Book Review

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 choice.

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.

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