Unsex Me!: How Lady Macbeth is a Forerunner to Abortion Rights

Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and air.
-The Witches
 Macbeth, Act I, Scene I

What is this world where we live where the taking of a life is freedom, a woman’s design is a burden, and the very life we carry a curse? Today, abortion is not just defended, but celebrated. By some, it is considered the most woman-liberating “right”. Fair is foul and foul is fair, indeed. I believe the militant defense of abortion rights echoes in some ways, the macabre tale of Macbeth, particularly in the tragic figure of Lady Macbeth.

Using literature to understand the politics of abortion is not novel. The latest pro-abortion protest costume of choice is the red cloak and face concealing hood of Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale. Women don these costumes in protest of pro-life policies, in their illusory belief that those who want to ban abortion will cause women to be tragic victims of a dystopian patriarchy, wherein women will be denigrated to the status of breeders, rape will be the norm, and childbirth a tool of tyranny. It is horrifically ironic that these women decry oppression in the same breath that they demand the right to dismember children in the womb.

Ultimately the attempt to parallel The Handmaid’s Tale with abortion restrictions falls flat as it tries to stretch a narrative that does not fit reality. It’s hard to defend the idea that women are oppressed through pro-life laws when the very onus of pro-life policies is to defend the defenseless, when cases of rape make up one percent of why women seek abortions, and pro-life programs have equipped and empowered women, without abortion, for decades. There are better literary examples, however. Rosaria Butterfield wrote an excellent piece arguing that Frankenstein is an abortion novel, illustrating that apart from Christ, we are all a monstrosity:

“The monster in Frankenstein is me—and you—and my sins are always so much worse than I confess. The wages of sin is death. It is always death—even if medical science promises the wages of sin is life.”

There is hope that we might escape this macabre fate, but not if we refuse to face the reality of our own wickedness. Downplaying the true nature of abortion leads not to the peace that comes with confession and forgiveness, but self-deception. We are not doing anyone a favor when we refuse to honestly speak on the gruesome reality of abortion. Perhaps, facing the tragedy of Lady Macbeth can help us think more clearly on this.

In the past ten years the pro-abortion arguments seem to have shifted significantly. No longer is it said that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”, instead women are encouraged to “shout your abortion”. Even the children’s book market has been infiltrated by the desperate need to justify abortion at all stages and for any reason. Perhaps even 20 years ago it could be argued that women were in the dark about the severity of what they were doing when they lay beneath the hands of an abortionist. But more recently most women are not only aware, but aggressive in the undertaking of trying to control their fate, while clinging to their sexual desires, and demanding the right to be rid of any consequence of their actions at any point. In some ways, Lady Macbeth’s monologue for murder threads through their words. Her selfish ambition eclipses any desire for goodness, as she calls upon the demonic sphere to embolden her to murder an innocent man:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty: make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall.”
Lady Macbeth, Act I, Scene V

Lady Macbeth is a sort of Shakespearean pre-feminist, seeing the womanly virtues of mothering and nurturing care as hindrances to her happiness. Here she is, casting them off, and asking the demonic realms to help “unsex” her, to make her less nurturing, less woman, that she might be equipped to murder. She later berates her husband as he vacillates over killing the king, comparing her own wicked commitment to his indecision, imagining herself killing their hypothetical child for his sake:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”
Lady Macbeth Act I, Scene VII

Lady Macbeth would make an excellent abortion advocate, though perhaps a more honest one than most. For few defending abortion at all stages will admit to the reality of forceps crushing a living infant’s skull so that her mother does not have to give birth to her. Lady Macbeth, however, recognizes the monstrosity of murder, she recognizes it as an aberration of what it means to be a woman. She knows women are designed to nurture and help life grow and thrive, and so requests her own “unsexing” that she might betray these natural impulses. Instead of embracing this inclination and allowing it to keep her from this foul act, she rejects it, that she might pursue the ambition she has set her heart upon. The abortion movement markets this same unsexing with the deception that women are happier and healthier the more they cast off their own biology; children are not a blessing but a curse, fertility is not a gift but a design flaw, the unborn within our wombs are not vulnerable life that ought to be loved, and carefully and sacrificially protected, but parasites.

Despite her treachery, Lady Macbeth is not pure evil. However her marriage, not to Macbeth, but to the dark forces of evil in the world, quickly cause her to descend into wickedness, and then madness. She does not kill the king, but she does urge Macbeth on, and though her hands did not directly bear the knife, she unconsciously carries the guilt of bloody hands. She is tormented by her complicity. For this is what unrepentant sin does to us, it torments and destroys us, and plunges us ever deeper into our own depravity.

Women who cling so tightly to their abortion rights, who remain vehemently unrepentant, have gone mad by their marriage to this evil. And so they will look upon the evidence before their eyes: the curve of a nose, the hand with minuscule thumb being sucked, the heart beating, this vulnerable, precious life and they will say, “unsex me here, take my milk for gall, and for hell’s sake, do not let me become a mother.” And they will let the vacuum, the forceps, the poison pill, enter the safety of their womb, and they will never be the same.

Yet, the modern woman’s fate need not be that of Lady Macbeth. 

The lie pedaled through the abortion industry is that abortion is neither evil nor spiritually tormenting for women (though the high rates of depression following abortions would suggest otherwise), and for a woman to be free she must have murder at her disposal. But this is not freedom. Freedom comes through repentance and faith in Christ, the One who drank gall and bore murder upon his body. Lady Macbeth looks upon her guilty hands and cries, “will these hands ne’er be clean?” and dies still futilely trying to wash her hands. She refused to face her guilt and repent. But we can look upon the nail-scarred hands and the mercy found there, knowing “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Only then can the blood be washed thoroughly and completely from our hands; and when it is, oh sweet relief, we can be truly free.

2 comments

  1. Anony Mous · · Reply

    Doesn’t your husband, as a high risk obstetrician, advocate for termination of pregnancy? How do you navigate this challenge to your christian unity?

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    1. Good question!
      No he does not advocate for termination of pregnancy unless the mother’s life is truly at risk (a position that all pro life people hold), in which case he advocates for delivering the baby alive though early when possible. Ethically this employs the law of double effect, in which case the motivation for termination is not killing the baby, but saving the mother because in their case both parties would die if nothing is done. Even as a high risk doctor occasions of this kind of threat is extremely rare. In cases of fetal anomalies such as trisomy 13, he advocates for live deliveries and hospice care for their short lives.
      Caring for women in high risk pregnancies has actually strengthened his position as a pro life doctor, particularly because of how rarely a threat to the mothers life truly occurs. In many cases challenging pregnancies can be managed well for both mother and baby.

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