Abortion Bans and the Anti-Abortion Movement: Understanding Ultra-Sacrificial Motherhood

Dr Pam Lowe, Senior Lecturer, Sociology and Policy Dept., Aston University, Birmingham and Dr Sarah-Jane Page, Senior Lecturer, Sociology and Policy Dept., Aston University, Birmingham

The overturning of the Roe vs Wade precedent, the case which gave a right to abortion in the US, has renewed global attention on the anti-abortion movement. Whilst it is unlikely that the decades-long strategy by anti-abortion groups, which was specific to the political and legal context of the US,  could be fully replicated elsewhere, it is likely to lead to increased mobilisation of anti-abortion organisations in other nations. Consequently, it is imperative to understand the central beliefs of the anti-abortion movement, and, we argue, how their ideas are related to wider societal discourses.  

Since legal changes in the 1960s and 1970s which made abortion accessible in many countries in the global north, academics have drawn attention to two broad frames that have dominated the attempts to restrict abortion. In no particular order, these frames have been named as foetal-centric or pro-woman (Amery, 2020; Cannold, 2002; Oaks, 2000). Strategies within the foetal-centric frame include the numerous attempts to introduce a Human Life Amendment to the US constitution, which would have assigned equal rights to a foetus (Flowers, 2020), and the repeated attempts to reduce the time limit for abortion in the UK. Under the pro-woman banner, anti-abortion organisations erroneously claim that abortion causes harm to women’s health, notably through their invention of post-abortion syndrome (Lee, 2003). This has led to numerous states in the US introducing unnecessary regulations for clinics (Medoff, 2012), or introducing waiting periods before an abortion can be carried out,  such as in Ireland (Rowlands and Thomas, 2020). It is important to recognise that whilst the emphasis on each frame changes over time, they have both been present for decades and are not mutually exclusive (Flowers, 2020; Lowe and Page, 2019). For example, whilst foetal-centric frames often focus on the point a foetus should gain independent rights, this framing also reveals anti-abortion activists view that abortion is also a bad outcome for women as mothers. Drawing on extensive research with UK anti-abortion activists, here we outline how the frames combine when considering motherhood, and how specific understandings about women within the anti-abortion movement can be associated with wider societal understandings about motherhood and essentialised gender roles.  

Ideas about ‘natural’ motherhood have long shaped understandings of gender roles, and, in particular, motherhood is often conceptualised as ideally sacrificial (Lowe, 2016). Women are expected to put the welfare of any actual or future children first, by, for example, delaying motherhood, if they are unable to meet ‘good’ parenting norms (Baldwin, 2018), maximising their health before pregnancy (Waggoner, 2017), and taking expert advice to enhance their children’s development as part of intensive motherhood (Hays, 1996). Our research has shown that these ideas about sacrificial motherhood also shape the views of anti-abortion activists in the UK (Lowe and Page, 2022). However, their understanding of women’s role as mothers goes well beyond these general views, rooted in their conservative Christian values that underpin the overwhelming majority of participants in the UK movement (Lowe and Page, 2022). We describe their understanding as a commitment to ultra-sacrificial motherhood.

As we have argued (Lowe and Page, 2022), a central understanding of the conceptualisation of ultra-sacrificial motherhood is that it is rooted in a firm belief that traditional two parent, married heterosexual couples with children is the preferred model of family life. Whilst other forms of family, notably single motherhood, are better than abortion, they should not be encouraged. Normative gendered understandings of breadwinner fathers and women as vocational mothers should be a central part of family life. This ideology of motherhood is common within Christianity, appearing in scripture and doctrine (Llewellyn, 2016). In the anti-abortion activists’ essentialised understanding of gender roles, motherhood is not just a desirable goal, but all women’s lives should be oriented around motherhood, including women without children who can perform ‘mothering roles’ in a different way (Lowe and Page, 2022).   

Within this understanding of ultra-sacrificial motherhood, abortion is always harmful to women (Lowe and Page, 2022). The anti-abortion activists consider that it causes physical, mental and spiritual harm. This latter aspect  is extremely important within the conservative religious movement, and it describes the rejection of women’s sacred role, which is seen as a precursor to, and effect of, having an abortion. The rejection of their divine role as mothers by having an abortion, means that women are no longer their true selves, and are also alienated from their church. Recovery is possible, but this needs to happen through penance and forgiveness, with the exact nature of this shaped by the kind of Christian church a woman belongs to.  

This understanding of the consequences mean that abortion is never deemed necessary, even in the cases of fatal foetal anomaly or rape (Lowe and Page, 2022). Indeed, many anti-abortion activists think that abortion is the equivalent or even worse than being raped.  In order to uphold their absolutist position on abortion, they often downplay the idea that abortion may be needed to save a woman’s life. In many cases, where the threat is indisputable, they discursively construct health interventions that end a pregnancy as not actually an abortion, because the intention of the medical intervention was different. They also valorise women who reject life-saving treatment because of a potential negative impact on a foetus – ultra-sacrificial motherhood means that women should be prepared to sacrifice their lives for the foetus. 

Being foetal-centric, with the emphasis on the period from conception to birth, is a central element of ultra-sacrificial motherhood (Lowe and Page, 2022). Whereas intensive motherhood produces sacrificial expectations for women, the focus is child-centric, where steps should be taken to maximise the wellbeing of children. Intensive motherhood can include normative values as to when motherhood is desirable, allowing the possibility of abortion where this is not possible, including prioritising existing children (Jones et al., 2008). In contrast, foetal-centric ultra-sacrificial motherhood demands that women continue pregnancies whatever the cost to themselves, and regardless as to whether or not there is a possibility of a live birth. Little attention is given to children after birth, as it is assumed that divinely ordained motherhood will naturally ensure the well-being of children.

Whilst opposition to abortion is a central part of ultra-sacrificial motherhood, the ideas that surround it go far beyond this. Abortion bans are the first step to returning women to their traditional place, as mothers and homemakers, under the control of fathers and husbands. Indeed, anti-abortion activists often encourage men to ‘step up’ to their ‘natural’ masculine duties, by preventing their partners from having an abortion, drawing on wider ideas that feminism has emasculated men (Lowe and Page, 2022). In addition, abortion is positioned as a foundational cause of ‘social problems’, including the acceptance of same-sex marriage, and recent waves of immigration, which was seen as needed because of (presumed white) babies lost to abortion. Banning abortion is considered the first step to reasserting traditional family values, and ultra-sacrificial motherhood is at the centre of this mission. 

Generally speaking, access to abortion has increased globally in recent years, with successful campaigns in countries such as Argentina, Ireland, Mozambique, and South Korea. Yet as the examples of Poland (liberal abortion laws were overturned in the 1990s) and now the US illustrate, access to abortion cannot be taken for granted. It is important to understand how the ideas underpinning the position of anti-abortion activists can overlap with wider public understandings that women should ‘naturally’ put the needs of any actual or future children first.  Consequently, although the specific construction of ultra-sacrificial motherhood within the anti-abortion movement is unlikely to appeal to a broader audience, understanding it can shed new light on specific anti-abortion campaigns as well as drawing attention to the ways in which essentialist understandings of gender still shape and constrain the lives of everyone.  


Dr Pam Lowe, Senior Lecturer, Sociology and Policy Dept., Aston University, Birmingham B4 7ET p.k.lowe@aston.ac.uk 0121 204 3807

Dr Sarah-Jane Page, Senior Lecturer, Sociology and Policy Dept., Aston University, Birmingham B4 7ET s.page1@aston.ac.uk 0121 204 3072

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Lowe, P. (2016). Reproductive Health and Maternal Sacrifice: Women, Choice and Responsibility. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan. 

Lowe, P. and Page, S.-J. (2019). “On the Wet Side of the Womb”: The construction of mothers in anti-abortion activism in England and Wales. European Journal of Womens Studies, 26(2):165–180.

Lowe, P. and Page, S.-J. (2022). Anti-Abortion Activism in the UK: Ultra-Sacrificial Motherhood, Religion and Reproductive Rights in the Public Sphere. Bingley, Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

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Waggoner, M. (2017). The Zero Trimester Pre-Pregnancy Care and the Politics of Reproductive Risk. Oakland, University of California Press.

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