To many feminists, the idea of an pro-life feminism seems self-contradictory. This is understandable, if only because an enormous majority of today’s self-identified feminists support legalized abortion. Today’s pro-choice advocates tell a story about abortion that appeals to many modern feminists. Abortion, by this account, eliminates two burdens that limit women’s economic opportunities: the prolonged and arduous process of carrying and giving birth to a child, and the enormous costs, in time and money, of raising one, especially for single mothers. Most abortion opponents don’t dispute this, but rather argue that overcoming workplace discrimination isn’t worth systematically committing what they see as an appalling crime.
Thus the abortion debate becomes interminable. Defenders of abortion rights focus exclusively on women’s liberation, while its opponents base their arguments on the rights of the unborn. In theory, pro-life feminism represents a third option, setting the question of fetal personhood aside and attacking the pro-choice narrative on its own feminist terms.
Because pro-life feminists focus a great deal on the history of feminist opposition to abortion, their pro-choice counterparts often dismiss them as stuck in the past, arguing that times have changed and that legendary feminist abortion opponents like Susan B. Anthony or Alice Paul could not have predicted the nature of gender discrimination in the twenty-first century, and would support abortion if they were alive today. Abortion advocates also argue that the suffragists were influenced by religious assumptions that have since become irrelevant.
But despite pro-life feminists’ emphasis on history, their central argument, which sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, is highly contemporary: that abortion is and always has been a tool for oppressing women.
The real point of contention between pro-life and pro-choice feminists is what constitutes reproductive autonomy. For pro-choice feminists, it’s the right not to have children; for their pro-life counterparts, it’s the right to have children—a right that they say is systematically threatened in American society. Pro-life feminism rests on two assumptions: that abortion is undesirable, and that a woman’s inalienable right to give birth is compromised by oppressive social structures. This is a direct rebuke to the old pro-choice line, “if you’re against abortion, don’t have one.” According to abortion’s feminist opponents, most women who abort don’t really have that option. They point to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute’s list of reasons women undergo abortions, which include relationship and financial problems—precisely the kind of patriarchal pressures that they cite as abortion’s true causes.
According to pro-life feminists, most abortions are coerced. Pregnant women, they argue, almost always agree to abort because of social, financial, educational, or family pressures, not simply because they don’t want to give birth. If the sexes were treated equally, abortion would be unnecessary because the modes of oppression that force women to abort would disappear. Women would be able to bear children on their own terms, rather than having their reproductive autonomy compromised by factors like boyfriends who realize that paying for an abortion will save them child support in the long run; educational institutions whose lack of concern for mothers forces women to choose between giving birth and finishing school; employers who refuse to make allowances for pregnant women and mothers; a government that caps tax benefits for parents, increasing the costs of raising a family; and a society that stigmatizes birth out of wedlock.
In response to these claims, abortion advocates like Katha Pollitt present abortion not as a necessary evil but as a positive good, a normal part of twenty-first century female sexuality. Naturally, feminists who accept this claim are unlikely to believe that abortion is oppressive. Pro-life feminists generally respond with stories about women whose abortions were coerced or traumatic. But this is a debate that will have to run its course within the feminist camp.
Other pro-choice feminists agree that abortion is unfortunate, but argue that it is still an important weapon in the fight for equality. This variant of the “safe, legal, rare” argument insists that until the structural changes eliminate institutional sexism, women need access to abortion to remain on an equal footing with men. The oppressive structures pro-life feminists cite—universities, employers, the tax code—are still strong, and will continue to marginalize women unless they fight back.
Perhaps in recognition of such arguments, almost all of the activities supported by the feminist anti-abortion movement’s highest-profile organization, Feminists for Life (FFL), involve attacking forces that make it difficult for women to carry pregnancies to term, rather than advocating for anti-abortion legislation. As the FFL website notes, “rather than criminalize women, pro-life feminists are motivated to free women from abortion through resources and support.” The organization’s mission statement focuses on lowering poverty among women and getting institutions like schools and employers to make more allowances for pregnant working women. FFL is working toward a day when the idea that abortion is a necessary evil will be unsupportable. However, the organization also participates in events commemorating Roe v. Wade in collaboration with groups that more explicitly support banning or restricting abortion. As FFL’s rhetoric makes clear, its members believe abortion itself, not just its imposition on unwilling women, to be unjust. Nonetheless, most of the group’s efforts are directed at making abortion unnecessary, not illegal.
In short, pro-life feminism offers a novel perspective on the abortion debate that should have at least some appeal to anyone who believes that abortion is a necessary evil or is even morally ambiguous.
The image featured in this article is taken from John W. Iwanski’s Flickr page. The original image can be found here.