Note: Know that for the purpose of avoiding confusion in this article, I will use the labels pro-life to mean “anti-abortion” and pro-choice to mean “in support of a woman’s choice to abort.” This article was developed from a research paper I composed for my final project in an introductory Women and Gender Studies course at Marquette University in the fall of 2015. Some information was also drawn from writing I completed for a Christian Feminist Theology course at Marquette during the previous year.
As the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade is quickly approaching and a handful Marquette University students are preparing to travel to Washington, D.C. for the annual March for Life, my mind is on a very serious topic this week. I wasn't sure about writing this article. Would my readers be interested in such a weighty issue? Would people judge me for this? As you can see, I ultimately decided that it would be worth the gamble to write this piece, one that is so drastically different from all of my previous work for The Odyssey.
I myself identify as a pro-life feminist, and lately, I have had this pressing concern that I could not honestly call myself a feminist if I also refused to support a woman's right to an abortion. This resulted in my contemplating the question, Is it possible to call oneself a feminist and at the same time be opposed to abortion? Should all women and men who claim to be feminist also support a woman’s right to control her own reproductive system through abortion if she wants to or deems it necessary? Some of my feminist contemporaries might say that the two are mutually exclusive; that is, it is impossible to reconcile feminism with pro-life principles because abortion is a woman’s right and denying her of that right is, essentially, anti-feminist. And in a sense, this claim is hard to dispute unless one can make a convincing argument that a woman’s rights do not involve the right to an abortion. A remarkably difficult task, right? However, it is important to recognize that feminist pro-lifers do exist, and they have very real arguments opposing abortion; many argue that the right to an abortion can, in fact, be a detriment to women. Because this is such a highly contested matter, and it seems that misunderstandings exist on both sides—that is, the real opinion of the opposite is often confused—I will explore the two perspectives to determine if, in fact, one argument is more logical from the feminist perspective than the other. Pro-choice ruth wallsgrove and pro-life Sidney Callahan—two female scholars, advocates and activists—present two interesting accounts of the debate and highlight the ways in which feminism might support their particular opinion on abortion rights.
The Pro-Choice Feminist Argument in Support of Abortion Rights for Women, wallsgrove:
In a response to a letter written to the British feminist publication Bad Attitude claiming that it was not right of the publication to censor an article written by feminist pro-lifer Lesley Dove, ruth wallsgrove writes: “When we talk about reproductive choice, we are not just talking about children, but about the fundamentals of women's lives - our sexuality, our health, our economic choices, any means of controlling how we live our lives. The right to choose not to have a child at a particular point, or not at all, and yet still be able to express our sexuality, is not negotiable for feminists” (wallsgrove 5). This argument in her article "Non—negotiable Feminism” suggests that a woman’s right to an abortion is merely one facet of a woman’s rights to her own body, her reproductive system, and her sexuality. According to wallsgrove, a feminist identity means that one supports reproductive rights for women, and because abortion falls under the category of reproductive rights, he or she in turn supports a woman’s right to abort her child. Notably, nowhere does she claim that pro-choice means pro-abortion; it simply means pro-woman and pro-woman’s rights to her own sexuality and reproduction. Consistently, the pro-life movement has been linked, not surprisingly, to conservative Catholic views on sexuality (i.e. sex is for marriage, birth control is unethical, etc.), so it becomes easy and rather justifiable to associate reproductive or sexual oppression with the anti-abortion pro-life ideology. For this reason, her argument that pro-choice is really pro-woman’s reproductive rights may be quite appealing to feminists, who might oppose the sexual and reproductive oppression that they may see as permanent elements of the pro-life ideology.
Notably, wallsgrove points out another critical component of pro-choice feminism specifically when she says “we are not just talking about children, but about the fundamentals of women's lives” (5). The pro-life movement has long been cited as being largely focused on the life of the unborn child rather than on the living, breathing, acting, thinking, passionate, reflective, intelligent, aware being that is carrying that child—the mother. Pro-choicers have both, historically and in the present day, been dedicated advocates for women, a reality that perhaps could validate the claim that the pro-choice movement is a feminist movement. Indeed, wallsgrove’s attention to the woman and her needs is, arguably, inherently feminist because she concerns herself almost entirely with what women alone may want or need according to their own individual sexualities.
The Pro-Life Feminist Argument against Abortion Rights for Women, Callahan:
In her piece “Abortion and The Sexual Agenda: A Case for Pro-Life Feminism,” Sidney Callahan says, “women stand to gain from the same attitudes and institutions that also protect the fetus in the woman’s womb” (280). This passage emphasizes Callahan’s foundational belief that the pro-life movement, in many ways, benefits women and in turn, contradicts the common assumption that the pro-life movement is pro-unborn child, anti-woman. Whereas wallsgrove focused on the ways in which the right to an abortion is a necessary component of reproductive rights, Callahan argues that abortion is a detriment to a woman’s reproductive freedom because it “ paves the way for even more male detachment and lack of commitment” (280). She believes that traditional pro-choice arguments in support of abortion essentially exempt men from any responsibility by insisting that abortion is solely a woman’s choice—not the choice of the father. To her, this is dangerous because it gives men license to abandon a potentially difficult situation under the pretenses that it is really “the woman’s issue.”
She also argues against the way that the pro-choice camp, in her opinion, tends to demonize pregnancy, and in effect, supports a more masculine model of female sexuality. She says, “in our male-dominated world, what men don’t do, doesn’t count… Many pro-choice feminists adopt [this] male perspective when they cite the ‘basic injustice that women have to bear the babies,’ instead of seeing injustice in the fact that men cannot. Women’s biologically unique capacity and privilege has been denied, despised, and suppressed under male domination,” and in Callahan’s opinion, this is inherently anti-feminist (281). She believes that pro-choice ideologies essentially support a lack of appreciation and respect for a woman’s natural ability to reproduce. Abortion, in her opinion, validates the masculine idea that the ability to give birth is a profoundly inconvenient capability because “this female disease or impairment naturally handicaps women in the ‘real’ world of hunting, war, and the corporate fast track” (280). Essentially, she aims to point out the irony that exists when one claims to be pro-woman but also identifies as pro-choice; her belief is that to be pro-choice means that one is not entirely supportive of the various nuances of female reproduction because she seeks to regulate those natural elements of her sexuality, one of those being the ability to give life to another human being.
Based on the words of wallsgrove and Callahan, I can conclude that both women present sound arguments for each of their causes. Indeed, if I had no opinion on the matter whatsoever and read each of their accounts, it would be exceedingly difficult to choose a side. Another conclusion I have drawn from the readings is that both wallsgrove’s pro-choice feminism and Callahan’s pro-life feminism attempt to place the woman at the heart of the matter, honoring her health, well-being, and freedom. Because of this, one can conclude that these two perspectives share a common interest and audience—the woman. In respect to both sets of beliefs, it is absolutely necessary that she be the focus, that ideology and philosophy never interfere with the very real and tangible concerns of the woman. Without a focus on the woman, the pro-life movement stands little chance of garnering any kind of support from expecting mothers who are seeking an ideology that honors the woman's experience. I would argue that it would be an advantage for the pro-life movement to adopt a more openly feminist platform and use that to gain the support of women who believe that the pro-life movement largely does not concern itself with the women facing the difficult situation of an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy and instead focuses too exclusively on the rights of the unborn child.
The way in which it lends itself well to individualization is arguably the greatest and the most problematic element of feminism, and it results in an extremely diverse spectrum of beliefs and attitudes that fall under the feminist umbrella. In their article “Abortion: Understanding Differences,” Sidney Callahan and her pro-choice husband Daniel Callahan claim that “Too often, it is assumed that a commitment to feminism entails a prochoice position; but that is only one version of feminism, not necessarily its essence” (Callahan, “Understanding Differences,” 221). “See, pro-lifers can be feminist too!” the pro-life feminist might think. However, this passage neither advocates for pro-life nor pro-choice feminism; instead, it suggests that there exist numerous versions of feminism and in turn supports the idea that there is no one way to be a feminist. Furthermore, feminism is neither exclusively pro-choice nor exclusively pro-life, and to label it either of these would be to dishonor the complexity and multiplicity of the ideology. It is not fair to say that a pro-lifer cannot be a feminist for this very reason. Pro-life feminists are out there--hell, I am one--and we are working toward bridging the gap between the traditionally child-centered anti-abortionists of previous generations and the woman-oriented pro-choice movement.
Sidney, Callahan. "Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Pro-life Feminism." Ethics: Contemporary Readings. New York City: Routledge, 2004. 275-82. Print.
Callahan, Sidney and Daniel Callahan. “Abortion: Understanding Differences.” Family Planning Perspectives. Vol. 16, No. 5 (Sep. - Oct., 1984), pp. 219-221. Guttmacher Institute. Web. 22 November 2015.
wallsgrove, ruth. "Non—negotiable Feminism." Off Our Backs 26.1 (1996): 5+. JSTOR. Web.15 Dec. 2015.