Friday, August 29, 2008

Can you be a feminist and "pro-life"?

Anna at DakotaWomen has an interesting post up in which she quotes Katha Pollitt to argue "no." My post is mostly in response to this quote. Pollitt writes:

"[Feminists for Life] aren't really feminists--a feminist could not force another woman to bear a child, any more than she could turn a pregnant teenager out into a snowstorm. They are fetalists."

Fetalists they may be - I think that's a fair label. But I don't think it necessarily follows that they aren't feminists. They may indeed not be, but I'm uncomfortable stating flatly that people who aren't pro-choice aren't feminists. This policing of the borders of feminism certainly makes it easy to determine who "we" like, as feminists, and all too often that has meant people who follow the core values (and there are probably more here than I can think to list at the moment) of popular feminism:

- the belief that pornography/prostitution always hurts and exploits women;
- the fear and loathing of transgender;
- the resistance to centering race in ways that decenter white women's experiences;
- the expectation that aborting fetuses with disabilities should be every woman's choice.

I know feminists who work in the sex industry; who are transgendered; whose conception of "women's issues" has little to do with glass ceilings; who see the decision to abort a fetus with a disability as an expression of intolerance (at best) for people with disabilities. I also know feminists who call themselves pro-life, and who spend their lives doing feminist work, teaching Women's Studies, doing work that benefits women. Do I think that forcing a woman to bear a child is a feminist act? Of course not. But I doubt that most pro-life women who call themselves feminists would interpret their actions in this way (nor do most of the pro-life feminists I've known work to actually prevent choice, which, to be fair, I believe Feminists for Life has done).

I don't want Sarah Palin in the White House anymore than I want McCain there, and I'm certainly not claiming her as a feminist. But I don't think drawing the label "feminist" more tightly around our shoulders will serve any purpose in preventing her election - it will only serve to divide feminists.

Instead of looking at the label, it might be more instructive to look at one's actions and at the impact of one's work on women. I'm pretty sure that Sarah Palin doesn't measure up, but I'm also pretty sure that there are some pro-life feminist sisters who do.

16 comments:

Trinity said...

thank you PF. I absolutely hate how abortion, which is one issue among many, is taken as THE DEFINING FEMINIST ISSUE WTF OMG.

I definitely believe that the right to choose is deeply important, but I have a problem with the way that's taken to be your entry card.

Particularly when so many feminists say that it's non-negotiable because bodily autonomy for women is the bedrock of feminism, and then their notion of autonomy is riddled full of holes.

Trinity said...

This is also why I've stopped saying "anti-choice." I don't like the term "pro-life", no, but there's more than one choice, and more than one Hugely Important Choice, in every woman's life. (Which is exactly why so many of us don't like "pro-life," too -- only specific subsets of "lives" are usually meant.)

Plain(s)feminist said...

Hey Trin,
Would you say more about what you mean when you say "their notion of autonomy is riddled full of holes"?

I used "pro-life" very consciously in this post - I also use "anti-choice," but I distinguish between them. I think a lot of people who call themselves "pro-life" are in fact "anti-choice," but there are others who are "pro-life" and whose politics and work support quality of life, access to resources, etc.

Trinity said...

What I mean are the sort of people who say "Abortion on demand and without apology" and then turn around and say that women's consent to many things is profoundly vitiated by living under patriarchy.

How can I decide what to do with my pregnancy if I couldn't, supposedly, ever decide whether or not to have sex with the person who produced it, whether he coerced me or not? How can I decide what to do with my body if, supposedly, there is no such thing as my making free choices at all?

I mean, yes, those views are the most extreme ones that you find, and not many people off the Internet hold them, I hope. Still, that way of thinking colors some forms of feminist theory, where people have a strange fascination with theorizing about consent in ways that suggest that "choice" is a bad way to describe what women have/do -- EXCEPT in the case of abortion. I've always found that suspect.

Anna said...

I was careful to say that "Feminists for Life" aren't feminists, and I'm going to stand pretty firmly behind my belief that members of that organization definitely are not feminists. They're no different than the Right to Life, or evangelical churches, etc, who use bad science to scare and lie to women. They just happen to call themselves feminists.

I'm left outside of the boundaries of a lot of people's feminism as well, so I try to be careful not to do that to others.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Anna, you may well be right about Feminists for Life as an organization. I do know a couple of members of the group, though, whom I would call feminists.

Danielle said...

I believe that you can be a feminist and against abortion. We all have the right to call ourselves whatever we want and have the beliefs and values that we want.

Kristin said...

I don't disagree with your main thesis here--that it's possible to be a pro-life feminist. I'd name Helen Prejean as an example of this.

That said, there is some evidence that Feminists for Life is a Christian Right stealth organization that is trying to mainstream the anti-choice cause by adopting a progressive moniker. That people like Sarah Palin call themselves Feminists for Life in one breath and then cozy up to anti-feminists like Phyllis Shlafly in the next certainly makes me wary.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Thanks, Kristin - that's a helpful comment. I think that, completely aside from the issue of what kind of organization Feminists for Life really is, from other things Pollitt has said in her columns and elsewhere, she sees no possibility that one could be both feminist *and* pro-life. This was really what I wanted to get at, but it's good to know this about FFL.

Danielle said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8d91brDnt7A

Marie said...

Feminists for Life is hated about equally by "traditional" feminists and religious right. At the annual March for Life, organizers tend to marginalize two groups: Feminists for Life and Pro Life Gays and Lesbians. Though Feminists for Life does not advocate abortion, the main emphasis of their work is to open options on college campuses for pregnant/parenting students, so having a child does not have to be a choice between a child and education/future.

candydarling80 said...

I've occasionally run into people on the net, who say they are pro-life, but who don't want to take away the choice from others. So, in a way I would say they are pro-choice, but they have chosen for themselves never to have an abortion.

If someone makes an effort to make abortion illegal, I would not call them a feminist, even if they described themselves as one. But if pro-life means that you work to make the lives of parents and their children better, so that fewer people would feel the need to choose an abortion, while at the same time wanting people to have access to legal abortions, then I see no problem with calling them feminists.

P.S. First-time commenter here. I love your blog! :)

Mother of Five said...

Actually she is saying you can only be a feminist if you believe a woman has the right to kill a baby. Yes let's be real here. It is killing a baby. As long as you see it for what it is I don't have a problem that a woman can choose life or death of her baby. It is her choice.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Candy - welcome, and thanks for your comment. I like what you say about looking at the actual work people are doing and how that relates to feminism.

MO5 - I have no idea who you're referring to...

Amy said...

I think you can be a feminist and against abortion. I do not think you can be a feminist and pro-life. I believe there is a distinction to make there.

Marysia said...

Thank you for being more openminded on this question than many prochoice feminists.

I would like to invite anyone here (whatever your own take on abortion) who does not believe it is possible to be both prolife and feminist to visit the Nonviolent Choice Directory http://nonviolentchoice.blogspot.com and ask yourself the question again.