Susan B. Anthony Photoshopped for a New Anti-Abortion Agenda

By Christine Cupaiuolo — October 13, 2006

As long as anti-abortion advocates work to restrict women’s reproductive rights, the abortion debate will be omnipresent. But two recent arenas for the debate — one over the past, one very much in the present — add a new, disturbing twist to the conversation.

Anti-abortion advocates are going to great lengths to align the anti-choice movement with … feminism.

First, none other than Susan B. Anthony has become the center of a tug-of-war over the historical roots of the anti-choice movement. Feminists for Life has actually purchased Anthony’s birthplace in Adams, Mass., in an attempt to solidify their view that Anthony was strongly opposed to abortion. They have previously used her image in advertisements and on their homepage.

Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee, also uses her image and name to promote its work aimed at boosting anti-choice candidates, reports Women’s eNews.

Scholars, however, disagree with these groups’ interpretation of the historical evidence. Ann Gordon, a Rutgers professor and the editor of the “Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony,” and Lynn Sherr, an ABC News correspondent who wrote “Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words,” have both spent many years combing through Anthony’s writing and they both claim there is no solid evidence that reveals Anthony’s personal views on the issue.

Stacy Schiff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America,” observes in an op-ed in today’s New York Times that Anthony is hardly the first political figure to “experience a posthumous identity crisis.”

So long as we have written history we have rewritten it, seasoning it with bias, straining it of context, molding it to our agendas. (The French codified this problem years ago by throwing each camp a bone. For years it was understood that conservative historians got the ancien régime, the communists the Revolution, and the socialists everything thereafter.) But Anthony the pro-lifer hails from a different land, the treacherous province of cutting and pasting, of history plucked from both text and time. Now we are Photoshopping rather than airbrushing; with enough slicing and dicing, an argument can be made for anything. The doctorate in sophistry is optional.

[Carol Crossed, founder of the New York State chapter of Feminists for Life,] has argued that abortion rights are a violation of those for which Anthony fought. To her mind, the right to vote does not bring with it the right to destroy our offspring. This may be true. And then again it may not be. “We demand that woman shall be given the means to assert herself, regardless of whether she ever uses it or not,” pretty much qualified as Anthony’s theme song.

Rhetoric and symbolism, nevertheless, are powerful instruments. And this hasn’t been lost on anti-choice advocates working on the frontlines of local battles.

In South Dakota, they are attempting to preserve the toughest abortion ban in the nation, but Stephanie Simon reports on their unique tactics:

Antiabortion activists here deliberately avoid the familiar slogans of their movement. They don’t talk about the “murder of innocent babies” or quote the Bible on the sanctity of life. Instead, campaign manager Leslee Unruh has taken what she calls a feminist approach, arguing that legalized abortion exploits women and — for their sake — must be stopped.

The bumper stickers and T-shirts that fill campaign headquarters spell out her message, in pink and blue: “Abortion Hurts Women.”

“We women buy the choice line. We’re panicked, or we’re being pressured, or we’re ashamed to have a child outside marriage,” Unruh said. She speaks from personal experience; she had an abortion nearly 30 years ago and said her life since has been darkened with regret and longing. “If you don’t do your job right as a mother,” Unruh asked, “what good is everything else?”

After the ban passed this past February, Planned Parenthood decided to put it to a public referendum. But they and other pro-choice forces have been caught somewhat off-guard by the new strategy. Sarah Stoesz, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and North and South Dakota, admits, “Historically, this debate has been focused on fetal rights, fetal life. We have a lot of language about that. This adds an element we’re not accustomed to. It’s a different line of debate…. And that is something we struggle with politically.”

The focus has been on the draconian nature of the ban, not on a woman’s right to abortion. “This law simply goes too far,” reads a poster outside campaign headquarters of abortion-rights supporters.

Both NPR’s “All Things Considered” and PBS’ “Newhour with Jim Lehrer” have solid overviews of the campaign.

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