This week we bring you an in-depth interview with Dawn McAvoy, co-founder of the Northern Irish pro-life organisation Both Lives Matter.
How and why did Both Lives Matter come to be set up?
Both Lives Matter was launched in January 2017 and grew out of, and in reaction to, a particular set of circumstances. In 2015 our Department of Justice launched a consultation looking at whether NI abortion law should be changed to legalise abortion in cases of a diagnosis of a foetal life limited condition, and because of pregnancy through sexual crime.
At that time and in my role as a researcher for the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland, I was meeting with politicians and encouraging them to defend the law that we had. It recognised, protected and balanced the (at least) two lives that were in existence in every pregnancy, the woman and her preborn child. The law already provided a defence of abortion when a mother’s life and health was at risk, as defined in law. Rather than introduce into law, a category of human being who was unworthy of that protection based on a perceived ‘fault’, we were instead asking for improved perinatal palliative services, better maternal antenatal care provision and an expansion to existing pregnancy crises service provision.
In the public square it was predominantly male voices who were speaking out in defence of preborn life and they were regularly being criticised and portrayed as ‘old white men’ who were anti-women. I decided to meet specifically with female legislators and ask them to speak up, as women, and for the many women who were supportive of existing legal protections. I realised that the majority of them were not in favour of more abortion, but, as with many members of the public, they were nervous about speaking out, because they would be labelled as anti-women and religious fundamentalists.
The toxicity of public debate was stifling genuine conversations about how best to respond to women facing pregnancy crisis. The language being used was polarising, and the commonly used labels of ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ contributed little beyond a way to caricature opposing voices.
We needed a way to expand the conversation and include a significant number of the public who just didn’t want to get involved in the nastiness. The lack of engagement was only contributing to the perpetuation of misinformation and myth about the issues. Something needed to change.
As well as female legislators, I began to meet with female policy makers, community and church leaders. I wanted to create a space for conversation that was overtly pro-women, not focussed on a religious defence of life and, being Northern Ireland, crossed the religious and political divides that were all too common.
Those meetings were extremely positive and revealed a real desire from women to show compassion to other women facing an unexpected or crisis pregnancy. Most people had a personal lived experience which they could refer to, either their own story, or a friend or family member’s. Abortion was all too often being presented as the compassionate ‘choice’ and there was support for getting a different message out to the public and into the media. As women met other women who felt similarly, courage grew and a willingness to get involved was evident.
In January 2017 the Both Lives Matter campaign was launched as a cross-community collaborative campaign.
I understand that you have drawn inspiration from groups such as Feminists for Life. Could you tell me about the influence of feminism on your activism and on BLM generally?
Our pro-both message was indeed inspired in a large part by Feminists for Life. In their advocacy and service provision they display an understanding of the breadth of the connected issues which we must speak into and address if we want to inspire and enable women to choose life.
For a long time I wouldn’t have called myself a feminist – because the one brand of feminism I knew, which dated from the 1970s, seemed to reject and/or disrespect the roles of wife and mother which I valued and also aspired to.
As someone who has always recognised the inherent value, dignity and worth of the unborn human being I also could not align with a feminism which has increasingly over the past fifty years, become synonymous with abortion rights; defining equality, progress and freedom for women in, and dependent upon, access to abortion.
That brand of feminism is inherently violent; it discards our preborn children, silences dissenters, and degrades men and tragically us as women by pitting us against our own bodies and our own children.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that it was only a few years ago that I first learned that the foremothers of the modern feminist movement, those women who began the battle for female emancipation and equality in the 1800s were, without exception, anti-abortion. They viewed abortion as a tragedy resulting from inequality and injustice for women. They believed that when women achieved economic and social independence and were no longer regarded in law as the property of men, they would never resort to intentionally ending their own child’s life.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the leading first-wave feminists, wrote that ‘When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.’
Those original core feminist values and aspirations – of political, economic, and social equality – I could align with.
Many women would agree that we all, male and female, deserve to take our place in society predicated by our ability and ambition, in the context of opportunity, rather than our biology. For many, sadly, that hasn’t been their lived experience; even after over fifty years of the so-called freedom of increased abortion access. Why not?
That we are biologically different to men is undeniable, but those differences should not translate to being less than and therefore unequal to men in society.
It used to be that we as women were portrayed and treated as the ‘weaker sex’, both physically and mentally.
Women have fought to gain access to university, and to prove themselves as capable of roles that were traditionally seen as suited to men only. It’s only been over the last two generations that women have been better able to, if they wish, continue in their studies or in their work when they were married, pregnant and mothers.
I don’t want to discount the positives of the second wave of feminism, the struggle for living and working conditions that do not discriminate against women, and legal protections which enable them to continue to fulfil their potential and take their place in society.
However the inherent message is, that it is our bodies, our biology and fertility which hold us back from taking our place in society. Of course, they don’t in and of themselves, but only when structures and systems are oriented towards the 50% of the population who are male rather than female.
Unfortunately, some women in fighting for women’s rights have accepted that message and absorbed it into their feminist narrative. So in contrast to those first feminists, they too are now saying that for women to be equal to men in society we must like them, as a friend of mine would say, be womb-less.
In the name of women’s rights – some women have wrongly accepted that the female body is the problem. To them the natural functioning of their body is the enemy; the ability to dominate, to control it and for it to submit to their will is an imperative.
There is of course an element of truth to that. From the onset of puberty our monthly cycle impacts on and can limit our participation in daily life. I very well remember when I realised that this thing would be happening every month for potentially the next forty years! And I was horrified… I saw nothing positive in what was happening; but I of course learned to manage the symptoms and to deal with what was happening to my body and carry on. Improved ways of managing our monthly cycle means that rarely are we stopped from carrying on as normal because of menstruation.
Thankfully in the western world at least, we are no longer hidden away or hide ourselves away, because of menstruation. Menstruation, of course, is the normal hormonal process a woman’s body goes through each month to prepare for a possible pregnancy.
When we learn to appreciate our fertility and understand the potential promise of motherhood that it brings, we can embrace being female as giving us a gift unique to us as women.
But because female emancipation has become about power and control (over men and over our fertility), the control that we are told we must have over our bodies, therefore by implication, includes control over the outcome of any pregnancy.
Pregnancy and motherhood appear to be the limiting conditions. Pregnancy is the problem which must be solved and it is access to termination of pregnancy – abortion, which enables us to take our place in society, equal to men. Therefore, emancipation and liberation for women has become defined and determined by the ability to end our pregnancy at will.
But after fifty years of accessible abortion in Great Britain, in an era when more women are graduating with higher degrees than men from university, studies into workplace discrimination reveal that one in two women report discrimination in the workplace because they are pregnant and/or mothers.
Is it because when choice is individualised, there is no need for the structural or systemic change which enables women to do life with their children rather than instead of?
So, in this space for women’s rights – defined by abortion rights – we hear pregnancy being talked about as a particular state of being, with regard to only one lifeform – the woman concerned.
The medical fact that every pregnancy means that two lives are in existence is denied or, more worryingly, ignored.
According to one English dictionary the definition of the word pregnant is when a woman has a baby or babies developing in her body. And the induced termination of a pregnancy is the destruction of the embryo (human offspring) or foetus (developing human).
Of course, abortion advocates prefer not to talk about the destruction of a growing human: the BPAS website says that ‘[a]bortion is when a pregnancy is ended so that it doesn’t result in the birth of a child’. As if magically at the point of exiting the vagina a child appears who wasn’t there before. Shockingly, an abortion leaflet written by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare defines an abortion as ‘a way of ending a pregnancy…which removes the pregnancy from the womb’. Even the medical professionals remove any mention even of an embryo or foetus.
Ironically the loudest and most commonly heard brand of feminism today demands an end to the violence, oppression and discrimination of women by men. But it doesn’t really offer society anything better.
Rather than seek to achieve a mutually beneficial and better story for future relations between male and female, the battle between the sexes which has been going on since time began continues. But now it’s a female version of the same flawed system, whereby one still gains at the expense of the other. This offer of liberation and progress for women is always at someone else’s expense. It puts women at war with men; at war with their own bodies; and perhaps most tragically of all at war with our own unborn children. And it brooks no argument. There is no room for a different voice.
Just before we launched the Both Lives Matter campaign we applied for a space at the Northern Ireland Human Rights festival in Belfast. We wanted to challenge the idea that there was only one way to advocate for women’s rights. Our lunchtime lecture would be given by a barrister and would discuss and present the human rights legislation that exists for the unborn human being. The Belfast Feminist Network sat on the organising committee for the festival and that year held the position of Chair. Their representative resigned in opposition to our being given a space at the festival and demanded that the invitation be revoked. She said that it was no longer contested; women’s rights were abortion rights. And there was therefore no space to talk about any supposed rights for both lives; because that was anti-woman.
The lecture went ahead. But we faced more opposition when we officially launched our campaign in January 2017. We ran a billboard campaign, advertising research that we carried out which found that over 100,000 people are alive today in NI because of our law. We immediately faced criticism from abortion campaigners who contacted the Advertising Standards Authority saying that our claim was misleading, inaccurate and offensive.
After five months of robust investigation an independent health statistician upheld our claim and all complaints against us were rejected.
We often say that facts matter because lives matter and because lives matter, laws matter. Our 100 thousa claim is hated by pro-abortion advocates because it challenges the pro-abortion myth that restricting abortion in law doesn’t stop abortion.
The pro-abortion lobby rely on misinformation and inaccurate information about the development of the unborn human being in the womb and about what abortion is and does.
Pregnancy is increasingly portrayed as a disease or a sickness that women need to be spared from.
That sad and cheapened version of freedom and equality for women is increasingly at odds with developments in medical science and women’s lived experience. It’s more about ideology than reality.
Even in Great Britain, where abortion was legalised fifty years ago, and now there is effectively abortion on demand, two thirds of women still do not choose abortion.
It is not unusual to reject this one feminist narrative. Most women simply will not accept freedom or equality that is purchased with the lives of their unborn children.
So there must be a better solution to pregnancy crisis for a woman than the intentional taking of the life of her unborn child. That is pro-life feminism.
Pro-life feminism rejects the message that to be equal to men and take our place in society we must fit into a world that is oriented towards and designed to suit men.
Yes, we and only we as women get pregnant, give birth and breastfeed. And that’s a gift, not a curse. Let’s make peace with our bodies.
And make peace with men. Because male and female we make babies, male and female together we can offer a better future for us and our children.
Pro-life feminism says, we should be able to take our place in society as women, in all our biology, fertility, pregnancy and motherhood. Because in every pregnancy both lives matter. Pro-life feminism is the better story.
What are the obstacles faced by the pro-life movement in the North? What are the unique characteristics of the abortion debate in the North?
I think those of us who believe in the value of every life, born and unborn and specifically of both lives in pregnancy, face the same obstacles wherever we live in the world.
This is an increasingly anti-human culture. Society is attempting to redefine what it means to be human and for our unborn children this means that in the name of progress society has subcategorised our preborn as being less than human in law, and therefore undeserving of human rights and protections. That translates into the ability to terminate their lives at will, to buy and sell those bodies for medical research and in fertility transactions. A side effect of their being dehumanised and devalued is that we as women are also dehumanised, because of our distinctive human physiology. It is our biology and fertility that is the barrier to be overcome for us to take our place in society, and in our pregnancy and motherhood we are seen as the problem to be solved.
But humanity matters. Lives matter, so we must not give up in our work to ensure human dignity and protections are afforded to every human being. We must reject the dehumanising effects of pro-abortion policies and laws, on women and children.
Pro-abortion activists want to claim that abortion is no longer a contested issue – it is. We have to keep this issue on the table of law and policy makers; fight for representation within the public square, in academia, the media and in politics. We must encourage and inspire more pro-both voices.
We know that we have the winning arguments; medical science and lived experience are witness to the reality of preborn life and the value of pro-life policies and laws. We must work to overturn pro-abortion laws and policies, highlighting the need for connected services pre and post birth for women and families. We must garner support from those who are not pro-abortion but sadly have believed that compassion equals a choice to terminate life.
No one organisation or group has all the answers. Collaboration is key. Particularly within the context of the breadth of the issues involved. Heads and hearts must be challenged and changed. Minds and bodies need to be supported and resourced. Individuals and families need to be enabled and inspired to choose life. Communities must be equipped to offer better to women and families who face difficult circumstances. This all requires collective action to stem the negative message of individualism – my body my choice, which sadly often leads not to empowerment but rather to isolation, fear and ultimately abortion.
It is all too easy to fall into caricature and demonise those we perceive to oppose us and our belief that both lives matter. There are pro-abortion groups and individuals; ideologues who have great influence within academia and government who it may be impossible to work with. But there are many others who stand on a position of choice rather than abortion, and with them we would advocate for conversation, and where possible a common ground approach to work together on support services for women facing difficult circumstances that we both agree on.
Unique to Northern Ireland is probably our political system which after a century of conflict and numerous reinventions has proven to be all too fragile. The failure of local government permitted national government to impose the radical new abortion regime we now face. And even with a sitting Executive, the nature of government here means that without cross party support we can face stalemate in the enactment of policies. While at a grassroots level we know we have cross community support for life and the issue of abortion bridges political, religious and gender divides that doesn’t always translate from voters to votes and subsequently into party policy. Voters who care about life must consider the influence they bring and remember that their representatives only have their mandate if they give it.
What do you think the general pro-life movement does well?
Looking worldwide at best practice and particularly where the pro-life community has gained ground in recent years we can see the amazing breadth of work the pro-life movement are involved in. Women in difficult and unexpected pregnancies are being offered real choices and are being enabled to choose life, and live life with their families. Legislators are being resourced with data and research, with up-to-date medical advancements related to antenatal care and life before birth, all of which highlight the harms of pro-abortion laws and policies on women and families and society. Laws, policies, support services and culture are being changed and influenced for the better.
At core this is an amazing community of people who believe in the innate dignity, value and worth of every human being, born and unborn, who have refused and continue to refuse to give up and walk away from this battle.
What do you think the general pro-life movement could improve on?
Using this island as an example, the good laws we had have been changed because pro-abortion activists collaborated and strategised for decades.
Let’s learn from Great Britain and most of Europe where abortion has sadly become normalised and accepted, rarely talked about outside of small circles. Compare that to America where the pro-life voice has only grown stronger; we can learn from their victories and their mistakes. If we value both lives in pregnancy, we must commit to be in this for the long haul. We cannot stop. We must think big and think proactively rather than defensively to ensure the restoration of legal protections and status for both lives. And we must always remember that we do what we do because both lives matter, that is why we don’t just say no to abortion, we say yes to life. And ultimately a victory is when we inspire and enable others to choose life rather than death.