Last week, someone posted in an online pro-life group of which I am a member. She shared that she was making a card for a colleague who was a massive fan of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Associate Justices on the United States Supreme Court who has been a strong defender of America’s abortion laws, and so was looking up quotes by Ginsburg to include on the card. The poster, in addition to being pro-life, is a Catholic mother with a career outside the home and strong views on women’s rights. She found she was incredibly inspired by the quotes she was uncovering, on women’s rights in particular. She wondered whether it is somehow wrong for a pro-life person to find such inspiration in a stalwart of abortion rights, or whether pro-life career women should look only to strong examples of pro-life feminists for inspiration.
I had heard of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and knew something about her, but having read this online post I looked her up again. I also found her to be a real inspiration. She was a genuine trailblazer for women’s rights. Again and again, she stood up for the notion that excluding women from decision-making makes for poorer decisions, for all: “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
She believed and argued that men taking an equal share of the responsibility of raising the next generation was the key to women’s equality with men, a view I happen to share. As Ginsburg said, “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.” Of all the stories I read about her, the one that resonated most with me related to a time in her life when her son was often in trouble at school. Ginsburg frequently worked through the night at this time of her life, and having to continually come to her son’s school to discuss his latest bout of misbehaviour after being up all night was becoming frustrating. Eventually, she told the principal that her son had two parents, and asked them to alternate calls between her and her husband. Suddenly, there was a dramatic decrease in the total number of calls. It seemed, she said, that the school considered her son’s behaviour was not sufficiently grievous to warrant bothering a busy husband. I have lost count of the number of times I have spoken to women who are frustrated with the fact that schools, clubs, preschools and creches always call them to report issues with their child, in spite of the fact that both parents’ contact details are available. However, most mothers seem to grin and bear the frustration, because it takes guts to do what Ginsburg did, and call the school out on their behaviour.
Most importantly for me though, Ginsburg had good relationships, even friendships, with people who disagreed with her on many issues. In fact, when Ginsburg was asked what advice she would give women, she said “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”. Forging strong friendships with people who disagree with you is one of the best ways to lead others to joining you. Most notably, Ginsburg had a great friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia, her political opponent on almost every issue, including abortion. Justice Scalia’s son has shared some touching stories of their friendship. As so often happens when I encounter accounts of current and historical figures who did great things for women, I felt a familiar, tired longing: if only she was pro-life.
Having so recently read more about this amazing legal mind, I was very thrown when only a few days later she passed away. The death of a Supreme Court Justice always causes political shockwaves in America, and for it to happen so close to a Presidential election raises tensions even further. My heart went out to Justice Ginsburg’s family – to have to grieve in the eye of the public, the midst of a highly charged political media storm, in the middle of a global pandemic, is the stuff of nightmares. And I was genuinely saddened to learn of the loss of such a formidable figure, even though I knew so little of her. Even though she was pro-choice.
While I do of course find inspiration in many pro-life leaders, I don’t think the woman posting in my online group is wrong to be inspired by someone who happens to be pro-choice. Pro-life people can of course be inspired by things that pro-choice people have to say, on all sorts of topics. And when it comes to women’s rights, and to engaging cordially with those with whom we disagree, Justice Ginsburg was genuinely inspiring. We should learn from her on these issues. And, far from questioning whether to take inspiration from pro-choice people, we should encourage other pro-life people to look beyond someone’s view on abortion and engage with the person behind the opinion.None of this is to deny that Justice Ginsburg’s legal legacy, when viewed through the lens of abortion, is dreadful. She spared no opportunity to uphold Roe vs Wade, which makes it impossible for individual States to implement even the most basic protections for unborn babies, not to mention women who are exposed to unethical practices by the abortion industry. I would give anything to have more public role models who are strong on women’s rights, strong on reaching across political divides and strong on opposing the injustice of abortion to take inspiration from, in Ireland or abroad. In the meantime, however, for this pro-life woman, my renewed commitment to extending the hand of friendship to pro-choice people of goodwill will be one of the positive aspects of Justice Ginsburg’s legacy.