Social Realities and Social Anxieties
Looking at who actually gets abortions in the United States today helps to deconstruct the ambivalence with which many people respond to abortion as a signifier. Consistent with the analysis in Chapter 4, abortion is still overwhelmingly a phenomenon of young, unmarried women, the majority of them teenagers or in their early twenties. Eighty-two percent of all women getting abortions in 1987 were unmarried, and nearly all were either working or attending school. Two-thirds had family incomes under $25,000 a year, and two-thirds were also white, even though abortion rates are higher for black and Hispanic women.19 In other words, we are talking about young, single women who are working or students, most of them poor or working class—women who are trying to stay in school, develop their skills, and maintain sexual lives before taking on marriage and childbearing. This fact more than any other—in a society still imbued with racist and patriarchal values about gender and sex—explains why women’s abortion access, despite continued formal legality, is so fiercely contested.
As Chapter 4 demonstrates, abortion in the 1970s and 1980s is the consequence, not cause, of complex and mostly positive changes in young women’s lives since 1960: higher rates of employment and college attendance, later age at marriage (meaning inevitably more premarital sex), and lower fertility. Since this book’s first edition, the Alan Guttmacher Institute has published comprehensive studies showing that, while other developed countries have experienced similar trends and show similar levels of adolescent sexuality, the U. S. has "much lower rates of contraceptive use and much higher rates of childbearing, abortion and pregnancy"—especially among teenagers but also among older women—than nearly any other developed country.20 These more disturbing trends are also the result of complicated social conditions, conditions peculiar to the United States: first, the "absence of a unified system of primary health care provision," of which contraceptive services would be an integral and routine part; second, the severe social inequalities in this country, giving many poor young women little reason to plan or hope; and third, the "deep-seated ambivalence toward sexuality" in American culture, in which the glorification of rape and the refusal to advertise condoms can exist side by side.21
But these complicated social dynamics are difficult to see. How much simpler to blame young women for "promiscuity" and for "using abortion as a method of birth control," or to blame feminism, and abortion as its most salient signifier, for subverting the family. What disturbs many people about changes in family life of the past two decades is not abortion per se, but that teenagers seem lax and out of control; that sex seems lax and out of control; that mothers are not home when they used to be (to take care of people and police teen sex); that fathers seem to be losing authority over wives and daughters; and that, for perhaps a majority of women at some time in their lives if not for good, having sex and raising children are perceived and experienced outside dependence on men. Indeed, the possibility of lesbian sexuality and lesbian motherhood as viable alternatives presents itself in a more open way than ever in modern history. I suspect that more people share fears about these trends than the small number who actively oppose a woman’s right to get an abortion. Thus, on one level "moral" opposition to abortion is a response to certain real dimensions of young and poor women’s empowerment in the last twenty years that many people find threatening.
When I was a teenager in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the abortion experience was of course steeped in shame, but it had little to do with harm to the fetus. My generation of young, middle-class women knew nothing about the fetus. Like "unwed motherhood" and the pregnancy scare, abortion meant shame only because it connoted sex—you’d "done it" without the sanctity of marriage. White teenagers’ sexuality in this historical milieu was mediated through an ingenious custom called petting, which was class-, race-, and gender-specific and followed definite heterosexist codes. Sex was something you did secretly, in dark parked cars; and you did it only up to a certain point. Now, this system was actually a method of birth control for young, heterosexual, middle-class women (those with access to cars or boys with cars), although it did not always work. But more importantly, built into the very definition of the petting culture as a sexual practice was its own denial; along with shotgun marriages and sequestered homes for unwed mothers, it hid the reality of white, middle-class, unmarried women as sexual beings.
The 1970s and 1980s, without in any sense having brought us a "sexual revolution," brought changes in the signs of white female teenage sexuality. For the time being, the parked cars, shotgun weddings, and "homes for girls" have been swept away,22 and the visibility of the young, white, single woman as sexual being has become encoded, not only through rock music and the media, but through the local abortion clinic. Birth control and abortion services, widely available without age or marital restrictions, have helped to make the young, white woman’s sexuality visible, thereby undermining historical race and class stereotypes of "nice girls" and "bad girls." The clinic represents the existence of her sexual identity independent of marriage, of paternal authority, perhaps of men; and so in a sense it connotes (white) feminism. This is an important missing piece of the story and why the clinic becomes a target—of bombs and government regulation as well as prayers—and why, for ardent antiabortionists, the solution of "more effective contraception" so misses the point. The clinic symbolically threatens white patriarchal control over "their" young women’s sexual "purity," and thus becomes a target of white patriarchal wrath.23