By Deborah Bucknam
More than a half century ago, when I was in high school, I worked at a local ice cream store. Nearly every time I worked, I had to replace the large ice cream tubs from which we scooped ice cream for the customers. We carried the replacement tubs from the freezer in the back room to the freezer in the front of the store where we served customers. Trouble was, neither I nor the other girls employed there were supposed to lift those heavy ice cream containers. Massachusetts law prohibited women and girls from lifting more than 25 pounds — a law to “protect” the weaker sex. Most of the time there were no boys or men working, so we had to lift those containers ourselves. Even when there were males working, we were too embarrassed, or too proud, to ask them to carry the tubs. Besides, we knew we could lift the tubs as easily as any male. What did we girls get for this statutory protection? We were paid less than males, and we were told by our employers that the weight restriction was the reason for the lower wage. Some protection.
Over the centuries, there have been many of the laws “protecting” women. Married women were “protected” from being able to transfer their property without their husband’s consent. Women were protected from engaging in such dangerous occupations as the legal profession, or from entering the rough and tumble of political life by having the vote. The court decisions upholding those laws framed them as protection of women because judges said women were more fragile and less capable than men.
While some of these ancient restrictions began to be eased by the late 19th century, other protections on behalf of women and girls took their place. Labor laws such as weight restrictions and restrictions on hours worked were enacted, and challenges to those laws were invariably dismissed on the theory that women deserved special protection. In a 1912 decision upholding a law restricting the number of hours women and children could work, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts stated: “That purpose [restricting hours] was to establish the rights of children and women, who are treated as in a certain sense dependent and under an industrial disadvantage by reason of age and sex, to the end that the health and endurance of the [woman or child] may be insured and the ultimate strength and virility of the race be preserved.”
Of course, these laws did not protect women, but in reality protected men’s power and privileges, and protected men from labor competition with women.
Today, the protection racket continues. Advocates for unlimited abortion frame it as “protection” for women and their “right” to an abortion. Aside from the fatal risk to the unborn child, abortion is a procedure that is sad, heartbreaking, traumatic, and in some cases, physically risky, for women.
Statistics demonstrate that abortion is not the free exercise of a right its proponents claim. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in the United States 40 percent of abortions are performed on black women, while the black population is only 12 percent. Worldwide, there are far more female babies aborted than male babies. These facts demonstrate that abortion for many women is not a real choice, but akin to Sophie’s Choice.
Vermont’s new abortion law reveals that “protection” of women is a fiction. Vermont state government warns us endlessly about everything from swimming in lake water (you might get a rash) to keeping a clean house (you might get dust mites) to second-hand smoke to the risks of cell phone use while driving. It licenses and regulates everyone from manicurists to acupuncturists to landscape architects. Yet Vermont’s abortion bill allows the equivalent of the Wild West when it comes to abortion procedures. The Vermont Department of Health website, with its countless warnings, is silent about the risks of abortion.
Abortion is, at best, a highly unpleasant procedure, and at worst, a severely traumatic and dangerous one, performed because a woman is threatened by men who don’t want a girl baby or the responsibility of fatherhood. Then why do we call it “protection” of a woman’s “right”? The answer is similar to the reason why earlier laws were enacted to “protect” women. Abortion protects men’s ability to have sexual relations at no cost to them. Sex without consequences is, for too many men, a male ideal, liberating men from the burdens imposed when, in the past, sexual relations resulted in the birth of a child.
If we actually want to protect women, we should be advocating for medically safe abortion procedures, and as importantly, advocating for abortion prevention, researching the root causes of so many abortions, and, finally, encouraging women to take charge of their lives and their bodies so they are not faced with the horrible prospect of whether or not to “choose” to have an abortion.
Deborah Bucknam is a St. Johnsbury-based attorney and former Republican candidate for state attorney general.