We wrote this article in January 2017, and, nine months down the line, it seems like a good time to break it out again.
You cannot support women’s rights without supporting abortion.
This, at least, is the opinion of many mainstream feminist commentators, for whom abortion and gender equality are so intertwined that to oppose the former, on any level, is to threaten the existence of the latter. Some of the online reaction to the news that pro-life feminist organisation New Wave Feminists was to receive partner status in the Women’s March on Washington captures this attitude: ‘UNACCEPTABLE that the Women’s March is including anti-abortion groups. Safe abortion is a human right; you can’t be a feminist & oppose it’ bellowed activist Lauren Rankin (@laurenarankin) on Twitter.
Roxane Gay (@rgay), the author of Bad Feminist, tweeted that ‘[i]ntersectional feminism does not include a pro-life agenda … The right to choose [abortion] is a fundamental part of feminism’. Journalist Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) was ‘horrified’ that the March had partnered with an anti-abortion organisation: ‘[I]nclusivity is not about bolstering those who harm us!’ she tweeted. New Wave Feminists’ partnership with the March was removed. Another pro-life organisation, And Then There Were None, which represents former abortion clinic workers, also had its partnership status removed after social media outbursts, as did pro-life mobile clinic Stanton Healthcare. Difference within mainstream feminism is fine, it seems, as long as everyone who is different thinks along exactly the same lines. Anyone who breaks ranks, such as the multitude of pro-life feminist groups in existence—Feminists for Nonviolent Choices, Feminists Choosing Life, Feminists for Life, the aforementioned New Wave Feminists—is UNACCEPTABLE.
The problem with this is that pro-life views and feminism have never been mutually exclusive. Much has been made of the opposition to abortion of early feminists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and first female US presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull. Modern pro-life feminism, though, particularly in the aftermath of the 1973 US Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade, makes some arguably more interesting appearances from surprising sources. Some of feminism’s most strident and influential voices have, reluctantly at times, admitted that abortion is not consistent with a truly feminist ideology. In 1976, for example, the American poet and radical feminist Adrienne Rich wrote,
‘No free woman, with 100 percent effective, non-harmful birth control readily available, would “choose” abortion … Abortion is violence: a deep, desperate violence inflicted by a woman upon, first of all, herself’ (Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution).
One of the most famous feminist (and, incidentally, pro- abortion) commentators of the twentieth century, Germaine Greer, has noted that
‘What women “won” [in Roe v Wade] was the “right” to undergo invasive procedures in order to terminate unwanted pregnancies, unwanted not just by them but by their parents, their sexual partners, the governments who would not support mothers, the employers who would not employ mothers, the landlords who would not accept tenants with children, the schools that would not accept students with children. Historically, the only thing pro- abortion agitation achieved was to make an illiberal establishment look far more feminist than it was’ (The Whole Woman).
In a provocative 1995 essay, pro-choice campaigner Naomi Wolf criticised modern feminism’s reliance
‘on a political rhetoric in which the foetus means nothing’, arguing that in a world of ‘real gender equality … passionate feminists might well hold candlelit vigils at abortion clinics, standing shoulder to shoulder with doctors who work there, commemorating and saying goodbye to the dead’ (‘Our Bodies, Our Souls’ The New Republic, 16 October 1995).
The pro-choice Hilary Clinton accepted in an April 2016 interview (on The View) that a person can identify as both feminist and pro-life.
While a mere handful of feminist thinkers who reject the ‘traditional’ modern feminist view of abortion does nothing to counter the fact that the overwhelming majority of those who describe themselves as feminists are in favour of abortion, it does shake the immutability of the abortion-feminism link. The essence of pro-life feminism is that tying feminism so closely to a pro-abortion stance fails to recognise that a pro-abortion society mostly benefits men, while doing little or nothing to improve the lot of women. The availability of abortion for non-medical reasons treats the symptom of a problem—unwanted or unplanned pregnancy— without treating the cause of the problem. How did the pregnancy happen? What makes it unwanted? How can we prevent this in the future? A pro-abortion society benefits male irresponsibility, a position perhaps best captured in the charming mic.com headline, ‘If Men Want to Keep Having Sex, They Need to Start Defending Planned Parenthood’. It is perhaps no coincidence that that bastion of female empowerment, Playboy, began assisting the American abortion rights campaign in 1966 (Carrie Pitzulo, Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy).
Pro-life feminists want a society that actually addresses society’s problems, rather than accepting and enabling their continuance through the destruction of unborn life. Accusations that pro-life positions reflect a mistrust of women are inaccurate: pro-life advocates trust women. We do not trust society when it claims that abortion is the answer to the problems that women face. The oft-cited Guttmacher Institute study found 74% of women cited interference with education, work or ability to care for dependants as one of their reasons for obtaining an abortion. Imagine a society where pregnancy and child-rearing, whether it was planned or unplanned, was not a barrier to career progression, or college, and where there was enough support from government and general society to make it possible to care for the others who rely on us. This is the vision of pro-life feminism. It is a truly radical one. The attainment of a society where women are supported financially, emotionally and practically, where motherhood is not stigmatised, where sexual responsibility on the part of men is required and not merely dreamt of has never been tried before. Without abortion, we have the opportunity to strive for this. With abortion, we only push these problems further down the line.
The questions that pro-life feminists ask, and the goals they strive for, are no different to those asked and striven for by pro-choice feminists. By their very nature, both groups want a society that values, empowers and celebrates women. However, pro-life feminism recognises the gender inequalities that exist in modern culture and society, and rather than seeing the answer as lying in increased access to abortion, it seeks to change that society by supporting women and by ensuring that unplanned and unwanted pregnancies do not happen. Pro-life feminism strives for a State in which motherhood is protected and celebrated, where, when pregnancy occurs, it is never a crisis pregnancy, where maternal and perinatal healthcare continues to advance to allow the best possible survival rates for both women and children. Supporting women’s rights and opposing abortion go hand-in-hand. Pro-life feminism has the potential to represent the next evolution in contemporary feminist thought, and everyone with even the mildest interest in the abortion question would do well to pay heed.
The Statistics Fairy