In my latest reading of Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Kristin Luker discusses California’s Therapeutic Abortion law during the 1960’s and the pro-choice movement’s reactions to it.
As I said yesterday in my post about Luker’s book, the nineteenth century had laws against abortion that still permitted abortion to save the life of the mother, but medical doctors were given the latitude to perform an abortion when they deemed it to be necessary. When medical advancement dramatically reduced the number of instances in which abortion would need to be performed to save the mother’s life, people turned a critical eye towards practicing abortion for the sake of the mother’s mental health, and there was a push to interpret anti-abortion laws more strictly.
California’s Therapeutic Abortion law in the 1960’s was a reaction to this, and it sought to preserve medical doctors’ latitude in performing abortions. Not only was this a move to protect doctors, but it also addressed another relevant concern at the time: the rubella epidemic, which was causing severe birth defects (blindness, deafness, heart problems, mental disability, etc.), and some believed that abortion should be an option in this case because of the taxing responsibility of raising a child with such defects, and perhaps also because of the potential that the child could not have much quality of life (I may have read the latter reason in this book, but I can’t find where, so it may not be there). Governor Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law, after successfully pushing for a symbolic concession to the anti-abortion movement (and I don’t exactly understand what that concession was). (UPDATE: From what I read in Luker, it seems that Reagan was against allowing abortion on the ground that it was for the embryo’s own good, on account of the embryo’s defects.) The law itself was not for abortion on demand, but, overall, in the law’s aftermath, doctors agreed to perform far more abortions than they refused.
But there were women who did not think that California’s Therapeutic Abortion law went far enough. They favored the repeal of all anti-abortion laws, not merely reforming them, and some women thought that California’s law treated them as chattel. And they did not believe that a medical doctor should have the final say about whether or not they’d have an abortion, but that they themselves should have the final say, for pregnancy and having children affected their lives. On page 97, Luker quotes a pro-choice woman who said: “When we talk about women’s rights, we can get all the rights in the world—-the right to vote, the right to go to school—-and none of them means a doggone thing if we don’t own the flesh we stand in, if we can’t control what happens to us, if the whole course of our lives can be changed by somebody else that can get us pregnant by accident, or by deceit, or by force.”
On page 100, Luker states that the organization of the pro-choice group, Society for Human Abortions, was when a number of women became unwilling to regard abortion as something that should be weighed in light of interests outside of the woman herself: “Until SHA was organized, women seemed willing to live with a situation in which their rights to control their own bodies was defined as only one of several competing rights, such as the rights of the husband (or whoever was the father of the embryo), the right of the state to regulate sexual morality by regulating the consequences of sexual intercourse, and the right of the state to control the production of potential citizens. It may very well be true that women were not happy about sharing their right to control their own bodies with various competing claims; but the interesting fact remains that until SHA was formed, they did not choose to exert organized political pressure on their own behalf.”