Today marks the 46th anniversary of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that made abortion on demand legal in all 50 states. The decision has been hailed as a victory for women and women’s rights. Many feminists regard it as indispensable for a woman to achieve full equality as a citizen of the United States.
A few days ago I came across some quotes from the earliest of “feminists” who advocated for women’s rights, especially the right to vote. These women who called in those days “suffragettes.” Many of them were present at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19–20, 1848. It was “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman,” and it was held at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were two of the more renown women’s rights activists who attended this convention. Seventy-two years later the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the right to vote to all women in the nation.
Many of today’s feminists harken back to these brave and ground-breaking women for inspiration. As I stated earlier, the right to “choose an abortion” has become just as important as the “right to vote.” How did these 19th and early 20th century feminists compare to their modern-day compatriots? Let’s return to those quotes!
The unifying theme of Susan Brownell Anthony’s life was to speak up for those without a voice. Anthony fought for temperance, the abolition of slavery and especially the enfranchisement of women. She also spoke up for the voiceless child in utero, opposing Restellism, the term that Anthony’s newspaper and others at that time used for abortion. It’s easy to chalk up Anthony’s (and other early feminists’) opposition to abortion as a relic of their day and age. But these women were progressive and independent; they did not oppose abortion because they were conditioned to, but because they believed every human life has inherent and equal value, no matter their age, skin color or sex.
Anthony’s newspaper, the Revolution, had a policy of not advertising abortion like other mainstream papers furtively did. Revolution editors like Elizabeth Cady Stanton were explicit in denouncing “child murder,” “infanticide” and “foeticide,” descriptions they used interchangeably for abortion. Indeed, a recent Smithsonian Magazine article discussed news coverage of “infanticide” in the 1860s, a common subject for early investigative reporters of the suffrage era, many of whom were women writing about their concerns under pseudonyms.
It is not hard to imagine that these early feminists and suffragists, Anthony among them, were opposed to the most fundamental human abuse: degrading another human being by claiming to own and destroy it.
In her famous 1875 talk on social purity, Anthony condemned abortion as a consequence of liquor consumption.
In her autobiography, Elizabeth Blackwell, a suffragist and the first U.S. female doctor, went into medicine to denounce abortionists: “Women who carried on this shocking trade seemed to me a horror,” she wrote. “It was an utter degradation of what might and should become a noble position for women.”
Another suffragist physician, Charlotte Denman Lozier, said, “We are sure most women physicians will lend their influence and their aid to shield their sex from the foulest wrong committed against it,” that is, abortion.
Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president in 1872 said, ““The rights of children, then, as individuals, begin while they yet remain the foetus.” Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, declared, “Pregnancy is not a disease, but a beautiful office of nature.”
These early feminists would be appalled if they could see where we are 170 years after that first women’s rights convention. Legally in the last 46 years, 61 million babies have paid the ultimate price. Their voices still speak to us today about the “foulest wrong committed” against all women, especially those who are yet unborn!