February 20, 2023
by: Leah Savas
This article is part of the Unpacking Culture series in which we examine a well-known axiom and weigh any true or positive aspects of it against any negative or misleading connotations of the phrase.
Deconstructing a Pro-Abortion Slogan
On a cold Saturday morning last April, I sat on a bench in Eastown Grand Rapids, Michigan, and took notes for an article as three young adults milled around a sign with a picture of an aborted baby. The three volunteers with Protect Life Michigan devoted a couple of hours to starting conversations with passersby about abortion. Most of the people they approached kept walking, but some stopped to talk. I could hear others say “gross” as their eyes locked on the bloody picture. One woman yelled from a vehicle as it swished past: “Shame on you! My body, my choice!”
The slogan is arguably the most prolific pro-abortion catchphrase of the day. Protestors chanted it outside the US Supreme Court building in May after the leak of the draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. They chanted it again in June when that decision officially overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that declared a federal right to abortion. The phrase appears at feminist protests scribbled on poster boards and painted on women’s arms and abdomens. Feminist movements of other countries also use versions of the phrase.
For this woman in Grand Rapids, it was an ironic time to use the slogan. Her words were out of place juxtaposed with the image of a mangled, bloody, dismembered body of a tiny human. The slogan thrives even in a country where everyone’s an ultrasound or a Google search away from seeing the second body affected in abortion, even in a country where history has pointed to the humanity of unborn babies. It’s a cry for autonomy—over self and over others.
The History of a Mantra
In a recent excursion on Newspapers.com, the earliest published use of the phrase I could find appeared in December 1969. A reporter for The Boston Globe described the signs held by thirty-five pro-abortion activists outside of a Massachusetts courthouse. One of them read, “It’s my body; it should be my decision.”1
The phrase apparently morphed from there. The next May, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on pro-abortion demonstrators at the Women for Abortion Rights rally outside of City Hall in Philadelphia. They carried placards that read, “My body, my decision.”2 In February 1971, members of the Action for Women’s group distributed “It’s My Choice” buttons at a forum hosted by a pro-life group in Poughkeepsie, New York.3 In March 1978, an Associated Press article that ran in at least six different Wisconsin newspapers described a protest of 200 picketers outside of the Wisconsin state capitol building who chanted, “My body, my choice.”4
As versions of the phrase popped up around the country, similar ideas appeared in literature read by feminists of the day. A group of women in Boston collaborated to publish a women’s health pamphlet titled Women and Their Bodies in 1970 that included a chapter on abortion. Starting in 1973, Simon and Schuster published and republished the material as a book, Our Bodies, Ourselves. In the introduction to the abortion chapter in the 1976 edition, the authors described “the right to choose whether and when to have children” as “[o]ne of our most fundamental rights as women.” They continued: “Only when we are in control of that choice are we free to be all that we can be . . . .” Abortion, they said, is one of the tools for accomplishing this. The phrase “my body, my choice” never appears in the book, but the pages ring with the message.5
Sure, the phrase originated before Google existed and before ultrasound technology was widely available. But by that time, the annals of American history had already recorded the truth about life in the womb. Many people—especially doctors—knew better.
The Archives of Maryland tell the 1656 story of Maryland landowner Francis Brooke and his wife, a former indentured servant named Ann Boulton. Brooke forced abortive drugs on pregnant Boulton. When the unborn baby died, midwife Rose Smith saw the aftermath and described “a man child about three months old and it was all bruised one side of it.” She saw a corpse, the second body affected by the abortion. The community understood the significance of Brooke’s act. A provincial court tried Brooke for murder, and Smith gave testimony against him.6
In the next century, 19-year-old Sarah Grosvenor in 1740s Pomfret, Connecticut died in an abortion attempt encouraged by her baby’s irresponsible father, Amasa Sessions. The baby died too. Sessions left it to Grosvenor’s sister, Zerviah, and her cousin, Hannah, to clean up the aftermath. The two took the baby into the forest to bury it. Zerviah later described the baby as “a pretty child, a perfect child.” She, too, saw the second body.7
About a hundred years later, Professor of Obstetrics at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Hugh Hodge, explained in an 1839 lecture that obstetrics is different from other fields of medicine because “the welfare of two individuals is involved.” He asserted that the child “from the moment of its conception . . . although retained within the system of its mother [has] an independent existence. . . . It forms its own fluids, and circulates them. . . . It daily gains strength and grows.” He saw little difference between a baby unborn and a baby born: “The child unborn absorbs nourishment from its parent through the medium of the uterus. After birth, it imbibes the materials for nutrition by means of the mammae, or breasts. There is essentially no difference in its physiological properties, or as to the independent character of its existence.” The baby has its own body.8
At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, more than two million people viewed a series of sculptures at the Maternity Center Association booth that depicted the development of an unborn baby from conception to birth. A pamphlet from the Gerber Products Company told viewers that “A baby’s life begins not when he puts in his squalling appearance but at the moment the sperm (from the father) meets the egg (from the mother). . . . ” The sculptures were the brainchild of OBGYN Robert L. Dickinson, an avid abortion supporter. He even sketched the designs for the sculptures, which showcased not the mother’s body but the baby’s.9
Potter and Clay
With all this history, how could a mantra so blind to the unborn baby as “my body, my choice” emerge?
Even as early versions began to appear, one abortion supporter in September 1970, writing in The Charlotte News, understood how flimsy the argument was. Garry Wills called “the demand that a woman should have control over her own body” the “very weakest” argument for abortion.10
“[T]he woman who uses that slogan . . . must hurry—because the pretense will be patently absurd in a very short time,” he wrote. “She is not trying to protect the integrity of her own body, but to prevent the detachment from it of something that always had a separate dynamic and law of growth, that was tugging away from her all along, equipping itself for detachment.” He called the dismissal of the fetus—just another female appendage to be removed—a way to dull imaginations to “quite an extraordinary reality—that buried fish-hook of flesh that is eerily acquiring a human face.”11
Other abortion supporters of the time also acknowledged this problem but found a way around it. In her 1971 Defense of Abortion, Judith Jarvis Thomson granted for the sake of argument that the unborn baby is its own person from the moment of conception. But she argued for the mother’s right to choose abortion on the basis that even an unborn baby doesn’t have the right to use its mother’s body and alter her physical life against her will. Her body, her choice.
In my exploration of these early “my body, my choice” arguments, one image repeated in different contexts caught my attention. I thought it helpfully captured the fundamental falsehoods informing the mantra. The image is that of a potter and clay—a sculptor and statue.
God alone is the potter. . . . He alone has the right to destroy or glorify the work of his hands.
In an excerpt of Our Bodies, Ourselves published April 1973 in The Scrantonian Tribune, the authors described their former reliance on men to give them purpose as “reduc[ing] ourselves to objects. . . . It was as if we were made of clay and man would mold us, shape us, and bring us to life.” To become “autonomous adult people,” the authors said they “needed space to discover who we were separate from these primary relationships” of marriage, motherhood, and a feminine job.12
Five years later, writing to the editor of The Akron Beacon Journal in January 1978, reader Mrs. Gertrude Crowther—although likely unintentionally—used a similar image in an argument against the personhood of unborn fetuses. She said their “conception is the creation of a male and female, married or not. If that creation is not wanted, the creators have as much right to destroy it as a sculptor has to make a mallet and destroy something he has created and doesn’t like.”13
Women who felt in bondage to the whims of others now hold unborn babies subject to their own whims, reducing their babies to objects. They talk of molding and being molded, of one person having creative power over another. They claim “my body, my choice” in a procedure that ends with the mutilation of another body.
In Scripture, we see these characters of potter and clay, sculptor and statue in their rightful places. God alone is the potter. He alone formed a man from the dust and a woman from a rib. He alone knits cells together in the womb to form a baby human. He alone has the right to destroy or glorify the work of his hands.
Not only does the woman not own the body of the unborn baby, but she also doesn’t own her own body. Any act of rebellion against God, including the destruction of a fellow creature, doesn’t show autonomy and self-sufficiency. Instead, it’s evidence of slavery to sin—a slavery that leads to death. Christ alone, by his death on the cross to pay for sins, can free us from that slavery. Even then, our bodies are not our own. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body,” writes the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6. We find our fullness in Christ, who created us to glorify him in our bodies—not to glorify our own bodies, our own choices to the detriment of God’s other lumps of clay.
- Ronald Wysocki, “Is court the place for abortion law test?” The Boston Evening Globe, December 9, 1969, 8.
- “City Hall Flanked: Abortion Issue Has Both Sides Demonstrating,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 17, 1970, 10.
- Carol Trapani, “Over 200 Attend Session On Abortion,” The Poughkeepsie Journal, February 8, 1971, 9.
- Associated Press, “Abortion opponents see override of Schreiber veto,” Daily Northwestern, March 9, 1978, 2.
- Boston Women's Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book By and For Women (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), 216.
- Marvin Olasky and Leah Savas, The Story of Abortion in America: 1652-2022 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2023), 26.
- Ibid, 58.
- Ibid, 98-99.
- Ibid, 265.
- Garry Wills, “The Sanctity Of Life,” The Charlotte News, September 14, 1970, 18.
- “Exclusive Excerpts: ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’: Women Are Learning to Cope, Enjoy Second Class Syndrome,” The Scrantonian Tribune, April 22, 1973, 5.
- Gertrude R. Crowther’s letter to the editor in “Voice of the people: Fetuses: Human or not?” The Akron Beacon Journal, January 21, 1978, 6.
Leah Savas is coauthor with Marvin Olasky of The Story of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History, 1652–2022.