In 2016, the March for Life’s theme was “Pro-Life and Pro-Woman go Hand in Hand.” Many feminist groups were outraged by this message. One year later the first Women’s March was organized. Pro-life feminist groups such as the New Wave Feminists were originally granted partnership status, but after the Women’s March received pushback for this decision, the pro-life groups were ultimately unlisted and have not been granted official inclusion in the march since.
Pamela Merrit, co-director of Reproaction, a direct action group aimed at making abortion more accessible claimed at the time that saying you are a “pro-life feminist” is like saying you are a “vegan who likes chicken.” “It’s just not possible.”
Those who consider themselves pro-life feminists feel homeless and displaced among the varying political and social camps. In many ways they are too liberal for the traditional conservatives, but their pro-life values seem to be a line in the sand for the mainstream feminists. Are the claims of feminism and pro-life truly opposed to each other?
WHAT IS FEMINISM?
There are two things to understand about feminism. The first is that its theme is generally the advocacy for women’s rights and well being on the basis of gender equality. The second is that it is broad, and the interpretations of how these ends are achieved are many. It has evolved and taken on a variety of causes since the women’s suffrage movement, and for that reason it is hard to pin it down to any one sect of beliefs or concerns. We hear about “first wave” and “second wave” and wonder which wave we are on today. As Constance Grady writes for Vox concerning the different historical waves of feminism,
“It’s now a major object of cultural discourse — which has led to some very confusing conversations because not everyone is familiar with or agrees on the basic terminology of feminism. And one of the most basic and most confusing terms has to do with waves of feminism…
The wave metaphor can be reductive. It can suggest that each wave of feminism is a monolith with a single unified agenda, when in fact the history of feminism is a history of different ideas in wild conflict.”
This is not to say that anything can call itself feminism, or that the term itself is meaningless. But it does suggest that insofar as one is advocating for women’s rights and well-being on the basis of equality, one can justifiably identify as a feminist.
So of course it may be the case that the current mainline feminist camps find the pro-life position to be in conflict with some of the basic tenants of their views. But it is important for us to embrace the internal disagreement within feminism — not only because it is part of our history, but because diversity opens minds and lends strength to a movement. Women working for women should all have a voice at the table. And the greater in number those voices are, the better.
So what does PRO-LIFE FEMINISM look like?
As with feminism generally, there are a variety of positions a person might take when identifying as a pro-life feminist. But perhaps one of the most compelling views is that abortion, in addition to being a human rights violation, is itself harmful to women.
One of the simplest arguments a pro-life feminist might raise has to do with women’s health concerns surrounding abortion. Many studies (such as this one, which studied 500 women for thirty years) have found that abortion significantly increases a woman’s risk of suffering mental health disorders.
But the immediate health concerns associated with abortion are not the only way in which abortion harms women. The pro-life feminist would take issue with abortion culture. On this view, women are still trying to live and operate in a man’s world, and abortion is one way our culture wants to “liberate” women by turning them into men.
Let’s take a point we can all agree on: women should be every bit as free and capable as men to enter the workforce and attain positions as top executives. But how does our culture generally tell us that women can achieve this? The message seems to be that women should shut down their reproductive systems (regardless of health risks) and put off child bearing until we are done playing at being men and decide we do actually want to go home and have babies.
Abortion is just one more way we have been told that our reproductive abilities are a hassle, a pain, and not worth the cost. And if you choose not to play by the rules by which women’s reproduction is allowed, you don’t benefit form the equality they promise.
By way of example – a friend of mine who is a single mother recently told me about an experience she had where she was expressing to a friend that she was overwhelmed trying to juggle motherhood and all of its changes with her full time job. The friend she was confiding in responded curtly, “Well you chose to have your baby so you have to deal with it.”
In her friend’s mind the fact that abortion was on the table and her friend didn’t choose it meant that she couldn’t express herself. Did her friend think she was irresponsible for having her baby when abortion was an option? Aren’t we told that this decision is completely up to the woman?
Pro-life feminism says this isn’t good enough. We don’t want to change our bodies to play the game – we want to change the game. Fighting abortion culture is about way more than making abortion unthinkable. It’s about increasing support for women and mothers financially and culturally, creating new opportunities for women who don’t want to have to choose between climbing the ladder and having a baby, and improving circumstances for women who don’t want to get pregnant so that they would never have to be in a position where abortion would be desirable.
We want women to have choices. Women should have access to their choice of healthcare and birth control, and women should be educated on the variety of options that are available to them. Women should not have to be afraid of rape culture or gender discrimination in the workforce. We advocate for women’s reproductive rights. We simply do not consider abortion to be among those rights, because we see it as a human rights violation.
As the New Wave Feminists explain on their about page,
“Many would say that the fetus is actually the most vulnerable member of the human family and yet, because it is smaller, weaker, and can’t tell us to stop, we’ve decided it’s okay to dispose of it however we see fit. It’s the ultimate in ‘might makes right’ thinking, which women were subjected to for most of history, and in many parts of the world still suffer under. Because men were stronger and had the most power and resources, they were able to treat us as property.”
Of course we understand that it is on this point – the moral status of abortion — that we most disagree with our feminist sisters. But it is worth our time and energy to discuss the things we do agree on, and then, when it matters, to disagree well. History has shown that this is how the feminist movement has always progressed.
For starters, that would look like granting the New Wave Feminists and other pro-life feminists official partnership status in the 2020 Women’s March. Pro-life feminists deserve a seat at the table. Conservatives should be open to hearing their ideas for change. Feminists should be open to hearing their concerns and dissatisfaction with the mainline movements. Let’s start a conversation – because we have so much left to do.