Anthropologists, Abortion and the Cultural War in America



Some things are true even if Pat Buchanan says them.  When I came out of the Peruvian Amazon after doing field research in the summer of 1992, the first thing I saw and heard on television in Lima was Buchanan’s speech at the Republican convention about the “culture war.”  I broke into a cold sweat and wanted to go back to the safety of the jungle with my Shipibo friends.  Give me the snakes in the forest and sancudos on the Ucayali playa, please.  But the scariest thing was, he was right.  Of course, he was one of the generals in the war.  And as an abortion doctor, I was in the crosshairs.

     The cultural revolutions that we saw erupting in the sixties and seventies had their origins in many previous events, but the sexual revolution – who many saw as a breath of air in a suffocating cultural environment – was also part of a new freedom of expression.  It was also, especially for women, a way of escaping from prescribed social roles defined by biological function and reinforced by patriarchal social values.  It meant that women could make choices never before fully and safely available to them.  It meant they could choose to be as distinguished from merely surviving according to prescribed rules.

     When asked how she would manage being both a woman and a member of Congress, Pat Schroeder asked, “Do I have to choose?”  She also said, “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both.”

     Pat went on to challenge the male-dominated seniority system in Congress, including the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, on whose committee she so capably served.  Her sharp wit, ribald humor and devastatingly prepared arguments changed the way the Congress handled military matters.  It also changed the way many of the male members saw women.  She was charming, funny and effective.

     Pat Schroeder’s success symbolized the problem that cultural conservatives and defenders of patriarchal values were beginning to face.  She was an uppity woman.  She scared them.

     Fetuses, by contrast with adult women, are not uppity.  They can be defended at election time along with Motherhood, Apple Pie and the American Flag, thereby sending political adversaries into disarray.  Fighting For The Fetus wins Hearts, Minds and Votes.  The Fetus becomes a Fetish Object to be defended.  It works.  Defenders of the Fetus win elections.  Look at Bob Dole, who was losing his bid for re-election in 1974 until, a week before the election, he started calling his obstetrician-gynecologist opponent An Abortionist.  It worked.  Dole won.  It didn’t matter that Dr. Roy had delivered thousands of babies and had done only a few abortions for serious medical reasons.

     The Republican Party, taken over by the radical political right, took Dole’s example to heart.  Its leaders decided to exploit the radical religious right and cultural conservatives to get power.

     Who are the people who have led the fight against abortion and women’s rights?  Who are the picketers?   Who are the anti-abortion assassins?   White, unemployed, uneducated men who have lost their status in society because they are now competing against uppity women for jobs, money and power.

     Why is it that anti-abortion fanatics call themselves “Pro-Life” while they are killing doctors who do abortions and picketing infertility clinics?  Because the struggle has nothing to do with abortion or infertility.  It’s about power: who has it, and who doesn’t.  It’s about which way the guns are pointed.  Trying to understand this in terms of logic and reason doesn’t work, because it isn’t about logic and reason.  It’s about who’s running your life.  It’s about who controls the definitions of words and the terms of survival.


It was one thing...for people to have sincere philosophical and religious convictions, for people to be afraid of social change, but it was another thing, and far more dangerous, for someone to start exploiting those convictions for political purposes – to gain power.


     In his book, The Politics of the Rich and Poor, Kevin Phillips, no flaming, pinko, wild-eyed liberal, wrote that the Republican Party had decided to use several hot-button cultural issues, including abortion, to get power, and it worked.  The real goal, however, according to Phillips, was not to outlaw abortion, but to use the power to transfer money from the pockets of the poor and the middle class to the pockets of the rich.

     It would be reductionist to assert that the abortion issue has been the cause of the direction in which American society appears to be heading, and there are obviously many causes.  But I have a special interest in the role of the abortion issue since I am a physician who performs abortions as well as an anthropologist and epidemiologist who studies fertility and other reproductive health issues in human societies.  In fact, one of the reasons why I chose to provide abortion services was that I was concerned about the public health and social justice issues affecting women and their families under the circumstances of illegal abortion.  Many women were dying (and still are) from illegal abortion everywhere I looked – in Latin America, where I worked as a medical student, intern, and Peace Corps physician, and in the US, where I saw tragedy as a medical student and as a public health physician.  But I had learned in medical school that pregnancy is “normal,” and that a woman is most “normal” when she is pregnant.  Well, if that’s true, what is she when she’s not pregnant?

     Once you start analyzing this, it is apparent that Western culture defines women as reproductive machines – that is their purpose in life – so pregnancy is “normal” even though women can die from it whether they want to be pregnant or not.  The cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s (built on the work of many pioneers) challenged this cultural norm by asserting that women may choose not to be victims of the tyranny of their own biology, not to mention the tyranny of men who expected them to stay home in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, making cookies and having babies.  They could choose their own identity.  And they could choose to be uppity.

     And now these uppity women – who decided to become doctors, lawyers, bank presidents and political leaders – decided, after all, to have babies, anyway.  But at age 38 or 40 or 45, things too often go wrong, and a desperately desired pregnancy becomes a tragic nightmare or a threat to life.  And these women have to confront the profound sadness of ending a pregnancy, but in a climate of anti-abortion terrorism and by a doctor who works behind bullet-proof windows.

     Abortion became a target for the cultural conservatives because having an abortion became a public act.  Roe v Wade was the red flag in front of the bull.  It was one thing, though, for people to have sincere philosophical and religious convictions, for people to be afraid of social change, but it was another thing, and far more dangerous, for someone to start exploiting those convictions for political purposes – to gain power.  That gave powerful psychological permission for the perpetrators of anti-abortion violence including the political assassination of abortion doctors and others helping women get abortions.

     Ronald Reagan announced that he was going to make abortion illegal, and he made this a fundamental part of his political appeal.  Reagan tried to make abortion a political crime against the state.  From that point, having an abortion was a political act.  Performing an abortion was a political act.  Doctors are fewer and more identifiable than patients.  Kill the doctors, and we will stop abortion, someone said.  Guess what?  It works.  The logic of power is as inscrutable as it is inexorable.


Warren M. Hern is Director of the Boulder Abortion Clinic, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and assistant clinical professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.


Reprinted by permission of the American Anthropological Association. Anthropology News, 46:2, February, 2005, pp 16-18.  Copyright © 2005 American Anthropological Association   Invited contribution to the series, Technologies of Reproduction   Dec 2004 –March 2005


Related articles by Warren M. Hern may be found at , including:

The politics of abortion.  The Progressive, November, 1972

The illness parameters of pregnancy.  Social Science and Medicine 9:365‑372, 1975 (England)

Abortion issue: The state vs. the individual. The Denver Post, March 23, 1975.

Administrative incongruence and authority conflict in four abortion clinics.  WM Hern, M Gold, and A Oakes.  Human Organization 36:376‑383, 1977

What about us? Staff reactions to D & E.  WM Hern and B Corrigan.  Advances in Planned Parenthood 15:3‑8, 1980

The human life statute: will it protect life or power?  The  Denver Post, June 21, 1981

The epidemiologic foundations of abortion practice.  In Hern, W.M. Abortion Practice,  Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott Co, 1984; Boulder, Alpenglo Graphics, 1990 (softcover)

The antiabortion vigilantes.  The New York Times, Op‑Ed Page,   Friday, December 21, 1984

Must Mr. Reagan tolerate abortion clinic violence?  The New York Times, Op-Ed page, June 14, 1986

Protect Abortion Rights.  New York Times, Op-Ed page, January  22, 1987

Abortion clinics under siege.  The Denver Post,  November 1, 1988.

The politics of choice: Abortion as insurrection. In Births and Power: Social Change and the Politics of Reproduction, W.Penn Handwerker, Ed.  Boulder, Westview Press, 1990.

Hunted by the right, forgotten by the left.  The New York Times, Op-Ed page,  March 13, 1993.

Florida doctor's death resulted from 20 years of inciting violence. The Denver Post, March 20, 1993.

The Pope and my right to life.  The New York Times, Op-Ed Page, August 12, 1993

Life on the Front Lines.  Women's Health Issues 4(1):48-54,1994.

Anti-abortion movement put weapon in slayer's hand.  Daily Camera, Guest Opinion, March 20, 1994.

Anti-abortion zealots' grasp for power.  The Rocky Mountain News, Guest Opinion ("Speakout") Column.  December 19, 1994.

An electronic demon stalks clinic workers.  The Daily Camera, Commentary. January 9, 1995.

How it feels to be on anti-abortion hit list.  Letter to the editor, The New York Times, February 4, 1995.

'Killing for Life' is senseless.  Guest editorial, The Denver Post, April 8, 1995. 

Abortion bill skips the fine print.  Op-Ed Page, The New York Times, May 24, 1997.

Free speech that threatens my life.  Op-Ed Page, The New York Times, March 31, 2001. (Letter responses 4/6/01)