The Myth of “Pro-Life Feminism”

Alright. Let’s get this out of the way right now. There is no such thing as “pro-life” feminism. It’s a myth, kind of like fairytale happy endings or the abominable snowman.

You can’t have feminism without equality. In fact its most basic definition, according to feminist icon Dr. bell hooks, is “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”

Freedom from oppression. Such a simple concept, right? Yet some anti-choice conservatives want to conflate anti-abortion subjugation with feminism.

In her controversial Time article, Emily Buchanan, Executive Director of the anti-reproductive justice group the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, argues that “pro-life and feminism aren’t mutually exclusive.” She believes you don’t have to be pro-choice to be a feminist:

“Pro-life feminism has captivated a new generation of young women who reject the illusion that to be pro-woman is to be pro-choice…Not only does this young generation of pro-life women shun the notion that abortion somehow liberates women; it views abortion as the civil- and human-rights cause of our day.”

But that’s where she’s completely and utterly wrong. You can’t be a feminist without supporting reproductive justice.

Being a feminist isn’t merely a sum of the decisions you would make for your own life. It comprises advocating for other people to make their own decisions about their lives and supporting those choices. And it’s not about using gender essentialism as a rationalization for being a feminist: just because you’re a woman, that doesn’t automatically make you a feminist.

The notion of “pro-life” feminism crumbles when you actually start to think about it logically. Once you start restricting people’s rights, mandating other people’s decisions, passing judgment onto them and telling them what they should do with their bodies, their lives – then you have eroded the very foundation of equality.

Buchanan argues that “the original feminists” — suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — “understood that the rights of women cannot be built on the broken backs of unborn children.” Buchanan blames second-wave feminists for changing feminism to put abortion rights front and center:

“So the pro-life movement hasn’t changed the meaning of feminism, as has been suggested. It was the neo-feminists of the 1960s and ’70s who asked women to prize abortion as the pathway to equality.”

So because feminists of yore supposedly didn’t approve of abortion, that’s justification for these faux feminists of today to not support abortion either? Isn’t history about evolving and becoming more compassionate? But it turns out Buchanan’s article and her premise that pro-life and feminism are buddies is based on historical lies about abortion and misconceptions about Susan B. Anthony’s position.

Buchanan spreads more lies such as how anti-abortion activist Lila Rose has forced the “abortion industry” (what’s that? Oh you mean doctors and nurses) “to confront and amend practices it cannot defend.” Um, no. Just no. Rose showed undercover footage (a hoax) of Planned Parenthood supposedly aiding sex trafficking victims and claimed that “Planned Parenthood aids and abets the sexual abuse and prostitution of minors.” She and other anti-choicers like her have continually used lies and subterfuge to attack Planned Parenthood and frighten and mislead women.

Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey vehemently contests the myth of a pro-life feminist:

“Sure, you can be a feminist and make a personal decision to never get an abortion. But who the fuck are you to actively work at taking away other women’s right to make their own personal decisions about their uteruses?

“You are not a feminist, that’s for sure.”

I’m not the feminist police. Sure I’m opinionated. But I don’t want to tell anyone how they should or shouldn’t self-identify. But I’m here to tell you one thing I know with absolute certainty. If you support oppression and inequality, you are not a feminist. At all.

Sure you may choose to not have an abortion yourself. But so long as you support and advocate for others to exercise their right to have an abortion – a routine, legal medical procedure – then yes, you’re a feminist. As soon as you start mandating people’s reproductive choices, dictating what they can or cannot do with their bodies, you strip away people’s rights, eroding equality.

PolicyMic’s Mara Hollander thinks “articles like Morrissey’s are incredibly damaging to the feminist community and our goals for she argues “for feminism to effectively make the changes we get so fired up about, we have to cast a wider net and include the people who agree with us on most issues.”

Feminism is not a monolithic movement. It’s made up of people of different genders, sexualities, races, religious or non-religious beliefs, and classes. We don’t always agree. And that’s a good thing. I agree that feminism should be about inclusivity and not elitism. But pretending that women are feminists, when they don’t give a shit about equality, is dangerous. Anti-abortion conservatives are often the same people who vote against contraception, women’s healthcare, sex ed, domestic violence and sexual assault legislation, equal pay legislation, gay rights, trans rights and marriage equality.

Amanda Marcotte rightfully has a problem with Buchanan’s Time article because the organization she works for, SBA List, fights not only abortion but women’s rights in general:

“I get it; feminism is an inexact term and it’s tough to deny that someone is one if she says she is. But a bare minimum should be that SBA List does anything — anything — to actually work for equality. Or, barring that, they shouldn’t be actively fighting against other feminist efforts in the realm of fighting violence against women or improving women’s economic opportunities. I think, even if you think there’s such thing as a “pro-life” feminist, that we can and all should agree that those who wear the label “feminist” support women’s equality outside of the abortion battle.”

But as Marcotte astutely observes, each time the SBA List had the opportunity to stand up for women’s rights – to endorse political candidates who support legislation such as the Lilly Ledbetter Act or VAWA or contraception access – they didn’t:

“If they stand for “pro-life feminism”, surely these candidates are generally pro-woman, even as they oppose abortion rights, right?…When given a chance to support women in the fight for equal pay for equal work or against being raped or abused by an intimate partner, SBA List stood with candidates who stood against women. They will choose someone who stands against women every single time, for a very simple reason: They oppose women’s rights. That’s why they’re against abortion rights, and flinging the word “feminist” around doesn’t change that in any way, shape, or form.”

Reproductive health and bodily autonomy reside at the core of social justice. Abortion and contraception enable people to take charge of their bodies and sexuality; deciding if and when they want to have children. For me, abortion is a litmus test. If you support a person’s right to abortion, you support equality. It’s about supporting bodily autonomy, not passing judgment on the choices people make. Because who the hell are you to tell anybody about what the right choice is for someone’s body and their life?

On the heels of the Time article, I find it interesting that Planned Parenthood announced their decision to drop the “pro-choice” term. This is a good thing. We need to embrace people’s choices, especially when it comes to their reproductive health. But it’s not always a true “choice.” Sometimes, people have no other choice but to have an abortion as they can’t afford to have a child or another child if they’re already a parent. Also a recent Gallup poll revealed that some people don’t self-identify as pro-choice, even though they may support abortion in some or all situations.

Pro-lifers have continuously tried to reframe the reproductive justice debate to work for them. They coined the term “pro-life.” I mean sure, who isn’t for life?? But that’s the thing. Anti-choice conservatives think that we – reproductive justice activists and advocates who support abortion – support murder, which is interesting considering these are often the same people who believe in the death penalty and war and oppose gun control. Hmmmm, seems pretty contradictory to me.

There’s nothing feminist or “pro-life” about letting women like Savita Halappanavar die. As Erin Matson asserts, “in what universe is forcing a miscarrying Savita Halappanavar to die in the hands of a “pro-life” state a feminist policy framework.” And as Shivana Jorawar posed, “what does it say about a society when it leaves a woman to die in the name of “life?

If you are stripping women of their rights, then sorry ladies, you are no feminists. If you don’t advocate for equal pay, reproductive justice, sex education, eradicating rape and domestic violence — then I’m sorry, you must turn in your feminist card, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

With the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it boggles my mind we’re still here fighting for reproductive justice. 2012 saw the second-highest number of abortion restrictions enacted ever. I’m sick and tired of anti-choice conservatives trying to redefine feminism and spread lies. It’s time we reframe the debate and call out this bullshit.

Pro-lifers Anti-choicers can’t have it both ways. They can’t cloak themselves in faux moral superiority restricting abortion access while pretending they support women’s rights too. You can’t have one without the other.


Image by Jay Morrison via Flickr and the Creative Commons License.

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  • Blakeney

    You say, “You can’t have feminism without equality.” As a feminist, I agree.

    If I thought the pro-life/pro-choice issue was simply “a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body” I could be 100% pro-choice, without a second thought. But I don’t believe that, and I can’t believe that. That is simplifying the issue. When a woman is pregnant we are no longer talking about 1 person’s body – or 1 person’s rights.

    Where is the equality for that child? Where is the child’s right to choose?
    Yes, I understand a fetus – or unborn child – cannot make choices. Does that mean anything can be done to them, and they have no rights?

    And is it equal that a man can father a child and (rightfully) be expected to support it once it’s born – and yet have no say in whether his own child lives or dies?

    Neither seems like “equality” to me. Or anything approaching it.

  • JvH

    ” If you support oppression and inequality, you are not a feminist. At all.”

    Agreed. Now what about the 100 million+ girls who, according to the Economist, are not around because of sex-selective abortion? If that’s not oppression and inequality, both of the girls and their mothers, I don’t know what is.

  • GlendaVanDamm

    That’s ridiculous. My opinion on abortion is after it’s viable it is immoral to terminate the fetus without a true justifiable reason. It’s a good thing I’m an EGALITARIAN and not some hardcore feminist that thinks anything a woman does is a-ok as long as it’s your choice. Guess what? Sometimes your choice is wrong!

  • Jennifer O’Farrell

    “If you support oppression and inequality, you are not a feminist.”
    Correct. And if abortion is not oppression and inequality then I don’t know what is.
    As for Savita, this tragic case had nothing to do with the availability of abortion as pointed out by Dr Sam Coulter Smith, the Master of the Ireland’s largest maternity hospital who said, “This case probably does not have a lot to do with abortion laws”.
    But hey, we know that pro-aborts have no interest in the truth.

  • JDC

    It takes a very special lack of self-awareness to claim the coining the term pro-life is an attempt at re-framing the issue in an article that is full of terms like “reproductive justice” and “anti-choice”.

  • Lydia Kreutzer Spainhoward

    You are not femist if you abort unborn baby girl.