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Is “pro-life feminist” an oxymoron?

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I know this article is over a year old now, but the issue is still current and I wasn’t blogging when it was written. Anne Summers writes that it is not possible to be a pro-life feminist.

Now, I should preface all of this by saying that technically, I’m pro-choice. That is, from a political standpoint I believe that it is important that abortions be legally accessible, safe and affordable. Yet I am also about as pro-life sympathetic as a pro-choicer can get.  For me the compelling factor is that there are certain circumstances where I think a termination is warranted – if pregnancy and childbirth threatens the life of the mother or baby, for example, or if she is taking medication that cannot be taken while pregnant. So then we have to start adding caveats and loopholes. Doctors have differing opinions. We get into questions of rape. Of whether threatening the life of the mother includes a mother with severe ante-natal depression contemplating suicide. Whether threatening the life of the baby depends on its ability to survive without medical treatment, or its ability to survive with decades of intervention. Questions of which non-pregnancy-friendly medications are necessary and which aren’t. As someone who has never experienced those situations, who has not cried out to God for guidance about how to proceed and agonised about it night after night, I don’t believe that I am the right person to start making hard and fast rules about all of those possible circumstances. I don’t believe that a politician is the right person either. So I think that we have to trust women, and while morally I don’t necessarily agree with every circumstance in which a termination occurs, I do think that it needs to be the woman’s right to make her own moral decisions. She is, after all, the one who will be living with the consequences of her decision.

So, I’m pro-choice. However. I do believe that a foetus is a person. I do have sympathy for others who have reached different conclusions through different reasoning. I count myself a feminist, and even as a feminist I don’t have a significant issue with those who feel strongly about giving the unborn a chance to be born. What I do have a problem with is the pro-life movement.

The pro-life movement grows out of a very politically conservative, strongly religious branch of society. In America they’re known as the “Christian right” but believe me, they exist in other countries too. This is the same branch that wants to cut welfare programs, teach abstinence-only in schools, limit the freedoms of religions beside Christianity and reinforce “traditional gender roles”. Often, they’re also against contraceptives such as the birth control pill. These are the kinds of people who reduce the issue of abortion to “Most of them are killed simply because their birth causes someone inconvenience”* as if a shattering lifelong change to your future can be described as an “inconvenience”.  The result of this, of course, is that the pro-life movement is associated with things loosely termed “slut shaming”, whereby unwanted pregnancies are generally seen as the woman’s fault for being promiscuous. Hence, the enormous personal cost and social stigma of single parenthood is just a consequence of having sex outside of marriage.

I have seen many a pro-lifer struggle to disassociate themselves from that movement. There are plenty of more moderate Christians out there with a strong moral opposition to abortion, which they recognise as a complex issue. There are plenty of people of different religions, or no religion at all, who take a pro-life position without wanting to punish women.

This is what I think a pro-life feminist could look like:  She (or he) campaigns for free antenatal and postnatal care, including mental health care. She wants better support for single mothers, so that it doesn’t look like their life will be over. She wants more childcare places for women who want to finish study or need to work. She wants more accountability for fathers in terms of both financial concerns and custody – she thinks every other weekend doesn’t cut it when he was 50% responsible for the conception. She wants adoption to be a more viable option, including free or affordable counselling for all involved. She wants good, affordable, reliable and easily available contraceptives that are well-promoted and no stigma to use, to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place. She wants sex education in schools. She wants children to grow up knowing that all kinds of family structures are valid and “normal”. In short, she wants abortion to be as unnecessary as it possibly can be.

These things are often associated with those who are pro-choice, because they are politically left-wing. But that doesn’t mean that such policies are in themselves pro-choice. The same policies can grow out of two different motivations (dissuading a woman from making a certain choice vs supporting them after the fact) and be held by people with two different ultimatums (if all this fails, termination is still an option vs this serves to soften the blow of making abortion illegal).

But according to Anne Summers, such a woman would not be a real feminist. She defines feminism in this way:

“Feminism might be blandly defined as the support for women’s political, economic and social equality, and a feminist as someone who advocates such equality, but these general principles need practical elaboration and application. What does economic equality actually mean? How can women in practice achieve social equality? As far as I am concerned, feminism boils down to one fundamental principle and that is women’s ability to be independent.

There are two fundamental preconditions to such independence: ability to support oneself financially and the right to control one’s fertility. To achieve the first, women need the education and training to be able to undertake work that pays well. To guarantee the second, women need safe and effective contraception and the back-up of safe and affordable abortion.”

I disagree with this definition. First, how did we get from equality to independence? Are all men always independent (or, as she goes on to say, always given the choice to be independent or dependent)? Are they independent of the needs of others, the rights of others, or the law? Someone who is pro-life takes the view that a woman is no more independent of her baby’s rights than a man is of his wife’s rights when he beats her. Equality and independence are not the same thing. Equality is about fairness, justice, each person being treated as just as valuable as the next. Where pro-lifers and pro-choicers differ is whether an unborn, not-completely-developed foetus unable to express coherent thought should be given equality too.

Secondly, if we accept “the right to control one’s fertility [through contraception and abortion]” as a precursor for independence, we walk on shaky ground when it comes to men’s fertility. A man has equal right to contraception, but he does not have equal right to the “back-up”. He can’t force an abortion on his partner, nor should he ever be able to. He loses the final measure to control his fertility when it impedes on another person’s right to bodily autonomy. Hence, according to Summers, he does not have the ability to be independent. Obviously, I have a lot more sympathy for the pregnant woman losing her independence to the government, than I do for the man losing his independence to the woman who will carry and birth the child and be equally (or considerably more) responsible for its upbringing. Nonetheless, if abortion is necessary for independence then it’s not only women who are failing to achieve independence.

Finally, I reject the notion that the ability to support oneself financially and the ability to control one’s fertility are the essence of feminism which had been prior defined as “support for women’s political, economic and social equality”. Political equality, for example, includes the right to vote, yet suffrage does not affect my ability to support myself financially or control my fertility (unless too many people vote coalition and Abbott becomes our PM…).

If someone is passionate about equal pay, having the right to apply for certain kinds of jobs or fight in combat positions, resisting sexual harassment, removing the victim-blaming crap that comes with rape culture etc, then they might identify with feminism, despite having a different perspective on the pro-life/pro-choice debate. I kind of see it like being a Labor party member while simultaneously opposing the Carbon tax. You haven’t taken the party line on that issue, but does that mean you can no longer identify yourself with a party that holds to many, many of your other political beliefs?

I think it is possible to be a pro-life feminist. It just so happens that I’m not one of them.

*Quoted from a comment made by Admin on the “policies” webpage of the Rise Up Australia Party.


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