[Today’s guest post is by pro-life feminist Caitlin Fikes.]
Recently there’s been a lot of media attention on a group of male college students who invented a nail polish that changes colors when it comes into contact with the most common date rape drug. Various media outlets have hailed the invention as an incredible breakthrough that will protect women from being raped.
However, many feminists and anti-rape activists have raised some very valid criticisms of the nail polish, its implications, and the kind of attention it’s getting. While the nail polish may indeed prevent some women from getting raped (and obviously, every rape avoided is a Good Thing), examining this invention in the context of rape culture still raises important concerns. For example, every precaution that places the onus on women to employ an ever-growing anti-rape checklist raises the possibility of victim-blaming: should this product become widespread, whenever a woman is drugged and raped there will invariably be voices saying, “This could have been avoided if only she was wearing her anti-roofie nail polish. How irresponsible.”
What does this have to do with abortion, you ask? You may be surprised to find that there are many parallels between the criticisms feminists levy against this nail polish and the criticisms pro-life feminists raise about the prevalence of abortion.
1. It fails to address the root causes of the problem.
The anti-rape nail polish is a reactive, not a proactive, attempt to solve the problem of rape. The ultimate cause of rape is—shocker—rapists; more specifically, men (and yes, while both women and men can be victims of rape, the great majority of rapists are male) who are raised to believe that they are entitled to sex with whomever they choose and that it’s not really “rape” if the other person isn’t kicking and screaming. We live in a culture in which rapists are almost never punished for their actions in any way, and therefore they learn that they can coerce, rape, and sexually assault without consequences. The new nail polish won’t change our society. It just tries to make sure rape happens to someone other than you. The fact that this nail polish exists and is felt necessary is a sign that rape culture is rampant—not a way to fix it.
Abortion is also a reactive, not a proactive, attempt to solve the problems women face. Women feel driven to abort for many reasons: financial concerns, lack of emotional support, lack of adequate parental leave and childcare, an inflexible work schedule or class schedule, bosses that are unsympathetic to parents, lack of welfare programs, lack of societal support for teenage parents or unmarried parents… the list goes on.
Abortion doesn’t solve any of those problems. Abortion doesn’t change the fact that the United States is one of the only countries in the world without guaranteed paid maternity leave, or that women are much more likely than men to be in poverty, or that single mothers face disproportionately large financial difficulties. Pushing abortion as a solution for one woman’s crisis pregnancy won’t stop other women from facing the same situation, just as using nail polish to prevent one rape won’t stop other women from being raped. As Feminists for Life of America like to say, abortion is a symptom of the problems women face, not the solution.
2. It has existed throughout history and hasn’t solved anything yet.
Anti-rape devices are not new. Anti-rape tampons and anti-rape condoms made the rounds of the Internet a while ago, but really anti-rape devices have always existed and go all the way back to metal underwear and chastity belts. Thousands of years later, rape still exists and is going strong in our “modern and civilized” society.
Abortion, too, has always existed. Women who become pregnant in a situation that is hostile to that fact have always found ways to terminate the pregnancy—and obviously, some ways are more unsafe than others. Abortion activists use this fact to say “Abortion has always existed and always will, so all we can do is make it safe and legal.” But when I hear that, it sounds suspiciously similar to when rape apologists say, “Rape has always existed and always will, so all we can do is give women ways to stay safe and protect themselves.” And to both statements, my answer is the same: “Yes, it has always existed, but it doesn’t have to. We don’t have to give up and accept defeat. We can make a change. We can do better.”
3. It detracts from real efforts to enact widespread change.
There are many anti-rape activists working their asses off to make a change. They strive to educate about consent, that “Yes means Yes” and silence means “No.” That “We’ve had sex before!” doesn’t mean “Yes.” That “But she was flirting with me!” doesn’t mean “Yes.” That “But she wanted to make out!” doesn’t mean “Yes.” That bullying, harassing, or coercing someone into sex doesn’t mean “Yes.” There are so, so many great programs across the nation working to educate, to empower survivors, to push for rape survivors to be believed and for rapists to be punished, to dispel myths about “legitimate rape” and the “stranger in a dark alley” stereotype. Did you hear about the new law in California defining rape as the “absence of a Yes” instead of the “presence of a No”? Good stuff!
But somehow, none of these great efforts seem to get the same media attention and praise as that damn nail polish. And then when feminists speak out and say “Hey, this isn’t going to solve the real problem, let’s focus most of our effort on ultimate solutions,” they face vicious backlash and accusations of wanting women to be raped! The truth is, our society is much more comfortable centering conversations about preventing rape on which measures the potential victims ought to take instead of how to make a society in which such crimes almost never occur at all, and that’s frustrating.
Similarly, when feminists spend so much time and money fighting laws that protect women against coerced abortions or require higher safety standards for abortion clinics or prohibit abortions after a certain point of fetal development, they are drawing attention and energy away from the real solutions. There are groups such as Feminists for Life of America, for example, encouraging college campuses to provide better resources to pregnant and parenting students so that young women won’t have to choose between abandoning their education or getting an abortion.
But not all of the organizations working to solve the problems women face in our society are pro-life. Many feminist organizations fight for things pro-lifers and pro-choicers can agree on, such as better financial support for mothers and less discrimination in the workplace (i.e. putting women on the “mommy track” and passing them by for promotions).
One of the most important ongoing efforts, I think, is the one to sever the parental rights of rapists/abusers. When a woman becomes pregnant by rape and her rapist can threaten to sue for custody if she doesn’t drop the rape charges, or be part of her life via their shared child for 18 years, or legally block her attempts to give the child up for adoption, then abortion really does seem like her only choice. There are dedicated feminists working right now to change this.
But none of those other causes seem to be as well-known or praised as the effort to keep abortion legal in all circumstances. In fact, I would never have known about all of the important work feminists are doing on a variety of fronts if I had not been introduced to the idea of pro-life feminism. I initially saw feminism as a staunchly pro-choice movement, frighteningly so, and that turned me off from finding out any more about them or what they do. Once I became aware that there is a place in feminism for the pro-life prospective, I began to investigate and was astonished to find that I am fully on board with mainstream feminism on literally every other topic. I now am proud to call myself a feminist and am proud of what our movement has accomplished and seeks to accomplish, but the truth remains that the boldly pro-choice face that feminism wears publicly covers up the good they are doing.
I am a passionate pro-life feminist, but I long for the day when the descriptor “pro-life” does not have to be included to clarify the term “feminist.” It seems clear to me that feminism, with its main principles of nonviolence, justice, and nondiscrimination, naturally lends itself to a pro-life position.
I hope that some of my fellow feminists will read this post and perhaps reconsider their position on abortion, especially if they are already critical of the anti-rape nail polish. The comparison is not perfect, of course, but at its core I believe they are comparable. Women need real, permanent solutions, not temporary band-aids that do not address the heart of the matter.