(Image by Benedikt Geyer from Pixabay)

A few months ago, a younger female colleague mentioned that her new workplace had what she called some “subtle” sexism. She gave the example of when she was on a recent Zoom call with several men, and at one point someone asked “Do any of the other men have anything to add?”.

I asked whether their cameras were on; the answer was yes, they were. I asked how many people were on the call, wondering if perhaps there were so many people that her video was not visible. She said there were four other people on the call. I asked whether another participant had jumped in to remind the speaker that there was a woman on the call as well. Nope. No one said anything.

I’d love to say this was an isolated incident, but it’s not. While great strides have been made in promoting women’s rights in many areas, women still encounter daily indignities, every day, that their male friends and colleagues just don’t face. It’s incidents like these that prompt many of us to mark International Women’s Day.

When it comes to the ongoing struggle for women’s rights, the pro-life movement should be front-and-centre, for two main reasons. First, our entire movement is grounded on the idea that all humans have equal rights and dignity, and so we should contribute to the fight for equal rights and dignity for women. Second, improving women’s place in society, and in particular changing societal structures to recognise that pregnancy and parenting exist, would reduce the demand for abortion. This can manifest in so many, many ways. Take the example of a pro-life GP who has a patient present in early pregnancy and contemplating abortion. The GP is a conscientious objector, but this woman’s partner is abusive and would most likely become dangerously violent if he discovered his partner was pregnant. With two young children already, she doesn’t want to take that chance. Even a strongly pro-life GP would agonise over this situation, and it is a direct result of domestic violence. Violence against women should demand a vocal response from the pro-life community – and yet we tend to leave activism in this area to pro-choice campaigners.

Less extreme, but no less relevant, examples include the fact that childcare costs influenced six in ten abortion decisions in the UK. With Irish childcare costs almost as high as those in the UK, it’s at least plausible that high childcare costs here also drive some women towards abortion. And yet, flexible, affordable childcare is rarely promoted as a pro-life issue, with pro-life activists generally focusing their efforts in favour of families elsewhere.

In fact, not only are many members of the pro-life movement relatively disengaged in women’s rights activism, some are openly suspicious of or even hostile towards the movement. In my experience, push-back against women’s rights activism by pro-life advocates often (not always) stems from the idea that the “pendulum has swung too far”, and that women now have equal rights to men and in fact sometimes it’s men who are discriminated against.

I agree with this, at least partly! I have seen men missing out on opportunities due to the fact that they are male, and it’s pretty awful and upsetting when it happens. Much of what counts as women’s rights activism is not evidence-based, and sometimes it even makes things worse. However, I don’t agree with the pendulum part of the argument: it implies that there was a point at which we had perfect equality between men and women, and everything was great and we could have stopped there, but we kept pushing, and now we’ve gone too far and we’re discriminating against men. 

This is a very simplistic argument. It’s possible to discriminate against women in some domains and men in others. It’s possible for the pendulum to simultaneously be too far and not far enough at the same time, just in different areas. By all means, pro-life people can point out harm done by ill-judged women’s rights activism, but we can do so without denying the real harms done to women by continuing sexism and unjust discrimination even today, even with the “pendulum” having “swung too far” in some domains.

One very tangible example of the somewhat blinkered approach by pro-life people on women’s rights is to ask a pro-life person who they think did more than anyone to introduce abortion in Ireland. You’ll get various answers, but they are almost all pro-choice politicians or activists. However, one answer I’ve never heard anyone give is: the man who raped Miss X. His disgusting abuse of this young girl led to the X case, which in turn led to the European Court of Human Rights ruling that we had to legislate for the X case, which happened in 2013 and paved the way for removing the 8th Amendment altogether. His actions also arguably led to delays in passing legislation that may have prevented Savita Halappanavar’s death (because there was no way to do so without also legislating for the X case itself). And yet pro-life people generally don’t even bother to mention him. All our ire is directed at politicians and activists, and never at the people and systems who put women in the very situations that leave them contemplating abortion.

Some positive signs are happening in the United States. Pro-life activists from across the political spectrum recently signed a joint statement highlighting the need for increased access to healthcare, parental leave and pro-family financial supports as part of a post-Roe world. This is a fantastic initiative and one that pro-life leaders in Ireland could emulate. In fact, the rise of Pro-Life 3.0, which seeks to provide economic and social supports as a means to reducing abortion, seems to be gaining ground. There is potential for pro-lifers to work with women’s rights campaigners on issues we all hold dear, and make real headway in the process – but only if we’re willing to take the necessary (not sufficient, but necessary) step of making women’s rights a priority.

Why, why, why is it (almost) always pro-choice people who campaign for better maternity pay? Who acknowledge that the 40 hour work week is outdated and anti-family, because it assumes someone else is taking care of your kids and house all day? Who introduce legislation giving paid leave for women experiencing infertility and miscarriage? Who stopped the US military automatically dismissing women who get pregnant (unless they got an abortion)? Who first taught me about the mental load? Who campaign against violence against women?

Why are pro-life people so threatened by women’s rights activists? Why do we feel the need to severely restrict our campaigning for women to very isolated domains, such as support for a woman to keep her baby, or support for a woman to stay at home with her children (both very important and noble causes, of course)?

It’s time to change. This International Women’s Day, let’s decide that the pro-life movement in Ireland is going to take women’s rights seriously.