The Public Eye Magazine - Winter 2006
ProLife – and Feminist
ProLife Feminism: Yesterday and Today
Mary Krane Derr, Rachel McNair, and Linda Naranjo-Hubel, eds.
Xlibris Corporation, 2005, 474 pages (pbk).
Reviewed by Sarah Augusto
The editors of ProLife Feminism tell readers that their purpose
is "to offer a largely untapped but nonviolently powerful
resource for healing and preventing the personal, familial, and
societal wounds surrounding abortion and other forms of lifetaking."
In this new self-published edition of the 1995 volume,
they assemble a diverse collection of writings from pro-life feminists,
an identity which most pro-choice feminists likely find
quite paradoxical. Nonetheless, the women whose voices are represented
in this volume challenge many of the
stereotypes often held about pro-life women.
Many of the contributors espouse beliefs
that fall right in line with those of most prochoice
feminists, except of course when it
comes to the issue of abortion.
The contributors are powerful and influential
women whose work spans over two centuries.
They are accomplished movement
leaders and activists involved in a vast array
of social justice issues including racial and economic
justice, environmentalism, disability
rights, gay and lesbian rights, and anti-war and
anti-death penalty initiatives. Among them
are prominent early feminists including Mary
Wollstonecraft, Susan B Anthony, and Elizabeth
Cady Stanton. More contemporary
contributors include Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai,
former South African Member of Parliament Jennifer Ferguson,
and Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Beyond their impressive resumes and commitment to equality
and social justice, pro-life feminists share the core belief of
the mainstream anti-abortion movement: that personhood
begins at conception and abortion therefore constitutes the violent
death of a human being. The same arguments that are most
commonly directed at all pro-lifers can be used to critique prolife
feminists -- women's right to control their reproduction is
necessary for equality, compulsory pregnancy violates women's
autonomy and human rights, and without safe, legal and accessible
abortion women turn to dangerous alternatives. However,
there is one claim that is particularly difficult to refute using the
above reasoning. This claim, prevalent among pro-life feminists
including many contributors to this volume, contends that abortion
is a symptom of male domination and is therefore harmful
and oppressive to women.
Many of the essays argue that men often coerce and pressure
women into having abortions and that the very structure of a
patriarchal society makes abortion necessary. Daphne Clair de
Jong, founder of Feminists for Life New Zealand, describes abortion
as something that is "done to women to fit them into a society
dominated by men" and "a sell-out to male values and a
capitulation to male lifestyles." She goes on to state that abortion
is "a deeper and more destructive assault than rape, the culminating
act of womb-envy and woman-hatred by the jealous
male who resents the creative power of women." Abortion, in
this view, allows men to avoid sexual responsibility and victimize
women. And women who support abortion rights, they say,
use arguments that resemble those justifying sexism. Feminists
for Life activist Leslie Keech contends that
sexist and irresponsible behavior is "heightened
and encouraged by abortion's easy way
out," which allows men "to simply use the
woman for his pleasure, and then buy his way
out of the deal for a couple hundred dollars."
Furthermore, abortion pushes women into
becoming more like men by portraying their
reproductive capacities as a handicap that
makes them unable compete in a man's
world. For example, Rachel MacNair, past
president of Feminists for Life and one of the
editors of this volume, argues that pro-choice
feminists perpetrate "the idea that our bodies
are inferior due to their innate abilities."
Implicit in this rhetoric that equates abortion
with oppression, violence against
women, and male dominance, is the assumption
that no woman would make the decision to abort were she
given a truly free range of choices. This argument exposes
another similarity between pro-life feminists and the mainstream
pro-life movement -- both groups emphasize and idealize
women's reproductive capacities, often to the point of sacralization.
Pro-life feminists assert that motherhood is not the only
or the most important role for women, yet it is simultaneously
stressed as a fundamental and essential part womanhood.
Women, then, are portrayed as naturally nurturing and empathetic
beings with an innate respect for life. Pro-life activist and
suffragette Mattie H. Brinkerhoff describes women's reproductive
capacities as the "holiest of instincts" while Isabella Beecher
Hooker argues that motherhood gives women "a moral advantage
that man can never have." Longtime Feminists for Life
activist Frederica Mathewes-Green states, "every woman need
not bear a child, but every woman should feel a proud kinship
in the earthy, elemental beauty of birth. To hold it in contempt
is to reject our distinctive power."
Abortion is said to violate these uniquely female instincts,
therefore causing great emotional pain and psychological harm.
Many of the writings argue that women experience feelings of
regret, guilt, and depression for years after an abortion. Artist
and writer Elizabeth Edson Evans argues that abortion represents
an "irreparable loss," which often causes serious emotional
after-effects. Cecilia Brown, president of the Pro-Life Alliance
of Gays and Lesbians, likens post abortion suffering to "an open
wound that was not going to heal." One of the first American
women to receive a medical degree, Dr. Rachel Brooks Gleason,
argued over a century ago that many women who abort "are victims
of a melancholy which amounts to monomania." In
another example Grace Dermody, founder of the New Jersey
chapter of Feminists for Life, discusses a 1983 court case in which
a woman was tried for the murder of her three-year-old son, citing
that court testimony "connected the young mother's fatal
beating of her child to the trauma of her abortion the day before."
In some respects, pro-life feminists are correct that the
demand for abortion is a symptom of women's inequality.
Many women who might choose to carry an unplanned pregnancy
to term under ideal circumstances are deterred due to issues
such as a lack of financial and social support, inadequate childcare
and parental leave policies, or stigmatization of single
motherhood. Pro-life feminists are correct in saying that these
problems pose serious impediments to women's equality and need
to be addressed. We must continue to work for gender equality
and improved social services to ensure that these women have
the full range of reproductive choices available to them.
However, there will always be some women who would
choose not to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term, regardless
of whether all these needs are met. Some women who choose
not to carry a pregnancy to term do so not because their life circumstances
make pregnancy difficult or impossible, but because
they do not want to be pregnant. For these women, abortion is
not a choice imposed by a sexist, male dominated society. It is
a means of exercising control over their bodies and their lives.
Furthermore, the argument that abortion is oppressive and harmful
discounts the many women who have had abortions and do
not regret their choice. To claim that these women are under some
form of false consciousness because they do not feel pain and
sadness over their decision to abort is to claim that they lack the
ability to think for themselves and make intelligent, informed
decisions. Such characterizations of women fly directly in the
face of core feminist values, both pro-life and pro-choice.
These pro-life feminists articulate a vision of a world where
abortion is rendered unnecessary due to comprehensive sex
education, access to contraceptives, and full empowerment
and equality for all girls and women. The need for abortion would
surely be minimized in such a utopia, yet women will continue
to experience unplanned pregnancies. Misunderstandings and
miscommunications can never be completely eliminated and contraceptives
are not 100% effective. Abortion rights are necessary
to make certain that women have the ability to choose not
to have children or to delay childbirth until a time in their lives
when they are ready to fully embrace pregnancy and parenthood.
Rather than oppressing women, the availability of safe and legal
abortion helps ensure that women have full equality and reproductive
Nonetheless, pro-life feminists do share many of the same goals
as pro-choice feminists. It is unfortunate that these two groups
cannot come together to advocate the issues they agree upon.
Doing so would also promote increased dialogue and understanding
on the issue of abortion.
Sarah Augusto is a graduate student in sociology at the University
of California, San Diego. She is conducting an ethnography
of the interactions between pro-choice and pro-life movements.