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Another Voice: Early feminists were opposed to abortion

By Michele Sterlace-Accorsi

Women earned the right to vote in New York almost 100 years ago. We celebrate by honoring the contributions of notable suffragists from our state. To celebrate, I participated in a Suffrage Centennial in Western New York with dozens of women’s organizations. I marched with Feminists Choosing Life of New York. The overwhelming presence of pro-life feminists at the event was as impressive as it was fitting for an assembly honoring our feminist foremothers.

An oft-forgotten fact is that the early American feminists opposed abortion. In Susan B. Anthony’s and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s newspaper, the Revolution, abortion was consistently discussed as a symptom of a society that was failing to respect women and their unborn children. In an 1869 editorial, Mattie Brinkerhoff wrote, “When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society – so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged.”

The early feminists made a powerful statement by opposing abortion in the 1800s. At the time, abortion was safer than childbearing and single motherhood was nearly impossible due to women’s forced dependency on men for income. Nonetheless, suffragists, including the nation’s first female physicians, staunchly condemned the procedure.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, a graduate of what is now Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, became the first American woman to earn a medical degree. She vehemently abhorred abortion, writing in her diary, “The gross perversion and destruction of motherhood by the abortionist filled me with indignation, and awakened active antagonism. That the honorable term ‘female physician’ should be exclusively applied to those women who carried on this shocking trade seemed to me a horror. It was an utter degradation of what might and should become a noble position for women.”

Similarly, Dr. Anna Densmore, often mentioned in the Revolution, gave numerous lectures on maternal and preborn health. Speaking of one such lecture, a teacher said, “Those who had the privilege will never forget the startling effect of the truths that she revealed relative to the primitive and ever present vitality of the developing embryo.”

Unlike pro-choice feminists today, the early feminists saw abortion as a manifestation of patriarchy – yet another tool used by men to exercise control over women.

Stanton, arguably the most radical feminist in the 19th century, stated, “Women’s degradation is in man’s idea of his sexual rights. Our religion, laws, customs are all founded on the belief that woman was made for man.”

Men’s control over women was also her justification for her opposition to abortion: “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.”

Like our feminist foremothers, pro-life feminists recognize abortion as an instrument of oppression rather than empowerment.

Michele Sterlace-Accorsi, J.D., L.L.M., lives in East Aurora.

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