The broader meaning of the anti-abortion movement, both here and in the United States, has only recently become the object of serious analysis. A particularly important task is to understand the linkage between attacks on legal abortion, the provision of contraception to minors and sex education in schools, and the debate over artificial reproduction. The major strength of Rosalind Petchesky’s book is that it shows how abortion is part of a much larger ideological struggle in which the meanings of family, motherhood and young women’s sexuality are contested.footnote＊ It is all the more remarkable that such a penetrating analysis has been achieved at a time when the complex configuration of reproductive politics under neo-conservative governments has been emerging. As Petchesky says in her Foreword to this British edition, the escalation of the US anti-abortion movement in the last two years and the publication of the Warnock Report in Britain (and, we may add, Mrs Gillick’s campaign) strengthen her basic argument that ‘abortion is the fulcrum of a much broader ideological struggle’ (p. vii).
Some ten years ago, Linda Gordon’s historical analysis emphasized the importance of distinguishing between population control and birth control.footnote1 Citing Ellen Willis’s 1979 observation that ‘the nitty-gritty issue in the abortion debate is not life but sex’ (p. 263), Petchesky goes further in drawing attention to the way in which population control—for example, the sterilization laws still on the books in many us states—has also been a form of sexual control. The current campaign against abortion has been linked to the issue of teenage promiscuity: abolish abortion, birth control and sex education for the young and you abolish teenage sex. The thinking is the same in this country, where moves in 1982 to tighten up the system of abortion notification were accompanied by efforts to legislate the way sex education is taught in schools, by Mrs Gillick’s proceedings against Norfolk and Wisbeck Area Health Authority for refusing to assure her that her daughters would not be
The struggle to control sexuality is directed above all against young women. Petchesky shows how the introduction of the pill and the rise in abortion rates during the 1960s went hand in hand with postponed marriage and the greater availability of jobs and further education for women. Thus, a decade before the 1973 Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the us, birth control and abortion were making it possible for women to postpone or reject marriage in favour of school and work. Petchesky’s argument does not hold entirely for this country, where abortion was legalized in 1967. While education and work opportunities were certainly also widening, the average age at marriage actually fell until the late 1970s. The crucial relationship between economic and social change and reproductive behaviour is notoriously difficult to determine, and the trends that Petchesky examines can safely be described only as mutually reinforcing.
In both this country and the us women’s militancy in demanding abortions, often by means of self-help clinics, played a major part in securing legalization. The medical profession and the population planners, faced with a trend they could not stop, were essentially pragmatic in their response, and legal abortion was subsumed within the framework of the population control lobby. The most significant criticism of the pre-1973 abortion law in the us, formulated by John D. Rockefeller III (who later chaired Nixon’s Presidential Commission on Population Growth), turned on the idea that prohibition only resulted in large-scale disrespect for the law, which in turn eroded the moral fabric holding society together. But although he also referred to grounds of medical necessity and the problems of the ‘unwanted child’, the views of women did not feature in the discussion. By the 1980s policy-makers no longer regarded population control as such a burning issue, and in the us itself the pendulum was swinging back to favour the control of sexuality. Above all, abortion was linked to teenage sexual promiscuity, especially among middle-class white women and women on welfare. Petchesky argues that it is because legal abortion has made the practice of teenage sex visible that it has been opposed so violently. As long as sex remains invisible—with gays in the closet and abortions performed in back-streets or private consulting rooms—it is permissible.
Petchesky points to evidence of a playful, self-assertive sexual code among young black women and some whites, which may be bound up with the changing conditions of women’s lives in the late twentieth century. She is careful, nevertheless, to record that abortion may also occur among those with traditional values. The teenage girl who is labelled ‘promiscuous’ when abortion makes her sexual activity visible may in fact be trying to accommodate traditional ideas about romantic love and female virtue to new social and cultural conditions: testing the love or commitment of the man by not using contraceptives, or believing that contraceptive preparedness is not compatible with female virtue. Ignoring such profound differences in the meaning of sex, the antiabortion movement aims not only to control young women’s sexuality but to reimpose the traditional bourgeois family model. If young women
It is no coincidence that the right-wing women whose ‘pro-life’ worldview has recently been analysed by Kristin Lukerfootnote3 have invested themselves in the 1950s ideal of the wife and mother, seeing abortion as a threat to women’s nurturing role and to traditional social relations between men and women. Petchesky tends to pass over the crucial role of such women in the reproduction debates on both sides of the Atlantic—women who have mounted their attack on abortion and on contraception for minors in order to defend their own marital bargains and the basis upon which they have been constructed. Their fear of losing status is curiously reminiscent of those middle-class feminists of the late nineteenth century who opposed birth control in an age when the only real means of livelihood for middle-class women was marriage, and when anything that threatened to separate sex from reproduction therefore posed a very real danger. Indeed, Mrs Gillick has invoked the name of Josephine Butler, the nineteenth-century feminist who crusaded against the Contagious Diseases Acts (which laid down that prostitutes in certain garrison towns could be forcibly examined by doctors for vd). Like Mrs Butler, Mrs Gillick combines anger at the sexual exploitation of young women and a desire to protect them with a belief in moral purity. However, not only are the material circumstances and balance of needs and opportunities very different for young women today, but, unlike Mrs Butler, Mrs Gillick does not acknowledge the power relations between the sexes that give rise to sexual exploitation.
This is particularly ironic in view of the emphasis on the role of the father that has accompanied the desire to control sexuality and to relocate it within the confines of the traditional family. Petchesky demonstrates how conservative organs of mass culture carry the message of ‘Daddy knows best’. In Families—a Reader’s Digest publication on sale in us supermarkets—a story about a teenage pregnancy portrays the mother as ineffectual and the daughter herself as chastened and submissive, with the patriarchal authoritarian family clearly presented as the bastion of traditional values about sex. At a wider level, the Family Protection Act, introduced in both Houses of Congress in 1979, and in a revised version in 1981, would remove federal jurisdiction over ‘parental rights’ and the rights of churches and private schools, thereby ‘privatizing’ child and spouse abuse, for example, and exempting it from central state ‘interference’. The bill did not become law but remains the guiding model for neo-conservatives. Of particular concern have been the ‘educational materials . . . [that] teach to denigrate, diminish, or deny the role differences between the sexes’ (p. 265). Women’s studies and anything drawing attention to homosexuality are therefore suspect—a view reflected here by the recent controversy over the availability of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin in public libraries.