As G. Santayana famously put it, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The new slogan that accuses those who advocate for a Culture of Life, including the Church, as waging a “war on women” shows the complete ignorance of those who are chanting it.
Abortion is essentially a way for men to control women. It is tragic that those who advocate for it seem to not understand their history. If anything, history has proven that those who sanction abortion are truly the ones at war with women.
Consider the ancient Roman attitudes towards women. In the time of Christ, abortion was considered an acceptable practice within pagan cultures and it was not unheard that a husband would literally order his wife or servant to have one. In order to better understand this one only needs to look at the legal status of Roman women. These coercive practices are a result of the ancient Roman legal principle of the patria potestas. According to Rodney Stark, “Roman law accorded the male head of family the literal power of life and death over his household, including the right to order a female in the household to abort” (see The Rise of Christianity, pg. 120).
This obviously had a tremendous impact on coercive practices when it came to unwanted children and/or unwanted pregnancies. But what makes this ancient practice even more tragic is that the Roman Twelve Tables, which was the Roman code of law, suggested that men who ordered their wives to abort without good reason receive censure. While at first glance it may appear that the law is actually pro-life, one merely needs to scratch the surface to see how the law really did not intend to curb the abortion practice. The problem with the law is twofold: Firstly, it did not specify what the penalty was neither did it define what the fine would be, so the law had no “teeth”. Censure was essentially a mild scolding of sorts and so men were not afraid to order wives to get an abortion regardless of whether or not it was a “good reason”. Secondly, it didn’t affect women who were impregnated by a man outside the family, so a man could coerce her to abort without any repercussion. Prior to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the law of the land essentially permitted men to coerce women into having an abortion at any point if they so desired without any real punishment.
Fast forward nearly two thousand years and once again the world’s most influential nation has legalized abortion. In fact, the abortion policy is so permissive that it allows for abortion for any reason and at any gestational age, much like ancient Rome. There are some noticeable differences, however. Unlike Rome, the US model does not rely on the ancient idea of thepatria potestas. Rather, it relies on the idea that the biological mother has the right to determine the life or death of her unborn child.
But the question remains: has legalized abortion stopped coercive practices by biological fathers? If anything, the last 41 years since the legalization of abortion nationwide has shown that this abortion model does not empower women as much as it empowers men. Two reasons for this: 1) Polls consistently show that more men are in favor of abortion than women, and 2) men tend to use the threat of physical harm, abandonment, or other forms of manipulation in order to secure the abortion. This helps explain why men tend to favor abortion, because they know that it is possible to coerce the women into getting one.
But why is there an urge to coerce in general? Scripture gives some insight into this problem. Specifically, Genesis 2: 15 gives the reader a clue. In this passage it states that Adam is to care and provide for the Garden of Eden, a better rendering of the ancient Hebrew would be to guard and protect. However, when Adam falls he becomes prone to do the opposite—to destruct irrationally. It is ultimately Adam who destroys full communion with God by his failure to guard and protect not only the Garden, but his wife. His willingness not to protect her and not to sacrifice himself reveals his selfish objectives.
However, Adam is not the only Scriptural figure to show this trait. We see many male Biblical figures fall prone to irrational destruction in matters great and small: Cain destroys the life of his brother, David has Uriah killed in order to cover his sin of adultery, and King Herod destroys the lives of the holy innocents. All of these are examples of irrational destruction. In many ways, some of these examples show that these men are willing to have others unjustly killed in order to maintain the status quo.
However, why do so many women give in to coercion? Again, it would seem that Scripture gives the answer. After Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, God pronounces to Eve that “your urge shall be for your husband and he will be your master” (Genesis 3:16). Here one sees that when Eve falls she becomes prone to please to a fault. As was shown in a previous article, this explains why one study shows that 64% of women who had an abortion felt pressured. Many of the reasons cited on why they gave in: blackmail, fear of abandonment, and even fear of physical harm. Many of these women desire to “please” the biological fathers to the point that they allow for the destruction of the child and to avoid the realization of any threats.
The truth of the matter is that abortion is more linked to the unjust power of men than it can be linked to women. No matter how much abortion advocates try to state that it is about a woman’s right to choose, history and present realities have proven that mantra to be blatantly false. Abortion has always empowered men in a destructive way.
Joe Kral is an expert in bioethics and is currently adjunct professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas. This article has been published by kind permission of Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum.