Pro-life, pro-choice: an honest conversation, part 2

See part one here. 

Jessica: Now, something that drives all of us crazy, I’m sure: misogyny within the pro-life movement. Those clips of Republican men questioning Cecil Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood really frustrated me. There were two Republican women on that committee -- they should have done all the questioning! For optics alone, we simply can’t have men leading the pro-life movement. I know that some would say that misogyny within the pro-life movement indicates that being pro-life is really being anti-woman, at its core. I think we’ll delve deeper into this shortly, but for the time being I just want to say: as a woman who considers herself both pro-life and a feminist, misogynistic statements from male pro-life politicians make me SO ANGRY because of all the harm caused by comments like those, both to women and to the movement.

Lauren: This brings up something I wonder about that I hope you two can help me understand from other perspectives. The contemporary version of feminism often wielded by both liberals and conservatives is about individual choices and equal opportunity: “feminism means I get to choose to live my life however I want to.” People have called it “choice feminism,” and I think it falls short of really giving us powerful tools to think about gender structures. If we say that anything can become feminist just because we choose it (say, buying weight loss shakes) then we ignore the greater backdrop that makes our choices constrained choices (say, by an industry that wants to make us feel bad about our current bodies so we’ll buy things).
But historically, there’s a feminism that’s about women’s collective liberation from patriarchy: “feminism means we must struggle collectively to dismantle the structures of gendered oppression.” This is why I understand legalizing abortion as a feminist goal. It’s also why, to me, the two things you mention -- 1. misogynistic comments and 2. restricting reproductive rights -- are tools that share a natural connection. Language that is anti-woman and laws that restrict a woman’s ability to access birth control or abortions both serve to keep gender inequalities in place. That’s not to say that everyone who thinks abortion should be illegal is a misogynist or that everyone who is a misogynist thinks abortion should be illegal. But it is why, to me, it’s not surprising to find that mobilizing people around restricting abortion access has often gone hand in hand with language and policies that are anti-feminist.
Obviously, though, you two must have different ways of understanding this, since you are both fiercely anti-misogyny. So I’d love to hear more about how you understand it: how do you articulate the relationship between abortion access and patriarchy?

Jessica: Well, I think in part because my faith compels me to be pro-life and anti-patriarchy, it’s easier for me to separate those two ideologies. My opposition to abortion doesn’t rely on slut-shaming, or the idea that women are second-class citizens, or anything like that. So like I said above, when I see patriarchal arguments being used to oppose abortion, they make me angry, because they’re just so counter-productive. I wish more pro-life people would speak up against those perspectives.
I actually think there’s a patriarchal assumption underlying some pro-life AND pro-choice positions: the idea that the burdens and responsibilities of the reproduction of the human race fall entirely on the shoulders of the female half of the species. Some might think things *should* be this way, while others might just think it’s inevitable, but the end result is that men aren’t seen as having a role in reproduction.  Like you said, Lauren, I think people like you and me and Sarah can and should work together to push back on this idea, whether it’s voiced by the pro-choice or the pro-life movement.

Sarah: And these patriarchal assumptions can lead to new varieties of oppression. Take, for example, the now-famous study by George A. Akerlof and Janet L. Yellen that argues that greater access to abortion and contraceptives has increased the prevalence of single motherhood. They make the case that the increase in choices available to pregnant women has counterintuitively decreased the relative power of women in their relationships with men.

Lauren: I would definitely agree that we need a larger conversation about how the labor of childbearing and child rearing gets gendered and unequally distributed. I think it’s important to work on transforming our rhetoric about pregnancy, birth, and parenting to be more gender inclusive to account for non-binary and trans experience and to create social structures that support a more equitable division of parenting labor (like parental leave for both/all parents). I think the long-term goal (which we probably share in some form) is to undo the structures that under-compensate and under-support the reproductive labor that is assigned unequally to women. [Jessica: I just want to insert a “yes!!” here. Carry on.]
That longer-term structural goal is also why I’d actually be wary of the Akerlof and Yellen study, not only because it often gets cited to endorse things the authors themselves did not (like limiting access to contraceptives and abortions), but also because I don’t think I agree that a decline in what the authors call “shotgun weddings” is necessarily equivalent to an increase in gendered oppression. If children raised by single parents are more likely to end up in poverty, I would say the underlying problem is not that we need more marriages (especially coerced marriages) but that we need to fight poverty, with more social support networks (and less capitalism). And I think that’s a goal we largely share.

Jessica: I agree. To me, however, that’s tied into my opposition to abortion. Let’s imagine that I wanted to go work outside the home, but my husband said I couldn’t because I had to be responsible for 100% of the domestic labor for our family. So I went out and found someone willing to do all that labor in our home for $2/hour. I might feel more liberated, but I wouldn’t have actually undone the effects of patriarchy -- I just would have shifted the consequences onto someone else. I don’t think I should pursue a type of liberation that depends on another’s oppression. Abortion, in my mind, works the same way: one woman’s self-determination comes at the expense of the life inside of her.

Lauren: So this brings us, I guess, to the crux of the matter, the unresolvable difference. For me, while I totally agree that my liberation cannot depend on another’s oppression, I don’t see a fetus as having the same personhood status as a live person. And you do.  

Jessica: Yes. My feminist argument against abortion is predicated on the concept that the fetus is a living person; at some point all of the conversation is going to circle back to this issue.

Sarah:  I agree. I could give lots of reasons why I disagree with the mainstream rhetoric about being pro-choice, but when it comes to disagreeing with the position someone like Lauren holds, I think it basically comes down to a difference of opinion about what constitutes a human being.

Lauren: So to what degree do we feel like is it possible for us to work across or around that difference of opinion? Can we organize together on other issues, could we march under the same banners? What do we risk if we try to? It’s interesting that, since we wrote our first post, this debate has become more of a live issue for progressives, and perhaps soon for conservatives in light of developments in health care.

Jessica: I think in some ways the current presidency has made it easier to work across political barriers -- since it’s become easier for some pro-lifers to express dissatisfaction with the Republican party and its current leadership -- but in other ways I’ve seen a hardening of the trenches. There was a lot of debate about whether or not pro-life feminist groups were welcome at the Women’s March, and I was disappointed by DNC chair Tom Perez’s recent statement that Democrats must support pro-choice policies. In many ways, I identify as a feminist -- I’ve learned how to identify and start to combat the ways in which gendered ideologies are oppressive. And on many other political issues (racial equality, the role of government in providing social services, responses to poverty) I’m pretty left-wing, all things considered. :) But it seems like in some ways abortion has been serving as a litmus test for feminism or progressivism, which would exclude me from those movements. What do you think?  Can any woman self-identify as a feminist? Or do you see certain ideological beliefs as fundamental to feminism?  

Lauren: I am more interested in evaluating the effectiveness and radicalness of various feminisms as political projects than I am in guarding or policing “feminist” as an identity -- especially when it comes down to debating whether specific people get to “count” as feminists, which does not seem like a productive conversation (cue endless articles titled “Is Beyonce a feminist?” etc.). I do think it’s worth wrestling over how/in what way we want our feminisms to be inclusive political projects. One of the reasons I am interested in feminist projects aimed at liberation from gendered oppression is that I think “liberation from patriarchy” allows us to work toward a useful, intersectional inclusiveness: it could allow feminist movements to build solidarity with anti-racist work, anti-homophobic work, etc., and it could be less essentialist and transphobic about the category of “women” than some versions of feminism have been. (The “pussy hats,” for example, were critiqued for tying “woman” to specific anatomical features in a way that centered cis-women.) At the same time, I like “liberation from patriarchy” because it helps avoid a baggy, anything-goes kind of inclusivity that I would see as politically diluted: the kind of “feminism is anything I choose” version that I talked about above. In other words, liberation from patriarchy is a goal that allows us to form coalitions without losing our political edge.
But that’s also why I think reproductive justice is a key progressive issue: in contrast to Jessica, I thought Tom Perez’s statement was a productive step toward claiming reproductive justice as a crucial part of economic and social justice. And it’s why I can’t see criminalizing or limiting access to abortion as a feminist goal. I think it’s possible that someone who wants abortion to be illegal might have other goals that are feminist goals, but I don’t think making abortions illegal, less accessible, or less safe serves the goal of liberation from gendered oppression.
How would that question sound to the two of you? What would you like to see in terms of feminism and pro-life advocacy?

Sarah: Responding first to Lauren’s point about not seeing criminalizing abortion as a feminist goal, I would say that that position makes a lot of sense to me as a pro-life feminist. My own understanding of what it means to be pro-life is not primarily a matter of trying to make abortion illegal--much less trying to find ways to punish women for having abortions--as much as it is a matter of trying to find a way to decrease the prevalence of abortions through other means. For me, being pro-life means trying to prevent abortions, not punish them. This is not, perhaps, the sense in which some politicians and pundits consider themselves pro-life, since they are in the business of making, enforcing, and evaluating laws, but for most of us, this is a much practical way to “fight” abortion, especially after Roe vs. Wade. And not just practical: it leads to a more meaningful, robust (and feminist) approach to the issue.
I do think there is the possibility for some collaboration, even if agreement is impossible. For instance, I think that there is a possibility of collaboration between pro-choice and pro-life advocates who agree on some abortion restrictions: for reasons of safety, after 20 weeks, etc. For this to happen, we have to avoid the temptation on the one hand to insist that the only goal is an end to all abortion (and any attempt to regulate abortion is an endorsement of abortion itself) as well as the temptation on the other side to insist that abortion should be legal and supported in all situations and circumstances (assuming that any attempt to regulate abortion is motivated by an oppressive agenda).
This brings me to your question, Lauren, about what I would like to see in terms of feminist pro-life advocacy. I would like to see greater support for pro-family policies, like the expansion of family leave in the proposal Jessica mentioned earlier as well as the expansion of access to early childhood education. I would like to see sex education that empowers and informs young women and men--right now it seems to exacerbate inadvertently the stigma surrounding the female body and reinforce the aura of mystery that surrounds human reproduction. (These are two areas in which many Natural Family Planning programs excel sex education that defaults to the pill and condoms: a greater sense of shared responsibility between men and women and less female body shaming.)

Jessica: I recently saw this talk from Roland C. Warren in which he wondered out loud if the pro-life movement was really prepared to “win.” As he pointed out, even if legal abortion disappeared from the US, the conditions that drive women to have abortions wouldn’t go away. Would we be willing, ready, and able to support women and children during crisis pregnancies and beyond? Whatever we would need to do the day after abortion became illegal, he argued, is what we should be doing now.
With the “winning” framework in mind, Lauren, I’d like to ask what “winning” would look like for you in terms of abortion. Do you think we need to increase the availability of abortions? If the pro-life movement were to suddenly disappear from the US political scene and the status of legal abortion was exactly what you hoped it would be, what part of the fight would you feel like you had “won,” and what issues would still remain?

Lauren: I like that way of phrasing the question. From a different perspective, I agree that “winning” the battle over legalization is not enough. While Roe v. Wade is in theory the law of the land, many states have passed laws that make abortions practically unavailable to many. In order to achieve reproductive justice, I think we need to fight for more availability and affordability of the safest possible contraceptives (including contraceptives for men) and abortions, so that reproductive labor is not being constrained or coerced. Even then, there’s a lot of work to do to redistribute and support reproductive labor: things like ensuring clean water and safe environments, parental leave, affordable child care, quality public education, etc. Thinking about that study Sarah referenced: in the wealthiest country in the world, people who want to have children should be able to do so with or without marriage without fear of poverty. I think we share many of those goals. And I think we would all agree that healthcare is a human right and we should be able to raise children without the fear that they will develop illnesses we could not afford to treat.