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Naomi Wolf on abortion: "Our Bodies, Our Souls"

For the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade - which legalised abortion in the US - the New Statesman is republishing Naomi Wolf's provocative 1995 essay, which argues that the pro-choice movement is "cultivating a hardness of heart".

I had an abortion when I was a single mother and my daughter was two years old. I would do it again. But you know how in the Greek myths when you kill a relative you are pursued by Furies? For months it was as if baby Furies were pursuing me.

These are not the words of a benighted, superstition-ridden teenager lost in America's cultural backwaters. They are the words of a Cornell-educated, urban, Democratic-voting 40-year-old cardiologist—I'll call her Clare. Clare is exactly the kind of person for whom being pro-choice is an unshakeable conviction. If there were a core constituent of the movement to secure abortion rights, Clare would be it. And yet: her words are exactly the words to which the pro-choice movement is not listening.

At its best, feminism defends its moral high ground by being simply faithful to the truth: to women's real-life experiences. But to its own ethical and political detriment, the pro-choice movement has relinquished the moral frame around the issue of abortion. It has ceded the language of right and wrong to abortion foes. The movement's abandonment of what Americans have always, and rightly, demanded of their movements—an ethical core—and its reliance instead on a political rhetoric in which the foetus means nothing are proving fatal.

The effects of this abandonment can be measured in two ways. First of all, such a position causes us to lose political ground. By refusing to look at abortion within a moral framework, we lose the millions of Americans who want to support abortion as a legal right, but still need to condemn it as a moral iniquity. Their ethical allegiances are then addressed by the pro-life movement, which is willing to speak about good and evil.

But we are also in danger of losing something more important than votes; we stand in jeopardy of losing what can only be called our souls. Clinging to a rhetoric about abortion in which there is no life and no death, we entangle our beliefs in a series of self-delusions, fibs and evasions. And we risk becoming precisely what our critics charge us with being: callous, selfish and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of human life.

In the following pages, I will argue for a radical shift in the pro-choice movement's rhetoric and consciousness about abortion: I will maintain that we need to contextualise the fight to defend abortion rights within a moral framework that admits that the death of a foetus is a real death: that there are degrees of culpability, judgment and responsibility involved in the decision to abort a pregnancy; that the best understanding of feminism involves holding women as well as men to the responsibilities that are inseparable from their rights; and that we need to be strong enough to acknowledge that America's high rate of abortion—which ends more than a quarter of all pregnancies—can only be rightly understood as a failure.

Any doubt that our current pro-choice rhetoric leads to disaster should be dispelled by the famous recent defection from the pro-choice lobby of Norma McCorvey [real name of the woman who had been Jane Roe in the 1973 Supreme Court case, Roe v Wade, which established Roe's right to an abortion in the state of Texas]. What happened to Norma McCorvey? To judge by her characterisation in the elite media and by some prominent pro-choice feminists, nothing very important. Her change of heart about abortion was relentlessly “explained away” as having everything to do with fickleness and little to do with any actual moral agency: poor Norma—she just needed stroking. She was never very stable, the old dear—first she was a chess-piece for the pro-choice movement, then a co-dependant of the Bible-thumpers. Low self-esteem, a history of substance abuse, ignorance—these and other personal weaknesses explained her turnaround.

To me, the first commandment of real feminism is: when in doubt, listen to women. What if we were to truly, respectfully listen to this woman who began her political life as, in her words, just “some little old Texas girl who got in trouble”? We would have to hear this: perhaps McCorvey actually had a revelation that she could no longer live as the symbol of a belief system she increasingly repudiated.

McCorvey should be seen as an object lesson for the pro-choice movement—a call to us to search our souls and take another, humbler look at how we go about what we are doing. For McCorvey is in fact an American Everywoman; she is the lost middle of the abortion debate, the woman whose allegiance we forfeit by our refusal to use a darker and sterner and more honest moral rhetoric.

McCorvey is more astute than her critics; she seems to understand better than the pro-choice activists she worked with just what the woman-in-the-middle believes: “I believe in the woman's right to choose. I'm like a lot of people. I'm in the mushy middle,” she said. McCorvey still supports abortion rights through the first trimester—but is horrified by the brutality of abortion further into a pregnancy. What she and all of us deserve is an abortion-rights movement willing publicly to mourn the evil—necessary evil though it may be—that is abortion. We must have a movement that acts with moral accountability and without euphemism.

With the pro-choice rhetoric we use now, we incur three destructive consequences—two ethical, one strategic: hardness of heart, lying and political failure.

Because of the implications of a constitution that defines rights according to the legal idea of “a person”, the abortion debate has tended to focus on the question of “personhood” of the foetus. Many pro-choice advocates developed a language to assert that the foetus isn't a person, and this, over the years, has developed into a lexicon of dehumanisation. An account of a pre-Roe underground abortion service inadvertently sheds light on this: staffers referred to the foetus—well into the fourth month—as “material” (as in “the amount of material that had to be removed. . .”). The activists felt exhilaration at learning to perform abortions themselves: “When [a staffer] removed the speculum and said, ‘There, all done’, the room exploded in excitement.” In an era when women were dying of illegal abortions, this was the understandable exhilaration of an under-ground resistance movement.

Unfortunately, though, this cool and congratulatory rhetoric lingers into a very different present. In one woman's account of her chemical abortion, in the January/February 1994 issue of Mother Jones, for example, the doctor says, “By Sunday you won't see on the monitor what we call the heartbeat” (my italics). The author of the article, D Redman, explains that one of the drugs the doctor administered would “end the growth of the foetal tissue”. And we all remember Dr Jocelyn Elders' remark, hailed by some as frank and pro-woman, but which I found remarkably brutal, that “We really need to get over this love affair with the foetus…”

In the 1970s, Second Wave feminism reacted to a climate that invoked motherhood as an excuse to deny women legal and social equality. When women risked being defined as mere vessels while their foetuses were given “personhood” at their expense, it made sense that women's advocates would fight back by depersonalising the foetus.

The feminist complaint about the pro-life movement's dehumanisation of the pregnant woman in relation to the humanised foetus is familiar and often quite valid: pro-choice commentators note that the pro-life film The Silent Scream portrayed the woman as “a vessel”; Ellen Frankfort's Vaginal Politics, the influential feminist text, complained that the foetus is treated like an astronaut in a spaceship.

But, say what you will, pregnancy confounds western philosophy's ideas of the autonomous self: the pregnant woman is in fact both a person in her body and a vessel. Rather than seeing both beings as alive and interdependent—seeing life within life—and acknowledging that sometimes, nonetheless, the woman must choose her life over the foetus', Second Wave femi-nists reacted to the dehumanisation of women by dehumanising the creatures within them. In the death-struggle to wrest what Simone de Beauvoir called transcendence out of biological immanence, some feminists developed a rhetoric that defined the unwanted foetus as at best valueless, at worse a “mass of dependent protoplasm”.

Yet that has left us with a bitter legacy. For when we defend abortion rights by emptying the act of moral gravity, we find ourselves cultivating a hardness of heart.

Having become pregnant through her partner's and her own failure to use a condom, Redman remarks that her friend Judith, who has been trying to find a child to adopt, begs her to carry the pregnancy to term. Judith offers Redman almost every condition a birth-mother could want: “Let me have the baby. You could visit her anytime, and if you ever wanted her back, I promise I would let her go.” Redman does not mention considering this possibility. Thinking, rather, about “My time consumed by the tedious, daily activities that I've always done my best to avoid. Three meals a day. Unwashed laundry….” she schedules her chemical abortion.

The procedure is experimental, and the author feels “almost heroic”, thinking of how she is blazing a trail for other women. After the abortion process is underway, the story reaches its perverse epiphany: Redman is on a Women's Day march when the blood first appears. She exults at this: “Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide… My life feels luxuriant with possibility. For one precious moment, I believe that we have the power to dismantle this system. I finish the march, borne along with the women…” As for the pleading Judith, with everything she was ready to offer a child, and the phantom baby? They are both off-stage, silent in this drama of “feminist” triumphalism. The foetus is here little more than a form of speech; a vehicle to assert the author’s autonomy.

The pro-life warning about the potential of widespread abortion to degrade reverence for life does have a nugget of truth: a free-market rhetoric about abortion can, indeed, contribute to the eerie situation we are now facing, wherein the culture seems increasingly to see babies not as creatures to whom parents devote their lives but as accoutrements to enhance parental quality of life. Day by day, babies seem to have less value in themselves, in a matrix of the sacred, than they do as products with a value dictated by a market economy.

Stories surface regularly about “worthless” babies left naked on gratings or casually dropped out of windows, while “valuable”, genetically correct babies are created at vast expense and with intricate medical assistance for infertile couples. If we fail to treat abortion with grief and reverence, we risk forgetting that, when it comes to the children we choose to bear, we are here to serve them—whomever they are: they are not here to serve us.

Too often our rhetoric leads us to tell untruths. What Norma McCorvey wants, it seems, is for abortion-rights advocates to really face what we are doing. “Have you ever seen a second-trimester abortion?” she asks. “It's a baby. It's got a face and a body, and they put him in a freezer and a little container.” Well, so it does; and so they do.

The pro-choice movement often treats with contempt the pro-lifers’ practice 0f holding up to our faces their disturbing graphics. We revile their placards showing the aftermath of a D & C abortion; we are disgusted by their lapel pins with the feet, crafted in gold, of a ten-week-old foetus; we mock the sensationalism of The Silent Scream. We look with pity and horror at someone who would brandish a foetus in formaldehyde—and we are quick to say that they are lying: “Those are stillbirths anyway,” we tell ourselves.

To many pro-choice advocates, imagery is revolting propaganda. There is a sense among us, let us be frank, that the gruesomeness of the imagery belongs to the pro-lifers: that it emerges from the dark, frightening minds of fanatics; that its represents the violence of imaginations that would, given half a chance, turn our world into a scary, repressive place. “People like us” see such material as the pornography of the pro-life movement.

But feminism at its best is based on what is simply true. While pro-lifers have not been beyong dishonesty and distortion (preferring, for example, to highlight the results of very late, very rare abortions), many of those photographs are photographs of actual D & Cs; those footprints are the footprints of a ten-week-old-foetus; the slogan “Abortion stops a beating heart” is incontrovertibly true. While images of violent foetal death work magnificently for pro-lifers as political polemic, the pictures are not polemical in themselves: they are biological facts. We know this.

Since abortion became legal nearly a quarter-century ago, the fields of embryology and perinatology have been revolutionised—but the pro-choice view of the contested foetus has remained static. This has led to a bizarre bifurcation in the way we who are pro-choice tend to think about wanted as opposed to unwanted foetuses; unwanted ones still seen in schematic black-and-white drawings while wanted ones have metamorphosed into vivid and moving colour. Even while Elders spoke of our need to “get over” our love affair with the unwelcome foetus, an entire growth industry—Mozart for your belly; framed sonogram photos; home foetal-heartbeat stethoscopes—is devoted to sparking foetal love affairs in other circumstances, and aimed especially at the hearts of over-scheduled yuppies. If we avidly cultivate love for the ones we bring to term, and “get over” our love for the ones we don't, do we not risk developing a hydroponic view of babies—and turn them into a product we can cull for our convenience?

Any happy couple with a wanted pregnancy and a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting can see the cute, detailed drawings of the foetus whom the book's owner presumably is not going to abort, and can read the excited descriptions of what that foetus can do and feel, month by month. Anyone who has had a sonogram during pregnancy knows perfectly well that the four-month-old foetus responds to outside stimulus—“Let's get him to look this way,” the technician will say, poking gently at the belly of a delighted mother-to-be. The Well Baby Book, the kind of wholegrain, holistic guide to pregnancy and childbirth that would find its audience among the very demographic that is most solidly pro-choice, reminds us: “Increasing knowledge is increasing the awe and respect we have for the unborn baby and is causing us to regard the unborn baby as a real person long before birth…”

So, what will it be? Wanted foetuses are charming, complex, REM-dreaming beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere “uterine material”? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very definition of hypocrisy. If these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism. Free women must be strong women, too; and strong women, presumably, do not cloak their most important decisions in euphemism.

Other lies are not lies to others, but to ourselves. An abortion-clinic doctor, Elizabeth Karlin, in a recent “Hers” column in the New York Times, declared that “there is only one reason I've ever heard for having an abortion: the desire to be a good mother”.

While that may well be true for many poor and working-class women—and indeed research shows that poor women are three times more likely to have abortions than are better-off women—the elite, who are the most vociferous in their morally unambiguous pro-choice language, should know perfectly well how untrue that statement often is in their own lives. All abortions occupy a spectrum, from full lack of alternatives to full moral accountability. Karlin and many other pro-choice activists try to situate all women equally at the extreme endpoint of that spectrum, and it just isn't so. Many women, including middle-class women, do have abortions because, as one such woman put it, “They have a notion of what a good mother is and don't feel they can be that kind of mother at this phase of their lives.” In many cases, that is still a morally defensible place on the spectrum; but it is not the place of absolute absolution that Dr Karlin claims it to be. It is, rather, a place of moral struggle, of self-interest mixed with selflessness, of wished-for good intermingled with necessary evil.

Other abortions occupy places on the spectrum that are far more culpable. Of the abortions I know of, these were some of the reasons: to find out if the woman could get pregnant; to force a boy or man to take a relationship more seriously; and to enact a rite of passage for affluent teenage girls. In my high school, the abortion drama was used to test a boyfriend's character.

The affluent men and women who choose abortion because they were careless or in a hurry or didn't like the feel of latex are not the moral equivalent of the impoverished mother who responsibly, even selflessly, acknowledges she already has too many mouths to feed. Feminist rights include feminist responsibilities; the right to obtain an abortion brings with it the responsibility to use contraception. Fifty-seven per cent of unintended pregnancies come about because the parents used no contraception at all. Those millions certainly include women and men too poor to buy contraception, girls and boys too young and ill-informed to know where to get it, and countless instances of marital rape, coerced sex, incest and couplings in which the man refused to let the woman use protection.

But they also include millions of college students, professional men and women, and middle- and upper-middle-class people (11 per cent of abortions are obtained by people in households with incomes of higher than $5o,000)—who have no excuse whatsoever for their carelessness. “There is only one reason I've ever heard for having an abortion: the desire to be a good mother”—this is a falsehood that condescends to women struggling to be true agents of their own souls, even as it dishonours through hypocrisy the terminations that are the writer's subject.

I know this assertion to be false from my own experience. Once, I made the choice to take a morning-after pill. But I must acknowledge that that potential baby, brought to term, would have had two sets of loving middle-income grandparents and an adult mother with an education. Because of the baby's skin colour, a roster of eager adoptive parents awaited him or her. If I had been thinking only or even primarily about the baby's life, I would have had to decide to bring the pregnancy, had there been one, to term. There were two columns in my mind—“Me” and “Baby”—and the first won out. And what was in it looked something like this: unwelcome intensity in the relationship with the father; desire to continue to “develop as a person” before “real” parenthood; wish to encounter my eventual life partner without the off-putting encumbrance of a child; resistance to curtailing the nature of the time remaining to me on a graduate fellowship in Europe. Essentially, this column came down to: I am not done being responsive only to myself yet.

Stepping aside in this way is analogous to draft evasion; there are good and altruistic reasons to evade the draft, and then there are self-preserving reasons. In that moment, feminism came to one of its logical if less-than-inspiring moments of fruition: I chose to sidestep biology; I acted—and was free to act—as if I were in control of my destiny, the way men more often than women have let themselves act. I chose myself on my own terms over a possible someone else, for self-absorbed reasons. But “to be a better mother?” Dulce et decorum est…? Nonsense.

Now, freedom means that women must be free to choose self or to choose selfishly. Certainly for a woman with fewer economic and social choices than I had—for instance, a woman struggling to finish her higher education, without which she would have little hope of a life worthy of her talents—there can indeed be an obligation to choose self. And the defence of some level of abortion rights as fundamental to women's integrity and equality has been made, rightly and indisputably, by others. A woman's equality in society must give her some irreducible rights unique to her biology, indulging the right to take the life within her life.

But let us at least look with clarity at what that means and not whitewash self-interest with the language of self-sacrifice. Let us certainly not be fools enough to present such spiritually limited decisions to the world with a flourish of pride, pretending that we are heroines to have snatched the self, with its aims and pleasures, from the pressure of biology.

Using amoral rhetoric, we weaken ourselves politically because we lose the centre. To draw an inexact parallel, many people support the choice to limit the medical prolongation of life. But, if a movement arose that spoke of our “getting over our love affair” with the terminally ill, those same people would recoil into a vociferous interventionist position as a way to assert their moral values. We would be impoverished by a rhetoric about the end of life that speaks of the ill as if they were meaningless and of doing away with them as if it were a bracing demonstration of our personal independence.

Similarly, many people support necessary acts of warfare (Catholics for a Free Choice makes the analogy between abortion rights and such warfare). There are legal mechanisms that allow us to bring into the world the evil of war. But imagine how quickly public opinion would turn us against a president who waged war while asserting that our sons and daughters were nothing but cannon fodder. Grief and respect are the proper tones for all discussions about choosing to endanger or destroy a manifestation of life.

War is legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Letting the dying die in peace is often legal and sometimes even necessary. Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the foetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or necessary to minimise the value of the lives involved or the sacrifice incurred in letting them go. Many others, of course, have wrestled with this issue: Ronald Dworkin; Camille Paglia, who has criticised the “convoluted casuistry” of some pro-choice language; Roger Rosenblatt, who has urged us to permit but discourage abortion; Laurence Tribe, who has noted that we place the foetus in shadow in order to advance the pro-choice argument. But we have yet to make room for this conversation at the table of mainstream feminism.

And we can't wait much longer. Historical changes—from the imminent availability of cheap chemical abortifacients to the ascendancy of the religious right to Norma McCorvey's defection—make the need for a new abortion-rights language all the more pressing.

In a time of retrenchment, how can I be so sure that a more honest and moral rhetoric about abortion will consolidate rather than scuttle abortion rights? Look at what Americans themselves say. When a recent Newsweek poll asked about support for abortion using the rare phrasing, “It's a matter between a woman, her doctor, her family, her conscience and God,” a remarkable 72 per cent of the respondents called that formulation “about right”. This represents a gain of 30 points over the abortion-rights support registered in the latest Gallup poll, which asked about abortion without using the words “God” or “conscience”. When participants in the Gallup poll were asked if they supported abortion “under any circumstances”, only 32 per cent agreed; only 9 per cent more supported it under “most” circumstances. Clearly, abortion rights are safest when we are willing to submit them to a morality beyond our bodies and our selves.

But how, one might ask, can I square a recognition of the humanity of the foetus, and the moral gravity of destroying it, with a pro-choice position? The answer can only be found in the context of a paradigm abandoned by the left and misused by the right: the paradigm of sin and redemption.

It was when I was four months pregnant, sick as a dog, and in the middle of an argument, that I realised I could no longer tolerate the foetus-is-nothing paradigm of the pro-choice movement. I was being interrogated by a conservative. “You're four months pregnant,” he said. “Are you going to tell me that's not a baby you're carrying?”

The accepted pro-choice response at such a moment in the conversation is to evade: to move as swiftly as possible to a discussion of “privacy” and “difficult personal decisions” and “choice”. Had I not been so nauseated and so cranky and so weighed down with the physical gravity of what was going on inside me, I might not have told what is the truth for me. “Of course it's a baby,” I snapped. And went rashly on: “And if I found myself in circumstances in which I had to make the terrible decision to end this life, then that would be between myself and God.”

Startlingly to me, two things happened: the conservative was quiet; I had said something that actually made sense to him. And I felt the great relief that is the grace of long-delayed honesty.

Now, the G-word is certainly a problematic element to introduce into the debate. And yet “God” or “soul”—or, if you are secular and prefer it, “conscience”—is precisely what is missing from pro-choice discourse. There is a crucial difference between “myself and my God” or “my conscience”—terms that imply moral accountability—and “myself and my doctor”, phrasing that Justice Blackmun's wording in Roe has tended to promote. And that's not even to mention “between myself and myself” (Elders: “It's not anybody's business if I went for an abortion”), which implies just the relativistic relationship to abortion our critics accuse us of sustaining.

The language we use to make our case limits the way we let ourselves think about abortion. As a result of the legal precedents in Roe, which based a woman's right to an abortion on the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments' implied right to personal privacy, other unhelpful terms are also current. Pro-choice advocates tend to cast an abortion as “an intensely personal decision”. To which we can say, No: one’s choice of carpeting is an intensely personal decision. One's struggles with a life-and-death issue must be understood as a matter of personal conscience. There is a world of difference between the two, and it's the difference a moral frame makes.

Stephen L Carter has pointed out that spiritual discussion has been robbed of a place in American public life. As a consequence we tend—often disastrously—to use legislation to work out right and wrong. That puts many in the position of having to advocate against abortion rights in order to proclaim their conviction that, our high rate of avoidable abortion (one or the highest in developed countries) is a social evil; and, conversely, many must pretend that abortion is not a transgression of any kind if we wish to champion abortion rights. We have no ground to say that abortion is a necessary evil that should be faced in the realm of conscience and action and even soul; yet remain legal.

Norma McCorvey explained what happened to her in terms of good and evil: she woke in the middle of the night and felt a presence pushing violently down on her. “I denounce you, Satan,” she announced. This way of talking about evil is one of the chief class divisions in America: working-class people talk about Satan, and those whom Paul Fussell called “the X group” —those who run the country—talk instead about neurotic guilt. While the elite scoff at research that shows that most Americans maintain a belief in the embodiment of evil—“the devil”—they miss something profound about the human need to make a moral order out of chaos. After all, the only read difference between the experience described by Clare, the Cornell-educated pro-choicer, and McCorvey, the uneducated ex-alcoholic, is a classical allusion.

There is a hunger for a moral framework that we pro-choicers must reckon with. In the Karlin “Hers” column, the author announced proudly that pregnant women are asked by the counsellor in the office, “So, how long have you been pro-choice?” Dr Karlin writes that “laughter and the answer ‘About ten minutes’ is the healthiest response. ‘I still don’t believe in abortion,’ some women say, unaware that refusal to take responsibility for the decision means that I won’t do the procedure.”

How is this “feminist” ideological coercion any different from pro-life shaming and coercion? The women who come to a clinic that is truly feminist—that respects women—are entitled not only to their abortions but also to their sense of sin.

For a woman to refer to “sin” in this context does not necessarily mean, as Dr Karlin believes, that she thinks she must go to hell because she is having an abortion. It may mean that she thinks she must face the realisation that she has fallen short of who she should be; and that she needs to ask forgiveness for that, and atone for it. As I understand such a response, she is trying to take responsibility for the decision.

We on the left tend to twitch with discomfort at the word "sin". Too often we have become religiously illiterate, and so we deeply misunderstand the word. But in all of the great religious traditions, our recognition of sin, and then our atonement for it, brings on God's compassion and our redemption. In many faiths, justice is linked, as it is in medieval Judaism and in Buddhism, to compassion. From Yom Kippur and the Ash Wednesday-to-Easter cycle to the Hindu idea of karma, the individual's confrontation with her or his own culpability is the first step toward ways to create and receive more light.

How could one live with a conscious view that abortion is an evil and still be pro-choice? Through acts of redemption, or what the Jewish mystical tradition calls tikkun: or “mending”. Memorial services for the souls of aborted foetuses are common in Japan, where abortions are both legal and readily available. Shinto doctrine holds that women should make offerings to aborted foetuses to help them rest in peace. If one believes that abortion is killing and yet is still pro-choice, one could try to use contraception for every single sex act; if one had to undergo an abortion, one could then work to provide contraception, or jobs, or other choices to young girls; one could give money to programmes that provide prenatal care to poor women; if one is a mother or father, one can remember the aborted child every time one is tempted to be less than loving. And Soon: tikkun.

But when you insist, as Dr Karlin did, on stripping people of their sense of sin, they react with a wholesale backing-away into a rigid morality that reimposes order: hence, the ascendancy of the religious right.

Who gets blamed for our abortion rate? The ancient Hebrews had a ritual of sending a “scapegoat” into the desert with the community's sins projected upon it. Abortion doctors are our contemporary scapegoats. Pro-lifers obviously scapegoat them in one way: if pro-lifers did to women what they do to abortion doctors—targeted them in their homes and workplaces—public opinion would rapidly turn against them; for the movement would soon find itself harassing the teachers and waitresses and housewives of their own communities. The pro-life movement would have to address the often all-too-pressing good reasons that lead good people to abort. That would be a tactical defeat for the pro-life movement, and as sure to lose it “the mushy middle” as the pro-choice movement's tendency towards rhetorical coldness loses it the same constituency.

But Pro-choicers, too, scapegoat the doctors and clinic workers. By resisting a moral framework in which to view abortion, we who are pro-abortion-rights leave the doctors in the front lines, with blood on their hands: the blood of the repeat abortions—at least 43 per cent of the total; the “I don't know what came over me, it was such good Chardonnay” abortions; as well as the blood of the desperate and unpreventable and accidental and medically necessary and violently conceived abortions. This is blood the doctors and clinic workers often see clearly, that they heroically rinse and cause to flow and rinse again. They take all our sins, the pro-choice as well as the pro-life among us, upon themselves.

And we who are pro-choice compound their isolation by declaring that that blood is not there.

As the world changes and women, however incrementally, become more free and more powerful, the language in which we phrase the goals of feminism must change as well. As a result of the bad old days before the Second Wave of feminism, we tend to understand abortion as a desperately needed exit from near-total male control of our reproductive lives.

This model of reality may have been necessary in an unrelenting patriarchy. But today, in what should be, as women continue to consolidate political power, a patriarchy crumbling in spite of itself, it can become obsolete. Now: try to imagine real gender equality. Actually, try to imagine an America that is female-dominated, since a true working democracy in this country would reflect our 54-46 voting advantage.

Now imagine such a democracy, in which women would be valued so very highly, as a world that is accepting and responsible about human sexuality; in which there is no coerced sex without serious jailtime; in which there are affordable, safe contraceptives available for the taking in every public health building; in which there is economic parity for women—and basic economic subsistence for every baby born: and in which every young American woman knows about and understands her natural desire as a treasure to cherish, and responsibly, when the time is right, on her own terms, to share.

In such a world, in which the idea of gender as a barrier has become a dusty artifact, we would probably use a very different language about what would be—then—the rare and doubtless traumatic event of abortion. That language would probably call upon respect and responsibility, grief and mourning. In that world we might well describe the unborn and the never-to-be-born with the honest words of life.

And in that world, passionate feminists might well hold candlelight vigils at abortion clinics, standing shoulder to shoulder with doctors who work there, commemorating and saying goodbye to the dead.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.