Prolife Feminism: Yesterday And Today
reviewed by Jocelyn Mathewes
You see it on bumper stickers: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” The preface to Prolife Feminism: Yesterday and Today quips, “Prolife feminism is the even more radical notion that both women and unborn children are people.”
I agree that women and the unborn are both people, but I have to come clean: Some feminist arguments make sense to me—in college, I agonized over the injustice many women and children suffer—but when I see the word “feminist” in my mind, there is a solid, large, black asterisk standing firmly next to the t. I read this book with some curiosity.
Feminism’s Cracked Wall
Fannie Lou Hamer—granddaughter of slaves and a civil rights activist—minces no words: “I believe that legal abortion is legal murder and the use of pills and rings to prevent God’s will is a great sin.” In Prolife Feminism, the devout Hamer stands incongruously alongside Cecilia Brown, president of the Prolife Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, who says, “I want GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual] people to know that we do not have to sacrifice the unborn and their mothers so that we can receive civil rights.”
And that is what is so astounding about Prolife Feminism, that all 75 women come, preaching pro-life ethics, from such a wide and ragged crack in the wall of feminism. “The use of pills and rings to prevent God’s will is a sin” will shock some feminist ears, while others will find themselves ill at ease to see a vocal gay-rights activist in the pro-life camp.
The essayists range from 1735 to the present day, and include historical activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and contemporary women like the playwright Lorraine Hansberry and activist Mary Meehan. Most writers are American, but several writers from Europe and Africa are included. The writers are radical beyond their mere presence in the book, however. Their arguments shed light into some more shadowy corners of feminist thinking and approaches.
Daphne Clair de Jong, author and founder of the New Zealand chapter of Feminists for Life, argues in “The Feminist Sell-Out” (1978), for example, that women’s rights have not progressed as far as many think they have. Many feminists agree, but she cites the use of abortion as a means to preserve a lifestyle or career as proof of such lack of progress.
In the fight for equality, she says, “Accepting short term solutions like abortion only delays the implementation of real reforms.” Causes that feminists champion, “like decent maternity and paternity leave, job protection, high-quality child-care, community responsibility for dependent people of all ages, and recognition of the economic contribution of child-minders,” cannot advance if abortion is perceived as the easy and preferable way out.
Clair de Jong points to the need for women’s inherent potential to be mothers to be recognized, regardless of whether or not they are mothers. Indeed, if the cycle of conception, pregnancy, birthgiving, and childrearing is a natural course in a woman’s life, why is it that the structure of society does not make room for and support women in those pursuits? When women see their possible motherhood, and the ways society makes that possibility difficult, they realize that they exist in a world made by and for “wombless people.”
While Clair de Jong points out that abortion hinders the feminist cause, Jo McGowan, a contributor to the National Catholic Reporter, says that abortion, rather than liberating women, creates room for greater injustices. Writing in 1982, she begins by drawing attention to the decreasing ratio of women to men in India, as a result of “female feticide.” But she then makes the point that feminists who “assert that abortion rights must be safeguarded so that women can ‘control their lives,’” yet oppose the killing of female babies, “cannot have it both ways.”
“Aborting girls when boys are wanted has been termed ‘selective abortion,’ but in fact every abortion is a selective one.” Those who believe that it is okay for women to choose abortion cannot control women’s reasons for choosing it. McGowan thus reveals a contradiction in pro-choice feminist thinking: If we do not believe it is right for a woman to choose to abort her baby because it is a girl (“female feticide”), we are not upholding her right to choose.
But what if women weren’t allowed to choose abortion? Wouldn’t they seek out far more dangerous means—“back alley butchers”? Not so, writes Rachel MacNair in 1989. MacNair, president of Feminists for Life from 1984 to 1994, assures feminists that women’s lives can be preserved by making abortion illegal. “Many women wouldn’t consider abortion if it were illegal. Others would find many of the unfair pressures for abortion lifted if their families and friends knew this was not a quick way out.”
In today’s setup, abortionists often have to “put up with the irritant of a malpractice suit” only if a woman dies under their care. If abortion were illegal, they would be put out of business, and the amount and quality of services to pregnant women would increase. “We do not protect women by telling back alley butchers they are free to advertise in the Yellow Pages.”
By providing pro-woman arguments against abortion, Prolife Feminism can reach a new generation of women growing up in a post-women’s-lib environment. I imagine the receptive audience for this book: young and eager women who may be cautious about feminism, convinced that the personhood of an embryo must be honored, and desperately trying to reconcile desires for families, careers, and education.
I was shocked to discover how little I knew about the history of abortion, and how “feminist foremothers” like Susan B. Anthony had, in fact, opposed it. Now I am convinced of two things: that it is logically possible to be feminist and pro-life, and that the abortion issue demands more exposure and critical thought, especially in the minds of our youth.
Yet the essays by earlier authors, regardless of their historical weight, may lose credibility in the postmodern era, due to their vague appeals to a woman’s “nature” (as Elizabeth Cady Stanton put it) or “true womanhood” (mentioned by Mattie H. Brinkerhoff in 1869). Today, when young people (including Christian young people) perceive individual reality, sexuality, and personality to be constructed rather than essential qualities, such terms will sound alarms in the minds of young women, rather than bring them to a new perspective on abortion.
The youthful tendency to see more recent ideologies as an “advance” in thinking (much like technology builds upon itself) may be the downfall of this call to feminism’s pro-life roots. And it is that last phenomenon that led me to find later writers more useful than earlier ones for current discourse with pro-choice feminists.
Regardless, Prolife Feminism is an obvious educational resource for two kinds of readers: pro-life readers skeptical of the feminists, and feminist readers skeptical of the pro-life movement. “Educational” does not mean “boring,” however, for the essays and excerpts are impassioned, well reasoned, and engaging.
A Vital Book
It is vital that women of all ages and beliefs encounter, engage, and think about the abortion issue; it is not something that one can be ambivalent about. Prolife Feminism (and other books like it) should be placed into the hands of young women—feminist and otherwise—who may not know the pro-life roots of feminism, the scope and work of the pro-life movement, and the wide variety of issues that demand moral action.
And as Juli Loesch Wiley, peace, justice, and pro-life activist writes in this book, “It’s exciting to realize that an alliance between traditional prolife and social feminist forces—already begun—could help build a social environment which is much more humane for men and women, and a much safer place for fragile growing children.”
Jocelyn Mathewes is a graphic designer for the National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org), and is working on her documentary photography series, Women with Icons, recently shown at the Amalie Rothschild Gallery in Baltimore. She is married and attends Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland.
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