So far as I know, the recent “Why Can’t a Feminist Be Pro-Life?” panel at the Catholic University of America marked the first time that pro-choice feminists, who are the feminist mainstream, entered a formal setting where they found undeniable confirmation of the existence of pro-life feminists, and had to grapple with pro-life feminist minds. If “the winning future for the pro-life movement is . . . young, feminist, and disproportionately people of color,” as Prof. Charles Camosy has written, that event may have had an importance that is hard to estimate. But here I will simply outline most of the arguments on each side, while attempting an evaluation of only a few of them. Then I will try to identify a few of the highlights and illuminating moments.
The arguments really concerned not just one, but three issues:
- whether a feminist should be pro-choice or pro-life
- whether abortion can be moral
- whether abortion should be legal.
In looking at the arguments, I would like to focus first on two that came up, one from the pro-life side and one from the pro-choice side, that I would like to see all of us phase out:
In relation to issue 3 above, pro-lifers often point out that legal abortion is called “pro-choice,” and then proceed to object (as at 15:43 in the video) “It’s not pro-choice when we feel like we have no choice.” This quip does make a good point about social conditions, but it is framed as if it demolishes either the term “pro-choice” or the pro-choice policy; and does it really succeed in doing either? I think that all this argument really does is to play on two different meanings of the word “choice.” There is no real inconsistency here in pro-choicers’ position.
Then from the pro-choice side we regularly hear a guilt-by-association argument that could be called the “pro-birth argument.” The argument goes, in effect, “Because many who identify as pro-life on abortion hold obnoxious positions and harm women’s interests on other issues, the pro-life position on abortion must also be obnoxious and harmful to women’s interests.” On the panel, this was the argument on which Pamela Merritt mainly relied (though she did refer, more briefly, to some other arguments).
Merritt certainly argued convincingly and memorably that many pro-life politicians are destructive in many ways to the well-being of the female gender (and everyone else). But what does that really prove in terms of whether abortion is moral, whether abortion should be legal, or whether a feminist should be pro-choice or pro-life? As an argument against the pro-life positions even of the Missouri politicians she focused on, hers was an ad hominem, and against the pro-life positions of three of her fellow panelists, it was a strawman as well.
Differences of perception about the moral value of the unborn are the single main source of the big divide in the abortion debate overall, and those differences were key to understanding the divide between the two groups of panelists at CUA also. (Though bodily-rights arguments normally accept the personhood of the unborn in a nominal way, I contend that even in such arguments, pro-choicers’ particular perception about the humanity of the unborn, or rather their perception that the unborn lack humanity, is the real subtext.) “. . . when life begins [is a] question with no answers that can be proven” came up (at 11:25) in the first presentation, that of Megan Klein-Hattori, and was echoed by the other two on the pro-choice side. Robin Marty put her finger on that question as the key, saying at 50:31 “We’re not disagreeing on the definition of ‘equality,’ and we’re not disagreeing on the definition of ‘feminism.’ We’re disagreeing on the definition of ‘people’.”
And when she said that, things came to a head. Aimee Murphy suggested that the word “person” could be dispensed with, since “if we’re talking human rights” what we want to know is who is a human. “At the moment of fertilization you have two human gametes; they fuse; it’s a member of the same species.” Merritt tried to dismiss that with “We’ve got science on one side, we’ve got science on the other side,” but Murphy shot back, “Do you have an embryology textbook that can back that up?” Merritt replied, “For every textbook that you have, there has been a textbook produced on the other side.” The two were not in a situation where they could immediately produce their documentation, so that discussion ended there. But I think that anyone who does delve into the documentation will decide that Murphy won that debate.
Marty’s above input had come in response to Murphy’s main argument for issues 1, 2 and 3 above. Murphy had said in her opening presentation (29:18) that she is “dedicated to . . . the core principles of feminism: equality, non-discrimination, and non-violence.” She had also said, “I push for . . . the abolition of the social construct that holds the wombless male body as normative. . . . if the male body is seen as the norm, then pregnancy is seen as a disease condition.” This last point is not an argument in relation to issue 2 or 3 above, but it is an argument in relation to 1. The institution of legal abortion, to the extent that it seems designed as a crutch without which women cannot be equal to men, helps perpetuate a negative perception of femaleness, and thus denigrates femaleness.
That presentation of Murphy’s ended with: “If feminism is truly in support of equality of human beings, then my question is actually ‘Is it possible to be pro-choice and feminist?’ ”
At 18:13 Merritt said, “Feminism is an action agenda to secure the social, economic and political equality of women. The pro-life movement seeks to deny women access to abortion . . .” She clearly meant that lack of access to abortion will undermine women’s equality. But this contains a big assumption – the assumption that being equal often requires being unpregnant, and that there are not ways to be both pregnant and equal. See “Next Steps for the Pro-Life Feminist Movement.”
At 37:37 Merritt offered the common argument that abortion can’t be prevented and that therefore the only issue is whether it will be done safely. At another point Klein-Hattori said the same. But I’m convinced it’s not true that laws cannot save unborn lives; see “A Pro-Life Feminist Balance Sheet.”
At 37:43 Merritt said, “Women have been controlling their reproductive lives since the dawn of women.” See Herndon-De La Rosa’s reply below.
Though the bodily-rights argument is the strongest pro-choice argument in relation to issues 2 and 3 above, and also important in relation to 1, the pro-choicers on the panel mentioned it surprisingly little. I have discussed it elsewhere and will not try to evaluate it here. As another pro-choice argument that I won’t try to evaluate here, but that clearly leaves some things unexplained, Klein-Hattori said (at 9:20) that “all reproductive rights, including to abortion. . . . are central to feminist politics . . .” At 39:37 Merritt suggested that access to abortion results in “communities that are free from violence and oppression.” Beyond observing that this sounds awfully ironic, I won’t try to evaluate it here. And as a pro-life argument that resonates with my intuition but might not with everyone’s, see Cessilye Smith’s remark below about “barbaric.”
The highlights, for me:
Aimee Murphy at 91:22: “I am 100% for restricting abortion and making it illegal in all cases, as with all forms of aggressive violence.”
Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa and Cessilye Smith do not advocate legal restrictions on abortion as many pro-lifers do, but with their clear-eyed grip on the humanity of the unborn and their passion that the right choice be made, no one could be more pro-life than they. At 41:00 Herndon-De La Rosa said (in reply to Merritt), “. . . there’s a lot of horrible atrocities that have been around since the dawn of time. We exploit people. We objectify others. We have slaves and human trafficking. . . . there’s all these things that we see for the evil that they are. But any time in history that we have had one group . . . and said this group . . . is less than human, we always look back with horror that we have done that. . . . And I think that in the future, we will look back and say the same thing about the unborn.”
At 24:17 Cessilye Smith said of abortion, “We put a pretty bow on it and we call it empowerment. . . . We have taken something completely barbaric and attempted to normalize it . . . . we’ve made abortion . . . a pillar of feminism. Something is wrong with that.”
Other illuminating moments:
Klein-Hattori and Merritt found their stereotypes of pro-lifers exploded. Merritt said at 90:20 “What you’re describing is not pro-life that I experience and that millions of people experience . . . [it] is really blowing my mind.” Klein-Hattori said at 67:40 “One of the things that has me most excited is to hear the way that the pro-life women up here are talking.”
Merritt said at 47:34: “I don’t view abortion as evil at all. I think abortion is a really important social good.”
At 9:28 Klein-Hattori said, “I’m proud to donate to Planned Parenthood.” (Attention Congress: Planned Parenthood does not need tax money.)
The discussion was more than civil, it was very friendly. All seemed to feel that hearts were in the right place. Seeing that some pro-lifers I admired felt the pro-choicers’ hearts were in the right place, I was forced to try that attitude myself!
What’s the answer?
So is it possible to be pro-choice and feminist? In the discussion we saw a mixture of principle-based arguments and utilitarian arguments. (One does not need to be a utilitarian to feel that utilitarian outcomes should not be ignored.) Smith’s “barbaric” is a principle-based argument. Merritt’s argument about better communities is a utilitarian argument. Personally I feel that the pro-life side wins with either philosophical approach, and wins both in the moral dimension and the legal dimension.
Those who find it inconceivable that American women could benefit in a utilitarian way from making abortion illegal are usually overlooking, first and foremost, one simple thing: the fact that most American women, if faced with an unplanned pregnancy, would not choose to get an abortion even if it is legal. So right off the bat, most American women have nothing to gain from the institution of legal abortion; while that group of women win in several ways, though perhaps not obvious ways, if it is illegal. Let’s start with that reality and go on and do the math.