Sex, Race, and the Bloodiness of Being Female: The Atlantic on Abortion

From "Mrs. X" to Caitlin Flanagan, generations of authors have grappled with the notion of a woman's right to choose.

Police officers escort a woman to the hospital after a raid on an illegal abortion in progress in 1944. (Bettman/Corbis)

In August 1965, The Atlantic published the story of an East Coast housewife, married with three children, who found herself confronting an unwanted pregnancy. The woman -- who signed her piece "Mrs. X" -- was in her 40s. Neither she nor her husband felt up to another round of sleepless nights, diaper changes, mumps, and measles. Finances were tight, and the couple had saved just enough money to put their three children through college. All of this seemed reason enough to terminate the pregnancy.

At the time, abortion was illegal in every state. But it was common enough that Mrs. X had little trouble getting referrals from friends. She soon found a doctor who was willing to flout the law and take on her case. His fee was reasonable, his instruments were sterile, and Mrs. X's discomfort was minimal. Within five days, she was back to her old self: a 1960s housewife and mother of three, sans fetus.

Mrs. X's story revealed something most of her readers already knew: White, middle-class American women never had much trouble getting safe abortions. In contrast, Atlantic contributor Harriet Pilpel wrote in June 1969,  black and Latina women accounted for nearly 80 percent of all abortion deaths in New York City throughout the 1960s. "Probably not much more than one half of these are performed by doctors," wrote Pilpel, a civil liberties lawyer who served on the Kennedy and Johnson Commissions on the Status of Women; "the rest by the 'kindly neighbor,' the 'close friend,' or the woman herself." 

The question of race didn't disappear after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. In May 1975, The Atlantic published a story about Kenneth C. Edelin, an African-American doctor who performed a late-term abortion on a 17-year-old minority girl in a Boston hospital. After a jury found him guilty of manslaughter, Edelin emphasized that he felt duty-bound to respect the wishes of his low-income patients. "The only humane thing we can do," he said, "is make sure that when they make that choice they have the opportunity to make it under the best conditions possible."

The Edelin case attracted nationwide sympathy (largely because of articles like The Atlantic's) and an appeals court overturned the conviction at the end of 1976. Edelin went on to become the chairman of Planned Parenthood, a dean at Boston University School of Medicine, and a leading figure in the pro-choice movement.

Over the decades that followed, Atlantic writers challenged the notion that choosing abortion is every woman's right. In a 1990 article, Martha Bayles asks Atlantic readers to imagine a pregnant teenager who defies her mother by terminating a female fetus. "In the one instance, she is depriving an older female of a grandchild," she argues. "In the other, she is depriving a younger female of life. Compared with such deprivations, the idea of striking a blow for women's freedom seems pretty abstract."

Caitlin Flanagan takes a more personal look at the feminism question in a 2007 essay called "The Sanguine Sex." She opens by describing a pre-Roe abortion whose aftermath her mother witnessed firsthand: "There was blood on the table and the floor, and there were wadded-up bloody towels in the sink." This bloodiness is Flanagan's main focus -- not only the blood of a botched abortion, but the risk inherent in every pregnancy:

The sort of man who knocks a woman up and then disappears is nowhere near as heartless as nature, which allows a fertilized egg to implant in a fallopian tube, or arranges a baby's body in the womb in such a way that it cannot by any natural means escape through the birth canal, or spreads the placenta across the cervix so that it will rupture and cause a hemorrhage almost certain to kill the mother if no medical staff is on hand to stop it. The fact that modern medicine has so radically reduced the incidence of death in childbirth testifies less to the wonder of science than to the crudeness of the dangers at hand.

In other words, Flanagan argues, pregnancy is serious business. It results from mutual desire, but women are left alone to face the consequences. For that reason, she believes, the child-bearing sex should have the right to terminate a pregnancy. Flanagan admits to feeling a maternal instinct every time she sees a beating heart on a sonogram. But she concludes, "a thousand arguments about the beginning of human life will never appeal to me as powerfully as a terrified pregnant girl desperate for a bit of compassion."

Abortion-related stories from The Atlantic's archives:

"One Woman's Abortion" by Mrs. X (August 1965)

"The Right of Abortion" by Harriet Pilpel (June 1969)

"When Is an Abortion Not an Abortion?" by Seth Mydans (May 1975)

"Feminism and Abortion" by Martha Bayles (April 1990)

"On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position" by George McKenna (September 1995)

"Letting Go of Roe" by Benjamin Wittes (January/February 2005)

"The Day After Roe" by Jeffrey Rosen (June 2006)

"The Sanguine Sex" by Caitlin Flanagan (May 2007)