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A Consistent Life Ethic

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· Abortion and the American Left

Abortion and the Media

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Nat Hentoff

The censoring of feminist history

Nat Hentoff, March 27, 2000

MARCH IS WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH, and much attention is being paid in schools and forums to two women who were most influential in creating this nation's feminist movement while combating sexism in all its forms.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. Her persistent ally was Susan B. Anthony, a founding officer of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.

Both were the subjects of a Public Broadcasting System documentary last November. It was called "Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony," and has been repeated since.

Both women were unremitting opponents of abortion. Yet that fundamental element of their lives was omitted from this widely publicized and reviewed, but selective, documentary. It was as if a televised life of Dr. Martin Luther King focused entirely on him as a fighter for civil rights without a word about his lifelong commitment to direct-action pacifism as taught by Gandhi and the American minister A.J. Muste, who first -- as Dr. King told me -- convinced him of the power of nonviolence.

Ken Burns, who has created deeply illuminating television series on subjects such as the Civil War and baseball, was the director and co-producer of "Not for Ourselves Alone." He is now completing what will be the most definitive documentary series on jazz in international television history. I have seen some of it; and, judging by the expertise of the person who interviewed me for it, I am sure it will equal Burns' Civil War project.

Why, then, did Ken Burns remove from "Not for Ourselves Alone" Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's passionate descriptions of abortion as "child murder" and "infanticide?" And why did none of the reviews of the documentary I saw in the mainstream press mention this distortion of the record of these original feminists?

I asked Ken Burns if he had known of their pro-life views. "Yes," he said unhesitatingly. "But I thought it really important to show the connection between the women's and the abolitionist movements. How Frederick Douglass, for instance, so strongly stood up for women's right to vote."

"But in your research," I told Burns, "you couldn't have missed how often and fiercely they fought against abortion." Burns did not deny that they did, but he insisted that what he calls "the largest social transformation in American history" should not, in his documentary, have been "burdened by present and past differing views on choice."

I respect Burns a great deal, but his use of the word "choice" indicates to me where he's coming from on the subject of abortion. Both Anthony and Stanton believed unequivocally that in an abortion the unborn child does not have a choice of whether to continue living.

Feminists for Life of America, an organization based in Washington, D.C., has protested this exclusion of a belief that meant so much to Anthony and Stanton. Feminists for Life of America believes in the idea of the "seamless garment." That is, it's pro-life across the board, opposing abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide and euthanasia. And it works through Congress for the rights of the poor and against domestic violence.

Feminists for Life of America provided Ken Burns -- before "Not for Ourselves Alone" was aired -- with substantial research documenting the pro-life views of Stanton and Anthony. For example: Susan B. Anthony on abortion: "The woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life. It will burden her soul in death."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: "When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit."

"There must be a remedy even for such crying evil as this (abortion). But where shall it be found? At least, where begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women."

There was much more documentation of their beliefs, but none of it got into "Not for Ourselves Alone."

In all of the lectures, newspaper articles, broadcasts and classroom discussions during Women's History Month this March and beyond, I wonder whether any of the tributes to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton will include their pro-life convictions. Were they still here, I think they would have picketed the showing of "Not for Ourselves Alone."