Monday, October 20, 2008

Pro-feminist and pro-life

By Kelly Roache

As this year’s Respect Life Week – an event designed to foster dialogue on abortion, euthanasia, etc. – drew to a close, I started questioning the notion that being a pro-life feminist is a contradiction in terms. In fact, in the course of writing this I’ve wondered more and more if true feminism doesn’t require openness to pro-life arguments.
I’ll say right upfront that I personally hold strongly pro-life convictions. The spirit of Equal Writes, however, brings women of diverse political persuasions together to discuss universal concerns, and there’s plenty we can agree on and work towards together. The fact that I’m not focusing on legislative, judicial, or moral arguments doesn’t mean these aren’t of grave importance to me and to all of us, but can be found in any comprehensive discourse about abortion. Rather, what’s gotten under my skin the past seven days is the question of what the prevalence and acceptance of abortion in American culture means specifically to us as feminists.

The “pro-choice” argument affirms a woman’s right to decide the fate of her pregnancy, but often she feels very little choice in the decision to have an abortion. An overwhelming majority of such procedures are performed on economically disadvantaged, adolescent, or single women. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an authority on sexual and reproductive health research, while unintended pregnancy levels have remained static for ten years, the 29% increase among poor women stands in stark contrast to the 20% decrease among the rich, with a corresponding abortion trend. Adolescents, unable to care for children being children themselves, are responsible for one in five abortions, while unmarried women faced with the immense responsibility of raising a child alone account for two-thirds. In light of these statistics, one wonders how many of the 1 million plus women in the US who have abortions each year (not to mention 40 times that worldwide) do so out of perceived need rather than want. How many feel as if it is their only option to survive given their humble circumstances?

In this way, is abortion, rather than a liberating choice, an oppressive reality forced upon the weakest among us? Early feminists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the first female Presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull argued that it belittles and demeans women. Abortion damages the feminist cause, and is even responsible for the evils of sex-selection: according to the BBC, one in seven fetuses aborted in India is female, with similar trends in China and South Korea. This cycle perpetuates the inequality of women in these cultures by attacking their most fundamental right, that to life itself.
Moreover, our entire feminist argument is based on the premise of inherent equality, yet it is those groups most often denied representation that suffer most at the hands of abortion. The New York Times reported the rate of abortions among mentally retarded fetuses at 90%, while the Guttmacher Institute places that of African American and Hispanic fetuses at 43% and 25%, respectively. How can we demand equality if we are willing to sacrifice that of our children? As Stanton wrote, "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." While the merits of pro-life legislation will continue to be debated, pro-life activism by women for women is undeniably advantageous to our cause.

So what can we as feminists do?
In a culture where abortion has become the norm instead of the exception, we can increase the resources available to women facing unplanned pregnancies, especially to the young, single, and economically disadvantaged, so that keeping a pregnancy becomes a realistic option. The group Feminists for Life seeks to do exactly this by stamping out the root causes of abortion because, as their slogan proclaims, “women deserve better.” Feminists for Life has targeted the three-quarters of abortions caused by women’s concerns that a child would disrupt schooling or work. In particular, they strive to help women continue their education despite pregnancy, through campus advocacy and support centers. Simultaneously, we should empower all women by reaffirming our right to choice beforehand in decisions leading up to unwanted pregnancies, as much as they fall within our control.

Feminism is different for every woman, and we are all called to the cause in beautifully unique ways. Maybe we don’t agree with all these propositions, or don’t find them practical, but something must be done. As feminists, it is up to us to make the choice of life viable, especially for those in crisis.


At October 20, 2008 at 2:14 PM , OpenID frenchic22 said...

Kelly- a few thoughts:

You begin, "I've wondered if true feminism doesn't require openness to pro-life arguments" - Absolutely, it does, but the problem here is that you have construed 'pro-life' to mean something rather restrictive and superficial. Feminism, as the fundamental belief that women should be treated as full humans, is at its very core a life-affirming statement. Yet, affirming 'life' extends well beyond the abortion issue; as advocates of pro-choice have demonstrated, the option for a woman to choose (whether that is choosing to keep a fetus or abort it) gives her the opportunity to reclaim her body, herself, her agency in the world and in her own life- this is an utterly fundamental aspect to retaining one's humanity. Otherwise, a woman is reduced to a mere 'vessel,' an object, a means, a conduit for carrying a life that she does not want, or feels unable (financially, emotionally, physically, etc) to carry. To force a pregnancy on a woman is one of the most anti-life, anti-human moves that can be made. (Not only is not pro-woman, it is not pro-child.... this child might not be wanted.) But be reminded that the desire to return humanity and agency to women is not a 'pro-abortion' movement- no woman could possibly WANT to endure that dreadful choice and experience; but the fact is, the option MUST exist, otherwise government and men (obviously the ones responsible for impregnating women) would have absolute tyranny over women's bodies.

As such, I would argue that the pro-choice movement is in fact far more life-affirming (far more pro-life) than the pro-life movement itself. Indeed, the pro-choice movement not only works to provide the option of abortion, but more importantly, works to eliminate the need for abortion at all, through lowering costs of birth control and ensuring that effective, informative sex education is taught in schools. 90% of women who go to Planned Parenthood, for instance, are NOT there for an abortion but for measures to prevent the need for abortion in the first place. These methods, by the way -- birth control, responsible sex education -- have been supported almost solely by the democratic party. McCain has vetoed every single one. Since Bush instituted the 'abstinence-only' sex education programs in public schools, teen pregnancy has risen astronomically, and --guess what -- so has abortion! You'd think people could figure this out... The problem is, they are too concerned with the superficial aspects of the problem- they shout about supposed 'family values' and 'saving the fetus' when what they're actually doing is hurting families, women and children across America

Now, this is where your references to socio-economically disadvantaged women becomes particularly relevant. You're absolutely right to point out that abortion is much more common among racial minorities and the poor, and that they, in fact, experience less of a 'choice' given their unfortunate circumstances. This is just a fundamental element of human existence (free will is not as free as we'd like to think but rather significantly prejudiced by outside circumstances and consequenes). Where your logic flops, however, is in the idea that eliminating abortion would be better for these women- they find their 'choice' already biased by their situation, and you want to take what little remains of it away! They have only a little choice left, so let's get rid of it all together???! What kind of life-affirming stance is that? It is particularly in these circumstances that cheap birth control and sex education are crucial... But of course, the Republican Party (the self-proclaimed 'family values' party) has vetoed this proposal at every turn. (And then you have John McCain, who has time and again refused to support the Fair Pay Act; he is content with women only receiving 76 cents to the dollar that men receive; wow! talk about keeping women's choices limited!) If poor women had access to birth control and poorly-educated children some awareness that birth control exists then many of them would not be put in this situation to begin with.

You end with the assertion that "the choice of life" should be made "viable." Absolutely, it should- through subsidized daycare, better maternity and paternity leave, and advances (like the ones you cite) that won't force women to abandon their education or careers. (All of these, by the way, are fundamental components of the pro-choice movement and the women's health component of the Democrats' platform.) But the fact remains that no matter how much we try to make life more viable, the choice (as you yourself put it) must still exist. We can help make choosing life easier for women, but we cannot take their choice away all together. That would be the greatest anti-life decision of all.

At October 20, 2008 at 5:36 PM , Blogger stephen m said...

You will find this paper interesting and it may help to resolve your quandary. I recommend the whole paper.

“Declaration of People's Perspectives on "Population" Symposium 1993”

Declaration of People's Perspectives on "Population" Symposium

Between December 12 and 15 of 1993, 61 women form 23 countries from around
the world met in Comilla, Bangladesh, to build and ratify a collective position on population-control programs and polices. The international symposium, Peoples Perspectives on "Population", explored a wide range of related issues such as environmental degradation, The New Economic World Order, emergent polices (especially the upcoming International Conference on Population and development, Cairo, 1994), genetic engineering and language. This document is a feminist critique of the logic of domination that underlies population control policies.


Women's basic needs of food, education, health, work, social and political

participation, a life free of violence and oppression should be addressed on their own merit. Meeting Women's need should be de-linked from population policy including those expressed as apparent humanitarian concerns for women. Women should have access to safe contraception and legal abortion under broader health care. These needs can only be met if all life is respected and accorded dignity. We demand an end to exploitation of people and the earth. For all these reasons, we state again that we oppose population-control policies in all forms. Also there cannot be a feminist population control policy. Our voices cannot be used to legitimize a anti-women, anti-poor, anti-nature population policy.

People are not "population"

Population control: NO!


Location here:

Document here:

At October 22, 2008 at 6:23 PM , Blogger kalkin said...

Yeah, I'm pretty sure few if any pro-choice feminists would advocate sex selection for males in India. That's not really an integral component of the pro-choice platform - just because it involves abortion doesn't mean we support it. Also, I am 100% in favor of aborting ALL mentally retarded, congenitally disabled or genetically compromised fetuses and their replacement with healthy ones. Look up Peter Singer, he's got good arguments.

At October 22, 2008 at 7:22 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...


While you're argument is valid, you must realize that if the fetus is in fact a life that has moral status, no matter how hard you argue, it seems morally dubious to abort the fetus.

The issue boils down to whether you believe the fetus has moral status and why. If the fetus does not have the same moral status as the woman carrying it, then all your arguments hold, but if they are not, and the fetus does have moral status, it seems harder to justify the abortion.

Ultimately it seems that it is important that you have these beliefs, for if you can provide a reasonable argument for why the fetus does not have the same moral status as the woman, then you're on the right track. Just understand that so are Kelly's views if the fetus has the same moral status as the mother.

All feminists, pro-life or pro-choice, can agree that a mother who wants to have a child should be able to, but sadly, some women find that sexism has somehow affected their ability to provide a child they want the life they wants. So that kinda stuff needs to go away, jah'kno?


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