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  • Avni Jain


Avni Jain,

O. P. Jindal Global University


Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s assertion, in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that abortion was not “deeply rooted” in American history, was wrong.

Historically, abortions have been both commonplace and legal for women of all classes, races, and faiths. The restrictions only originated with the influence of the Catholic Church and its patriarchal roots. Since then, abortion has been the subject of heated debate throughout society. Connecticut was the first state to criminalize abortion by prosecuting anybody who provided or took poison. Dr. Horatio Storer, an anti-abortion rights activist is blamed for more states criminalizing abortions since then. A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1971 - Roe v Wade - changed the landscape completely by making abortion legal throughout the United States. In addition to fuelling the anti-abortion movement, this decision congealed it as well. It was previously a state-based movement, but the Supreme Court's decision turned it into a national movement. Abortion opposition was largely a bipartisan issue before the decision. Since then, anti-abortion nationalists shifted their message to focus more on "fetal rights," using state-based networks to organize nationally. As a consequence of the movement, stigma and shame around abortion spread, making it harder for people who have had abortions to seek support and care. A large part of the movement was led by male leaders and was supported by male-dominated institutions, including religious organizations and conservative political parties, such as Operation Rescue. But then in 2019 conservative state legislators in 25 states signed legislation restricting abortion access and finally, Texas implemented the country’s strictest anti-abortion law since Roe v Wade.

An examination of the history of anti-abortion movements and legislations highlights the ways in which societal power structures limit women's autonomy and decision-making power over their bodies, and reinforces traditional gender roles that prioritize the needs of others over their own. This brings us to the paper's main argument that the Anti-Abortion movement reinforces patriarchal attitudes and power structures and that criminalization of abortion has a negative impact on societal attitudes towards the value of women's lives and autonomy.

The paper will be divided into two sections. The first subsection discusses how the anti-abortion movement reinforces patriarchal attitudes and power structures. It has two main arguments supported by evidence from Susan Faludi's book, "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." The first argument is that the anti-abortion movement leadership is often male-dominated, and the second argument is that the movement reinforces traditional gender roles. The second subsection focuses on impact of criminalization of abortion on societal attitudes toward the value of a woman's life and autonomy. This argument is supported by evidence using J.J. Thomson's essay "A Defence of Abortion and the “Turnaway Study”.

The Patriarchal Protector of the Unborn

“Pro-life movement” is a magic trick that encircles women's bodies in disdain and revulsion, and lives inside a silver box with blue and pink ribbons. Roe v. Wade's fall and the anti-abortion or as they call it “Pro-life” movement that preceded it showed a commitment to protecting people's rights that align with the patriarchal values of the Constitution's origins. It is at this intersection where institutions, policy, and patriarchy cross that a serious threat to reproductive justice was posed. Thus, it is safe to say that anti-abortion groups were merely applying misogyny - the attitude of patriarchal contempt or fear toward women's sexuality and autonomy.

 A 1991 book by Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, supports the empirical hypothesis that anti-abortion movements reinforce patriarchal attitudes and power structures. Faludi in this book argues that the anti-abortion movement, which gained significant momentum in the 1980s, was part of a larger backlash against women's progress toward equality which was fuelled by a fear of women's growing power and autonomy. She further showcases that the anti-abortion movement is patriarchal because it seeks to restrict women's reproductive rights and reinforce traditional gender roles.

Faludi's book will be discussed in two arguments:

First, the anti-abortion movement is often driven by male leaders and supported by male-dominated institutions which reinforce patriarchal structures and the idea that men should have control over women's bodies and reproductive choices. 

Second, the anti-abortion movement fortifies traditional gender roles by promoting the idea that women's primary role is parenting and caretaking and that women who choose not to have children or seek to limit their number are selfish or immoral.

The leadership of the Anti-Abortion Movement

The anti-abortion movement leadership was overwhelmingly male, and men were often the ones making decisions about women's reproductive health. This reinforces the notion that women are not capable of making their own decisions and need to be controlled by men. Operation Rescue, an American anti-abortion organization led and dominated by men throughout its history reinforced patriarchal power structures, and women's voices and perspectives were not adequately represented. Contrary to the popular image of the anti-abortion lobby as a group of grizzled Christian elders, the Operation Rescue men (and the majority were men) most often resembled the youthful and angry "Contenders". The organization's focus on male leadership contributed to a broader perception of the anti-abortion movement as patriarchal and dismissive action towards women's voices and concerns. Patriarchal leadership style can also be demonstrated by John Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee, who believed that legal abortion threatened both the foetus and male family control. Pro-choice women, he charged, "do violence to marriage," because they "remove the right of a husband to protect the life of the child he has fathered in his wife's womb." This clearly indicates that organizations consciously choose such men to lead and advocate which highlights a patriarchal strain in the leadership of the movement.(Faludi 1991, 409-484)

Reinforcement of Gender Roles

Another argument is that the anti-abortion movement reinforced traditional gender roles and expectations. Anti-abortion activists often dismissed women's experiences and perspectives on abortion, reducing them to mere vessels for childbirth rather than complex individuals with their own needs and aspirations. The fear underlying much of male anxiety regarding female reproductive freedom and changing gender roles was most clearly expressed by George Gilder in his 1986 essay “Men and Marriage”. He argues that men have almost lost control of procreative activity; it now depends on women's active pleasure to an unprecedented extent. It is no wonder, he asserts, that so many men resist abortion on demand. (Faludi 1991, 409-484)

The patriarch's eclipsed ability to make family decisions, desires to defend traditional paternal authority often figured as a bitter subtext, the unspoken but pressing agenda of the anti-abortion campaign. To take an example, in the case of Eric Conn, his wife sued him for divorce only hours before he lodged his complaint on behalf of the fetus. "I just didn't like being threatened and told what to do," David Ostreicher, a Levittown "father's rights" litigant, told the court. According to him, his wife sought an abortion against his wishes which displeased him and took him to court. (Faludi 1991, 409-484)

This case brings us to the conclusion of the argument that the anti-abortion movement was a manifestation of misogynistic and patriarchal attitudes that attempted to control women's bodies and reproductive choices by electing patriarchal leaders who reinforce gender roles and reproduce the same biases, prejudices, and patriarchal norms that determine women’s places in society.

The Tragic Consequences of Denying Women Reproductive Autonomy

Abortion is a deeply personal and often complex decision for a woman to make. Criminalizing it only adds unnecessary stress and suffering to an already difficult situation.

Criminalizing abortion is not only a violation of women's reproductive rights, it is also a violation of their human rights. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, the paper’s conceptual argument is that criminalization of abortion affects societal attitudes toward a woman's value and autonomy.

This argument can be substantiated by examining "The Turnaway Study".  It was the first study of its kind to rigorously examine the effects of receiving versus being denied a wanted abortion on women and their children. The overall impression the study leaves is that abortion, far from harming most women, helps them in measurable ways. The study found that women who were denied abortions experienced increased economic hardship, lower educational attainment and were more likely to experience domestic violence compared to those who received abortions. When women cannot access safe and legal abortions, they may resort to unsafe and illegal methods that put their health and lives at risk. This contributes to a culture that does not prioritize women's health and safety and instead places ‘an increased value on punishing women for seeking abortions than on the value of women’s life’. (Foster 2020) Further evidence can be found in J.J. Thomson's essay "A Defence of Abortion." The main thesis of the essay is that although many may see abortion as the unjust killing of an innocent human being, people need to understand that this should not change a mother’s right to her own body and whether or not she can support this child. An example from the book is that of a violinist. If one wakes up one morning to find himself connected to a famous violinist who needs their body in order to survive. However, he did not consent to be connected to the violinist in the first place. Thomson argues that you would be within your rights to disconnect yourself, even if it meant the violinist would die. Similarly, even if a foetus has a right to life, this does not mean that a pregnant woman is morally obligated to carry the foetus to term if she does not want to. The conclusion that can be endorsed from his essay is that criminalizing abortion even if the foetus were a person with a right to life is not justified since people have the right to protect their bodies from unwanted intrusions, even if those intrusions are unintentional. 

This brings us to the conclusion of this argument that the right to bodily autonomy is a fundamental human right that should be respected and that banning abortion would violate that right and have negative consequences for society as a whole. (Thomson 1856)

Conclusion and Suggestions

In conclusion, examining the issue of abortion through the lens of the social sciences highlights that gender relations are closely tied to the issue of abortion. Access to safe and legal abortions is a fundamental component of women's reproductive rights and autonomy. But throughout this paper, we see patriarchal gender norms and expectations impacting women's autonomy and decision-making power over their bodies. As patriarchs protest against "anti-abortion" and the state violates a citizen's sexual and reproductive rights, they often reflect norms about how women should be treated at home under men's care, and the idea that women are born to nurture children, fulfilling their 'motherhood' role. It becomes clear through the evidences presented above, that the lives and autonomy of women are undervalued by society when abortion is denied, which reinforces patriarchal attitudes and power structures.

It’s time to call the movement and legislation what it actually is: anti-woman, anti-mother, anti-child, and anti-freedom.


  1. Faludi, Susan. 1991. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Wome. Crown Publishing Group.

  2. Foster, Diana G. 2020. The Turnaway Study Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—Or Being Denied—an Abortion. Scribner.

  3. Thomson, Judith J. 1971. A Defense of Abortion. Philosophy & Public Affairs.



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