This story was written by Courtney A. Fiske, Harvard Crimson
Politicos tend to present the abortion debate as an unbridgeable divide: One can either be for the rights of the fetus or for the rights of the woman. In a clever reversal, the self-termed pro-life feminist movement, spearheaded by the organization Feminists for Life (FFL) is attempting to have it both ways. They object to abortion on the grounds that it harms women. Yet, this position, joined to the term feminist, serves merely to conceal a deeply conservative and misogynistic agenda, motivated by ideology rather than a concern for womens welfare.
Most pro-life feminists view abortion as an oppressive evil born of patriarchal society. A culture focused on womens needs, they argue, would instead focus on both promoting and rewarding motherhood. This stance, however, assumes that a females most important societal function is anatomically determined: In essence, that she should serve as a womb and a mother before she should act as a holistic human being. By stooping to the level of biological essentialists, organizations like the FFL bolster the idea of an intangible feminine mystique and pervert conceptions of modern womanhood.
Pro-life feminist groups have cleverly managed to mask these damaging assumptions by appropriating the discourse of modern pro-choice feminism. The slogan women deserve better choices than abortion inundates the FFLs Web site, along with an exhortation to pregnant women: Abortion is not the only way out: you have choices. The latter statement links to a manual describing how to legally force the biological father into fulfilling his child support duties and how to utilize financial assistance programs such as Medicaid and subsidized housing. These proposed solutions fail to seriously address the root economic and social reasons that lead women to seek abortions. Advising an impoverished teenage mothers to procure food stamps merely places a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
Interestingly, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, the nations leading provider of abortion services, used this same slogan in her speech at the Democratic National Convention in August. Yet, rather than focusing on the limited options women possess after giving birth, Richards highlighted the preventative measures that safeguard women from having to make difficult choices in the first place. Not surprisingly, the FFL refuses to opine on whether or not contraception should be legal. On the scant occasion when the group has addressed the issue of birth control, it has only perpetuated misconceptions about the side effects of the pill. By implicitly rejecting contraception and explicitly denouncing abortion, FFL gives women no other options but to give birth and deal with the financial and emotional consequences.
In its pamphlet, Women deserve better than abortion, the FFL again dismisses the viability of abortion as a choice by claiming that it is no choice for most. Frequently pairing the verb coerce with the term abortion, the FFL cites statistics (gathered by pro-life groups) which show that lack of financial and emotional support motivate women to terminate their pregnancies. But even if these statistics are accurate, the fact that many abortions occur under duress does not disqualify them as legitimate choices made by free-thinking, rational individuals.
After perusing FFLs promotional materials, a potential member would be unaware that the organization touts a no exceptions abortion policy, even when rape, incest, or threats to maternal and fetal health are involved. In response to the question, What if it was your daughter who was raped?, FFL founder Serrin Foster replied that she would profess unconditional love for both her daughter and her grandchild. She proceeded to conflate the destruction wreaked by international terrorism with abrtion: Abortion doesnt erase a memory. Think about it. Could anything ever erase your memory of Sept. 11, 2001? At least she was tactful enough not to mention the Holocaust.
The real agenda here is not to expand womens choices, but to keep females from making a choice that they already have. Only after a woman gives birth does FFLs notion of choice come into play, a notion inextricably tied to existing power structures which FFL itself admits have institutionalized prejudice against motherhood. Although FFL recognizes the prevalence of pregnancy discrimination, its Web site contains no information on campaigns to promote access to child care or extended maternity leaves; rather, it highlights features that celebrate motherhood and advocate coupon-cutting. As indicated by the groups former slogan, refuse to choose, FFL paradoxically attempts to persuade women that choice means relinquishing their right to choose.
Early last month, in response to increased attention garnered by member Sarah Palins nomination to the Republican presidential ticket, FFL issued the following statement: [W]e are not anti-choice. We are pro-life FFLs positions against not only abortion, but contraception as well. restrict pregnant womens choices to one: the choice of having a baby. Although FFL wants to pander to both sides of the debate, its absolutist pro-fetus stance makes the choice for women, rather than allowing them to choose for themselves. Failing to recognize the central tenet of feminism that women are the sovereigns over their own bodies and lives makes the use of the word feminist as pro-women as the pro-life feminist movement gets.