gender, language, other topics, politics

Pro-Life “Feminism”


Check out the photo on the front page of today’s (3/3) New York Times, above the article about the arguments before the Supreme Court concerning Texas’s law restricting the operation of abortion clinics. What caught my attention was the signage. A sign in back said “Life Counts,” with a beguiling picture of what looks to me like a full-term infant, certainly closer to a full-term infant than a zygote, which the so-called pro-life contingent protects with equal fervor. I read intentional deceptiveness in the sign: the full-term infant’s picture is purposely deceptive, with the emotional response that a full-term baby evokes although anti-abortion groups are necessarily much more concerned with protecting non-emotion-evoking zygotes than adorable full-term babies. Worse, the picture covertly makes the accusation, “Abortion providers murder babies” – a canard as guilt-inducing as it is knowingly false. And because this untruth is expressed pictorially, it is hard to controvert it verbally. For a group that claims to hold the moral high ground, this multiple violation of the commandment against bearing false witness ought to be problematic, but apparently is not.


But the sign borne by the woman in front is even more troublesome: “I AM A PRO-LIFE FEMINIST.” Can you be a pro-life feminist? What do you have to be, and believe, to be a “feminist,” who can answer that question, and why?


I have said that we should all stop telling women what they should and should not do. Is trying to define feminism and trying to determine what set of beliefs entitles women to call themselves “feminists” a violation of that argument? Can anyone call herself – or himself – a feminist just because it is convenient? Or are there reasonable and appropriate limits?


Of course organizations may set up ground rules and by-laws concerning their membership and the use of their name. For instance, there is falsehood in the name of “Trump University,” since it was not a “university” in any normal understanding of that word. We mean by “university” an institution devoted to the transmission of learning from one generation to the next, not a place where the gullible can throw their money down a rabbit hole. Similarly, if someone who believes that the nineteenth amendment should be repealed ran for president of NOW, claiming to be a feminist, most of us would smell a rat: that candidate would be living a lie, acting in opposition to everything NOW, and feminism, consider important and right. Similarly it is reasonable to offer a definition of “feminism”: it’s a large tent but not one that can cover every possible belief about women. Feminism is an institution analogous to “the university” or “business” or “government,” and like them, can set rules for membership. But what are these rules, and who decides, and on what basis?


Here’s a suggestion. Feminism adheres to one core belief: all human beings have the right to make choices about matters crucial to their lives and happiness. That applies to everyone, but the reason the argument is a core belief of feminism in particular is that it runs into particularly harsh opposition when it is applied to women, because the notion that women (a) are human beings and therefore (b) are entitled to the same range of choices as are all other humans is still, for entirely too many people, outlandish. But that is all the more reason to fight in the name of feminism. Feminism casts its lot with many other –isms, all of which seemed absurd to “reasonable” people – until they didn’t: abolition, children’s rights, the union movement and the struggle for income equality, gay rights, and probably animal rights as well – among others. All share the core belief that sentient creatures have the right and the need to make choices, even if sometimes those choices can be in error. If human beings are never allowed to make mistakes, they will never become full-fledged adults. So the argument that some pro-lifers make, framed as, “I had an abortion and I regret it,” is irrelevant and deceptive. (Not to mention that someone who makes this argument has no way of knowing whether she would regret even more not having had the abortion.)


Here as so often we soon find ourselves mired in ambiguities. Yes, to be human is to have choices – but not all sentient creatures should get to have the same kinds of choice. We do not give a two year old the car keys, even if she demands them, and a two year old is sentient. A cat gets to do whatever he wants, but a dog? You’ll have to check with the cat.


The problem is worst when the choice is one of life or death, where one sentient being’s life entails the death of another. The trolley problem is one hypothetical case. But if you believe (as most pro-lifers do) from the moment sperm unites with egg a fetus is a living human being, then of course any abortion becomes impossible: it becomes a case of a woman’s “convenience” (as they put it) versus another human’s “right to life,” and if those are your assumptions, you will naturally oppose all abortion absolutely.


The problem is that pro-life advocates make these assumptions and discuss them as if they were settled truths, when in fact they presuppose or express conclusions that are at best controversial at present and quite possibly forever:


  1. The fetus is as much a human being as the woman carrying it.
  2. The fetus is as fully alive as the woman carrying it.


It is impossible to answer either of these questions without first answering other questions to which we also cannot provide answers acceptable to everyone, and probably never can:


  1. What is a human being?
  2. What is life?
  3. Why privilege human life, anyway?


Answers that include “the Bible” or reference to any religion’s belief system are not rational fact-based conclusions, but propaganda. Once we discard them, the assumptions (1) – (2) above are not self-evident truths upon which further arguments can safely be based. The decision is not like determining whether to believe “2+2=4, where there is evidence on the basis of which to decide, but much closer to “Chocolate is better than vanilla,” where the decision has to be left with the individual because there is no such thing as “evidence.” Every woman who is pregnant and in conflict about that pregnancy must answer those questions on her own, for herself. She is free to consult with others or not, as she wishes; but the state has no business interfering in her decision process or its outcome. If the state attempts to interpose itself, in any way, between the woman and her choice, it is acting as the defender of a particular religious system, and therefore in violation of the first amendment. Period.


If a church forbids abortion and a member wants to remain true to its dictates in every way, then of course she shouldn’t have an abortion. She more arguably also has the right to disapprove if other members of the church have abortions. But she has no business forcing the rules of her church on someone who is not a member of it: this too comes under the “establishment clause” of the first amendment. Certainly a government whose foundational document forbids the establishment of any church has no legitimate business furthering the interests of any church, no matter how predominant or powerful.


A problem with reproductive rights is that a fetus, whose rights are in opposition to those of the pregnant woman, does not retain the same non-sentient status over 40 weeks of gestation. While the woman remains a sentient human being throughout the pregnancy, the fetus changes its status. The zygote clearly is not sentient (has no central nervous system); the late third trimester fetus clearly is. And there is as far as we currently know no moment in the course of a pregnancy when the fetus’s status unambiguously shifts from non-sentient to sentient. The Roe court took a reasonable and courageous position: during the first trimester, the fetus is certainly not sentient, so abortion ought to be uncontroversially based on the woman’s wishes alone. As the second term progresses, the decision gets more complex; the CNS is assumed to exist sufficiently to allow the fetus to experience pleasure and pain sometime toward the end of this period; that is a way of saying, over the course of the second trimester, the fetus slowly becomes both more certainly human and more certainly sentient, and by the end of this period a pregnant woman must weigh the fetus’s interests along with her own, on equal terms. During the third trimester, when the fetus is for all practical purposes human and sentient, abortion should be available only under dire conditions, when there are two sentient human lives at stake that must be balanced against each other. But late second term abortions are very rare, and third-trimester abortions rarer still (despite what the cuddly infants on the pro-life posters lead their viewers to believe). Tragically, as the pro-life movement makes abortion harder, later abortions (i.e., of more human and sentient entities) will surely become more common.


The simple and obvious logic of all of the above suggests that absolute opposition to all abortion is less about the protection of human life than it is about the desire to take a highly crucial choice away from women, for both symbolic and practical purposes. To make abortion unavailable is symbolically to declare women less than human. It also has the practical effect of making the full participation in society at all levels much more difficult for women.


It is every woman’s right to be opposed to abortion for herself on any grounds she likes. But no one, male or female, has the right to deny abortion to any woman on any grounds at all. Anti-abortion arguments are based on religious rather than scientific reasoning; the first amendment gives Americans the right to accept or reject religious arguments as they see fit. To be a feminist is to believe absolutely in the ability and right of all human beings, including women, to make choices that are instrumental to their lives, satisfaction, and welfare.


So can you be a “pro-life feminist”? No way: someone who claims to be a “pro-life feminist” is a living oxymoron.




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