Is 'pro-life feminism' a contradiction in terms?

January 23rd, 2017

In advance of this past weekend’s Women’s Marches around the globe, a controversy emerged between the official organizers of the march and a “pro-life feminist” group called New Wave Feminists, based out of Austin, Texas. New Wave Feminists had been accepted and listed on the March’s website as an official partner before a backlash a few days later caused the organizers to remove them. The mission of New Wave Feminists seemed to directly contradict one of the March’s unity principles, “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people.” This sparked discussion far and wide on whether one could claim to be a “pro-life feminist.”

Last year, several news outlets, including the Washington Post and Newsweek, declared that the culture wars were over, or at least dying out, but abortion is still a flashpoint, even among those who claim the label “feminist.” I wonder if the election results would have been different without one or two Supreme Court justices on the table and Roe v. Wade hanging in balance as many voters held their nose and voted for the anti-choice candidate.

Despite the prominence of abortion in our political debate, the abortion rate has declined 12% between 2010 and 2014, to its lowest before Roe v. Wade. While anti-choice advocates have taken credit for increased restrictions on clinics, the abortion rate has declined in states without restrictions, and the overall birth rate has decreased, pointing instead to better access to and use of contraception. Ideally, this is something both sides of the debate should celebrate, and many are.

The argument over “pro-life feminism” seems very much to be an argument over terms. I have heard many women identify as “pro-life,” by which they mean they dislike abortion, would not choose it for themselves (or think they would not choose it for themselves), wish to work for a world where mothers and the most vulnerable are supported, but also have no desire to make it illegal or punish women for it. In other words, they are personally and philosophically “pro-life” but not politically anti-choice. See also: Senator and former vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine.

Unfortunately, this is a prime case of labels dividing us, as many “pro-choice” individuals feel the same way. The label “pro-choice” is just that, in favor of women as moral agents who can choose to keep and bear an unplanned pregnancy or terminate it. Instead, anti-choice advocates propagate the lie that “pro-choice” and “pro-abortion” are synonyms, which only the most extreme voices claim.

While I consider myself “pro-choice,” I have read some very convincing arguments from “pro-life” feminists in preparation for a book I am writing, like those put forth by Dr. Sidney Callahan. I agree with some of the signs at this weekend’s Women’s March that abortion is a tool of the patriarchy. For women to succeed and be equal to men in a cis-heteropatriarchal capitalist system, we must be able to control and time when and if we bear children. This system tells us that our worth is in how much we produce, how much we make, and how high we climb up the ladder. This system is also in direct conflict with the better world of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and initiates. In Jesus’ system, everyone is already of infinite value because they are made in the divine image of God and saved by grace.

I attended high school during a “teen pregnancy epidemic,” and we were warned that if we got pregnant, we would “ruin our futures.” In other words, to become a mother before we were ready meant that we would be unable to become successful, with success being clearly defined in capitalist terms by job title, house size, and car. If someone did end up pregnant, parents acted quickly to get it taken care of, lest the dreams they had for their children of Ivy League business school go down the drain.

The Kingdom of God defines success by other metrics. A truly feminist world should embrace the awesome, life-giving power of the female body to bear, birth, and feed children, while also recognizing that some women cannot and others are called to different tasks. Our success is not defined by the number of zeros on our paycheck but by how we treat and nurture the most vulnerable among us, the “least of these” per Scripture. Dismantling the patriarchy is not just good for women and children, but also frees men to be emotionally and physically involved in their families and their communities beyond “bringing home the bacon.”

Per Audre Lorde, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Access to abortion will never take down a patriarchal capitalist system. At the same time, as a woman with racial and economic privilege, I cannot ask more vulnerable women to bear the very real personal and economic burdens of their unplanned pregnancies in the world in which we currently live. I cannot shrug away the consequences of sexual violence or the realities of families who, with one more mouth to feed, would be pushed over the edge.  

No, pro-life feminism is not a contradiction in terms, but it does express an ideal that we have not yet reached. We cannot legislate our way into this ideal society by making abortion illegal, which will only prevent safe abortions and puts the most vulnerable at risk. But by the grace of God, we will be led to work for a more just, equitable, and non-violent society. Perhaps it is no accident that Mary’s revolutionary song follows on the heels of the Annunciation, a celebration of the life-giving power of women as only a woman could birth the Messiah. It is a feminist anthem that coincides with an unplanned pregnancy. God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty. Revoke my feminism credentials if you must, but I’m with Mary.  

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