I am a pro-life feminist, and I don’t see any contradiction in claiming that title. Yet I know that my pre-teen daughters will soon be told by teachers, books, movies, television, and their peers that feminism and pro-life are mutually exclusive. So I recently brought my twelve and ten year old daughters to a panel discussion exploring that very question. “Can A Feminist Be Pro-Life?” exposed for them the difference between the pro-choice argument and a consistent pro-life ethic that supports the well being of all people, including women.
Feminism and Self-Interest
The environment in which my girls are growing into adulthood is monolithic in its presentation of sexuality and women’s empowerment as essentially about autonomy. In our county locally, there has been much discussion about adopting “affirmative consent” sex education for students in 7th and 10th grade–perhaps even 5th grade. The important thing–the conversation went–is ensuring that boys and girls understand the need to “protect” themselves by seeking and giving explicit, voiced consent to each sexual act–from kissing to touching to intercourse. There was no discussing the wisdom of early, uncommitted, sex on their lives and health, the lives and health of their partners. There was nothing about babies conceived by unwed teen parents. The only thing that mattered ? “Make sure your partner knows what you want!” This ethic is supported in everything from popular self-help books for high school freshman to Disney films that advocate self-actualization as the highest aim of life.
Pro-Choice Activists Believe That Self-Interest Is Of Highest Importance
The pro-choice activists speaking at “Can A Feminist Be Pro-Life?” agreed with this cultural narrative. While they allowed that pro-choice feminists and pro-life activists might work together to achieve certain pro-woman goals in maternity care, access to child care or income supports, and other areas that skirted the central issue of abortion, they ultimately insisted that pro-life activists could not also claim the word “feminism.”
Instead, they maintained that having control over one’s reproductive life, via abortion and contraception, is the foundation of feminism. In the words of Pamela Merritt, a “reproductive justice activist,” “pro-life is aligned with regressive forces” and since feminism is progressive, it is impossible to be a pro-life feminist.
A “Consistent Life Ethic” For Women and Children
The pro-life feminists on the panel, Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, Aimee Murphy, and Cessilye Smith, on the other hand, believed that progress for women did not necessarily lie in autonomy at all costs. They cast the question of their advocacy as part of a “consistent life ethic” that rejects violence and seeks to change the culture so that abortion is unnecessary and unthinkable.
Cessilye Smith characterized abortion as a “band-aid on a knife wound,” and wanted the audience and her fellow panelists to question the factors that lead women to choose abortion. For the pro-life panelists, feminism is primarily about creating a society in which women’s fertility is celebrated and supported, not seen as a burden to be overcome. They maintain that abortion harms women and perpetuates a society that is fundamentally unjust. It pits women against their children, mirroring the societal inequality that women face and transferring that injustice to the most intimate setting of the womb.
What My Daughters Learned
After the discussion, I asked both girls what they thought and which arguments they thought were most compelling. They agreed that the pro-abortion side was most passionate (i.e., louder). However, they were most moved by the pro-life panelists’ insistence on accepting and loving all life and supporting women so that they could choose to bring their babies to term.
My daughters have learned that abortion is truly about justice and power—and with power comes responsibility. They view abortion as an unjust attack on an innocent human being that is only accepted because it takes place in the privacy of the womb. They know that, in the relationship between a mother and her unborn child, it is the mother who has the power to decide life and death. While they are a bit too young to have thought much about social policies that would provide supports women need, they are certain that abortion is too simplistic a solution to the complexity of women’s lives. They know that women who oppress others, especially their unborn children, to achieve their goals are just doing to the more vulnerable the very thing they don’t want done to themselves. They are making mama proud.
Colleen Zarzecki is a mother, researcher, writer, and a member of Women Speak for Themselves.