Scoop Review of Books

Abortion: War Without End

By Alison McCulloch

Abortion has always been a hard sell.
You can’t go around saying you’re for it (you have to agree with the opposition and say you’d like to see the numbers go down); the people who’ve had one won’t help you because they don’t want to talk about it (they fear the stigma, and don’t like the idea of being called a murderer by complete strangers); the church is against you and so are the visuals (the opposition has magnified images of fetuses, you have photos of women holding “My Body, My Choice” placards); instead of fighting for something concrete (saving whales and harp seals or helping cyclone victims), you’re stuck with advancing the cause of a shiftless concept (choice).

But perhaps something can be made of that last difficulty. Choice, after all, is the offspring of freedom, that most cherished of shiftless concepts. Yes, that’s it – you’re fighting for freedom. Freedom to choose. Freedom for women to live their lives as they want to live them. Who’s not for that? But freedom is also frighteningly malleable. Just like fairness or duty or justice, it can be hitched to any wagon – war, torture, wiretapping, even fries. In his account of the abortion battles in the United States, (“Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War”) William Saletan charts how America’s leading pro-choice organisation NARAL, did just that, hitching conservatives to a pro-choice wagon by presenting abortion as if it were gun rights: No government interference! It’s your decision, not theirs!

Using conservative rhetoric to advance a liberal cause was necessary, Saletan argues, because the voters holding the balance of power were the same ones who favoured “tradition, family, and property.” And it worked for a while. NARAL won a few hard-fought victories, a ballot measure here, a governorship there. But the successes were short-lived, the ensuing damage insidious. As the opposition adapted, the victories turned into defeats. By 1992, as the then Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (a conservative on the issue) explained, the constitutional right to abortion granted by Roe v Wade only existed “in the way a storefront on a western movie set exists: a mere façade to give the illusion of reality. … a sort of judicial Potemkin Village, which may be pointed out to passers-by as a monument to the importance of adhering to precedent.” The same voters who had been persuaded to define choice “in terms of family authority and limited government” extended those grounds to measures banning federal funding (“You shouldn’t be forced to pay for an abortion on someone you don’t even know”) and adding parental and spousal consent requirements (“Don’t let politicians take away your right to make family decisions”). Many more restrictions were to follow. (A list is available here

Going after that conservative ground was damaging in another way too: It stripped women’s rights from the politics of abortion, branding those who made the feminist case “a bunch of nuts,” as one of NARAL’s political advisers put it. For the so-called conservative pro-choice voter, women seeking abortions came in two main categories – and the ones who should be helped (innocent victims of rape and incest) and the ones who shouldn’t (sluts and welfare mothers who must lie in the beds they’ve made for themselves).

In Saletan’s telling, pro-choice advocates ended up ceding great swaths of ideological ground, to win only limited gains in return. Perhaps they would have lost even more if they hadn’t. Or perhaps not. In chronicling who did what to whom and who lost, Saletan does not entertain alternative scenarios, leaving the “what ifs” to the reader. But whatever that parallel universe might look like, it seems there’s no going back now. In late May, a group was formed in Colorado to fight a ballot initiative aimed at attributing personhood to fertilised eggs – it called itself “Protect Families, Protect Choice.” “If this passes,” a spokeswoman said, echoing those familiar themes, “Coloradans will lose the right to make decisions about their own families.”

Women are strangely absent, too, from Eyal Press’s memoir about America’s abortion wars, “Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America.” Press’s father, Shalom, an abortion provider in upstate New York, was a colleague of Barnett Slepian, the physician shot and killed by anti-abortion activist James Kopp in 1998. It’s a curious account that detours through the history of Buffalo as well as his family’s Jewish-Israeli background, to which Press attributes his father’s stoicism and unflappability. And while Press goes out of his way to sympathetically hear out the people and groups who, directly or indirectly, threatened his father’s life and livelihood and, directly or indirectly, killed Slepian and others, it’s only at the urging of his father that he finally, toward the end of the book, focuses on the women for whom this right is so crucial. “You can’t write this book,” Shalom Press told him one night “until you talk to some of my patients.” A few short case studies later, though, and it’s back to Kopp, by now in the courtroom facing sentencing, a man Press describes as “sincere” and “possessed of a coherent – in some ways strikingly coherent – worldview.” This of someone who has just advised the court that it is “morally obliged to refuse to punish me just as surely as you are required to refrain from participating in sending Jewish people, or those who protect them, to their death.” (Slepian was Jewish. Kopp got 25 years to life for killing him.) It frequently feels as if Press, like many on the pro-choice side of the barricades, reaches too far in his search for that lost continent called the common ground. For even if such a place exists, which I doubt, going after it can be terribly dangerous, as Saletan so ably shows.

In trying so hard to understand the people who tormented his father, Press is also looking for a way to make sense of his country’s anti-abortion extremism, a phenomenon he calls “peculiarly American”. He is right that abortion is a symbol “of liberation and empowerment to some, of spiritual and moral degeneration to others”: that it is a “prism through which debates about sex and gender, religion and politics and … race and class have long played out.” But none of this answers the cogent question Press himself has asked: Why has legalization in the United States sparked turmoil and violence on a scale far greater than in other Western countries? (Since 1977, nearly 6,000 acts of violence – including murder, bombing, arson, vandalism, trespassing, kidnapping – have been perpetrated against abortion providers in the U.S. and Canada.)

America’s abortion wars have certainly been much deadlier than our own, which is not to say New Zealand was entirely spared. The worst of the battles began with the opening of the abortion clinic in Remuera in 1974. That same year, the police raided the clinic, seizing more than 500 patient files under a warrant later ruled invalid. Years of constant harassment followed, including arson attacks in 1976 and 1987. (There were also arson attacks on the Auckland offices of SOS, the group that helped women travel to Australia for abortions, and a planned clinic in Christchurch.) In the 1980s the American movement Operation Rescue came to New Zealand, blockading clinics in its efforts to stop women from going inside. (I vividly recall walking their gauntlet myself.) And through it all there was the hum of harassment of abortion doctors and their families. Margaret Sparrow, a Wellington physician and pro-choice advocate, was the subject of a leafleting campaign informing her neighbours that their property values were at risk because an abortionist lived nearby, and she was once saved from having a truckload of wet cement dumped in her garage by a neighbour suspicious at the arrival out front of a concrete mixer.

In Auckland, Rex Hunton, who was the medical director of the abortion clinic in the 1970s, was also a target. His car was vandalised and anti-abortion activists took to phoning his house. If one of his young children answered, Hunton says, they would ask if the butcher was home. “Our youngest son would say ‘No, there’s no butcher lives here. Only my father and he’s a doctor, he’s not a butcher.’” There were no deaths – besides, of course, the women forced into DIY and backstreet abortions – although it was suspected that a man killed by a blast in an Auckland house had been building a bomb destined for a clinic. Sparrow did receive one death threat, but says she “never felt threatened the way they must do in the states – I never felt I had to wear a bullet proof vest or anything like that.”

Susan Wicklund, an abortion provider in Montana and several other Western states, both wore a vest and carried a .38 Special. She used disguises, had a body guard, took different routes to the office – did everything she could to keep working. Her account, “This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor,” focuses less on politics than Saletan’s and Press’s, than on what life was like for herself, her family, and the women who were her patients. It’s a very personal story (written with Alan Kesselheim, a journalist) in which the intensity of what pregnant women and abortion doctors face is given full force. The book opens in 1992 one day before a “60 Minutes” interview she’d done with Lesley Stahl was due to air. Wicklund was on her way to tell her grandmother just what it was she did for a living before she was outed on national television. It turned out that her grandmother had a secret of her own. “When I was 16 years old, my best friend got pregnant,” she told Wicklund. “I always believed it was her father that was using her … but I never knew for sure. She came to my sister, Violet, and me, and asked us to help her.” The grandmother continued: “The three of us were so naïve. We knew very little about these things, but we had heard that if you put something long and sharp ‘up there,’ in the private place, sometimes it would end the pregnancy.” The girls did put “something long and sharp up there” and their friend bled to death, the three of them huddling together on a bed.

Wicklund comes as close as is perhaps possible to capturing what it means for a woman to face an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. That this is so difficult to grasp unless experienced first hand is perhaps the greatest handicap the pro-choice movement faces, a problem well illustrated in Wicklund’s book by her accounts of the anti-abortion activists who call her a murderer one day and are in her waiting room the next. And she chillingly details the terror she and her colleagues cope with every day. Dr. George Tiller: shot by a female member of the Lambs of Christ. “Dr. Tiller only had time to raise his arms over his head. The bullet went through both arms but missed his skull. The very next day, Dr. Tiller returned to his clinic. … ‘I was really lucky,’” he told Wicklund. “ ‘It was a small-caliber gun, and she was a lousy shot.’ ” Dr. LeRoy Carhart: in 1991 his home and barn were set alight and both were destroyed, killing 17 horses. “Even now he refuses to wear a bullet-proof vest. ‘The antis know enough by now to just shoot for the head,’” he said. (Carhart’s wife, Mary, in a New York Times profile in 2000, called him “stubborn, very stubborn.”)

Wicklund, too, is determined, but acknowledges the temptation to give it all up. “I was used to feeling like prey, used to watching my back,” she writes, “always on guard, listening for the wrong voice, watching for the eyes that meant trouble, checking the rearview mirror, never knowing who would be on the end of a telephone call.” One of the hardest moments came when she found her name on a hit-list called the Nuremberg File. “Seeing myself and my family listed on that website threw a dark shadow across my basic assumption of human goodness.” But like Carhart and Shalom Press, Wicklund couldn’t bring herself to let “them” win.

There hasn’t been a murder since 1998, but the picketing, trespassing, vandalism, bomb and death threats in the United States continue. Protesters are still on the job here, too, but the more militant wing of the movement like Operation Rescue has faded away. Perhaps one difference between here and there, as Saletan suggests, is that abortion rights in the United States were never politically secured, they were simply decreed by the courts. (Only four states had legalized abortion outright before the Roe decision in 1973.) New Zealand, on the other hand, has legislation that was fought over and debated and voted on by our representatives. True. But we have another problem, and that is the chasm between a conservative law on the books and the liberal practise in the hospitals and clinics. In March, Voice for Life (formerly SPUC, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child), ran newspaper ads that stated: “We don’t want to change the law – we want it to work as it was intended.” (You can see the ad here and click on “read editorial”; for details of the current law and a pro-choice critique, visit Alranz) It’s hard not to see danger in having a right that isn’t enshrined anywhere. But abortion remains the politically toxic issue it always was, and politicians simply don’t want to touch it. While we can be thankful our battles have been less deadly than those waged elsewhere, that doesn’t mean they are over.

Books discussed in this article: Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, by William Saletan. (University of California Press); Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America, by Eyal Press. (Picador/Henry Holt & Co.); This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor, by Susan Wicklund. (Public Affairs).


Alison McCulloch’s book reviews have appeared in The New York Times and other publications. She is working on a history of WONAAC, the Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign.


  1. Anne Else, 8. July 2008, 18:52

    What a superb article, Alison. Thank you for writing it. I notice you don’t comment on the recent decision about the Supervisory Committee which has so delighted the anti-choice brigade – did this come out after your article? Maybe you could add a post-script.

  2. Alison, 14. July 2008, 14:38

    Thanks Anne, I appreciate the comment! I’m working on a “post-script” of sorts on the recent judgment (which indeed came out after I’d written the SRB piece) — just not sure yet what forum to aim for.