fibre of my being)—also absolutely sickening. The pro-war, anti-abortion types ignore the fact that warfare often leads to the deaths of children, both inside and outside the womb—and let’s not forget that radioactive materials such as depleted uranium attack the reproductive organs of women, rendering them susceptible to sterility and their children vulnerable to developing birth defects.

    I believe it’s important that people realise that a lot of atheist pro-lifers do exist, we have a consistent life ethic (opposing capital punishment, warfare, animal cruelty etc), and quite often, your garden variety pro-abortionist is extremely uneducated as to this concept. Too often this debate is “religious pro-lifer vs atheistic pro-abortionist”. But there are other perspectives that go largely if not totally ignored. As an atheist pro-lifer, I think for myself and manage to piss off both sides (both sides tending to be very statist/pro-government, another thing with which I disagree), so I must be doing something right.


  1. The Racist Roots of the Pro-Life Movement « The Anarchist Bee - December 20, 2013

    […] The Racist Roots of the Pro-Life Movement. […]

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