Since its emergence, the pro-choice movement has been closely wed to the American Feminist movement. A woman’s right to choose abortion fits under one of the fundamental rights that women all over the world must fight for everyday, a right that feminists have fought for specifically again and again in the United States: every woman’s right to control her body.
The fight for this right comes in so many different forms.
Some women are fighting for the right to control their bodies in the face of people who physically abuse it, sexually or otherwise, regularly or rarely. Nearly all women are fighting for the right to control the perception of their bodies in response to the objectification and over-sexualization of it through media and pornography. Some women are fighting for the right to their bodies in the face of widespread gendercide within their culture.
Regardless of specifics, though, women around the world have collectively looked down at themselves at some point over the last one hundred or so years and realized that the body they call their own has not actually been theirs to control.
Abortion fits into this narrative in at least two ways.
First, in the way that women have often been expected to have children, lots of them and as soon as possible, instead of going to school, having a career, or doing anything else they might want to do with their lives. Women’s right to remain single or wait to have children until later in life was denied to them for many centuries, and still is denied to most women today in many parts of the world. Women’s battles to educate themselves, vote, and maintain sovereignty over their personal and professional lives are all deeply connected.
Second, abortion fits into the narrative of women’s rights to their bodies because in much of mainstream thought, unborn children are seen to be a part of a woman’s body, rather than a separate entity. By extension, a woman’s right to control her body includes the right to control whatever may grow within it.
Today, the feminist, pro-choice movement tends to associate the pro-life movement with two sentiments: a pro-women-aren’t-allowed-to-make-decisions-about-their-bodies sentiment and a pro-every-woman-should-be-a-housewife sentiment.
It assumes that expecting a woman to carry a child she’s conceived and didn’t expect or doesn’t want requires a disregard for women’s sovereignty as individuals. Pro-choice feminists see a pro-life stance as an effort to push women back into the maternity ward and the home “where they belong.”
The disagreement has turned into nothing short of animosity, with pro-choicers considering nearly all pro-lifers to be misogynists.
The most overt example of this is the way that a pro-life women’s group was effectively barred from organizing with the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017. Feminist voices were scathing on twitter, and the Women’s March felt the need to apologize to its supporters for allowing such a group to take part.
A march that claimed to be for all women turned out to be for a very specific kind of woman–a woman who supports every woman’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy.
The message this sent to women who choose to be pro-life, on whichever grounds they may do that, is this: if you don’t support abortion, you must not support women, either.
Can one be a feminist and maintain a pro-life stance? This question has been posed by multiple writers and publications, especially in recent years. There are a few groups dedicated to secularizing the pro-life movement, moving the stance away from religious arguments towards a broader audience (including feminists, as the feminist movement is generally not religiously associated). There are other groups dedicated to pro-life feminism specifically.
The discussion quickly becomes impossible to resolve, with majority feminists saying, “You’re not one of us, it’s not possible!” And pro-life feminists saying something like, “Stop telling me I don’t exist!”
The digression in the discussion rests on the same misalignment that causes a digression in nearly every pro-life versus pro-choice discussion.
When pro-choicers consider a case of abortion, whether it be due to personal or financial circumstances, medical emergency, rape or incest, they see a woman making an extremely difficult and personal decision. When pro-lifers consider a case of abortion, no matter the circumstances, they see a woman making an extremely difficult and personal decision, and another human being’s life depending on it.
The chromosomal makeup of a child is determined at the time of conception, based on the combination of X and Y components. But as development continues, those embryos still have the opportunity to develop either male or female genitalia. By around twelve weeks, a determinant sexual differentiation has normally occurred, with ovaries or testes well on their way to establishing themselves.
The question of whether it’s possible to be both pro-life and a feminist rests here: are female fetuses women or are they something else?
(The definition of “woman” is “an adult female person,” but I’ll use the term here loosely, in the same way that many feminist thinkers include even our youngest daughters in their discussions of “women.”)
If they are women, supporting their growth and development is certainly a feminist concern. If they are women, protecting their lives and their ability to someday educate themselves, vote, and govern their bodies is entirely in line with what feminism has sought to do for decades.
If they are women and the pro-life movement is the only group dedicated to seeing them flourish, then there couldn’t be a more feminist stance in the world.