Susan B. Anthony, against abortion?

Antiabortion groups are claiming the famous suffragist as one of their own. But her writings on the subject are ambiguous.

Topics: Abortion, Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

Susan B. Anthony’s lifelong dedication to women’s suffrage cemented her status as a feminist icon, but now, antiabortion advocates are claiming her as their own, reports Women’s eNews. Some antiabortion groups have even used her image in political ads or named their organizations after her.

Feminists for Life of America — an antiabortion nonprofit that has recruited celebrity envoys like Patricia Heaton of “Everybody Loves Raymond” — is at the forefront of claims about Anthony’s antiabortion beliefs. Their Web site quotes Anthony on the subject of helping to “bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them” (a statement that can conveniently be taken to mean any number of things). Other groups, like the Susan B. Anthony List, describe Anthony as “an outspoken critic of abortion.”

But proof of Anthony’s position on abortion is not so unequivocal. The antiabortionists’ strongest evidence comes from feminist newspaper the Revolution, published by Anthony, which printed articles that referred to abortion as “child-murder” or “ante-natal infanticide.” Mary Krane Derr, a member of Feminists for Life, also points to an 1869 article in the Revolution that describes abortion as “the horrible crime of child-murder.” The article is signed with the letter “A,” and Derr believes Anthony is the author. This is certainly possible, but Anthony isn’t known to have ever signed her work this way.

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But the did-she-or-didn’t-she argument may not have much bearing on present-day abortion discussions. Former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt argues that the historical context in which Anthony made comments about abortion renders them irrelevant to the current debate. In the 19th century, the procedure was dangerous, and became “a political hot potato,” said Feldt, with doctors seeking to outlaw abortion in part to eliminate competition with nontraditional medical practitioners, like midwives. Pro-choicers also point out that the suffragists’ belief in secularism and women’s autonomy seems completely antithetical to the antiabortion position.

Either way, we have to be honest: No one knows for sure what Anthony’s position would be were she alive in today’s particular cultural context.

Still, antiabortion groups are making a problematic jump made from Anthony’s known statements — which might be validly interpreted as speaking out against abortion — as an argument against a woman’s legal right to have one. We’re all aware that being pro-choice doesn’t necessarily mean that you think abortion is morally unambiguous. Ann Gordon, editor of the “Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony,” told Women’s eNews, “She never voiced an opinion about using the power of the state to require that pregnancies be brought to term.”

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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