Yes, There Are Pro-Life Feminists
Occasionalby Nat Hentoff
The Washington Post, October 29, 1994
For years, women who identify themselves as pro-choice have told me with absolute assurance that it is impossible for a woman to be both pro-life and a feminist. Yet, in various parts of the country, I keep meeting women who indeed are both.
Some of them like to quote a heroine of the women's liberation movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who organized the first women's rights meeting in 1848. "When we consider that women are treated as property," Stanton said, "it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit."
Pro-life feminism has finally achieved mainstream attention in Glamour magazine. Glamour had asked to hear from readers who are pro-life. Three thousand women answered, and as indicated in the February 1994 issue, many of them are feminists who resent the stereotypes of pro-lifers by journalists. Said one of them: "We are painted as fanatical zealots, usually male, and often hung up about sexual matters."
Also often part of that stereotype is that they are poorly educated. Answering Glamour's invitation were pro-life women university professors, legal analysts and an organizer of Science Students for Life.
One, a middle-school counselor is "a non-practicing Catholic ... who disagrees with her church's stand against birth control, premarital sex, homosexuality and women as clergy." She contributes to Amnesty International.
Another voted a straight Democratic ticket until Bill Clinton appeared on the presidential line. (So did a good many pro-choice people I know.) The former Democrat emphasizes that " abortion denies civil rights to unborn children."
A woman who became pregnant after being raped at knife point brought the pregnancy to term and then gave the child up for adoption. "It is not a sin to be raped," she told the magazine, "but it is a sin to kill your child. Killing your child doesn't help you get over the rape."
This disdain for self-deception in matters of life and death became familiar to me years ago as I got to know the liveliest group of pro-life feminists in the country -- Feminists for Life of America, now headquartered in Washington. Most of those I met in the 1980s were veterans of the civil rights and antiwar movements. One had been arrested 11 times -- demonstrating at missile bases and in front of abortion clinics.
With chapters throughout the United States and Canada, Feminists for Life belong to -- among other antiviolence organizations -- the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. A few years ago, the Minnesota chapter blocked a death penalty measure in that state's legislature. (And polls have indicated that a majority of pro-lifers at large are against the death penalty.) The credo of Feminists for Life -- which hardly fits the media's coverage of pro-lifers -- is: "We oppose all forms of violence, including abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment, as they are inconsistent with the core feminist principles of justice, non-violence and non-discrimination."
In their characteristically pungent magazine, the American Feminist, they further define themselves: "We believe in a woman's right to control her body, and she deserves this right no matter where she lives, even if she's still living inside her mother's womb."
Earlier this year, Feminists for Life joined in an unprecedented coalition with such long-established pro-choice groups as Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and the ACLU to fight the "child exclusion provision" in the Clinton welfare plan. The provision allows states to cut off any additional benefits to women who have more children while receiving welfare.
NARAL points out that "putting women into circumstances where they are forced to choose abortion is every bit as wrong as denying women access to abortion services." Speaking from the pro-life position, Serrin Foster, executive director of Feminists for Life, says that the Clinton welfare plan "would force mothers to chose between aborting pregnancies and accepting further impoverishment for their children."
While this coalition may form again on matters of urgent common ground, the fundamental differences will remain. In a recent issue of the American Feminist, Barbara Newman makes that division clear: "If it is wrong to kill with guns, bombs, or poison, with the electric chair or the noose, it is most tragically wrong to kill with the physician's tools."
But is abortion killing? Newman answers: "Euphemism kills."
Copyright 1994 The Washington Post