The Abortion Controversies and the Christian Churches in Western Europe

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:50 PM
Missouri Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Dagmar Herzog, City University of New York, Graduate Center
While in the 1960s-1970s the sexual revolution was a major force for secularization, when it came to the legal situation surrounding abortion, the churches still had tremendous influence on politics. Liberalization of abortion law was ultimately rejected in Switzerland, but was achieved in Britain, France, West Germany, and Italy between 1967 and1978. This paper will reconstruct the arguments and strategies that proved effective in each nation. Rereading the texts of feminists, politicians, theologians, and journalists from the era brings several surprises. Certainly the pressure of tens of thousands of women (plus supportive men) in the streets was crucial, but the feminist argument “my body belongs to me” was not the decisive argument in parliaments and courts; rather, the contention was that the law itself was being mocked by being so constantly disobeyed. Yet there was also an urgently expressed need to reverse the traditional terms of debate; conservative religious opinion had to be shown to be immoral. This made the arguments of theologians who favored expanded abortion access especially important. Their innovations are remarkable to this day. Yet debates about abortion were also – and in hindsight disturbingly – saturated by references to disability (partially due to the early 1960s scandal of birth defects caused by the morning sickness drug thalidomide, but also an indication of the persistence of contempt for the disabled in the post-fascist era and a sad but telling sign of just how difficult it was to argue straightforwardly for women’s rights to sexual pleasure without reproductive consequences). Finally, it is remarkable how awkwardly sex functioned in debates about abortion. Legal abortion generated ambivalence not least because it enhanced women’s sexual freedom. But also those men who favored legalization were tongue-tied about the concrete intricacies of intimacy