Tracy A. Thomas


To examine the veracity of the political and legal claims of a feminist history against abortion, this Article focuses on one of the leading icons used in antiabortion advocacy—Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton has, quite literally, been the poster child for FFL’s historical campaign against abortion, appearing on posters, flyers, and commemorative coffee mugs. Advocates claim that Stanton is a particularly fitting spokesperson because she was a “feisty gal who had seven children and was outspokenly pro-life.” They claim that she “condemned abortion in the strongest possible terms” and was “a revolutionary who consistently advocated for the rights of women, for women’s education, for the celebration and acceptance of motherhood—and for the protection of children, born and unborn.” FFL represented to the Supreme Court that “Elizabeth Cady Stanton clearly argued that the liberation of women was needed to stop the killing of children before and after birth” and that she expressed “an uncompromising view that abortion is ‘child-murder.’” To refute the “feminist case against abortion” as attributed to Stanton, this Article proceeds in five parts. Like other works of legal history, this Article is fundamentally concerned with recovering all of the legally relevant facts and placing those facts in appropriate historical and legal context. Part II first details the parameters of the political narrative of antiabortion feminists, focusing on the group Feminists for Life, which orchestrated this historical strategy. Part III then situates Stanton’s remarks and views within the appropriate historical context by tracing the development of the nineteenth-century campaign to criminalize abortion. The male propaganda of a physicians’ campaign bolstered by sensationalist journalism attacked the common law acceptability of abortion before quickening and employed antifeminist rhetoric about the proper place of women in society. While a few female voices joined the debate to defend women against moral attacks and place the blame for unwanted pregnancies instead on men, the larger women’s rights movement focused on issues of equality and increasingly on the singular issue of suffrage. Part V then details how Stanton reframed the discourse around abortion to turn the public’s attention to her priority of exposing women’s subordination in law and society. Part VI then challenges the remaining historical evidence from Stanton’s women’s rights newspaper, the Revolution, used by prolife advocates to allege Stanton’s antiabortion position. The Article concludes by examining the claim that Stanton and modern prolife advocates share common ground on abortion.