Jackie Rae Johnson: Are abortion laws about human life? Or control of women?

This commentary is by Jackie Rae Johnson of Barre, who was born in Vermont and has lived in the state most of her life. She has worked as an educator, human service worker, and guardian ad litem representing and supporting children in family court. 

I was only a little surprised by the Supreme Court decision about abortion. There are two reasons for resistance to abortion. 

The first question is: When does a human life begin? Is it at conception, four weeks, four months, nine months? Or could it be a year from conception? There is not a whole lot of difference between a 34-week fetus and a month-old baby. And many people sincerely and honestly believe that an abortion is murder, the ending of a human life.

The other reason to oppose abortion is regaining control of women. We should remember that, for most of history, women were not considered equal to men anymore than a Black man was equal to a white man. That is the way it was. All men created equal did not include anybody who was not white and male.

During my childhood and younger years in the 1950s into the 1960s, it was made quite clear that women were something less, both legally and culturally. And beyond that, a pregnant woman was further separate than women in general. Despite the importance of children and family, being pregnant was often seen as somewhat indecent.

Pregnancy was usually concealed publicly for as long as possible. Even a married woman who was pregnant was required to wear a smock to cover herself if she was “showing.” If she was a teacher, she could not teach while pregnant. If she was a student, she was not allowed to attend school. 

Schools sometimes instructed boys not to call pregnant women they might meet on the street rude names, which some were inclined to do because being pregnant, no matter who you were, was not quite right.

Unmarried pregnant women were in a much worse situation. In the best of circumstances, the mother and the father were in love and wished to be together. They would be quickly married so the premarriage conception was not so obvious. Or maybe if the relationship was not emotionally positive and difficult for both parents, they would marry because it was the proper thing to do. Another option was that the father had nothing to do with it and walked away. 

To have a baby on your own meant that many, perhaps even your own family, would reject you. You were never going to get a job, certainly not while pregnant and likely not after the birth. You could go to an unwed mother’s residence, have your baby and keep her, or she would be adopted or kept in the institution. Keeping the baby was very difficult financially unless you had family support because there was very little else available. 

Those who strongly oppose abortion need to think carefully about the well-being of the life they are saving and the responsibility of everyone who is involved. As we know, this baby has a father as well as a mother. If there are abortion laws for women who are pregnant, then there must be abortion laws for men. 

A couple of possibilities could include in all abortion laws that 10% of the income and property of the pre-birth man be set aside for the child until the child is 21. Another step, on the medical side, could be a vasectomy to prevent another pregnancy for this man. 

If the role and responsibilities of men are not addressed in anti-abortion laws, then the goal is not saving the life of a human being. The goal is returning women to where they were historically. That situation is briefly expressed in the old saying: “Women belong in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.” 

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