Critics think Pro-Lifers are Hypocrites. They are Wrong.

Faculty Essay


Last month, Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker signed the Reproductive Health Act into law, a meaningful step and statement toward protecting abortion access in the wake of several anti-abortion bills moving through state legislatures around the country. Among its provisions, the Reproductive Health Act eliminates a prior requirement in Illinois that married women obtain “spousal consent” when seeking to terminate a pregnancy. This provision illuminates a crucial, but often hidden, fault line in the contemporary abortion debate revealing differing conceptions of women’s place in public and private spheres. While we’re busy debating whether women have a constitutional right to privacy, we neglect women’s equally important right to a resourced public.

Marjorie Jolles

As a scholar of public rhetoric about women’s lives, I have studied the American abortion debate closely for decades, tracking arguments made by those on all sides of the issue. This summer, the debate has centered on Alabama and its exceptionally severe abortion ban. I have been especially interested in a common line of criticism that erupted immediately following the ban’s passage: juxtaposition of Alabama’s absolutist defense of “the unborn” and “life” with the state’s high rates of infant mortality and child poverty and low levels of educational attainment. How, critics ask, can a state that claims to protect unborn children fail to protect and support them once they are born?

In pointing out that anti-abortion states often have high infant mortality and poverty rates and low levels of educational attainment, critics see a lie, implying that true commitment to pro-life principles would include support of vital public institutions outside the narrow borders of the family — like schools, health care, social services and housing — that enable children to flourish.

But those critics are missing an important point. Anti-abortion states’ failures to support children reveals not a hypocrisy but a consistency within pro-life ideology. Bans on abortion are fundamentally an argument for where women’s sexual and reproductive lives should be lived: in the private sphere of the patriarchal family, where women (and children) are subordinate to the men in charge.

Looked at this way, opposition to abortion is consistent with malnourishment of civil society’s institutions (and resistance to the taxation and regulation necessary to fortify them) that may cause poor outcomes for children. These values stem from the same root: reverence for the patriarchal family as the exclusive provider to meet the needs of women and children.

Recall the conservative evangelical Christian political organization, The Moral Majority, whose 1988 “Family Manifesto” declared the family should “be as self-reliant as possible.” This idealized self-reliant family should acknowledge that “sexual differentiation extends to psychological traits which set natural constraints on gender roles … [I]n a family with children … the role of the male is most effectively that of provider and the role of the female one of nurturer.” In other words, the self-reliant family is also the patriarchal family, mythologized at least as far back as the 17th century, when political philosopher John Locke claimed in his Second Treatise on Government that “the husband and wife … will unavoidably sometimes have different wills too. It being necessary that … the rule … be placed somewhere, it naturally falls to the man’s share as the abler and the stronger.” A ban on abortion restores this rule to husbands and fathers and assigns to women the compulsory role of nurturer.

By striking down the “spousal consent” requirement with the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, Illinois is breaking from this tradition and exposing the true hypocrisy. In reality, the patriarchal family in Illinois, Alabama and across the country has been steadily in decline for the last five decades owing to complex economic and social changes in Americans’ lives, surely including women’s access to abortion and contraception. According to the Pew Research Center, 24% of American mothers are unmarried, and mothers are the primary breadwinners in 40% of American families. Requiring “spousal consent” for abortion has always been an affront to women’s bodily autonomy; it is increasingly nonsensical in a world where fewer women live under the yoke of patriarchal control.

The Act’s removal of a “spousal consent” requirement for married patients seeking abortion safeguards a woman’s ability to make reproductive decisions outside of men’s permission. It also attests to the value of laws and institutions as the precious affordances of a robust public sphere that allow women to pursue lives of their choosing. Governor Pritzker’s support of women’s reproductive rights is thus consistent with his promise to increase investments in civil society, including early childhood education and affordable health care in Illinois.

“In the fight to protect abortion rights, let’s understand what we’re really up against: an assault on a resourced public sphere that makes women’s autonomy—as well as children’s well-being—possible.”

– Marjorie Jolles
Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies

In the fight to protect abortion rights, let’s understand what we’re really up against: an assault on a resourced public sphere that makes women’s autonomy — as well as children’s well-being — possible. As the presidential campaign heats up, candidates and their supporters would do well to link the fight for abortion rights with current movements for renewed investment in the public and its institutions. This linkage goes beyond rhetoric. It is the reality of women’s lives.

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