In the press coverage of both Playboy founder Hugh Hefner (following his death, on September 28th) and media mogul Harvey Weinstein (following a bombshell New York Times article detailing decades worth of sexual harassment allegations against him, which was quickly followed by multiple rape accusations), I was struck by the same curious detail: these men accused of treating women awfully are (or were) fanatical supporters of abortion, and the writers covering their stories seem to find this surprising.
For example, Rebecca Traister, in The Cut, is “struck” by this fact, writing:
I saw Harvey Weinstein earlier this year, at a Planned Parenthood celebration. I was struck by the fact that he was there — as the Times details, he has remained a donor to and supporter of liberal organizations, women’s-rights organizations, and Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, whose daughter recently worked as his intern.
Her colleague Sierra Tishgart likewise recently detailed “Playboy Magazine’s Unlikely History of Abortion-Rights Activism.”
But just what about Playboy supporting abortion is “unlikely”? These writers, and scores more like them, present this all as some sort of weird paradox, like ‘how could a man who treats (or treated) women this way also support “women’s rights”?’ But it’s only a paradox if you talk about it in the euphemistic terms of “women’s rights.” If you instead ask why someone who treats women like objects for his sexual pleasure also wants easy access to abortion, the question virtually answers itself. The ideal like a philandering misogynist would want legal abortion to exist, in case one of his girlfriends/partners/victims becomes pregnant, is hardly shocking.
Susan Brownmiller argues that the same mentality lurked behind Hefner’s support for pornography and his support for abortion, in a scathing New York Times op-ed entitled “Hugh Hefner Was My Enemy“:
Yes, he [Hefner] supported abortion rights, though so did our current president at one time. Mr. Hefner’s reason was clear. The image of the playboy he promoted in his magazine was a fellow who loved his stereo equipment, his expensive liquor and his bachelor pad, and refused to be cornered into marriage just because a young lady he had bedded had the misfortune to get pregnant. As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in her 1983 book, “The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment”: “The magazine’s real message was not eroticism but escape from the bondage of breadwinning. Sex — or Hefner’s Pepsi-clean version of it — was there to legitimize what was truly subversive about Playboy. In every issue, in every month, there was a Playmate to prove that a playboy didn’t have to be a husband to be a man.” The reason Mr. Hefner supported abortion was not from any feminist feeling; it was purely strategic.
And it’s not just folks like Brownmiller making the connection. Hugh Hefner himself recognized it. He was actually quite clear that his support for abortion (including submitting an amicus brief for Roe v. Wade) was connected to his belief that women were objects. That’s not an exaggeration. From a 2010 Vanity Fair piece:
“But feminists still oppose you for treating women as objects,” I reminded him [Hefner].
“They are objects!” he insisted. “Playboy fought for what became women’s issues, including birth control. We were the amicus curiae, friend of the court, in Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to choose. But the notion that women would not embrace their own sexuality is insane.”
“Some believe you have a prurient interest in them.”
“I certainly hope so!”
On the screens of Weinstein’s films, and in the pages of Hefner’s magazine, a sexy fiction was presented, separating sexuality from family, from children, and ultimately even from the humanity of the women being depicted. Abortion, by violently severing the natural connection between sex and childbirth, is crucial for maintaining that illusion. And we’re to act shocked that these men’s private lives and political advocacy were tailored to maintain the illusion? Where is the surprising paradox, exactly?
Amber Batura, in one of the many New York Times pieces marking Hefner’s death, wrote that “to Mr. Hefner, women were simply one of the interests of most heterosexual men. The magazine featured discussions of equal rights, contraception and reproductive choice. Mr. Hefner never saw that as a contradiction.” Perhaps that’s because there is no contradiction between wanting to use women for sex, and not wanting to pay child support or raise a family.
The most interesting part of all of this is that these liberal pro-choice writers seem genuinely surprised that someone might exploit women and aggressively advocate for abortion. As I hinted above, I think that it’s because of how the political issue is framed. Often, abortion is spoken of in the context of “women’s rights,” with anyone opposing legalized abortion treated as a sexist who just wants to “control women’s bodies.” And indeed, advocates for legalized abortion present themselves as “pro-choice,” and have catchy slogans like “my body, my choice.”
But popular reflection on the social and private “contributions” of men like Hefner and Weinstein should prompt us to come face-to-face with the ugly reality of abortion in America. The mantra “my body, my choice” is hollow false rhetoric for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the awkward, inescapable reality that the fetus is a biologically distinct organism with her own body, a body that can be legally dismembered in the ironic name of “bodily choice.” But there’s also the grim reality that “women’s reproductive decisions” in the realm of abortion are often made by the men who impregnated them.
The pro-choice Guttmacher Institute published a study in 2010 that closely examined the “full reproductive histories of 71 women aged 18-49 with a history of IPV [intimate partner violence] recruited from a family planning clinic, an abortion clinic and a domestic violence shelter in the United States.” They report:
A phenomenon which emerged among fifty-three respondents (74%) was male reproductive control which encompasses pregnancy-promoting behaviors as well as control and abuse during pregnancy in an attempt to influence the pregnancy outcome. Pregnancy promotion involves male partner attempts to impregnate a woman including verbal threats about getting her pregnant, unprotected forced sex, and contraceptive sabotage. Once pregnant, male partners resort to behaviors that threaten a woman if she does not do what he desires with the pregnancy. Reproductive control was present in violent as well as non-violent relationships.
So if you want to talk about men “trying to control women’s bodies,” maybe look at this shockingly-high rate of coerced abortions in violent as well as non-violent relationships. In its extreme form, that looks like Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth murdering his girlfriend Cherica Adams when she refused to have an abortion (amazingly, their unborn son survived). But what about the less extreme cases of women feeling pressured (or threatened) into abortions?
Unfortunately, the rate of coerced and pressured abortion has never been systematically studied, but it’s part of what New York Magazine calls “the complexity and ambivalence surrounding abortion.” Take, for example, this exchange between Claire Keyes (a counselor at an abortion clinic) and a woman described only as “28 years old and ten-and-a-half-weeks pregnant:”
Keyes opens the woman’s folder. “The first thing I saw in your chart,” she says, “is you’re not sure about your decision. What do you want to tell me about that?”
“I don’t know,” says the woman. “In a sense, I got too much going on, and I can’t afford to take on another child. But in a sense, I feel pressure from my boyfriend, because he don’t want the kids … so it’s like, I want to. I’m not into the whole abortion thing. I did it before”—twice, according to her chart, once last year at this very clinic—“and I really didn’t like it. I think some things happen for a reason.”
Keyes knows that most women refer to the developing lives inside of them as “babies,” rather than fetuses, whether they’re conflicted about their abortions or not. She knows that occasionally women want to keep sonograms of the fetuses they’ve aborted and even ask to see their reassembled remains once the procedure’s through. [….]
Keyes gestures toward the waiting room, where the patient’s boyfriend is sitting. “Is he an important part of your life?”
The woman hesitates. “I guess. For now.”
“He doesn’t have kids?”
“He’s got kids. He just don’t want any more.”
Keyes pauses. “I don’t feel you in this decision, and that makes me sad.” She thinks. “If you had to name a percentage—pick a number—what percentage of your decision to be here today is yours?”
The woman stares into space. “Basically, 99 percent of it is him.” She looks listlessly at Keyes. “So. Get it done and over with.”
So 99% of her reason was that the boyfriend demanded it. What about that remaining 1%, the part that is allegedly her choice? “That’s where it comes down to my percent. I have three kids already. So, he leaves, and now I have four children and no dads.” So 99% is partner pressure, and the other 1% is… basically another form of partner pressure.
Mind you, we know this particular story only because a magazine writer happened to be sitting in the room when it happened. This sort of thing is anything but rare (this woman had actually been pressured into an abortion at that clinic a year earlier, with Keyes as her counselor… and Keyes forgot about having ever met her), but it’s often not reflected in the official paperwork. In this case, the woman told Keyes to write down that the abortion was because it’s “for the best, and best interest of me, and my life.”
Does this situation sound like a win for feminism, or for women more generally? Is this what victory looks like?
There are a lot of reasons that abortion is such a divisive topic in America: it touches on sex, on pregnancy, on human rights, and on what it means to be a person, and a whole range of moral and philosophical questions. I don’t imagine that this essay is going to single-handedly fix all of that. But it seems to me that, in light of Hugh Hefner, Harvey Weinstein, Rae Carruth, the unnamed NY Mag woman and her boyfriend, and innumerable other examples, maybe we can at least all agree that not everyone who supports abortion is doing so for feminist reasons, or out of a deep wellspring of love for women, and that not everyone who opposes abortion is doing so because they hate women and want to control their bodies?